With the launch of Shin Megami Tensei V on Nintendo Switch, many will be asking where is the best place to start this landmark video game series.
Despite its long-lasting prominence, and undeniable influence within the JRPG genre, Shin Megami Tensei remains a little bit of an enigma to the mainstream. No thanks to plenty of early entries never receiving Western releases. It also took Atlus over a decade after the series’ inception to localise a single instalment, with releases being spread unevenly across home consoles and handhelds.
It’s a franchise that’s had a hard time selling itself. With Shin Megami Tensei V getting a healthy amount of promotion, and a lot of buzz from the Shin Megami Tensei fanbase, there are plenty of newcomers taking an interest in the series. So, let’s explore what the series is, as well as some recommendations on where to jump in.
Shin Megami Tensei: a brief history
Shin Megami Tensei is a relatively hardcore Japanese roleplaying series developed by Atlus, the company best known in the West for the Persona series, which was conceived as a Shin Megami Tensei spin-off.
While Shin Megami Tensei itself began with the 1992 Super Famicom release of the same name, the initial roots of the series can be traced back to the 1986 novel, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei. Strangely enough, developer Telenet Japan beat Atlus to adapting the novel into game format first, releasing a version for the MSX home computer back in 1987, although Atlus would follow with its own adaptation for the original Famicom only a couple of months later.
The origins of the franchise are a bit muddling, but Shin Megami Tensei is now far removed from its original source material, and mainly revolves around post-apocalyptic survival by recruiting demons, fusing them, and using them to aid in battle as a surrogate for a standard JRPG party, with each mainline entry being a standalone story.
There’s also a plethora of spin-offs – even when excluding Persona – which feature different settings, a range of tones, and some even transcribe the RPG systems to different genres, such as strategy and action gameplay.
Where do I start?
Much like with most other long-running JRPG franchises, there’s no objectively correct game to jump into the series with, but there are a few popular suggestions.
Firstly, there’s Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster. As the name implies, it’s a remaster of the third mainline entry which originally released on PlayStation 2. While it’s a relatively barebones update, with few additional features and quality of life improvements, the original release is one of the more beloved entries in the series, and the remaster is readily available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC, making it arguably the most immediately accessible Shin Megami Tensei title currently available.
The second option is Shin Megami Tensei IV, which also happened to be my introduction to the franchise. Its presentation may be a bit lacking, but it more than makes up for it with the rapid pace of its combat system, highly inspired world-building, and a soundtrack filled to the brim with absolute bangers. This recommendation comes with the caveat of the opening few hours being particularly punishing, even by Shin Megami Tensei’s brutal standards. The high difficulty does eventually taper off, however, and the trial by fire opening teaches the player key mechanics with more efficiency than most other entries. Any newcomers willing to stick through the initial uphill battle can pick up this entry for a reasonable price on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, as well as physically in the US.
For those looking for a Shin Megami Tensei entry that’s more akin to the likes of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, spin-off title Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga might be a more comfortable starting point. Instead of the player constantly alternating their party configurations with the demon negotiation and fusion systems typically present, Digital Devil Saga offers a party of five characters who each transform into a specific demon with their own pre-defined attributes. The downside is that Digital Devil Saga, along with its sequel Digital Devil Saga 2, are PlayStation 2 games that have yet to receive any kind of remaster. The two are also available to download on the PlayStation 3’s digital storefront, which is the cheapest way to obtain them.
Lastly, there’s also Shin Megami Tensei V. Releasing worldwide on November 12th, so this suggestion is a bit of a riskier one, despite how promising the game looks so far. This is likely a safer bet for those dipping their feet into Shin Megami Tensei after previously checking out the Persona games, but anyone brand new to the larger Megami Tensei franchise might be better off looking into the cheaper previously mentioned suggestions.
As a reminder, even these “beginner friendly” titles are tough. Regardless of prior JRPG experience, Shin Megami Tensei’s ruthless nature can be a bit of a shock to first time players. Thankfully, there’s plenty of community guides and walkthroughs that can further assist with easing into the games if necessary. With some patience and knowledge, each is conquerable; just don’t expect to breeze through any of them.