'Shin Megami Tensei' review: down to the roots (iOS)

by Miguel Concepcion

March 24 2014

Niche developer and publisher Atlus does well with a first-time English version of the seminal dungeon crawler. (Rating: 4 out of 5 stars)

Atlus’ Megami Tensei franchise (or ‘MegaTen’ for niche gaming fans in the know) is a curious web of mostly dungeon-crawling JRPGs, where there are more spin-offs than there are mainline releases. In fact, out of all the MegaTen series, it was Atlus’s Persona that has captured most of the attention of Western audiences.

To see the original Shin Megami Tensei finally (and officially) translated in English not only offers historical insight into the developer/publisher’s early roots, but also capitalizes on the positive response to last year’s long-awaited Shin Megami Tensei 4. More importantly, Atlus manages to strike that mobile gaming balance of implementing a new, yet practical interface, while leaving the core gameplay and visuals untouched.

Atlus acknowledges its own sense of history, which is why Shin Megami Tensei comes unaltered, save for the sensible inclusion of a virtual keypad. To be specific, the game is technically an emulation of the Game Boy Advance port, using music from the PlayStation version from 2001.

The interface is about as close to the original experience as possible, and doesn't offer more modern alternative input options like touch-interactive menus and characters. It’s also a rare iOS game that might be better suited to iPod Touches and iPhones, since the visuals scale awkwardly to the larger screen of the iPad.

As is often the case with ports of old school dungeon crawling JRPGs, with great authenticity comes great difficulty. Half of the challenge is in enduring the game’s grind-intensive 50+ hour playthrough. The other half is that it’s a traditional first person dungeon crawler through and through, very much inspired by the labyrinthine designs of Wizardry. Naturally this includes the realistic risk of getting very, very lost.

The dungeons are undoubtedly Shin Megami Tensei’s main draw, though the game also makes an impression by taking the good vs. bad, light vs. dark JRPG conflicts to a deeper level. For this game’s hero, the struggle comes in choosing to side with lawful deities, chaotic deities, or to leave the world in humanity’s hands. These choices of one’s path underscore another unique aspect about Shin Megami Tensei where how you steer yourself morally helps determine which demons you encounter.

As far as my JRPG preferences go, I love the focus and motivations that come from growing a small party of adventurers, often necessitated by events in a given game’s narrative. Growing a party of demons recruited from the field used to be a tough sell for me, but over time, I grew to like how integral this sort of gameplay worked for the MegaTen games. I certainly respected the franchise for preceding Pokémon in creating this sense of connection and ownership with monsters.

This is the game where Atlus first implemented many of its demon interactivity features, many of which have been kept in future installments. Recruiting demons, which are often helpful in providing gold and items, requires negotiation. Assuming you’re a convincing recruiter, the variety of enemy traits encourages a great deal of experimentation.

This is compounded by the game’s fusion system, which should be familiar to most MegaTen fans. Through further trial and error, you can combine attributes of two creatures to keep up with your hero’s own level progression, especially since these demons don’t level up on their own.

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I've had my share of harsh lessons that reboots, remakes and remasters of classic games aren’t impervious to dubious in-app purchase programs (eg. Dungeon Keeper). So I find myself applauding Atlus for not having any IAP options.

Between the extended play length and the large roster of demons, the publisher could have easily nickel-and-dimed us. Instead we’re treated to a rare gem of an iOS JRPG that will easily satisfy completionist MegaTen faithful but is also a competent dungeon crawler that can be appreciated by those unfamiliar with this franchise.

  • Shin Megami Tensei
  • Developer/Publisher: Atlus
  • Platform: iOS
  • Price: $7.99
  • In-app Purchases? No

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