I have been playing JRPG titles for about as long as I have been gaming. The story lines, character development and sense of progression have all tested my mind rather than my reflexes over the years, and to this day I consider it my favourite genre.
Unfortunately the JRPG genre back in the day was not as big over in North America as it was in Japan, and a lot of great titles never made their way to my television. One such game was the original Shin Megami Tensei.
So, as strange as it sounds now, given the reputation that the series enjoys, no one in the west has previously been able to play an official version of the game that started it all. As a result, I was very excited to see that Atlus was finally doing something about that via an iPhone and iPad release.
To me RPG and strategy games make perfect sense on touchscreen devices. Success is generally more reliant on your ability to think through a situation than having to rely on trigger quick reflexes, so “butons”, as such, are a largely redundant input. Atlus did some optimisation to make Shin Megami Tensei feel at home on the device, and for the most part it works. You can play it in either portrait or landscape mode. If you opt for the former, the virtual controls are on the bottom half of the screen while the game itself plays out on the top portion. I found my hands a bit too cramped and the visuals equally squished to be comfortable with this orientation, so I instead opted for the landscape view. When operating from the landscape view, the game itself fills up the screen in much more satisfying fashion, and the controls are ghosted over the top in an overlay manner.
The same complaint that most people have about almost any emulated game on a touch device applies here, where the buttons are often somewhat cramped and small while the stick/ pad makes continuous movement somewhat difficult since there is no tactile feedback. Thankfully in a game like this that is more of a irritant than a major problem, because the game’s turn based combat plays just fine as it is.
The story is excellent, drawing you in with a novel sense of mystery while investing you in a modernised world that has been invaded by demons. Long time fans of either the Persona or Shin Megami Tensei series will recognise plenty of familiar monsters, including the now-iconic snowman-like Jack Frost. As with later games in the series the core experience involves mixing and matching friendly demons that have joined your cause after being defeated in combat. It’s a Pokemon-like system that has remained entertaining for as long as it has for good reason. All the typical notes you expect from a classic RPG are here, with the appropriate hooks to keep you moving forward.
I am a sucker for a game that features complex party-building mechanics; I always have been and I always will be. This is a game that feels like it was custom-built for people just like me. Unfortunately, I fear that is both Shin Megami Tensei’s greatest strength and potentially its most damaging weakness.
This is a port of the original game, and all of the old school trappings that the genre has since done away with for being detrimental to the experience of a JRPG rear their head here. Perhaps the biggest killer is the antiquated save system. Once upon a time, JRPGs were broken down into predefined places where you could save. As a consequence, sometimes you would spend hours between saves only to lose all the progress because you lose a battle, or the power went out, or something similar. Even in today’s games many RPGs have specific save points that you need to use, but they tend to come by more frequently, or right before a boss battle or some other area where there’s real potential for a game over screen.
The problem is Shin Megami Tensei is a tough game, and it can be an incredibly long stretch from one save point to another. Considering how much time you spend wandering the dungeons, it feels like the addition of the ability to save anywhere would have been prudent. Especially considering the iPhone and iPad format has a certain pick-up-and-play expectation of it. As it stands, it’s a very awkward iPhone game, since it’s something that you really need to be prepared to sit down for a couple of hours at a time to play, and I don’t know many people with iPhones that do that.
Then again, I suspect this game was not intended for the casual mobile gamer. Atlus had a goal in mind by bringing this darkly themed JRPG out of the attic and making it available again all these years later, and the iPhone was the most convenient format to do that. Shin Megami Tensei is an easy game to recommend for fans of traditional turn-based JRPG titles that are craving something meaty on their iOS devices. This goes doubly so if, like me, you are curious about the roots of this popular series.
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