Shin Megami Tensei
When Atlus released the original Shin Megami Tensei on iOS devices last week, North American gamers got a glimpse of the beginning of a now-beloved series. Considering this Super Famicom classic is now over 20 years old, it's hard not to wonder: Does it hold up for gamers who started off with Persona and the newer titles? Shin Megami Tensei iOS certainly has a lot to love, but it has a few stumbling blocks, too. I played the first few hours to determine some of the pros and cons of this new mobile port.
Pro: It's Super Old-School
Fans of classic RPGs know everything to expect in their favorite games: a secret to uncover in just about every dungeon, the ability to bend and break the game systems to your will, and a tough challenge that requires sincere thought for every move. Shin Megami Tensei is no different, as this 1992 title is just about as hardcore as it gets; not afraid to shove you into a dungeon with no on-screen auto-map and limited access to healing items. The battles are tough and the dungeons are just as unforgiving. If you find yourself a glutton for punishment in games like Dark Souls, it might be worth checking out SMT.
Con: It's Super Old-School
On the other hand, fans of classic RPGs also know their pitfalls: a complete lack of a direction for the player, the requirement to know your exact location in a dungeon where each hallway looks just like the next, and unfair battles where you're doomed to failure before you've even started. Instant death spells lurk around what seems like every corner. While some of the trappings of older RPGs are quaint and fun, others remind us why they rarely show up in modern RPGs. Finding yourself stuck in a dungeon, no save points in sight, with a few meager hit points and no way to escape is not an ideal way to go through a game. Maybe that's for you, but there's a chance you just don't have the patience for that kind of torment.
Pro: Seeing Demon Negotiation At Its Beginnings
Shin Megami Tensei started the demon negotiation seen in later titles like Soul Hackers, Nocturne, and, most recently, Shin Megami Tensei IV. The system hasn't changed drastically in structure, because it works. Luring unpredictable demons to your side is part of the fun. SMT requires you to choose whether to approach a demon aggressively or with a gentle touch, and then lets you schmooze to get the demon into the party. Bribing or brute force can make them see why they need to be on your side. However, demons are notoriously finicky, so you may not always get the answer you want even if it's approached oh-so-delicately. Expect plenty of trial-and-error to convince them to join your fight.
Con: The Controls Are Terrible
Chances are you've played a classic console game hastily ported to a mobile device before, and the experience is usually unimpressive. Unless an extensive amount of work has gone into the mobile version, it probably uses the old standby: a virtual d-pad and set of buttons. SMT does this and finds itself significantly worse off for it. Navigating through the first-person dungeons is frustrating, and without an on-screen auto-map, turning yourself around with a quick touch does nothing but get you lost. Tapping left or right will rotate the character, but tapping down flips him 180 degrees – something that happened often. Sure, you can dig into the menu to figure out your location, but when this happens every few minutes, the time loss is terrible. Combine that with the fact that nothing has been made truly touch-accessible, and the experience is far from kind.
Pro: Law, Chaos, and Choices Matter
Part of classic Shin Megami Tensei's appeal is the fight between law and chaos. Will you choose a side? While most games make it cut and dried, only letting you to choose between two extreme stances, Shin Megami Tensei gives you three paths: Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. This allows you to watch the world's battle with the demons play out in different ways. While they may not be as gray as Geralt's choices in the Witcher, not every choice is as simple as it seems on the surface. If this sounds reminiscent of any number of other SMT titles, you've hit the nail on the head, as with many of the other features in Shin Megami Tensei, this was the origin point for the idea.
Con: Uninteresting Story and Dialogue
Atlus USA's new localization is just about as good as you can get, considering the source material. This game released in 1992, where video game storytelling was still in its early stages; most games didn't offer the rich and realistic dialogue we're accustomed to now. While there's certainly a big story to unravel, most interactions are as mundane as they get, with little flavor amongst the different characters. Shin Megami Tensei also suffers from "Repetitive Dialogue Syndrome," where characters never seem to react to anything and just keep the same facade going all game.
Shin Megami Tensei is worth a look if you're especially interested in how the series has and hasn't changed from its beginning. Getting a glimpse into how this franchise evolved is entertaining in its own right, but it comes with overlooking some flaws of early video game design and some awful controls on the iOS. However, the engaging formula that uses demon recruitment and fusion is still present and that may be enough to get you through. Just don't expect it to be an easy ride, but most SMT fans wouldn't have it any other way.
Did you or will you be picking up SMT for iOS? Why or why not?