If you are a fan of the JRPG genre, chances are you’ve dabbled in a bit of Persona, which is Atlus’ biggest cash cow franchise in recent years. What you may or may not know is that Persona is a spin-off an older series by the name of Shin Megami Tensei, that deals with much darker (yes, darker than even Persona) subject matter, featuring heavy biblical overtones and allusion.
Up until and including Persona 4, the Shin Megami Tensei prefix was given to and associated with Persona games, but this changed with 2012’s Persona 4: The Golden for the Playstation Vita which seems to have dropped the title completely, separating it in part from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise.
Shin Megami Tensei games, like Persona, are typically set in modern-day Japan, or more specifically Tokyo, following some kind of apocalyptic demonic invasion. SMT protags can communicate with demons (usually through a computer or electronic device like a phone), and thus summon them to do their bidding.
While the demon system shares many familiarities with Persona (most of the same demons appear throughout both franchises) the demons themselves do most of the fighting, and the central conflict of the story usually revolves around feuding that is ongoing between different factions of demons, angels, and human organizations.
The plotline is revisited again and again, featuring bigger and nastier demons. And let me tell you, the demons in Shin Megami Tensei are mean. Usually ugly as well, but mostly mean.
Not Every Demon in Shin Megami Tensei is Nasty
Most of them are, but A few have earned their places as iconic series-wide mascots. Amongst the more loveable Shin Megami Tensei demons is Jack Frost, a mischievous child-like demon who has gone as far in popularity as to break away from the series to become a company mascot for Atlus itself. Pyro Jack, Black Frost, and King Frost exist as variations of Jack Frost, making it somewhat comparable to the Slimes of Dragon Quest in a sense.
The designs of the demons in SMT are a recognizable part of the franchise to the extent that Atlus conducted a poll in Japan upon the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux for the Nintendo 3DS back in 2017, with the goal of ranking every demon to appear in the game in order of popularity. That’s almost 350 demon designs to get through. Apis, Yggdrasil, Vodyanik, and Orias are in a 4-way tie for the last place, making them somewhat forgettable.
While the aforementioned Jack Frost comes in at a commendable 5th place, there are a handful of demons in higher positions, despite Jack’s mascot status. The top 3 starts with Chu Culainn, a spear-wielding pretty boy of a warrior in white armor, based on Irish mythology. The number 2 slot goes to Alice, a demon named in part for and modeled after the same golden-haired, blue-dress wearing girl that appears in Lewis Carroll’s literary classic, Alice in Wonderland. The demon version of Alice, however, has her own detailed lore within each of the Shin Megami Tensei games.
The top spot goes to none other than the infamous Mara, a demon with a rather unique, if not controversial design that resembles either an alien or a certain part of the male anatomy riding upon a war-ready chariot. Perhaps the humor in this design choice is what makes Mara the most popular SMT demon amongst Japanese fans. As wicked as Mara’s design is, Jack Frost clearly makes the better choice for the face of the company.
Hell is Everywhere and Everything
Shin Megami Tensei is known for being brutally difficult. While Persona games tend to be no slouch in terms of difficulty compared to the standard jRPG venture, Shin Megami Tensei games are several tiers of difficulty higher. You will die, but since you are already in hell, which has manifested itself on Earth’s ravaged, demon-riddled surface, you’ll remain where you are to die over and over again.
The combat system features a high-stakes strengths and weaknesses system where carefully determining and exploiting your foes’ weaknesses will grant extra attacks, while accidentally using an element or weapon type a foe is strong against can end your turn preemptively or even be reflected back at you. Nothing in the game, including ordinary street-soldier pissant demons, is the least bit fair, so diplomacy and strategy are essential if you ever want to escape this hell.
The demons themselves really personify the hell experience; if you seek to befriend them you’ll be assaulted by a gauntlet of questions and demands that can be frustrating, if not simply cruel to navigate properly, as the correct responses vary from encounter to encounter, even when encountering the same demons you may have managed to incur the wrath of by failing to befriend them in a previous encounter.
Speaking of choices, SMT protags always have a voice in all the chaos. Each Shin Megami Tensei game features an alignment system wherein your character’s alignment is constantly changing based on choices and actions in the story.
There is typically a Law story path, a Chaos story path, and a Neutral story path, with hidden paths. It might be challenging to get multiple endings in one playthrough, but at least on your follow-up playthroughs, you won’t suck at the game so much. You’ll still die, though.
Nocturne for the Playstation 2 gave SMT a Reputation in the West
There are older SMT titles on the Super Famicom and Playstation 1, but it was 2004’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that ended up being the foreign ambassador of soul-crushingly difficult gameplay that was North America’s first taste of the series and caused the first tantrums over “unfair” difficulty.
The majority of the core SMT experience in North America, however, is on the Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS features a number of gloriously challenging SMT titles, including Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux (A remaster of SMT: Strange Journey initially released on the DS), and two incarnations of Shin Megami Tensei IV, the most ambitious title in the series thus far, and one of the best games on the 3DS.
The title can be confusing in the sense that there are two Shin Megami Tensei IVs. Both of these are completely different games; essentially two halves to the same story, which means that when you play Shin Megami Tensei IV, you are getting literally double the fun (and double the hardship. (No pain no gain).
The Vanilla SMT starts the story and introduces you to many characters who will play a pivotal role in the story of the second game, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse (dubbed “Final” rather than “Apocalypse in Japan, which is even more confusing as it is another game entirely rather than an updated version with additional features), which continues where the first game left off.
Between the two of them, you are looking at almost too much gameplay. Over 100 hours at least. But this is a good thing. Remember, you can admit defeat and leave anytime you’d like.
In the Switch Rests the Future of the Shin Megami Tensei Series
And the prospects look great. Shin Megami Tensei IV did wonderful things aesthetically on the 3DS, featuring some of the most imaginative character designs in any game, and graceful animations within cinematic segments that take place in cutscenes as well as in actual battles, so Shin Megami Tensei V, which was teased way back at the beginning of 2017 shortly before the launch of the Nintendo Switch, will be an absolute work of art.
With Persona and Atlus getting a lot more attention worldwide over the last decade, the Switch will be the perfect vessel to distribute the chaos that is the Shin Megami Tensei series to an entirely new legion of potential fans. Little word on the development of the game has been given since the initial teaser trailer, which means that the title is receiving careful and delicate attention during the development cycle. Atlus is looking to strike it big, and even with the popularity and success of the Persona series, they are seemingly willing to go the extra mile on SMT:V. After all, Shin Megami Tensei is essentially the Proto Persona; the game that was the framework and inspiration for multiple entire universes of demonic dominions.