With Shin Megami Tensei V releasing later this year, I’ve been trying to get into this series by playing its various mainline and spinoff titles. Recently, I played through Digital Devil Saga, which was a surprisingly fulfilling and addicting experience. However, one aspect of this series continues to weigh on that enjoyment, negotiating with demons.
Now, I have not played every single SMT title, so I don’t know if this sticking point of mine retains in every entry. Still, the sheer degree of randomness that comes with demon negotiation never held my attention. Sure, randomness is expected in most RPGs, but the RNG factor of negotiation specifically just pads any significant planning.
In the case of Shin Megami Tensei, the negotiations with demons being entirely random is such a bizarre design decision that I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Demons are at the crux of the gameplay experience, and having their acquisition be dependent on RNG without meaningful conversation baffles me.
When talking to demons, at least in my experience of playing Nocturne, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and a few other entries, I gradually learned that the actual intricacies of conversation don’t matter, and demons only end up joining if the game feels like it. At first, I thought this was secretly genius since it demonstrates the inherently selfish nature imposed by demons. But then, I began to believe that having this all be entirely random saps away any potential personality these creatures may have. Instead of being unforgiving or cruel in their own distinct ways, they all feel like one collective creature lacking any characterization.
Devil Survivor Overclocked, which I most recently began playing, has a Demon Auction, which is basically a different form of Demon Negotiation. Instead of conversing with demons to have them join your party, you quite literally join an auction where you participate in a betting spree to obtain the demon you want. Thankfully, you can choose to straight-up buy demons instead of taking part in the absurdity of the auction, and save-scumming is also feasible. Still, I can’t help but wonder why such a fundamental part of these games is solely reliant on RNG without any skillful implementation, like being a worthwhile conversationalist.
I hate to say this since I know comparing any game to Persona 5 is a tired practice, but I honestly think Persona 5 has the most satisfying method of acquiring demons, or in its case, Personas. Aside from fusions to get new Personas, some negotiations occur where there are correct answers dependent on the Persona’s mood. This is wildly contrasting to Shin Megami Tensei, where there are scenarios where every possible response is wrong and will result in demons hassling you or running away. Admittedly, Persona 1 and the Persona 2 duology have some questionable implementation with their interpretations of this general system, but it relies on character interaction and emotion.
Ultimately, the demon negotiation systems in Shin Megami Tensei are the only major obstacle preventing me from enjoying these games further. Instead of adapting and learning from my mistakes with each demon, I simply have to generalize each encounter and treat every demon like character-less masses.
I find this system questionable, not just for how it is in the games, but also when taking the reputation of Shin Megami Tensei itself into account. SMT has been consistently heralded for being hardcore, skill-based, and more mature than Persona by its fans. However, when thinking about demon negotiation and how vital of a gameplay component it is to be entirely reliant on RNG with no consistency or individuality fueling its basis, I find SMT to be cowardly and petty in a sense; afraid or perhaps simply unwilling to make this mechanic fair for whatever arbitrary difficulty reason it deigns itself to be boasting.
Adaptability doesn’t work because acquiring demons is necessary to succeed in these games, and having it feel like a dice roll entirely with little player skill makes little sense. Negotiation to me sounds like it should automatically be dependent on personality and characterization, but maybe that’s just me assuming.
I love failing and learning in video games. Learning from my mistakes and ultimately triumphing is indescribably exciting and fulfilling. Of course, this is the case for every genre, too, even turn-based RPGs. Still, when I am constantly robbed of growing stronger and embracing mechanics to overcome various obstacles, I am more frustrated with the actual games themselves than me.
There are games I’ve played where I am simply unskilled, and I’ve accepted that. For instance, I am awful at the Atelier games. Despite playing them for years and looking up guides upon guides, the only one I have ever understood mechanically is Atelier Ryza, and that is a knock on my own inadequacy. However, there are consistent mechanics. Regardless of how complex the systems in these games are, it is possible to improve, learn, and ultimately understand them to be consistently better in the future.
However, in the case of Shin Megami Tensei, I have no idea how I can learn and improve when the vital obstacle impeding me from doing so is just sheer randomness. Now, instead of feeling genuine respect and envy for select fans who claim SMT to be hardcore and skillful experiences, I am mystified beyond belief. Knowing me and my stubbornness, I will continue trying to get into Shin Megami Tensei, purely out of spite if nothing else, but my respect for these games has lessened drastically, and I do not know if I will ever see eye to eye with fans.
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