This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
Like many people, my introduction to JRPGs came via the likes of Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII. Heavily story-based, limited dungeon crawling, turn-based battle systems with an emphasis on flashy animations. I loved them.
Now it's 2013 (wow, I live in the future), and things have changed. I find that the RPG I'm looking forward to most isn't Tales of Xillia or Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Neither is it Ni no Kuni, which is as pretty an RPG as you will ever find. It's Shin Megami Tensei 4.
I'll admit, it's a remarkable turnaround from five years ago, when I barely knew that the series existed. I stumbled into the franchise through Persona 3, which served as a neat crossover point from more familiar JRPGs like the aforementioned Final Fantasy. Persona 3 had some pretty relentless dungeon crawling, but it was also pretty and accessible. I was willing to put up with the difficulty and the relatively simple (though not unattractive) presentation, because the premise of a hybrid dungeon crawler and dating sim was intriguing to me.
Before I knew it, I was being pulled into the original Personas, then Strange Journey and Devil Survivor, and finally into the series at large. And now here I am, checking regularly for word on a western release of the flagship game, though it's not even out in Japan yet. There's no guarantee it will be out in 2013, but I've heard that Nintendo really wants Atlus to release it before the end of the year. And if that's the case, then it will be one of my most anticipated games of the year.
I have a lot of reasons to look forward to Shin Megami Tensei 4, among them the fact that I just want more RPGs on my Nintendo 3DS. But there's something else as well. A reaction, maybe, to the overall direction of the genre.
Look around, and it's not hard to see that things have changed in recent years. Lightning Returns is an action game and Dragon Quest X is a full-on MMORPG. Tales of Xillia mixes some really great graphics with traditional storytelling, but it too has more of an action bent than the average turn-based RPG. All will surely be fine RPGs in their own right, but they aren't what I want out of the genre right now. Honestly, I just want strategy. I want enough downtime that I can put some real thought into my next move. I realize that this isn't the most popular sentiment among gamers; but you know, if I want action, I'll play Battlefield or something.
Shin Megami Tensei 4, I suppose, is what I turn to when I feel saturated. I expect that it will be very different from Persona 4, which at times is as much a visual novel as it is a dungeon crawler. At it heart, Shin Megami Tensei 4 is a dungeon crawler that demands time, effort, patience, and maybe a bit of graph paper, even though the latest entry will be eschewing the first-person perspective in favor of the third-person vantage point used by Persona.
Granted, such RPGs aren't that rare these days, but Shin Megami Tensei tends to be a cut above the rest, having been honed to a fine edge over the course of approximately two decades. Battles can last only seconds, but the damage on both sides tends to be brutal. Demon fusion, seemingly a simple act of merging two monsters to create a new, more powerful creature, is often the culmination of hours (or days) of planning. Demon negotiation will be in Shin Megami Tensei 4, which means each monster will have a distinct (and often very funny) personality. You could argue that it's a little too similar to past entries, I suppose, but I find it comforting in its own way. I know exactly what I'm getting – a high quality dungeon crawler.
What's funny is that I really didn't used to like RPGs of Shin Megami Tensei 4's ilk. They were too boring, too hard, and whatever else. But the proliferation of action RPGs like Kingdom Hearts has pushed me more and more into the arms of games like Shin Megami Tensei 4 – substantial experiences that deserve to be savored. In a culture that seems to value twitch gaming more than anything else, depth increasingly feels like a luxury.
For those reasons, I'm looking forward to Shin Megami Tensei 4 more than anything else this year. Fire Emblem Awakening, I'm sure, will feature a fantastic amount of strategic depth. Tales of Xillia will be charming. Etrian Odyssey 4 will be just plain hard. But I can't think of an RPG that has more potential to combine all of those elements into one experience than Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Times change, but Shin Megami Tensei has remained a constant. I expect that to hold true this year, and for many years to come.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.