(Hi! This post contains, a few bits which might be considered mild-moderate spoilers (depending on how you look at these things) for a game that’s coming out in English this month…although most of them appear on the front of the box. I suppose some of this post might come off as negative, but it’s a good game. If you’re reading this you’re probably inclined towards liking this kind of thing, so you should definitely play it when you get a chance. I might post a more direct and spoiler-oriented article after I’ve had a chance to actually read what’s going on in the game.)
I’ve been a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei-branded RPGs since early 2007, when I first found a copy of the series’ third main game, Nocturne, at a local gamestop store. I had heard of the Digital Devil Saga and Persona series at the time, but this was the first time I found one of these in the wild. (Although, at least a couple years earlier, I rode a bus for over an hour each way to try and find a copy of Eternal Punishment. Unfortunately, the site LIED TO ME) A lot of Persona fans, at least, are quick to heap praise on the character interactions and familiar but unusual storytelling in the series, but those who prefer the other series generally point more towards the open-ended and punishing character building and combat mechanics. As much as I enjoy the high-speed, risk-heavy battles and hilariously broken skill systems, just putting those features in another turn-based series wouldn’t make for games I enjoy thinking and talking about long after the endings have gone by. The bulk of my enjoyment of Megaten really comes from the series’ overall “flavor,” which by and large transcends the individual games and even franchises, but it’s actually because of this that I was a bit worried about the new 3DS installment, Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Like part 3 (Nocturne) did, SMT4 seems to portend a new era for the brand: for one thing, although the DS systems have already carried three original titles (the Devil Survivor series, and Strange Journey), the release of a True Main Game on a handheld is reminiscent of the departure from the TV-sized scale also taken by Dragon Quest IX recently, a series which had also spun off repeatedly to Nintendo’s portables before. (Still, the game doesn’t at all look cheap-it’s almost certainly the most beautifully imagined and produced title released by R&D1 to date.) It also marks what may well be the departure of the PS2 era’s primary composer Shoji Meguro, who I suspect is on the verge of leaving Atlus to form his own music-focused company, ala Sakimoto’s Basiscape, sanodg’s Detune, Ltd., etc. Taking his place at least on this installment is Ryota Kozuka (or “Koduka”), who might be most easily recognized as the creator of the kitschy muzak which plays in the Junes store in Persona 4. But if the future of the franchises’ heavily adored soundtracks lies in his hands for the forseeable future, I couldn’t be more excited. Kozuka’s opening and closing tracks are a perfect mixture of homage and new take on the dramatic intros to the previous entries, and the soundtrack just gets better from there.
Well, mostly, at least. I’m not too big a fan of the music from the game’s
renaissance faire conspicuously anachronistic starting town, but it’s certainly not bad. Although this game is a bit lighter on heavily ambient pieces than Nocturne was, that was a side of Meguro that was never really seen afterwards anyway. Some of the individual pieces could also be seen as trying to “play it safe” and work within styles which have already been firmly established for the series, with rocking battle tracks and remixes of the traditional “Law” and “Chaos” themes appearing as usual. But Kozuka takes these ideas and makes them his own, as well as adding some more modern sounds. (Yes, I can already hear the suspicions that that means and/or includes WUB WUB WUBs…which it does. I thought it was almost pitch-perfect, only failing slightly because a counterpart piece from the same section of the game was even better for the setting.)
So that’s all pretty good, at least, and considering how many games I’ve quit playing because I didn’t care for the music at all, it’s not a minor factor. But while Meguro’s time as a “big name” for the brand was both prolific and long-lasting, composing new music on 7 main PS2 titles and portable re-releases of all five Persona games over ten years, there’s one person who I truly consider to be the core of the series, and the fact that he seems to have taken his hands off almost completely at this point is definitely alarming to me.
That man is Kazuma Kaneko, who’s been the primary artist and scenario/concept designer for a significant number of the main releases. Kaneko’s work is, I realize, pretty idiosyncratic, and I can certainly understand the viewpoint of people who don’t much appreciate the intentionally uncanny, doll-like human designs that his work started to gravitate to during and after the PS1 era.
Sure, Kaneko’s morbidly-skinny-and-pale-humans-with-heavily-defined-eyelashes-and-lips-which-rarely-show-emotion are not everyone’s style, and choosing Shigenori Soejima to lead Persona 3’s new designs was a huge benefit for that game and its sequel. The appealing caricatures easily brought humanity and personality to their wide cast of characters, of which even some of the bit players had more lines than leads in the early games. Likewise, the decision to place Trauma character designer Masayuki Doi on this title is one I have essentially no complaints about within the context of the game. Like Kozuka, he takes inspiration from the previous titles while bringing his own personality to the series, and this particularly stands out in the design for Mikado’s “Samurai,” which evoke the Center’s “Temple Knights” in II.
While I certainly like many of the series’ characters a lot, they’re generally only a small part of the overall storytelling equation in the games. What really sets SMT apart from other Japanese game series is a true focus on mythology. Megaten’s “demons” aren’t just named after ancient deities, monsters, beasts and heroes, like in some RPGs-they ARE those entities. (At least to whatever extent it makes any kind of sense to kill dozens of certain enemies in random encounters.) This element is so pervasive that even some of the most distantly related spin-offs bring mythological parallels in service to the plot, like the fighting game Persona 4 Arena. Its new character, Labrys, is named after the Greek word for the weapon she uses, an axe. But the word “Labrys” is also related to “Labyrinth,” and the game draws heavily on the famous tale involving a gigantic maze. Her evil counterpart’s “Persona” is the legendary Minotaur, while her actual Persona is Ariadne, whose thread ensures escape from the labyrinth after its defeat. (Incidentally, “Aridane’s Thread” is also the name of the “Warp Wire” item used to leave the dungeon in the Japanese versions of Etrian Odyssey, whose original title also bears the word “Labyrinth”. Alas, that reference is too long to fit in the required number of characters when written in letters.)
Many of the other games have put up similar high-concept stories (I’m particularly fond of the first Devil Survivor‘s use of the Internet as a symbolic Tower of Babel), but most of the main games in the series have gone with more universal mythical ideas of death and rebirth, and the creation of the world, with specific mythological tie-ins being less integral to the story (though often still interesting and relevant in the ways that bosses and demons are laid out across the game’s areas). Nocturne and Strange Journey directly revolve around magical objects which can be used to recreate the world in a new image…or not. Shin Megami Tensei II does stand out as an outlier, directly evoking the New Testament in many of its shocking plot twists, and based on what I know of IV‘s overall storyline (and that knowledge still has some pretty major holes) it’s definitely trying to be closer to its even-numbered predecessor, just as the game does in other ways. What I haven’t discovered, yet, is what kind of theme or basis it’s really trying to work from, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think anything is there. In fact, just from the game’s scenes and overall visual design, (as well as asking a few questions to another person I know who’s played the import) I see a lot of interesting ideas that are at least put on the table, but I don’t have the specific context to figure out what they might mean until I get to see the game in English.
Even focusing too much on the plot can miss the point, though; Kaneko’s love of mythology can be seen up and down the massive list of demons. Many of them are based directly on traditional or well-known portrayals, like the Arahabaki, sometimes seen in Japanese artwork and other video games (for example, the inexplicably “Mayan” robot Huitzil from Darkstalkers and Night Warriors), even for many “demons” who are foreign to Japan or East Asia in general. Maybe the perfect example is Tlaloc, an Aztecan rain god. A friend of mine in Mexico visited a museum in which he found that the head in Kaneko’s design is based on water jugs honoring him, one of which was on display in the museum. As a serious fan of Aztec and Mayan myths, he was familiar with other depictions, but this was his first time seeing this specific, direct inspiration. Writing about Kaneko’s research and creativity in demon designs could fill much more than just a single blog post, but I’m not even that knowledgeable on that subject compared to some other fans I know.
Unfortunately, it’s this same element that makes me wonder if the people in charge of the games value the same things that I do. I don’t really have an issue with the decision to bring in Kamen Rider artists as guest designers on principle; I’m actually quite fond of cross-promotion as an opportunity find more things for people to like. And I’ve certainly considered that party of the reason I dislike so many of these “new” demons may come from a personal over-emphasis on “pretty” things, but Kaneko has plenty of “ugly” and even grotesque designs that I quite like as well. I think ultimately the majority of my disappointment comes from a feeling that they’re not very coherent with the overall body of existing artwork, much less with each other. To me Kaneko’s overarching vision tends to make the idea of all of these different mythologies battling it out seem considerably less ridiculous than it really is. By contrast, these guests, like Asmodeus, the first revealed for this game, tend to feel like they’re just going for “badass” or “disgusting/evil” designs-generic monsters that don’t feel particularly connected to a deeper context. Still, many of the designs are fine, particularly in the context of the game (because almost all of them appear as bosses, they’re almost never shown literally standing next to more traditional demons). While there are a couple that I find truly unbearable, there’s also a few that I truly think really do manage to “fit in” to the series. Overall, I actually doubt that many will return anyway (I assume that Atlus would have to negotiate the rights again), but as a publicity move to help sell the game, I just find myself a little less sure that what Index thinks is great about SMT is what I enjoy. (However, since Index sounds like it might be about to get ripped apart due to some fraudulent business dealings, maybe there are bigger things to worry about anyway. I’d be a bit surprised if the main Atlus brands don’t make it out fine, though.) On top of that, IV does reuse many of the main icons originating from Strange Journey, including its primary symbols of the Law and Chaos alignments. The fantastic “DEMONICA” outfits also appear (in glorious 3-D, if you want!), which leaves me relatively certain that someone important definitely understands the unique value of his work.
Ultimately, like I said from the start, it’s a pretty enjoyable ride. Some of the new mechanics and design make the game more approachable than previous entries while keeping the basic strategic points, and the main settings (after an opening act that I wish was a bit shorter) are as compelling and beautiful as the series has put up. I’d have to say that I think Nocturne remains the best SMT title overall (although not actually my favorite), but despite a few missteps in IV the overall progress of the series’ mechanics and design is difficult to overlook; with each release featuring more accessible skill mechanics and fewer completely arbitrary dungeon segments it becomes a bit harder to go back to the previous titles. For as good as IV is, I can only hope that it will have me feeling the same way in another ten years. Or less. You really don’t have to wait that long again for the big one, Atlus!