Shin Megami Tensei IV

You know, I get it. No one really wants a mash-up of Shin Megami Tensei gameplay with the massively-textual visual novel / life sim format of a Persona. For one thing, it’d be 300 hours long, and for another, while there is some overlap between “Atlus crawler” fans and “Atlus life sim with crawler elements” fans, we’re probably looking at a majority that don’t overlap. And Persona is making more money.

Still, still. Can’t most of us agree that Persona 3 and 4 dungeons are mostly pretty dull affairs, and that Persona side quests (outside of the social link wrangling, which is really more the primary gameplay) are nothing but an excuse for more grinding? And there’s the personas themselves. Sure, it’s fun to fuse Satan from the depths of your soul, but picking persona raw material from a list of cards post-battle isn’t only kind of easy, it lacks personality. And personality is the whole point! Or something.

Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t have a lot of talking, and I’m not yet sure that’s actually to its detriment. Heaven knows all the talking in the Atelier games exists to keep me from making potions. It’s also not quite as tough as its reputation. The first bit, yes, because you have few resources and a less-than-optimal stable of demons, and also you don’t really know what you’re doing. But once you get the hang of SMT, it doesn’t become a cakewalk so much as manageable if you don’t get careless – and save often, because you will still get utterly wiped once in a while.

Anyway, once you’ve stopped weeping through every encounter, random, boss, or otherwise, Shin Megami Tensei IV really shines in a few areas, especially in contrast to popular Persona. First off, demon and demon negotiation. You ever played Persona 1, 2 IS, 2 EP, you’ll recognize demon negotiation, and even if you haven’t, you’ll still notice that some demons look an awful lot like personas you’ve fused in the past. All one and the same, baby, except there’s a lot more demons than personas, and the demons are, in fact, your party.

Yes. It’s a little like Pokemon.

Except you have to talk to all these guys. You run into a pixie in a dungeon, you can sweet-talk her and give her gifts until she agrees to fight on your side. You run into a griffon, you have to impress it with your toughness. Negotiations aren’t always easy, and failing one leads to the demon party taking the initiative and kicking the crap out of you. But personality? Demons got personality, that’s for sure, and when you get that powerful critter finally on your side, hey, it’s a sense of accomplishment.

Just like in Persona, you can fuse demons into other more powerful demons, etc., and you can force your favorite skills to transfer. In the meantime, you get delightful bits of weirdness. You might be sweet-talking that pixie, and she complains you only want her as a fusion ingredient (and as you get higher level, you will in fact be revisiting low-level demons for just that). Or you might be talking to an “old” demon, who’s thrilled about the idea of fusing young again. The negotiations paint this wide, bizarre world where there are no (or few) mindless monsters, just entities with their own motivations. And since you’re wandering around murdering things, well, demons are good at that.

This idea of a “wide world” also benefits from actual places to explore. Most dungeons, per se, aren’t very large. Unlike Persona 4’s 10ish+ level dungeons or Persona 3’s single five billion level dungeon, most SMT dungeons are a handful of levels, if that. Or they aren’t levels so much as open city areas. And while there isn’t a lot of “oh, here’s a journal, let’s find out what happened here,” and you may be visiting the same places for different reasons, quests are often more substantial than “gather stuff,” and you have to actually pay attention to see all of a given area. You might return to a well-mapped dungeon to chase down the Monkey King, or help Isis with an Osirus-being-dead-again problem. If maybe a Bethesda-infinity of dungeons might be fun, these modestly narrative-driven quests are much more of a draw than “kill another set of mobs.”

Over-world navigation is tricky, though, because it’s honestly hard to see what routes you can take, what a given node is, and so forth. On the other hand, getting completely lost and ending up in a high level area has its benefits. SMT IV is not the kind of difficult game where it’s impossible for a level 20 party to take on a level 30 demon party, or a level 30 party a level 75 boss. If you understand how to exploit weaknesses, if you have a party optimized for a particular set of weaknesses (or against them), and if you use buffs and debuffs when you need ‘em, level matters much less than initiative and tactics. (And vice versa. You can get wrecked by a party much lower level than yours if you mess up.) This means both that battles tend to be quite quick, and that playing in a higher-level playground earns you XP hand over foot. Whenever you level up, your HP and SP refresh, so there’s incentive not to play to conserve resources. Burn them to earn more. Too much caution will leave you weak.

And I guess there’s also a plot. It’s just – there are different kinds of video game plots. Sometimes, the plot is why you’re playing, and Persona 4 is definitely one of those games. As in, hi, I’m a modestly interactive narrative with some gameplay grist. Sometimes, the plot exists to add structure to the world’s texture, to tempt you outside, to get you talking to people and demons, and thinking whatever you like. Shin Megami Tensei IV has more of the latter kind of plot. Unlike Persona, the story beats aren’t rewards for doing your fighting set-piece as required. The gameplay is the reward and, oh, I guess I advanced the plot incidentally. That doesn’t mean I won’t think it’s cool if the story shapes up to more, or if I actually care if a so-and-so lives or dies. It just seems a little beside the point.

We’ll see. But so far, I am enjoying the on-your-toes fighting and negotiating and the bizarre everything immensely. And really, much as I like Persona, I would love to see one with the flexibility of a mainline SMT. It’s just hard to have textual density, gameplay density, length, and flexibility all in the same title.

Morrowind Level 1

I’ve been Firgus the Fury in Oblivion, an orc who just wants to expand his library collection, that’s all. I’ve been Diego the dark elf in Skyrim, a mute and grim figure married to a burly, scarred up blacksmith who bakes pies for me, because that’s what husbands do, apparently.

But the Morrowind Overhaul just came out, and what is Skyrim? What is Oblivion? Compare these pretenders to a chance to replay a game that’s never eked out of my top ten with nicer graphics, and let’s not even mention I haven’t chanced the expansions yet.

And you know what. It’s still special. You always want to check your nostalgia. I know I try to boot up Daggerfall and find the UI borderline unplayable and the combat both dull and miserable and is there anything else but dungeon crawling to look forward to. There are plenty of people who boot up Morrowind and hate it within hours. Morrowind demands a certain patient play style, a certain tolerance for NPCs who are often literally walking in-game wikipedias, for combat that’s about as visceral as clicking and occasionally praying, for running and jumping and swimming for miles.

But it’s special. It’s special in a way that Oblivion and even Skyrim will never approach for me. Skyrim is lovely, and it has its surprises, its jumpable waterfalls and its wandering headless horsemen who offer no quests and no combat, just run while you chase them. But it’s still no Morrowind.

How can I explain this. I haven’t reached level 2 yet. I’m a high elf mage. I use only magic. This is how it plays. I explore a submerged cave outside Seyda Neen. Treasure’s at a premium. I’m poorer than a church mouse and I’m out of lockpicks and without money, I don’t get better spells, and I don’t get alchemy gear, and I badly need both. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a swimmer and the cave dead-ends deep underwater. I’m drowning. I’ve just been attacked by a slaughterfish. Normally, I can take enemies this weak out, but I’m spending all my clicks and mana on healing my lungs. I’m running out of mana.

I have a single scroll of Divine Intervention, which immediately teleports you to the nearest temple – of the Nine, not the Three, but I’m in no position to be theologically picky, and the Nine are foreign interlopers like I am. I use the scroll. I end up in Pelegiad fort, miles away. I sell all my worldly goods (mostly flowers and mushrooms and restore attributes potions I wince getting rid of – there’s disease everywhere here) to join the Imperial Cult and get a few more spells. Then I go wandering, looking for coin. I make a few minor thefts in empty parts of the fort, but I’m not much of a thief either, and Pelegiad isn’t rich.

I run into a key shrine of Vivec, one of the Three. I need muck to sacrifice. I don’t have any. I happen upon a tiny farm close by, run by an unpleasant and unfriendly man. He likely has muck. Farmers always do. I don’t have the skills to steal in front of him. So I look right, I look left. I murder him with a newly bought temple spell. There’s some nasty irony in that, I’m sure. And I was right. Muck in his possession. I go back to the shrine and my first sacrifice to Vivec is complete. The shrine praises me for understanding humility. Ho ho.

I find a Bosmer a few meters away, looking for a friend of his. No sooner have I promised to find the man when I’m attacked by two territorial and mating kagouti (which look kind of like tusked triceratops with two legs) and there’s no way I can fight them. An unarmed farmer in cloth is one thing, these guys are tough. So I run. I run for the farm, healing myself all the way. I shut the door and sleep to regain my strength. I open the door and there they are, waiting for me. I run for the lake. I leap off the dock. They’re still on the dock, waiting for me. I swim across the lake to a plantation, too large and well-guarded to make murder an easy prospect, but I think my karma needs some recovery anyway. I think I’ll walk back to Seyda Neen.

That’s Morrowind. That’s just the start of it.