By Michael Justice, Onrpg writer
Popular franchises such as Megami Tensei tend to always have a little bit of something in their various sequels and spin-offs. Our good friends at Cave decided to develop an MMORPG involving the Megami Tensei universe. The name of this MMORPG was said to be Shin Megami Tensei: IMAGINE. When I first heard the news, some few months into the Japanese version release, I quickly gathered a couple of friends who were also interested and we signed up for this enticing journey. Needless to say, my very limited kanji and communication skills did not make it feel like an MMORPG, yet it was amazing to simply walk around the game and just look into the features it had to offer (well, those parts we could translate, anyway). Most of my friends left the game a couple of weeks into it and I was forced to quit. I wanted more from the game, yet the language barrier was just too much for me to handle. Being cut off from part of an MMORPG makes me feel curious and frustrated; two very annoying emotions to have at the same time. Feeling beaten, I removed it from my mind in hopes that a translation would be on the way. Here we are, near the end of 2008 and I finally have an answer to my prayers! I can return to the world which was once unavailable to me, and continue the story which was only half written!
Before I begin expressing detail, please remember that this is simply a preview and nothing more. My first hand opinion is not a finalized summary of what the game has to offer. There were many barriers in my way during the closed beta, such as disconnects and lag (which were all attended to marvelously, by the way), and some content was not yet open.
There are plenty of things that this game does right. IMAGINE has plenty to offer here. Starting off with the combat, you might be surprised at how fast-paced it can be. I often see people compare it to rock-paper-scissors. This, I guess, is sort of true in the way that if you're scissors, and rock beats scissors, you get punched in the face. There's guard, which you can use to reduce the enemy's damage to a minimum and make the enemy flinch, leaving them open to any type of attack. This can be broken through with rush, a melee type skill which shatters the guard and deals damage while flinching the enemy. This, in turn, can be countered with, well, counter, which simply reflects the damage and knocks the enemy back.
That is only the beginning, as there are also things like magic and guns which can be factored into the battle. As you use these skills more often, they will rank up and you will eventually be able to learn more advanced versions of them. Hopefully I have covered the basics of the combat system, at least as to what effects what. Since there are no classes per-se, you are free to pick whichever style suits you. You do, however, have only a limited amount of stat points, so your damage might suffer, but it might be an invaluable skill you need for strategies during battles. Some enemies are weak to certain things. Kodamas, for example, are weak to fire-based skills. In this case, if you used agi or fire breath, it would do a lot more damage than it would on a regular, non-weak monster. Pretty simple, right? Monsters can also have resistances, in which case attacks of that type do no damage, and reflections, in which case the damage you did will be reflected back at you. This being said, you really need to mix up your combat skills a lot, because you will be very vulnerable to enemy defenses, as well as their attacks, if you are only using a sword and slashing at everything that moves.
Demons in Megaten
Luckily, you are not alone. You are probably wondering how the hell you're supposed to be completely offensive and defensive against enemies, whilst simultaneously hitting their weak points and avoiding their resistances, right? Well, this is where the signature Megami Tensei demon-summoning system comes in. Your demons are like another player entirely. You can, of course, use their skills vis-a-vis another hot-bar above your own. You can even manually control them if you want to, simply by tabbing over to them.
While these are both good, you might be a little too preoccupied at some points, which is why each demon has a set AI menu that you can adjust in order to affect how your demon to helps you out. When people say that there are a lot of demons out there, they mean it. There are a couple of hundred demons that you can wind up with, whether you like them for their skills, or because they are small, cute and cuddly (unseasoned decaribias are very cute) They all have status attributes, just like the players. Most demons that you obtain from capturing will start with a set amount of skills. As you level them up they acquire new ones that are related to their previous skills (for example, Jack Frost comes with bufu, then later learns bufula, a more powerful version of bufu).
There is also a demon fusion system, in which demons that you have fused may inherit skills that both demons have learned, as well as some new ones that you may acquire specially through this demon fusion. This means that you can, essentially, have a demon with all the skills you want, if you fuse enough demons. It is a great way to compliment each person's play style and can lead to some very interesting combat mechanics. Sadly, you will be limited by the amount of demons you can summon, as well as posses. Firstly, demons cost mag to summon, which drops from all demons, yet all demons have alignments. Alignments play a key role to demon summoning, as it determines how much mag it will cost. In the end, you can pick any alignment and still have access to a large number of demons with reasonable costs, but this is put here simply to keep players from constantly switching demons, which would just be shallow anyway.
Setting and Storyline
Shin Megami Tensei fans will not be displeased with the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of IMAGINE. The setting, while seeming generic at first, really makes you feel like a disaster has struck the land, and that you are a part of the remnants. Broken buildings, dead trees, underground cities; yes, we have it all folks. While this is nice and all, many people hardly pay attention to the setting. It is just under-appreciated, and while some players want to do nothing but beat the stuffing out of pixies all day, there is definitely a feeling that you're a part of the demon busters who roam the wastelands of Tokyo in a search to help rebuild society. Just know that there is an actual storyline.
From Act 0, you are thrown into the storyline head-first. The way the story progresses is through Acts, which if you follow correctly can yield some nice experience (and let's face it, you were going to do them anyway for the storyline). Minor cut-scenes still hold a major role in the game, putting emphasis on the way that you change IMAGINE's world. This type of storyline, tied in with an on-line universe, is exactly how all storylines in MMORPGs should progress. The only negative thing about this is that you will eventually run out of Acts, as there is only so far a story can go. My entire team of friends cleared all 16 acts in less than a week.
IMAGINE holds a lot under its belt as a free MMORPG that is based on a console game. It might develop well or it might not. Who knows? The game has received great deal of attention, yet it is still in the process of growing. I am trusting Aeria Games to hold it close to them, and I am hoping that they know what they have on their hands. To all people looking to IMAGINE, I would say definitely give it a shot if you are looking for something different. For those hard-core Megami Tensei fans, I am just hoping you don't blow it off simply because it's on-line. For both console and regular MMORPG-fans alike, it is a game that you can count on for a unique and great experience. Hope to see you in the official release!