The Megami Tensei games—known as Shin Megami Tensei internationally—challenge players to forge their own worlds, influenced directly by their choices and ideals.
Shin Megami Tensei translates from Japanese to “reincarnation of the goddess” as a declaration of the franchise’s themes. Ideological battles, philosophical struggles and religious debates all shape your decisions as the protagonist. Will the strong rule the weak in a chaotic free for all? Will God rule supreme over his loyal followers? Or will you reject those paths and make your own way?
These ideas come about organically as you play through the games, learning more about your comrades and enemies, including their principles and what they stand for. Who you choose to align yourself with reflects your own values, coloring your moral alignment. Most Shin Megami Tensei games lead you down Law, Chaos or Neutral alignment paths, where the world changes over time depending on your decisions throughout the story. By the end, you are the master of your surroundings, having changed the world for better or for worse, for good or for evil.
In 1987, Atlus worked together with other developers and publishers to release Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei for the Famicom in Japan. The game is based on the Digital Devil Story science fiction novels by Japanese author Aya Nishitani. A pair of Japanese high school students join with a party of demons, taking on a version of Lucifer within modern-day Tokyo. The human students use a demon-summoning program to negotiate with, collect and fight with demons by their side. Players can then fuse these demons together to create new, stronger allies, building up their team in creative ways. This Megami Tensei demon negotiation system spawned the monster-hunting genre, popularized by other games like Pokémon and Digimon.
Following the release of Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, Atlus released several more Shin Megami Tensei titles over the years. From the beginning, critics realized how revolutionary these games were. The heavy atmosphere, challenging turn-based combat, in-depth demon collection and fusing systems and taboo occult themes are unique to Shin Megami Tensei. The series has found great success in Japan, right behind the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest goliaths in terms of popularity. Shin Megami Tensei hasn’t quite seen the same type of international success, living on as more of a cult classic series instead.
Improving on the Formula
Like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, the Shin Megami Tensei franchise has several numbered entries and spin-offs. Each entry adds to and improves on the base formula: a group of humans banding together with demons to take down the main antagonist. The actual antagonist can change depending on the player’s choices, with their alignment leading them to a final battle against Lucifer, a tyrannical version of God or other similar religious figures. The modern urban environment generally holds true as well, with some exceptions. Tweaks and changes to the gameplay and story presentation have defined Shin Megami Tensei’s growth over the decades.
Evolving from the earlier consoles, to the PlayStation and Nintendo iterations over the years, the games have finally reached the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5 and possibly Steam on PC. With these jumps in hardware capabilities, Atlus has experimented with improvements over the years. Starting with first-person dungeon-crawling gameplay as a staple, the PlayStation 2 games made successful transitions to third-person gameplay. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne has a full open world to explore, separated into dungeons. These dungeons take players to various locations, some of which are made up, while others are based on real places in Tokyo.
Atlus has also tried different approaches to storytelling. For the most part, the Shin Megami Tensei games tell a subtle, hands-off tale, letting your ideological decisions speak for themselves. Your choices to side with Lucifer over YHWH eventually change the world, leading to a unique sense of environmental storytelling. Some games, like the Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga duology for the PlayStation 2, change up the formula. These two games follow a more structured story, with traditional drama and character arcs rarely seen in other titles. The Digital Devil Saga duology feels more like its contemporary Final Fantasy competitors while still maintaining the distinct, classic Shin Megami Tensei staples.
For anyone who’s heard of Shin Megami Tensei, you probably know these games are hard. This hardcore label has made the games less accessible, at least internationally. The turn-based combat is difficult because even the regular enemies hit for a ton of damage. They’re relentless, sometimes throwing out random, instant-death mechanics. When you die, you’re forced back to your last save point, where you then have to repeat that same dangerous trek all over again.
However, once you beat one Shin Megami Tensei game, it’s easier to get the hang of the rest. Because the enemies hit hard and often, the trick is to debilitate them and increase your stats. The enemies also have certain elemental weaknesses for you to exploit. Improving your party’s offense, weakening the enemy’s defense and hitting those elemental weaknesses are standard tricks for veteran Shin Megami Tensei players. Lower your foes’ defense with special moves, and then hit them back twice as hard. When an enemy keeps evading your attacks, boost your accuracy, and weaken their evasion. That’ll solve the problem almost every time. Exploiting elemental weaknesses on an already-weakened enemy becomes even more rewarding. Seeing those powerful attacks go off from your party of demons is incredibly satisfying. You’ll feel downright invincible pulling this off against the stronger mega bosses.
Recent releases seek to change Shin Megami Tensei’s hardcore reputation. The games have usually had some sort of difficulty options, but these choices stuck to the baseline normal difficulties—which are quite hard for a general audience—and still more challenging modes. But Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, released in 2016, features easier modes in addition to the normal and hard modes. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster also has an easy mode, available as downloadable content. This change is likely to continue as Atlus releases more titles, such as the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V, slated for worldwide release in 2021.
Staying True to Its Core Identity
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is defined by its mature themes, strong sense of atmosphere, demon collecting and tough gameplay. Difficulty options are great for lowering the barrier of entry, but anything further than this, such as lessening and lightening the more adult story themes, would be less than ideal. Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse faced backlash from fans due to certain jarring, light-hearted portions of the story, among other issues. These changes felt at odds with the series’ more grounded tone and atmosphere. It’s unclear whether this shift in direction will show up in future games.
Shin Megami Tensei is special precisely because it is unique, unyielding in its occult influences and controversial subject matter. Even as the Shin Megami Tensei games strive to become more accessible, their core identities will hopefully remain intact for many years to come.