Divinity, demons, and decay

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Shin Megami Tensei II is a game that asks many questions along the way to its epic climax but it all begins with just one: What happened to the world after the end of the first Shin Megami Tensei?

“Nothing good” might be the best way to sum it up: Shin Megami Tensei II assumes the original hero walked the optional game-long path of neutrality, violently rejecting both the “Only the strongest deserve to survive” beliefs of pure Chaos as well as the terrifying absolutes of Order, allowing humans to finally choose their own path free of any meddling from the occult or the ethereal – as well as leaving them utterly alone and unguided. This decision was supposed to be the best possible outcome for what remained of humanity after the nuclear missiles went off, after demons ran riot, after Heaven and Hell forcibly exerted their will on the world… it’s fair to say the future didn’t exactly turn out all that different from the present. Once again Mesians and (to a lesser extent) Gaians are trying to impose their will on others, all manner of spirits are manifesting in the mortal realm, and one person has the power to reshape the world as they see fit…

Which is all lovely and dramatic but the thing is I can’t play MegaTen games for toffee: Not this one, not the Personas, not Majin Tensei, none of them. They’re weird, they’re obtuse, they have dungeons that I swear take longer to clear than some games, there are never enough save points, I always get the -kaja type spells mixed up and don’t even get me started on demon negotiation – all those worries about how to behave so I get a new ally instead of a deadly kicking and keeping an eye on what phase of the moon we’re currently in… it’s just too much for me, I haven’t a hope in hell or heaven of making it through any one of these without at least two FAQs and a full set of maps by my side – an emulator with a quick save button for me to prod every five seconds is something of a must as well. But even though I know I can’t walk two steps without referring back to the automap and far too many fights end with me dreamily facing Charon at the shores of the river Styx I can’t help but find Atlus’ semi-connected web of RPGs absolutely fascinating. Who could resist a game that wonders what would happen if everything everyone believed in was real, if Amaterasu, Satan, and Lakshmi were here right now – and what if that didn’t work out for anyone?

This is the detail that makes Shin Megami Tensei games so irresistible for me: There’s a whole host of games out there with monsters to recruit and gods to defy in orchestral-backed final battles after they’ve threatened to annihilate the world and everything in it (some even dare to follow through), but it’s a rare adventure that takes these fantastical concepts and then weaves them into a setting that’s so ordinary it hits disturbingly close to home. Yes, humanity’s manifestation of capital-G God (the game makes a very significant but understated distinction between “deities as they really are” and “deities as our beliefs have shaped them to be”) in Shin Megami Tensei II does ultimately try to destroy the world while his favoured people are setting off in space Eden with Satan in tow but before the plot reaches that point you’ll witness plenty of chilling events of a sadly more relatable kind: The sort where official TV “news” broadcasts use trustworthy-looking people in nice suits to relay deliberate misinformation on so-called traitors to the public and performatively religious leaders claim moral superiority all while abusing their authority in whichever way suits them best, neither knowing nor caring how far away what they practise is from what they preach – it’s all a little too close to 2020 (and every year before that) in this 1994 Super Famicom game for comfort.

But this enthralling sort of “everyday dystopia” goes beyond a few obvious globs of social commentary for the benefit of writers with too much thinking time on their hands and lengthy posts to fill: The quiet despair and decay of 20XX is always present and palpable even when the story’s not addressing it directly because the rot is so firmly embedded into the very foundations of humanity’s last sanctuary and Shin Megami Tensei II’s only location – The Tokyo Millennium (if all’s gone to plan it should be the banner image of this post). This habitable pyramidal monument is just as much a character as anyone else in the story, a singular defiant and desperate last stand against the divine disasters that sealed the fate of both humanity at large as well as more locally the Japan of old decades ago, a powerful piece of arcology playing the role of church, city, and prison all at once. It’s also the first thing you see when you turn the game on, a towering structure being constructed under blood-red skies as the introductory text speaks only of the endless struggles human society has faced since the end of the previous game and gentle otherworldly music plays in the background before giving way to more sonorous tones as the building’s completed – you could almost choke on the atmosphere at this point, and the game’s not even begun.

As claustrophobic and oppressive as this situation appears at the beginning you’re never left in any doubt that it can and will get worse at the game goes on, that these problems run deeper than slums, frequent earthquakes, and gladiatorial-style combat played before cheering crowds. You get an early reminder of just how terrible – and how normal – this all is when you realise that nobody makes any secret of demonoid cattle now forming a staple part of humanity’s diet, their bovine faces scarred and most of their bodies obscured by some sort of industrialised covering – that’s just the reality of post-apocalyptic farming and population feeding. And if that’s what the ruling Mesians are happy for people to know then the things they’re prepared to lie about are clearly far worse; making people believe a perfect world is just around the corner for those who are worthy, for those who obey – just don’t peek behind the wizard’s curtain, don’t make any connections between the peaceful inhabitants of a virtual world and the test subjects strapped down and physically wired into machines elsewhere – it would be a shame to see another district not just destroyed but utterly wiped from existence, its innocent occupants fading away inside a demon’s belly, but if citizens will insist on refusing to do as they’re told…

It’s worth noting that while those in charge are perfectly happy to dehumanise anyone who opposes them and the more powerful angels, demons, and spirits have little to no concern for those beneath them of any allegiance or none, whenever the game brings playable world-changer Aleph into direct contact with “lower” classes of humans – the kids worried about siblings in other areas, the bar patrons, shopkeepers, and random people without any special power or sway in the world just trying to get on with their lives – even within the too-short snippets of dialogue Shin Megami Tensei II tends to give its NPCs they always come across as true individuals with their own worries, hopes, and dreams even if you know nobody will ever care about their existence or try to protect them. And in many ways this only adds another layer of hushed horror to their already miserable circumstances: There’s no point in these “nobodies” acting helpless, or scared when the world’s as bad as this so they never do – nobody is listening to their problems and nobody is coming to help, all they can do is carry on and hope their continued survival doesn’t attract the attention of anyone who might have an opinion on their apparently subjective right to go on living. This holds equally true for many of the demons you’ll meet as well: Nobody outside of the small band of highest-ranking officials in the Tokyo Millennium and YHVH themselves think the true nature of the Mesian’s Thousand Year Kingdom is a great idea – that all except a chosen few (chosen by them, of course) deserve to exist in a perfect world – so rather than crush humanity under an unrelenting wave of darkness most of the denizens of the supernatural regions you meet would like nothing more than to be left to their own less-than-perfect devices and for everything to remain more or less as it is now. Just look at Oberon on his magnificent throne, king of a small group of fairies and surrounded by concrete, decay, and magic in the long-abandoned commercial district of a buried city or think about all the spirits who teased, laughed at, or were intimidated by you in all the inter-species discussions you had in random battles on your way to get there – yes they’re different – and sometimes they’re dangerous – but the first thought in their minds is always survival rather than conquest.

And all of their fates – divine and demonic alike – depend on the choices you make throughout this adventure. As with much else within Shin Megami Tensei II you’ll find similar features in plenty of other RPGs and story-heavy games without having to think too hard about it: Do I bother with this subquest and recruit an optional party member or skip it? Do I head straight for the boss or take a troublesome detour for a shiny extra thing? Am I going to nobly refuse payment from these poor villagers or am I going to greedily demand double for my services? Shin Megami Tensei II judges you one a scale from lawful to neutral to chaotic not only on the final outcome of your decisions but often how you came to that conclusion too – sparing somebody’s life because you immediately chose to is very different to not killing them because your forever-love insists with their dying breath that you mustn’t, as is paying the initial asking price for a plot-critical item rather than intimidating the being in question until they drop it and run away – however much trouble they’ve caused you. As you may have noticed in both of these examples the end result is the same, and it’s true to say that even though this game has three different endings and even a few unique bosses depending on your final alignment most of the time you’ll be in the same places at the same time and doing the same things. This didn’t feel as restrictive or artificial as I thought it would before I began playing, partly because your options are presented more as behavioural choices than either/or decisions but also because it felt entirely in keeping with Aleph’s existence as a man-made messiah (or man-made anti-messiah, depending on who you ask) caught in the middle of the end of the world – up to a certain point his destiny has already been determined and no matter how much he tries to resist the only thing he can change are the details.

Mechanically I can’t really say Shin Megami Tensei II is a brilliant game: Some of the vast expanses between save points are just cruel and as one unlucky random fight or unexpected boss battle can wipe out far too much progress making clever use of the game’s many highly effective buffs and debuffs feels far too risky when the alternative is the much safer bet of mindless overlevelling – as a concept this kind of danger is wholly appropriate for the setting but in practise I wouldn’t blame anyone for dropping the game entirely due to an unlucky death several floors in to another winding maze of identical corridors. I also personally take umbrage with a story capable of imagining all of heaven, hell, and humanity at war with themselves and each other with such wonderful detail but can see no space in this fantasy Armageddon for women beyond plot-pushing deaths, kidnappings, and general second-tier importance.

But even for these faults I still think it’s an incredible piece of work that clearly expects more of its players than most; and as enjoyable as all the copyright-dodging Audreys and Mr. Thrillers are it’s that little touch of realism – of concocting a dark scenario and then seeing how this potent bleeding of one world into the next might play out if biblical conflict really did come to what was once modern-day Tokyo – that keeps thoughts of the game constantly turning over in my mind far more than the in-depth demon fusing, complex labyrinth wandering, or any of the other things I’m supposed to be appreciating when I’m off MegaTenning ever could.

[These demon-tinged ramblings were only possible because kind Ko-fi donations made it so – thank you very much for your help!]

9 thoughts on “Divinity, demons, and decay

  1. *Le gay gasp* Does that intro mean you never quite gotten into SMT3:Nocturne, the best RPG on the PS2, either? Even with guidance of your one true love as a guest character?

    Honestly, as much as I enjoy modern MegaTen, of which I declare is anything Persaon 2 onwards, I had a really hard time getting into the oldschool ones too. Especially SMT1 and 2 on SNES did not quite click with me. For as interesting as they are, they are too grueling to play. So I’m similar to you there, I suppose. Surprisingly I had a good time with Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei tho, especially Megami Tensei 2, which is basically the blueprint for SMT2.

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  2. This is my favorite series, yet I haven’t played the first two SMT games. I’ve seen playthroughs and all, but I think it was the general unavailability in translated, working versions until recently combined with just how obtuse they are as you bring up. I agree with zuckerlundzynismen up there that Nocturne is amazing, though — one of my favorite games ever, if not my favorite. It’s got some painful elements to it, but it’s not as aggressively hard to play as the old Super Famicom SMTs seem to be.

    As for the themes and general atmosphere of SMT2, a lot of them come back in SMT4 on the 3DS, which is a great game in its own right. The mainline SMTs get criticized sometimes for being light on character development and story. While there’s a lot to those criticisms (really you should go to Persona for that stuff) I think they get down that apocalyptic atmosphere very well. Another reason Nocturne is one of my favorites: the large scale of it, art direction, music, boss battles, everything comes together perfectly. 3 and 4 also place women in much more prominent roles, so that’s another plus that the older games don’t have as you bring up.

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    1. Yep the similar themes is definitely what drew me to SMT4 myself, although again I’ve not done more than dabble – I think I realise they need time and commitment to appreciate fully, and I rarely have the time… D:

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  3. Really enjoyed reading your perspective on SMT and comparing them to the things I like about the series. I have put plenty of hours into SMT3 and 4 but not got more than five minutes into 2 – I fully intend to play through it one day, but the thought of the high encounter rate and classic SMT cheap deaths have put me off so far!

    As a bonus, I love being able to pull out knowledge of obscure bits of mythology that I learned from these games.

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