A fan translation was completed in the past year for the third and final Super Nintendo installment of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Shin Megami Tensei: If..., a game for which, in the interest of not making myself crazy, I will never again acknowledge the ellipse. I was excited! The original Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2 were groundbreaking for me, and though I’ve had some spectacular times with the series since, there’s been certain aesthetic and narrative aspects of the originals that I’ve yet to see duplicated by later titles. So the idea of getting 1 last chance to experience Shin Megami Tensei while it was still fresh and bright, on its system of origin,* was quite enticing.
Damn shame, then, that it turns out that SMT If is actually not good.
And I don’t mean “not good” just as a Shin Megami Tensei. SMT Devil Survivor 2 is a bad SMT game, but as just an RPG on its own, it’s alright. Not great, but alright. No, SMT If is not a good SMT game, and it is not a good RPG, period. What a disappointment; I hadn’t expected to run into an outright bad game in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, and I especially didn’t think it would be one so close to the original masterpieces!
Don’t get me wrong: SMTI is not without a few good points. While its Guardian system and its school environment are kinda primitive, it seems clear that these were the humble beginnings from which the excellent SMT Persona series sprung. And a 90s JRPG that allowed you to choose your protagonist’s gender was quite before its time--and even more impressive and forward-thinking in that said protagonist is canonically a girl. Even now, the SMT series is a humdrum sausage fest in terms of its protagonists, so power to the creators of SMTI for remembering the existence of 50% of our species all the way back in the 90s. However, what small bits and pieces of this game I appreciate and am glad for just don’t come anywhere near redeeming Shin Megami Tensei If, either as an RPG in general or as a part of its series.
There’s a lot of reasons why this one’s just a flop of an RPG. The story’s really weak, for one. Ignoring the premise (which has potential, as we’ll discuss in a moment), all that happens in this game is that a school gets teleported into a demon dimension because of 1 disgruntled kid, and then 2 of the school’s students team up to fetch some magic doohickeys from a few dungeons and bring the school back to Earth, and maybe learn at the last minute what exactly pissed off the kid who started all this. What this mostly translates into is just silently dungeon-crawling and occasionally hearing the antagonist say a few tediously over-generalizing lines about why humans suck; very little really seems to happen and not much keeps you invested in what’s on the screen. There’s precious little in the way of character depth--your partner interacts with you infrequently at best, the NPCs all have no substance whatsoever, the heroine is silent, and the antagonist you’ll only get a decent handle on if you pick 1 specific path out of 4 possibilities. Half of the endings are pretty lousy. And not that it really matters too terribly much, but...well, I’ve criticized Final Fantasy 10-2 for being appallingly careless in its reuse of resources from the first FF10, and a common (and fully justified, make no mistake) complaint against Fallout 76 is that it’s by and large just a slipshod asset-flip of Fallout 4, but apparently, Atlus was pulling this lazy shit literal decades ago! SMT If just seems out to appropriate every resource it can from its predecessors--for Promethesus’s sake, this game even reuses the SOUNDTRACK of the previous games! Atlus couldn’t even spring for MUSIC to give this title its own identity!
Oh, and lastly, the Sloth dungeon. Fuck the Sloth dungeon. Shin Megami Tensei: If’s Sloth dungeon goes straight into the Filthy, Filthy Hate Box within my mind, to join Sailing, Weapon Degradation, and Xenogears’s Chair. What the FUCK were you thinking, Atlus?
What’s really disappointing, though, is that SMT If really didn’t have to be a bad game. I mean, okay, no RPG really HAS to be a bad game, but there’s a world of difference between, say for example, The Legend of Korra: A New Era begins, which could have been really good if it had just tried to live up to its source material’s quality, and Fallout 76, which from the start was a game whose only focus was on its online identity and thus never had the slightest chance of being a quality storytelling experience. SMT If had potential, both as an RPG and as a member of the superlative Shin Megami Tensei franchise. True, the high-school-trapped-in-another-dimension angle doesn’t really have much room to go anywhere, but the essentials of it all could have been made into something really great: that being a story. Hazama, the demon emperor, traps his former schoolmates in a demon world as a way of paying back the suffering that humanity inflicted upon him back when he was human, returning his pain to bullies and innocents alike. The only way to end his retribution, or at least escape it, is for the protagonist to journey through several of 7 worlds, each representing 1 of the Deadly Sins, and overcome the trials within.
It’s an idea with the seeds for greatness, surely. The problem is that the story’s execution lacks substance, and paces itself very poorly. First of all, the fact that you only learn anything of importance about Hazama’s motivations at the very end of the game is a problem--and even then, only if you follow 1 particular route of 4 to get there! It was a real problem for Tales of Phantasia when it only told the audience the villain’s motive in a brief couple of sentences squeezed into the game’s ending, but at least ToP’s Dhaos was not the central, solitary figure of his story! The instigator of that game’s conflict, the ever-present villain, certainly, but he wasn’t the central and arguably only important character in the game! Hazama, on the other hand? SMTI is basically about him: he gets the most lines, everything that occurs is of his doing, he’s the one who has put every obstacle before you, and everything in the game has only come about because of his own, personal past. This is Hazama’s story, and you only find out about him at the very end, if you do at all!
Secondly, the Deadly Sins angle: it feels like a name-drop for credibility, rather than a legitimate invocation of the this ancient semi-religious concept. Only half the dungeons seem to actually have anything to do with the sin they were named for--and frankly, even those that do attempt to do something with their Deadly Sin gimmick often fail at it. I mean, in the Envy dungeon, for example, your companion is charmed away from you, and you have to brave the dungeon alone to get her back. Supposedly, according to the SMT Wiki, the Envy angle is that the protagonist is jealous of her friend getting a hunky new boytoy...but there’s absolutely nothing in the game that actually suggests that, beyond a few insults that the protagonist’s partner throws her way because of it. But those lines feel more like empty personal attacks than they do anything substantial, and the protagonist's act of chasing after her partner can’t be seen as any confirmation of envy; getting to the end of each world and beating the realm’s ruler is what she does in EVERY SMTI world. If there’s any unusual thought process involved in this particular case, it’s far more likely, given the protagonist’s actions to this point, that it’s simply an intent on saving her friend and regaining the friend’s help in this quest.
Some other worlds’ only connections to their Deadly Sin namesake seems to be the nature of their bosses, and the Sloth world is only connected on a meta level--in that the developers themselves were clearly too lazy to create a real dungeon for it, so they just make the experience all about repetitive time-wasting. Aside from that, the only other thing that capitalizes on the Deadly Sins angle is that Hazama will, at the start of each dungeon, make a brief speech about why this particular sin is proof that humanity sucks, rantings which are no more focused or coherent than any given RPG villain’s typical drivel.
Basically, what SMT If needed to be a good RPG was a properly paced focus on the character of its antagonist regardless of which path you choose, being that he’s the central and sort of only important character in the game’s story, and what it needed to be a good Shin Megami Tensei was a thoughtful look into the nature of each of the Seven Deadly Sins that make up its theological backbone. Plenty of other positive nuances would have been helpful, of course, such as more time and dialogue to develop the partner characters, a greater and more dynamic involvement of some NPCs, more concrete ways of tying certain dungeons to their sin namesake, using the alternate paths in the game as a way of allowing the player to choose a philosophical and/or theological stance (you know, like almost every other Shin Megami Tensei?), and a protagonist with an actual personality, but I think that the essential components for making this subpar RPG into something worth playing are expanding Hazama, and leaning into the 7 Deadly Sins thing.
And you know what’s really sad? A single plan of action could have easily solved both of these problems. All Atlus would have had to do, would have been to have Hazama’s past revealed over time through each dungeon. Think about it: the reason Hazama has transported the school to the demon-filled Expanse is because the vices of those around him, particularly those in his school, caused him suffering, and he’s getting his revenge on the humanity that he now despises. What Atlus could have done was, for each dungeon, have 2 - 4 scenes, each triggered as you progress through the dungeon, in which we witness an experience in Hazama’s past that drove him to this state, in which Hazama’s tormentor (or even Hazama himself) was embodying the particular Sin that the dungeon is named for. Rather than just shove 97% of the villain’s motives and backstory into the game’s finale, hidden from all but 1 path the player can choose, instead give his character some narrative room, let us get to know this central figure properly! And while doing so, keep the Sins’ connection to the plot and to humanity relevant and clear!
Even if Atlus really insisted on a big last-minute revelation, this plan could still work: these scenes could just be Hazama telling a story in each dungeon, just a tale of a sin he supposedly witnessed in mankind, and let it only be at the end that it’s revealed that every story was from his own life. You’d still get the impact of the revelation at the finale, but have the benefit of having been developing your most important personality through the game’s course.
Not only would this solve the 2 problems holding Shin Megami Tensei If back, it would also have a lot of side benefits, too. Dungeons would be less tedious and repetitive if they were broken up with a few more story scenes, for starters. The otherwise barely noticeable students and faculty of the school might have more of an impact, since doubtless they’d be heavily involved in these pieces of Hazama’s past. And the partners in the game could be developed through these scenes, too, in their reactions to them: Yumi could show her sympathy by feeling bad for Hazama (or the characters in his stories, if going for the big-reveal-at-end thing), while Charlie could perhaps argue why Hazama’s not as deserving of sympathy as his story implies, and Reiko could struggle with her sadness and even guilt for how her brother’s life turned out.
Just imagine a scenario in which Hazama’s life experiences, told over the course of the game, has made Yumi feel so sorry for him that it causes her major inner conflict to have to defeat him at the game’s end--yet she still does so, because she herself still believes in humanity, and still feels that she must save everyone in the school, regardless of who does and doesn’t deserve it. How great would that be, as an overall story, and as a way of deepening Yumi’s otherwise static, surface-level heroic character?
What a damn shame that Shin Megami Tensei If turned out like it did. It honestly does have the potential to be a decent RPG and a decent SMT, and it really wouldn’t have taken very much to make it such. As it is, though...I can appreciate the good things that came as a result of it, and I can recognize the quality of the ideas at its roots, but overall, Shin Megami Tensei If is disappointingly below average.
* Yeah, I know it’s all technically started by Megami Tensei, from the NES, but it’s been Shin Megami Tensei since the SNES, and I daresay the general purpose and style of the series was defined there, so I count SMT1 as the birth of the franchise. So sue me.