[This post was originally posted on 10/20/2016. The newest version can be found on RPGFan.]
If you’re a big JRPG fan, you’ve probably heard of Shin Megami Tensei. Atlus’ demon-summoning RPG series has been around for nearly 30 years under its original Megami Tensei moniker. In the US, however, its releases were sporadic at best and often underwent heavy localization to fit Western sensibilities. It wasn’t until the 2007 release of spinoff title Persona 3 that the series started gaining traction in America. Since then, the series has become a staple of the genre in the West. Most titles make it to our shores are some of the most anticipated releases in their windows.
That said, it’s a rough series to get into. There are countless spinoffs, sequels, and genres across the series. That’s why I’m here! I’ll help you dip your toes into the series, with recommendations based on what kind of game you’re interested in as well as a quick rundown of what to expect in the series as a whole.
What is Shin Megami Tensei?
Shin Megami Tensei translates to “True Goddess Reincarnation”, but Wikipedia can fulfill any of your naming origin needs. What you need to know is that the series goes by a few names: Megami Tensei, MegaTen, Shin Megami Tensei, or SMT depending on where you live. In the West, the series is marketed as Shin Megami Tensei, so we’ll stick with that.
The series generally has a focus on recruiting, fusing, and fighting with demons and mythical beasts from throughout mythology. It’s easy to think of it as Pokémon for an older demographic. While not a perfect analogy, it gets you at least halfway there. As we’ll be covering a wide selection of games, including quite a few spinoffs, it’s hard to peg down some bullet points you’ll see in every game, but most games will have some combination of the following:
- Demon Summoning – The hallmark of the series, there are few games where you won’t be interacting with (and often fighting alongside) mythical creatures, ranging from the 72 demons of the Goetia to creatures from Japanese folklore, all the way to entities from modern religions. While you’ll find a small handful of games without this feature, it’s certainly the glue holding the series together.
- Modern Settings – While SMT deals heavily in the supernatural, it usually does so under the umbrella of urban fantasy. You’ll regularly find yourself exploring real life locations, seeing major Japanese landmarks, and using modern technology alongside your standard Medieval weaponry. So how does the series find new and unique settings?
- The Apocalypse – Nothing goes with demons quite so well as the end of the world. The mainline SMT games usually take place at or around the Apocalypse, while spinoffs often deal with Apocalypse-level threats. While this offers unique set dressing (and an excuse for demons to be strolling around), it’s certainly more than skin deep. This setting allows for deeper exploration of what ideals are vital to humanity. Which leads directly to…
- Morality – SMT games may have protagonists and antagonists, but they’re not always clearly defined as heroes and villains. In the main series, you’ll usually be dealing with the struggle between Law and Chaos. While you might see more angels aligned with Law and more demons bumming around Chaos, neither side is strictly villainous or heroic. They simply hold different ideals sacred, and these ideals set them against each other. You’re often tasked with choosing a side, and depending on the game you may have some gray area to play with as well. While the spinoffs regularly tread into a more traditional story structure, they almost universally create well-rounded villains with some form of reason behind their actions.
In short: if you want to take a tour of mythology while getting studies in philosophical gray areas, SMT may be for you.
Awesome, so where do I start?
That’s a fun question. See, SMT has its roots deep in the traditional turn-based RPG, but it’s had forays into action, fighting games, even dipping its toes in the rhythm genre. As such, I’ll be breaking down what I feel to be the best introduction based on the type of game you want to play. Let’s get a few ground rules out of the way:
- This is intended for the newcomer. My recommendations might not be my personal favorites, or the fan favorites, but rather the games I think will be the most fun to a series newbie.
- I’ll be giving preference to games that are easily accessible through legitimate means. That’s just how I roll.
- I’ll only recommend games I’ve spent enough time with to feel comfortable recommending. While I’ve played most SMT games that have come West, I might have some blind spots. Not to worry, I’m confident I can find you something you’ll like.
- I’ll be including spinoffs like Persona. Hardcore fans, I know they’re not strictly Megaten games. I’ve thought it over, and I’ll survive.
- I’ll provide some extended recommendations at the bottom if you’re curious about other standouts in the series.
- These are just, like, my opinion, man.
We all copacetic? Well, let’s start from the top!
I want to try the core series!
Hey, that’s a great place to start! You’ll get to tick pretty much all of the boxes in my list and get a feel for the gameplay that put the series on the map! There are four main Shin Megami Tensei entries, and a few spinoffs that tow the line pretty dang well. That said, I can confidently recommend Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS | Release Date: July 16, 2013
What it’s like: SMT IV is a traditional turn-based RPG, much like the rest of the core series. As a samurai armed with a seemingly anachronistic AI you’ll gain the ability to speak to, recruit, summon, and fuse demons. You’ll begin by protecting the surprisingly European city of Mikado, but you’re quickly off discovering the secrets of the greater world. While you’re accompanied by a small group of fellow samurai, your battle party consists of yourself and up to three demons. In practice, this plays out like a fairly complicated rendition of the monster collecting games you might have played out in the past. What makes SMT unique is a steeper difficulty curve that rewards long-term strategy in fusing demons, exploiting elemental weaknesses, and covering your own. You can expect to see the game over screen against normal enemies if you’re careless, adding to the foreboding atmosphere of the world. Don’t be distracted by the bright colored anime style. SMT IV feels closer to a horror story than it does high adventure.
Why you should play it: SMT IV is the most newbie-friendly entry into the main series. While the difficulty can be stiff, dying several times will unlock an easy mode to help you out. You have full control over fusions, meaning that you’re not rolling the dice on random skill inheritance when fusing demons (a common thread you’ll see if you delve into earlier games). The UI is slick and clean throughout, with your AI buddy Burroughs guiding you throughout the adventure and your Gauntlet’s UI integrated throughout the game. The story hits some unique and mature beats, going to great lengths to ensure it doesn’t fall back on anime tropes whenever possible. Most importantly, demon fusing is an incredibly satisfying incentive to keep you invested. There are over 400 demons to recruit. You can win some over by speaking to them during battle and trying to answer questions successfully, and you can always re-summon old demons for a fee, but most of your best warriors will come through fusing your crew. Fusing two demons results in a more powerful new demon. You can select eligible skills for inheritance from your prior demons, making their growth vital to your new demons. The loop of fusing new demons, leveling them, fighting alongside them, then creating something new and exciting is a strong driving force. As an added bonus, a direct sequel is out that improves on many points, while regressing in a handful.
What you might hate: While the atmosphere and mystery are wonderful, the story is hit and miss. Moment to moment you’ll be uncovering plenty of cool mysteries, but your traveling companions can be a bit flat. Side characters and demon interactions add plenty of flavor to the world, but the narrative often feels secondary to the gameplay and the atmosphere. It’s also easy to get lost in exploration, as your next destination is not always apparent. You’re often told locations to go without any kind of cardinal directionality, and if you set the game down for an extended period, you won’t find any reminders when you pick it back up. Finally, the battles are purely first person. For some, this is a deal breaker, but the animations are slick and you can still get your fun equipment dress-up time with your avatar. All of his equipment will show up during dungeon exploration, and you can find all manner of interesting goodies that offer stat boosts, but more importantly, style.
Where you can get it: SMT IV is still relatively easy to find at retail, but you can also get it on the 3DS eShop. Atlus loves constant digital sales, so you can regularly find it for around $20.
Alternatives: There are a few other ways to break into the mainline series. The farthest back I’d go is Shin Megami Tensei, though there are some earlier Megami Tensei games that SMT was birthed from. The original series isn’t available in the West, and even if it was it definitely shows its age. Shin Megami Tensei saw an iOS release you can dig into, though as an old school first person dungeon crawler it’ll be a tougher pill to swallow for all but the most hardcore. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the third game in the series, feels a bit more modern. Touting the now-signature press turn battle system, Nocturne takes the series into the third person and tries a lot of new things with the formula, including a twist on the standard Law/Chaos/Neutral breakdown and some pretty crazy boss battles. It’s available as a PS2 Classic on the PS3 in addition to its standard release. Finally, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is a recent 3DS release that might appeal to those who want to experience the mainline series with some modern quality-of-life touches. While not technically a mainline game, it was developed under the same mentality and with most of the same trappings. It’s a remaster of a DS game, so it won’t look as nice as something like SMTIV, but it is a fantastic entry point if you want to see something closer to how the series started.
I want something a bit more upbeat!
Oddly enough, we’ve got some solid choices for more upbeat! But if you want to be a part of the majority of SMT conversations, you’ve got a pretty clear choice in Persona 4 Golden.
Platform: Playstation Vita (Original version available on PS2 and PS3) | Release Date: November 20, 2012
What it’s like: Persona is the most popular spin-off of SMT. The series mostly focuses on high school students uncovering supernatural truths about the world, with modern entries giving equal focus to the school life and supernatural aspects of the heroes’ lives. Persona 4 Golden is the updated version of the PS2’s Persona 4, with large swaths of extra story, additional endings, character costumes, equipment, as well as a host of quality of life improvements. The core game is somewhere between a dungeon crawler and a visual novel. You’ll take the role of a silent protagonist investigating a series of mysterious murders alongside your classmates. The game works on a calendar system, and each day you’ll divide your time between classes, spending time with friends, and exploring dungeons in a strange world inside the TV. You’ll spend a lot of time getting to know the large cast of characters while engaging in standard SMT staples like demon fusion and turn-based battles. The game handles some darker subject matter, but does so with an incredibly bright color scheme and a healthy dose of anime.
Why you should play it: Persona 4 Golden is probably the game you hear the most about in conversation. Starting with Persona 3, the series took a sharp turn from its darker origins. While some longtime fans have lamented this, it’s led to a huge surge in popularity. The upcoming Persona 5 is one of 2017’s most anticipated titles, and P4G is the easiest way to get into the series ahead of its release. The game features strategic battles that reward smart fusion and exploitation of elemental weaknesses, making bosses more about sound strategy than level grinding. The characters are robust, and interacting with them during the day feeds directly into the power of your fusions in the dungeon portions. The story presents an intriguing mystery that begs for replay, and deciding who to spend your days with will lead to deeper character growth for the party members and townsfolk who you most enjoy spending time with. The game also oozes cool. The visual style is striking, with vibrant yellow and black motifs giving every menu significant impact. More importantly, the soundtrack from series stalwart Shoji Meguro is one of gaming’s all-time greats. Featuring modern-styled music ranging from jazz to pop, techno to rock and everything in-between, the soundtrack is one that I still listen to on a weekly basis.
What you might hate: If your tolerance for anime is low, your tolerance for this game will be severely tested. While the game gives depth to every character, that depth is still built atop some well-worn tropes. You live the life of your average anime high schooler (in that every anime high schooler has super powers and fights demons), and while it is incredibly successful in this, it’s unlikely to convert anyone vehemently against the genre. The in-your-face style of the game can also rub some the wrong way. If you want your world taken seriously and presented realistically, you’re going to be in for a shock here. The first time a haunted teddy-bear mascot costume starts cracking puns, you’ll know about how far the game is willing to go. The calendar system can also be stressful for those who hate deadlines, as without a guide you’re unlikely to see everything the game has to offer in a single play through. As someone who hates time limits I learned to relax and prioritize the characters I most wanted to see. For some, this might be too much. Thankfully, the game offers a new game plus that makes a second play through more manageable.
Where you can get it: Persona 4 Golden was released for the Playstation Vita, and in addition to a physical release the digital version is regularly on sale on the PSN for $20. You can also find the base game on PS2 and on PS3 as a PS2 Classic. While Golden is undoubtedly the superior experience, you’ll get a complete (and amazing) game even if you don’t have access to a Vita or Playstation TV.
Alternatives: Persona 5 is almost as easy to recommend as a starting point as Persona 4. Many, myself included, don’t find the cast quite as endearing, but the modern flourishes and gorgeous UI make Persona 5 the epitome of the modern JRPG. It might be a bit harder to give up some quality of life changes if you then move back to Persona 4, and due to the wonderful cast I still give the edge just barely to P4 as a starting point. Persona 3 is similar tonally, but it’s a bit darker and lacks many modern conveniences. Furthermore, it doesn’t have an easy-to-recommend definitive edition, so I advise diving into it if you find yourself enraptured with 4 or 5 and want to see the rest. The first two Persona games are a significantly darker, and the first is too rough around the edges to recommend, but Persona 2 is a fantastic game in its own right. It comes in two parts, Innocent Sin (available on PSP in the West) and its follow-up, Eternal Punishment (available as a PSOne Classic in the West). Outside of Persona, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a crossover with the Fire Emblem series based around pop stars who moonlight as superheroes. It’s only tangentially an SMT game, but it’s a very fun (and light) time. As a Wii U only release however, it’s not incredibly accessible.
I want a more traditional RPG experience!
If you’re looking for something closer to the Final Fantasy games, but with that darker, SMT flair, you’ll have an excellent time with Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga.
Platform: PS2, PS3 | Release Date: April 5, 2005
What it’s like: Digital Devil Saga is kind of Shin Megami Tensei by way of Final Fantasy. While it features the grim story and cutting difficulty of a Shin Megami Tensei game, the game follows the narrative structure of a more traditional RPG. Rather than recruiting an army of demons, your party consists of a traditional group of 5 characters who transform into demons during battle. Eschewing the demon fusion systems for a more linear growth pattern, your progression choices mostly stem from determining which skills your characters learn as they level up. The battle system is lifted almost entirely from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and will feel familiar to those who have played Shin Megami Tensei IV as well. As for plot, you’ll find yourself in control of one of six warring tribes vying for territory in a wasteland known as the Junkyard. Of course, things are not always as they seem, and the world expands over the course of this game and its sequel. As you enter the story, you’ll see the inhabitants of the Junkyard gain the ability to transform into demons, and you’ll see the effects this has on their world, and on the characters as they struggle with both their newfound abilities and glimpses of humanity they had not displayed before.
Why you should play it: DDS gives you the best of two worlds. While it plays like a traditional SMT game, the plot is front and center here. It opts to treat its players like adults, allowing you to figure out what’s going on in the world without it being spelled out. The world is filled with intriguing mysteries, and the characters follow some intriguing growth patterns. Starting off as emotionless dolls, the awakening of their demon forms also sets off growing emotions, and the reasons behind these events is teased throughout the narrative. The atmosphere is creepy and gruesome and the music is a driving, guitar-heavy set from Shoji Meguro. While the battles are harder than your standard RPG, they are on the easier end for a Shin Megami Tensei game, making it a fine introduction for new fans.
What you might hate: DDS is a PS2 game, and the seams show in graphical fidelity and control. The style is strong throughout, offsetting the weakness some, but you’re still playing a game from 2 generations back. Some have criticized the game’s repetitiveness, though it’s a bit par for the course for a turn-based RPG. If you’re not willing to let the story be your main draw, this might not be the SMT for you. Most importantly, DDS is not a complete experience. The sequel, appropriately named Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2, finishes the story started here. It also refines a lot of the gameplay and really opens up the world and story. While the cohesive experience is great, this can make the first game feel like an extended prologue to the second game’s meat.
Where you can get it: Digital Devil Saga and its sequel can be found pretty affordably on Amazon if you’re looking for a PS2 physical copy. If you’re not willing to bust out the old console, you can move up a generation and pick the games up digitally on the PSN as a PS2 Classic on PS3. This is also the cheaper option, at about ten bucks a pop.
Alternatives: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, a mainline game, shares a lot with DDS, from its graphical style to its battle system. It’s significantly harder, however, and like all mainline games the party is focused around demon collecting and fusion. Persona 5 and Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE skew close to the traditional side as well, but both focus more on character relationships and don’t feature extensive exploration.
I want something a bit more strategic!
If you’re a fan of tactical RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, SMT has you covered with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
Platform: Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS | Release Date: June 23, 2009
What it’s like: Devil Survivor is a tactical RPG with some SMT flair. You’ll be doing plenty of tactical positioning a la Fire Emblem, but once you engage in combat you’ll be dropped into more of a traditional SMT turn. You’ll be exploiting weaknesses with a team of demons, as you’d expect. You have a lot of drive in the apocalyptic plot, though the breakdown of Law and Chaos is more of a flavor, as most outcomes revolve around how you interact with party members and who you choose to stick with. These can lead you down some pretty familiar paths, but they follow individual characters a bit more closely than some titles. Rather than speaking to demons, you’ll recruit them via auctions, but you’ll still do your standard fusion to get the best beasties. You can then assign two demons to each human party member, and they’ll move and act as a unit. It’s pretty slick, though the tactics are less complex than the strategy in party building and pre-battle preparation.
Why you should play it: Devil Survivor oozes style. The art is wonderful to behold, even by SMT standards, and the plot walks that SMT line between dark and stylish. The game is tough but fair, rewarding well-thought out fusion, good use of weaknesses, and a bit of trial and error. If this ends up being too rough, there are ample opportunities to grind your way through the tougher battles, but like most SMT games it will not hold your hand. It’s also got plenty of replayability, with a wealth of extra endings and a lengthy campaign. It’s also got a solid, guitar-heavy soundtrack. SMT does love its power chords. The plot is also engrossing, layering on mysteries early and making sure you care enough to seek out answers.
What you might hate: The game’s not easy. You’ll have to struggle with trial and error for a number of battles, and if you’re not a fan of challenge, Devil Survivor might not be the game for you. The character designs are also pretty divisive. What one finds stylish, others (understandably) find obnoxious and weirdly proportioned. As a tactics game, it’s also a bit slower paced, so it might not be for those with shorter attention spans.
Where you can get it: Devil Survivor was originally released on the DS, but there’s a 3DS port. While the 3DS has some additional story content, there aren’t enough upgrades to recommend it over the original if there’s a large price difference. That said, the 3DS version is available on the eShop, and is regularly pretty cheap. There’s also a sequel to the game, and it’s a fine starting point as the stories aren’t connected and the improvements aren’t so huge that they make it difficult to go back.
Alternatives: The sequel, appropriately named Devil Survivor 2, is easy enough to start with. The plots aren’t really connected, and there are some quality of life improvements in the sequel. None are enough to make the original a significant downgrade, and as the story might be a bit stronger in the first, I’d give the nod to playing the original first.
I like action in my games!
While SMT games are generally slower-paced, turn-based affairs, it’s dabbled in action a few times. Probably the best place to start is the exhaustingly named Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army.
Platform: PS2, PS3 | Release Date: October 10, 2006
What it’s like: What we’re just going to call Devil Summoner is an Action RPG wherein you’ll slash and shoot alongside some demon buddies. You play as Raidou Kuzunoha, a devil summoning detective in 1935. If you’re onboard with the plot at that point, you’re in good shape. The action is standard Action RPG fare, with battles taking you to a separate arena, fighting with a sword and a gun with limited ammo. You can summon a single demon to fight alongside you, and fusion makes a return, alongside the ability to sacrifice demons to power up your sword.
Why you should play it: First and foremost, the setting is utterly unique. 1930’s Japan is something most players will be utterly unfamiliar with, lending the game a wonderful bit of novelty as you find the Japan deep into Westernization meeting the traditional supernatural world. The style is classic SMT, with gothic character designs and the excellent demon designs you’d expect from the series. The detective story trappings are also a contrast to the traditional apocalyptic settings of SMT games, as the plot gives you stakes, but still allows you to get to know the characters acting in their standard day-to-day capacity. The battles are fun, if uncomplicated, and it’s an easy game compared to most SMT titles.
What you might hate: Devil Summoner is an older game. It wasn’t a graphical powerhouse during its initial PS2 release, and time hasn’t been kind to it. It’s got its fair share of jaggies and unpolished textures, and a lot of the animations have that PS2 doll-like stiffness. The action isn’t particularly deep, opting as many SMT games for depth in demon selection, fusion, and character progression. Make no mistake, this is a PS2 action RPG and it plays like one.
Where you can get it: Devil Summoner and its sequel are both available as PS2 classics. They go on sale pretty regularly, so you won’t risk more than 10 bucks on not liking it.
Alternatives: As was pointed out by a reader, Devil Summoner‘s combat is, generously, pretty clunky. I recommend it on the strength of the characters and setting, and to introduce that world. However, there is a sequel, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon, available through all the same means as the original, that features much improved combat. While you will miss some context, none of it is a deal-breaker and the game stands alone quite well. It can be a nicer entry point for new players, but I’ll keep the text of my original recommendation up to revel in my shame. That said, most of the text still applies! The combat is just significantly smoother. As the main character persists throughout the games I’d still recommend starting with the first game, but if you can’t get into it (or you don’t want to take the risk), feel free to dig into the sequel. The game does a fine job of getting you up to speed.
Where should I go from here?
There are plenty of other options within the series, and other genres covered that we didn’t hit here. It’s hard to recommend them, however, as so many of them come as spinoffs from Persona 4 and can spoil that game if you haven’t finished it yet. That subseries includes fighting games (Persona 4 Arena), dungeon crawlers (Persona Q), and even a rhythm title (Persona 4 Dancing All Night). If you like any particular game in this list, you can generally delve into that subseries and find more to love. If you like SMT IV, check out Nocturne. If Persona 4 really hits a sweet spot, try Persona 3 or Persona 5. The series has a pretty good standard of quality, and it’s hard to go wrong. It’s a series dense with titles, but after you get started it’s easy to delve into any given game and have a good time.