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True Goddess Metempsychosis
By: Jeremy, the Duke of Otterland
RPG developers should consider much before making decisions likely to keep their series in their country of origin for a decade or more. For one, forcing endless tedious, repetitive battles down a playerís throat is never a good idea, as is an interface that both labors like a donkey birthing an elephant and gives the player no idea whatsoever about the effects of items and spells. Lamentably, Atlus failed to heed nearly all simple principles of good RPG design, and Shin Megami Tensei, consequently, is somehow a game.
So cue the dramatic digitized piano chords of the title screen theme; this is probably the strongest aspect of the game. SMTís music, composed by Tsukasa Masuko, is mostly passable, if trending in the direction of distorted buzzes and chings at many points, coupled with painful repetition of the same techno, choral, and churchy tunes, a good soundtrack makes, alongside primitive sound effects consisting mostly of thuds. The aurals, overall, couldíve easily been more diverse, but then again, Iíve heard far worse.
A freakish dream sequence and a few events in late 20th century Tokyo later, the player eventually finds himself/herself in the first of several thousand enemy encounters. Aside from inputting commands for each character, to start, the player can converse with the enemies, escape, or turn on auto-battle mode, where your characters perform normal attacks until the player holds the B button. If the player chooses to talk with the enemies (it wonít work during a Full Moon), he/she can take several conversational paths that result in sudden enemy ambushes, enemies joining the playerís party (sometimes you need to bribe them), the enemies leaving, or getting money, Magnetite, or an item.
Escaping pretty much speaks for itself, though if the player chooses to input individual commands, he/she has the options of Attack, Gun/Extra (Gun for humans, Extra for demons), Magic/COMP (Magic for anyone other than the protagonist), Item, or Defend. Attack means an attack with a melee weapon, although the human heroes can also use guns, which occasionally hit more than one enemy. Demons, on the other hand, have Extra commands, which can be anything from a special attack to a protective barrier. Magic speaks for itself, as well, although the protagonist has COMP, where he can use his computer to summon demons one at a time into battle, return them to his computer, or view the stats of the current enemies (if the playerís already defeated demons of their type beforehand).
Outside of combat, the player can fuse monsters into more powerful ones (or weaker ones if he/sheís not careful) at Jakyou facilities, although the created monsterís level canít exceed the heroís (by the way, monsters donít gain experience like human characters). Moreover, having monsters in your party as you wander the gameís labyrinthine dungeons consumes Magnetite, occasionally gained from killing enemies (if you run out, your monsters will gradually take damage as you wander), with more consumed with higher monster levels, and summoning them into your party in the first place costs money.
Despite all the battle systemís quirks, the combat system is simply horrendous in implementation. For one, the encounter rate is high; I remember in a dungeon having nearly one encounter per step, and going through doors almost always spelled an encounter in my experience. Moreover, if you defeat an enemy party, the battle doesnít end there, since 99% of the time, another enemy party will immediately drop in, which can happen up to three times in one encounter. The number of demons the hero can have on his computer is limited, as well, with limit increases being rare. Furthermore, given the Magnetite system, I rarely used my demons in battle until late into the game, and combat itself is horribly unbalanced at times. For instance, I found a few bosses to be easier than many normal enemies, and I managed even to take some bosses down using only my human characters (though I occasionally summoned my monsters to join the fray there). Overall, despite its valiant efforts, I found combat to be anything but enjoyable, and Iím certain this aspect would make most mainstream gamers simply stop playing.
Poor design plagues the interface, as well. For one, SMTís menu system is needlessly sluggish; simple tasks such as checking the automap, viewing a characterís stats, using an item, and so forth, seem to take an eternity. The automaps, moreover, annoyingly rotate whenever the player turns, donít show how areas are connected, and only depict the current level of a dungeon. Worse is that the game gives no descriptions whatsoever of item and spell effects, and the player canít see how new equipment affects charactersí stats before buying; inventory space is limited, as well. All in all, very weak interaction.
The game isnít wholly inventive, either. SMT, in its time, was not the first game of its kind, since the Goddess Metempsychosis series had two Famicom installments with demon summoning and 3-D dungeon exploration; 3-D dungeons themselves were nothing new to RPGs even before the Megami Tenseis. Moreover, the game is just loaded with religious and mythological references, and in the end, aside from the introduced roles of Law and Chaos, SMT was nothing brand spanking new to Japanese gamers.
The story isnít any better. A few random nobodies from Tokyo suddenly become important figures in many events involving the conflicting forces of Law and Chaos, with the protagonist able to choose from either ideology or neither. Sorry for the skeletal description, but nearly all events border on spoiler, and even so, most of the story comes through NPC dialogues and short main event scenes, typical at the time. Overall, while the story has some nice concepts, itís poor in execution.
Not even visually can SMT save itself. The original Megami Tenseis had some of the best 8-bit graphics on the Famicom, but even given the opportunity to utilize its successorís sexy 16-bit visual technology, the developers fell flat on their faces and spewed forth more mediocrity. The world map is downright blocky and ugly, dungeon scenery is horribly redundant, and the human characters are sloppy in design; the monster designs, though, are actually passable. Moreover, the game remains in first-person perspective for pretty much all the time. All in all, weak visuals.
As Iíve mentioned, SMT is horribly unbalanced, with my rather negative experience lasting for about forty hours; one, however, could spend up to around fifty hours playing.
In the end, Shin Megami Tensei is another RPG that shouldíve never made it out of development, what with a horribly ponderous, mind-numbing battle system, a needlessly sluggish, Spartan interface, and other mediocre to poor qualities. Given its innumerable flaws, it mortifies me to hear that the Goddess Metempsychosis series is one of the most popular RPG franchises in Japan. That said, unless youíre an aspiring developer who wants to experience for yourself the RPG equivalent of crucifixion, Iím afraid I absolutely cannot recommend Shin Megami Tensei.
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