Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine proves that the JRPG may not be dead… just resting, waiting for more players.
It’s become a popular gaming cliché over the past several years that Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) are dead. Maybe they’re just resting, waiting for more players to discover them. Atlus is hoping that is indeed the case, giving a new lease on life to Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine, a free-to-play MMORPG installment of the popular MegaTen franchise.
Though it first went live in Japan five years ago, Imagine got a first crack at the North American market in late 2008 thanks to Aeria Games. Atlus took over the title and transferred it to new servers this April, where it fits in well next to the company’s other anime-influenced games. It costs nothing to download, but is supported by the Atlus Crown system that allows the purchase of in-game items for real currency.
The setting is the year 202X, in the city destroyed more often in pop culture than any other, Tokyo. After the arrival of strange otherworldly creatures called Demons spooked the nations of the world into a nuclear war, much of humanity was forced underground. The survivors celebrated their good fortune in the only logical way, building a technological Tower of Babel that (unsurprisingly) became the center of some bad mojo.
You take control of a Demon Buster, dedicated to fighting off baddies and making the surface world at least somewhat safe for humanity. The twist is that you have the ability to digitize some Demons that have been persuaded to fight against their own kind – by negotiating and signing them to contracts, which is more interesting than it sounds – summoning them via a wrist-mounted computer terminal.
And, since this is a JRPG, the definition of Demon is extremely broad: The first one you receive looks more like Tinkerbell than something out of Dante. The variety of Demons in the game is incredible, and they can be fused together in certain combinations to form even more powerful creatures.
Your first steps toward mastering Demons come during the tutorial, which is strangely paced, spreading out your introduction to various game functions over a number of quests. Fortunately, the game’s combat system is taught to you right away, because it’s a bit different from most MMOs on the market today.
Attacks and other abilities are mapped to the number keys, and each one has a cooldown timer. But that’s where the similarities to World of Warcraft and similar games end. Combat in Imagine is a more active, tactical affair, dependent largely on timing and planning your next action carefully. Defense, especially countering, is important, and even minor enemies can become big threats if you try to simply hack or blast your way through them.
It’s a refreshing change from the norm, but the sluggish controls hamper things bit. More frustration comes from the AI of your pet Demons, which usually use their abilities wisely but are occasionally prone to lagging behind or sitting out a battle for no particular reason. The Tab key gives you full control of your Demon, providing an extra way to finish off mobs and resurrect your character in a pinch.
Both you and your Demon level up separately, earning experience points from each defeated foe and completed quest. Progression is based on both attributes and skills, but there’s a high level of customization since there are no set classes to follow. Some of the skills take many uses to advance, though, and a common complaint from experienced players is the amount of grinding necessary to get things to where they’d like to be.
That takes a bit away from the story, which is a big focus of any MegaTen game. Once you get past some strange dialogue that was undoubtedly affected by translation, there’s a big, mysterious world that unravels very slowly. The main storyline is advanced by completing Chapters that are broken up into acts, while side quests ensure you have something else to do besides grind (though there’s no way around plenty of that). Occasionally your goals become vague or downright difficult to figure out, meaning bookmarking some online resources is a good idea.
Graphically, Imagine is starting to show it’s age a bit, but the art style fits the game and its sensibilities perfectly. The same could be said for the soundtrack, which alternates between menacing and futuristic instrumentals while exploring, then switches to a frantic guitar-driven blast of rock during combat.In other words, it’s all JRPG, which means it plays by its own rules. Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine isn’t the kind of game you just dabble in, but for fans of the genre or anyone just looking to change things up, it’s worth a free try to see if it sucks you in.