- Release Date: 2004
- Time to complete: ~48hrs
There are plenty of stories where protagonists are attempting to save the world from ending, but even in the Shin Megami Tensei series, SMT3 is somewhat special in that the world ends about 10 minutes into the game. If there's one thing that's done very well, it's the general oppressive and alien feeling of the 'vortex world' that you inhabit after the apocalypse - while many structures and buildings resemble the earth that we know, the layouts and denizens certainly do not. Mystical artifacts, demons, and gods abound. Much of the story involves the power struggle of gods trying to gain power over this new realm, and your role is your choice - whom to aid, or defeat.
But this is Shin Megami Tensei, so the one most likely to be defeated is yourself. A notoriously difficult game, SMT3 has an infuriatingly high random encounter rate, and although you have a 'radar' for detecting likelihood of random encounter, it's almost meaningless because even when it detects 'least likely', random encounters still occur. It's not infrequent to leave one random encounter, take a single step, and go straight into another battle. Even when using items to reduce the encounter rate, the rate is still pretty high in areas with enemies that are around your level. Being unprepared at any point is very liable to end your game.
By the way, there's no save-anywhere system - save terminals are found a couple of specific locations in each dungeon, and can teleport you back to the 'root' terminal of that dungeon, but are not bi-directional. Healing stations are even less frequent, and cost money to use. Running out of MP or having a couple of dead party members without revival items generally means running to the nearest terminal, transporting back to the root node, then transporting to some other location's root node that is near a healing station, healing up, transporting back to the dungeon, and then trudging back through the dungeon to get back to where you were. All the while possibly suffering random encounters.
My biggest gripe with the encounters is that the game doesn't keep track of enemy strengths and weaknesses. Even if you use an ability to scan the enemy, when you leave the battle and encounter that enemy again, you have to scan them again to see the stats. Later games retain knowledge of these and make the game far less irritating when you encounter an enemy you haven't seen for a while and can't remember what to hit them with. A guide comes in handy.
But a guide is almost required any way. There are so many labyrinths, pitfalls, traps, dead ends, and just general lack of detail on where to go and what to do, that you REALLY have to like exploration, backtracking, and random encounters to succeed in this game without a guide. There are sections where in order to progress, you have to find inconspicuous NPCs who reside in very uninteresting places. I honestly don't know if you are expected to just talk to every NPC in these situations, because I couldn't work out how to know that was the character to talk to. Even following a walkthrough, this game took over 40hrs to finish, I can easily imagine doubling that without using one. Over and above the 40hrs, it took me over a year to get through SMT3, only being able to play in fits and spurts before losing patience and having to put it down.
The creators wanted SMT3 to feel like a 'journey into hell', and they did a pretty good job. However, the tone, atmosphere, and graphical style have a lot to answer for, and do make you want to return to keep going, in some kind of Stockholm syndrome fashion.
I think this is a game that could be quite improved by a remake. Technically, the version the west received was the Japanese 'maniacs' re-release, which introduced an additional, very elaborate dungeon - and some of what can be gained in there make the game a lot easier to play. Including Dante, from the Devil May Cry series. But some system mechanics could do with a bit of modernisation.
By the way, the endings are pretty disappointing.