When the reviews of Shin Megami Tensei V dropped, I don’t think anyone was surprised to see the comparisons to its most popular spinoff series Persona. And while I understand that SMT fans were rightly frustrated to see Shin Megami Tensei V described as the “younger brother” in one such review, I do think that there isn’t any way to describe the series to newcomers, or at least fans of Persona.
Like it or not, Persona fans who might want to dive into the mainline SMT series or its many spin-offs are going to need a point of reference. What’s different? What’s familiar? And where the heck should you even start?
I used the beginning of the pandemic as an excuse to seek out as many of the mainline and other spinoff SMT games as I could before Atlus released Shin Megami Tensei V, which is not many because these games are long and grueling. While I cannot describe myself as a hardcore fan of Shin Megami Tensei, I figured I could at least give a book report of what I’ve learned to hopefully give newcomers an idea of what to expect and what not to expect.
Note: I have not yet had a chance to play Shin Megami Tensei V, so don’t expect this to be a review for that.
Where to Start with Shin Megami Tensei
Now that Atlus has released Shin Megami Tensei V and Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne Remaster HD, I have an easier time recommending newcomers where to start. But before that, I had to do some research. If you look at Gary Swaby’s article about the series, then you can see that this series is massive; finding out which games count as mainline alone was a daunting task. YouTuber Nyarly has a useful introduction to Shin Megami Tensei, but even after you have a grasp on the series, you still need to figure out which games have been officially localized, which games have English patches, and which games are available on your gaming devices.
Since I’m not willing to openly endorse emulation, I’ll say this: if you have a Nintendo 3DS, then you have a nice sample of SMT games from which to choose. For mainline, you have Shin Megami Tensei IV, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux. Shin Megami Tensei IV (both of them) represent modern-day SMT design, but Strange Journey Redux is a throwback to the series first-person dungeon-crawling days. Between these three games, you’ll have a nice sample of old-school and modern SMT design philosophy.
The Nintendo 3DS also has games from a couple of spinoff series. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hacker is part of the Devil Summoner series. It plays like a mainline Shin Megami Tensei, but it’s a cyberpunk story with stakes that aren’t as grand. There’s also the turn-based strategy RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked and its sequel Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Record Breaker. If you’re coming from the Persona series, then I recommend starting with Devil Survivor Overclocked. I think that it’s the most accessible game to start with because it features the moral dilemma choices of the mainline games, but it eschews the labyrinthine dungeons, which I’ll discuss later. It also has well-written characters if that’s what you value most from the Persona series.
Note: if you still have a PS3, you can download some of the PS2 era SMT games like Digital Devil Saga and the original version of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. I don’t, so that’s why I didn’t really talk about it as much.
What Do Shin Megami Tensei and Persona Have in Common?
In both series, you collect and fuse monsters (demons in SMT, persona in…Persona) and use them in battle to exploit the weaknesses of your enemies. Doing so often grants bonuses like extra turns or damage. You will recognize demon designs as well as their list of spells. Some Persona games also allow players to negotiate with shadows/demons to give them money, items, or join their team, so if you want to see what those are like, then I recommend starting with Persona 1 and 2 before moving on to a mainline SMT game or another spinoff series.
As you can see, the similarities are slim; however, because the game mechanics are similar, you shouldn’t have a problem transitioning from one series to the next. The games in mainline Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series have standalone stories, so you don’t need to worry about playing them in order (although that won’t stop fans from trying to decipher a comprehensive timeline).
What the Shin Megami Tensei Experience is Actually Like
If you’re expecting character-driven stories in SMT like in Persona, then you might be disappointed. That doesn’t mean that the games aren’t without good characters or great stories; it’s just that a typical SMT game is a lonely, harrowing experience. The world has been all but destroyed, but you have the ability to reshape it to your preference. Should you side with the angels or demons, or is there another path? The characters you encounter tell you about their ideals, but it’s up to you to whether to support them or choose another path. Whichever path you choose, what follows is conflict and tragedy.
I actually think the most interesting characters are the demons themselves. You often explore dungeons for a long time without encountering another human being, so to see a demon on the map is often as exciting as it is dreadful. You never really know if these demons will be friendly or hostile, but as you play more of these games, you notice some consistency of how each demon is portrayed. Eventually, you’ll have a better idea of what each angel or demon’s deal is.
However, nothing quite prepares you for the negotiations. They all feel super random, and a successful negotiation often feels like it can be chalked up to pure luck rather than skill. In some games, it feels like as long as you keep giving a demon what it wants, you have a good chance of recruiting it. In others, I had to stop myself from giving into all of a demon’s demands so it didn’t think I was a total pushover. I still haven’t completely figured these out, but I believe there are hidden mechanics that determine a successful negotiation.
The turn-based battles are also difficult, but they’re great because they encourage constant adaptation. Like in Persona, exploiting weaknesses is part of the game. In modern SMT games, landing critical hits and exploiting weaknesses nets you extra turns, allowing you to quickly wipe out an enemy before they have a chance to retaliate. The trick is the enemies can also gain extra turns in battle, meaning they can also demolish you before you have a chance to act. There were times when I had a party of demons that all had spells to exploit a weakness, and the boss still mopped the floor with me and my team. It’s crucial to cast buffs and debuffs to help prevent bosses from destroying you (too quickly). Still, as long as you constantly experiment with your team, then you shouldn’t need to look up a guide to take out powerful demons, which is what I enjoy about the games.
While the battles can be frustrating, what I really found challenging was trying to navigate the dungeons. This is especially the case in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, which emulates an old-school, first-person dungeon crawler complete with all kinds of gimmicky traps such as dark hallways, holes in the ground, traps on the ground, and inconspicuous teleporters that send you to a seemingly random location in a dungeon. I think the dungeons are what’s going to make or break the series for newcomers.
If you don’t mind being lost for long stretches of time battling tons of tough demons, then you might enjoy Shin Megami Tensei and its many spinoff series. If not, well, then maybe you should just stick with Persona.
What impresses me the most about the SMT games I’ve played so far is how they can tweak the same core mechanics so that each game feels unique. That’s why you really can’t go wrong with whichever game you decide to start with, as daunting an endeavor as that may seem.