By Alex Alusheff
If you’re like me, then you played Pokémon Red or Blue religiously as a kid on your Game Boy in the late 1990s. You probably bought a bunch of Pokémon cards (most of them turned out to be Caterpies) and brought them to school to trade. Then your school probably banned Pokémon like mine did after reports of kids getting their rare cards stolen started surfacing.
That only made Pokémon even more cooler. Then Silver and Gold released. We got double the gyms and double the Pokémon – what could be better? Nothing apparently because we never saw that many gyms in the series again nor all Pokémon available to catch in one game.
As you got older and moved onto middle school or high school, your tastes likely changed. First person shooters took precedence over grindy turn-based RPGs, and you distanced yourself from Pokémon as more games got released and the creatures got weirder. Eventually you gave up on the franchise after the battery in your Pokémon Gold cartridge died and you could no longer save your games on your Game Boy Color.
That’s at least how my Pokémon experience ended for me. I traded in all my Game Boy games after that and probably used the money to go toward an Xbox 360 game. Roughly 10 years later, the nostalgia train hit me and I started buying a bunch of retro games. But I never got back into Pokémon. I tried to get into the newer titles, but it wasn’t the same.
I’m done with Pokémon, but I still love turn-based combat and team-building RPGs. So, I started searching for similar games. Enter Shin Megami Tensei and its very obscure franchise.
Pokemon for adults
You may have heard of Shin Megami Tensei, or more likely, its popular spin-off series Persona. If you research the series, the mainstream media will all refer to it as “Pokémon for adults.”
When you do more research you will discover that the first Shin Megami Tensei game was released 1987, nine years before the first Pokémon games. So in reality, Pokémon is actually Shin Megami Tensei for kids.
For my mainstream gamers still reading this article, you may be turned off by now. Shin Megami Tensei sounds way too Japanese for my tastes. Isn’t Persona a high school dating sim? The combat looks like an antiquated 90s first-person dungeon crawler. No thanks.
All valid points. This line of thinking kept me away from the series for years before I finally gave it a shot. But take it from another mainstreamer-turned-casual gamer, that you need to take another look at this. Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT 4) or Devil Survivor: Overclocked for the 3DS are two of the recommended titles to start with in the series for newcomers. With the 3DS still relatively affordable and easy to come by, I recommend checking these games out on the eShop because you won’t find a physical copy. I won’t be talking about Persona because it gets enough love.
In Shin Megami Tensei, instead of battling cute and fluffy animals, you fight demons in a post-apocalyptic world. Better yet, you don’t capture demons, you have to convince them to join your party. You have to figure out the right prompt to say or bribe the demon to join you.
Sometimes the demon will want money or mana or some of your HP. And even after all that, they sometimes just take your bribe and run off. It’s infuriating, but what do you expect? They are demons after all. But it makes a successful negotiation more rewarding. Could you imagine trying to negotiate with Psyduck? That alone was enough to pique my interest, but there’s more.
When a demon joins your party, don’t get attached. You don’t hang onto them and refuse to let them evolve like Charmander. You can only level them up a few times before they become worthless. When this happens, you must fuse them with another demon to create a stronger demon. During this process you get to choose which abilities and attacks carry over to the new demon.
Half of the fun is finding out what new demons you can create each time you add a demon to your roster. Each demon is rooted in real-world mythology as well and the game provides blurbs about the significance of each demon in world culture.
Wipe that smirk off your face
In SMT 4, your party consists of your main character and three demons. You also have a backup roster of demons when your starters eventually get roasted in one hit. I like that you fight alongside your demons instead of making them do all your dirty work like in Pokémon. Every few levels, your demons ask you if you want to learn one of their attacks. So not only are you beefing up your demons, but you are also beefing up your own character by cherry picking the best abilities.
The combat is pretty traditional save for the turn press battle system. You have four attacks per turn, one for each member in your party. Your character and demons each have strengths and weaknesses. When you take advantage of an enemy weakness, you get an extra attack. If an enemy attacks you with a fire spell and you have a resistance to it, then they lose an extra attack. Both parties can lose or gain extra attacks depending on the skills they use.
Additionally, if you land a critical hit or an offensive attack against you is nullified, you gain the “smirk” status until your next active turn. Smirk status maximizes buffs, critical hit chances, hit rates, and it even prevents an enemy critical chance, to name a few benefits.
Fighting demons is pretty simple, but the boss fights can be brutal if you do not have the right abilities. In one boss fight, I beefed up my party with mostly lightning and fire attacks. But this boss was only weak against wind attacks. Through fusion, I got rid of all wind attack abilities once available to me because I thought it as useless. So that boss whooped my ass (and kept getting extra turns and smirks) until I enlisted a demon with a wind attack so I could finally overcome the boss.
While the combat may take place from a first-person perspective, the enemy artwork is very stylistic and pleasing to look at. I was initially turned off by the combat perspective until I found out it was an homage to American-made dungeon crawlers like Wizardry and Ultima. This tribute is more apparent in Atlus’s other titles such as Etrian Odyssey, but it was enough for me to actually appreciate this design choice.
Each time your character levels up in SMT 4, you earn app points. These points get spent upgrading party attributes. You may choose to spend the points to add an additional skill slot for your demons so you don’t have to sacrifice as many skills when you fuse them together. You can spend them to increase your skill slots so you can learn more skills from your demons. They also go toward increasing your roster size, improving demon negotiating skills, gaining more experience after battle, lowering the mana cost for demon skills in battle, and more.
These different mechanics made me forget about the grind and actually made it something I looked forward to for once. I liked recruiting as many demons as possible so I could plan out the demon fusions I wanted 10 experience levels ahead of time. I was also looking for fights so I could earn app points to improve my character or demon roster. Enemies appear on the map so there are no tiresome random encounters either.
Because of this, I didn’t feel like I was just grinding to beat the next boss. I felt like I was investing in my party so I could be a badass demon hunter and breeze through any future challenge so I wouldn’t have to grind later on.
Try not to get everyone killed
If SMT 4 isn’t your cup of tea, then Devil Survivor offers a completely different approach.
You take charge of three teenagers in Tokyo who only have a few days to live before a mass catastrophe occurs in the city. The decisions you make will raise or lower the number of days left on the main characters’ death clock along with other side characters you encounter throughout the story. Certain characters may make it to the end of the game, others may not, thanks to you.
You fight demons along the way, but instead of recruiting them, you bid on them in a demon auction. You can only bid on demons you’ve encountered in battle, giving you reason to seek a fight and impact your death clocks. Demons can still be fused together even if the final result is something you’ve yet to encounter.
While the combat is similar to SMT 4, Devil Survivor incorporates a grid-based battle system as in Fire Emblem. You move the teenagers strategically across the battlefield to fight demons hoping to flank them and not get outflanked. From the battlefield view, you can heal members of your team or use buffs to slow an enemies movement, for example. When your character moves to a tile adjoining the enemy it then transitions to normal combat.
You also have the chance to steal abilities and skills you may not have from enemies. Before a battle, you can have your characters target enemies with desirable traits. If the character who targets the enemy defeats it, then that character successfully steals the ability. But if another character defeats the enemy (often because you needed their help or misjudged where the enemy would move) then no one gets the ability.
These extra mechanics of both games make them more appealing than Pokémon or Fire Emblem or any team-building RPG in my opinion. If you’re on the fence, the series is definitely worth a try. I’m finding it to be one of those gateway franchises that’s getting me interested in other Atlus titles and more obscure JRPGs in general.
The good thing is that the series won’t remain so obscure for much longer. Shin Megami Tensei will be making a Nintendo Switch debut so it is more widely available to a mainstream audience. Atlus will be porting Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne to the Switch this spring. Shin Megami Tensei V is also planned for release sometime in 2021 on the Switch.
The good thing is many of us don’t have any expectations for this franchise as it debuts on the Switch. There’s no way it can be a disappointment and mired in controversy like Pokemon Sword and Shield, right? Right?