Every year since 2013, I start a new file in a specific JRPG. I grind, I level up, I do side quests. I pour anywhere from 20-30 hours in, intent on seeing the credits. I get a little further every time, but it’s no use. Something always happens and I leave the game unfinished, dooming it to my backlog once more.
There’s some back-story here involving some other games: I discovered Persona 3 in a used games shop some time back in high school. I’d played plenty of JRPGs before, but never one quite like that one. The bold music, the distinct sense of style, the marriage of mechanics and themes: Persona 3 was something else. There was bullshit, sure—it was very easy to get OHKO’ed by enemies at random—but I was in love. I wanted more. I started looking into the wider series online and was surprised to find that many some fans considered the Persona games “casual,” a mere offshoot of the more serious and hardcore Shin Megami Tensei franchise. I was baffled, because Persona 3 already seemed difficult. So, I bought a PS2 and bought every SMT game I could.
I tried Persona 4 first, and that turned into my favorite game ever. I put over a hundred hours into it, cried, and immediately started a new save file. The second time around somehow took longer than the first time, partially, I suspect, out of a desire to live in Inaba for as long as possible. The only reason I didn’t immediately launch into a third play through was because I had gone through the first two games in my dorm, and people made fun of my obsession with the game.
Instead, I started digging into the other Shin Megami Tensei games: Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, Devil Survivor. I liked each of them, but I always hit a point where I couldn’t keep going. Sometimes, it’s been due to an absurd difficulty curve, but more often it’s the endless grinding. In some of these games, you can’t take more than a few steps without getting attacked.
With 2013’s release of SMT IV for the 3DS, I was determined to break the curse of unfinished games. I bought the game on day one, and told myself, This is a mainline SMT game, and I’m going to beat it. It became a point of pride. I felt insecure about the idea that SMT was undoubtedly my favorite game franchise, but I had never cleared a “real” one. It felt like I was a fake fan.
SMT IV was, as expected, excellent. Like many games in the franchise, it depicts a post-apocalypse rife with demons, only this time, you played as a medieval samurai of sorts. Hailing from a blessed land, you are tasked with exploring Tokyo to root out the source of evil. All SMT games are preoccupied with the divine and the occult but IV embraces the idea further by positing you as a character who may or may not be an angel.
The battle system, as always, is top-notch. Every demon you encountered can be persuaded to join your cause, but this isn’t as simple as damaging them and throwing a Pokéball. You reason with each demon and negotiate to give them what they want. Some demons are philosophical and just want to talk to you about the meaning of life. Others want to steal as much as they can from you. Some don’t even speak your language, at least, not initially. Better yet, there are hundreds of demons, and they can all be fused with each other to create a new one. I loved the complexity behind it all, and that’s just one of many interesting systems in the game.
The gravitational pull was there from the first time I tried SMT IV. I still stumbled on two roadblocks. For one thing—and I feel embarrassed to say this, given the game is easier than others in the franchise—IV is hard as hell. I kept getting stuck on bosses who would wipe the floor with me for hours. Grinding and overleveling could not save me. But mostly, it was the map.
SMT IV, like many games in the series, takes place in Tokyo. I have no idea how closely the games resemble the actual locales, but from visiting Japan once, I know how confusing navigating certain cities can be for a foreigner. Some streets don’t show up on maps, or there are streets with no names. In that sense, SMT IV feels true to the source material, but still, it was annoying to play. Characters would tell you to go to areas you’d never seen before, and the map sprawls in every direction. You have no idea where to go, and wandering is dangerous. Even low-level demons can destroy you if you’re not careful.
The first time around, I got lost. Usually, this is where I pull up a FAQ or a YouTube walkthrough, but at the time, there wasn’t much out there. For all the popularity behind Persona, SMT is still somewhat niche. And so, ever since 2013, I’ve been stuck in a vicious loop. I will start a new save file, go through the motions, and then get lost. I’ll look up where to go, get a tiny bit farther, only to get lost again. I’ll drop the game, pick it back up, and forget where I was or what I was doing. I’ll start a new save file, only to drop the whole thing again. SMT IV became a game that I could never fully wrap my hands around, my digital Moby Dick.
Since late 2017, I’ve been eating healthier, working out more, and trying to push myself beyond what I thought was physically possible for me. Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time working up my cardio. It’s been brutal. I hate running. If depression makes me feel terrible emotionally and psychologically, running is the one thing that almost makes me feel like all that stuff is physically manifesting itself. Not being able to keep up, being out of breath, gasping for air: I abhor all of it. I also, paradoxically, love playing soccer, but being good at it means being able to sprint and run. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been spending a lot of time huffing and puffing, ignoring the shaky voice that was trying to convince me I was going to die if I kept going. I’ve spent months reminding myself of one thing: I can do this. And, as cliche as it is: The pain will only make me stronger.
It hasn’t been easy, but the upshot is that I’ve been slowly building more determination. A few weeks ago, my SMT IV itch returned. I picked up an older save file that was about 30 hours in, and I started playing again. This time, then, beating SMT IV wasn’t about avoiding a “casual” label, because honestly, that’s bullshit. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. To prove to myself that I could achieve something I previously thought was impossible.
SMT IV doesn’t make it easy. The final 15 hours of the game are a grindfest of powerful monsters. It’s dungeon after dungeon after dungeon, many of them mazes, with some areas tossing bosses at you left and right. To get through it, I had to learn how to actually play the game. Previously, I had gone through SMT by fusing the highest level demons I could and leaving it at that. I’d brute force my way through battles by only doing attacks. This was why I could never beat the games: Atlus expects you to use all of the mechanics, because enemies will have the same advantages you do. They can attack you first, they can target your elemental weaknesses, they get powerful moves, they can steal your HP and MP, just like you can. Turns out, it sucks when the battlefield is even. We hardly ever notice it, but most games give players an unfair advantage over their enemies. SMT doesn’t.
I had to learn how to fuse specific monsters with specific abilities to counter bosses. More than that, I had to learn how to use buffs, debuffs, and status effects to survive boss battles—something I hardly ever do in JRPGs, because it’s not useful. In SMT, status effects are essential. You can’t beat some bosses without it. I also had to learn how to negotiate with demons better, rather than picking answers at random. And, I learned how to use more of the game’s special “App” abilities.
Picture this: I am in the final boss battle of the game against Lucifer. The fate of Tokyo rests on this fight. If he wins, humans will become feeders for demons, and god’s plan is foiled. If I win, Tokyo will disappear, and so will most technology and education. Everything has been leading up to this moment. And, instead of attacking him...the main character decides to chat him up? If you level up the App function enough, you can spend a turn talking to a demon to distract them from attacking. Lucifer, being the final boss in this specific route, won’t just shoot the shit with you. You have to pay the price. He’ll ask for some of your best items, for thousands of Macca (money), even the life of your demons. I can’t believe that SMT IV let me talk the final boss to death. I can’t believe that, as I was waling on the devil, he thought, naw, it’s cool. We can talk about whatever you want, man.
After nearly five years of trying, I finally beat SMT IV last weekend. I was so overwhelmed that I screamed, partially out of joy, partially in frustration. I love the series to death, but I had to deal with a lot of bullshit just to beat this friggin’ thing and get an awful ending about god destroying Tokyo. But, I don’t care. I did it.
The question for me now is: which SMT game is next?
Kotaku Game Diary
Daily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.