I have never played a Shin Megami Tensei game. I have played a few of the spin-off games: both Persona 3 and 4, as well as the two Devil Survivor games that released for the DS, so I am somewhat familiar with a lot of how the Shin Megami Tensei series works. Most importantly, I’m aware of the game’s notoriety as being quite difficult.
SMT 3 (no, I’m not writing that entire, clunky title out) originally released in 2003, and got the updated Switch remaster treatment in 2020. It’s one of those classic JRPGs that helped to build its own series, as well as in some ways bolstering the Persona series. The game has a lot of that classic feel to it, operating very much like a game of its time operates, for better and for worse.
The story is absolutely fascinating. You control a silent protagonist (whose name is even up for debate) who is asked to meet his teacher at a hospital along with two of his friends. It turns out that said teacher is part of a secret cult that wants to destroy the world, and she’s asked the main character to show up because she believes that he can help reshape the world that comes after. That all sounds complicated, and that’s the first hour, if even that. You’re thrown into this post-apocalyptic world with some enhanced demon powers and told to essentially fend for yourself.
There are a lot of twists and turns to the story, and it’s actually quite gripping for most of the 40 or so hours I spent with the game. Characters do have this tendency to philosophize instead of talking a bit more like normal people, but at the same time, the world has ended, so who knows how we’d all react? Most of the characters are actually pretty well done, though they do some weird stuff with a few of them that I don’t want to spoil.
It turns out that the main character is the Demi-Fiend, a being imbued with a great deal of power, and its his decisions that will shape the upcoming world. Each of his friends has a Reason, a purpose they’ve determined in response to this new world and the past one. That Reason can be used to shape a new world, and the game is mostly about figuring out what’s going on with this one, seeing the horrors of it, and then being introduced to the various Reasons and options.
Usually I’m not a fan of silent protagonists. They feel like an archaic device that game developers used as a way of trying to get the player into the game. I’ve seen it work perhaps one before (Zelda: Breath of the Wild). In this instance though, it sort of works. The Demi-Fiend is supposed to be something of a hollow being, and whether that’s because of the infusion of demonic energy that makes him or if it’s due to his nature is left up for interpretation. Regardless, it’s the player’s decisions and responses that shape how the Demi-Fiend is perceived and what direction he takes. That works, as you’re helping to shape the narrative and guiding the vessel here on what he needs to grow.
Most of the gameplay is therefore moving the Demi-Fiend around on a map, interacting with the environment, and getting into turn-based battles. The battle system here is pretty well done. Yes, it’s got the standard your party on one side, the enemy on the other. But for one thing, the goal of SMT games is to recruit demons onto your side, much like in the popular Pokemon franchise. Except here, the Demi-Fiend has to negotiate with potential party members. Sometimes they’ll want some of his energy, othertimes they’ll want items, or maybe they want to talk philosophy with you like just about every character in this game.
These demons are your party, which faces off against opposing parties of demons. The system is a sort of variant on the turn based setup, where one side goes, then the other. You get a number of actions equal to the amount of characters on each side. A character can pass half their action, allowing faster characters another attack. You can also gain actions by hitting the enemy at their weakspot or getting a critical hit.
This makes every battle a bit of a puzzle to figure out, but systems like these really work for me. I like figuring them out and then abusing them. Even more to my delight, status spells work quite well in this game, adding significantly to your stats and lasting for quite a while. It often becomes a matter of properly preparing your team for the assault and utilizing what you know.
There are the notorious difficulty spikes. There is a boss in SMT 3 that is well known for being a massive spike in difficulty, so much so that he winds up on lists of “strongest JRPG bosses” or “difficulty spike” bosses or the like. That is, the Matador.
The Matador has the ability to massively buff himself, hit all members of your party hard, and mess with your own buffs, often all in a single turn. He takes advantage of the system and is sure to put most players through their paces. I, too, found him to be quite difficult, though I was at least expecting him to some degree. I did have to grind and all but get lucky to get past him.
So, yes, there are a few rough bits in the difficulty. It’s not helped by the fact that the game uses a pretty archaic save system, where you can only save your game in particular rooms. Generally speaking these are pretty close to the bosses, but it’s one of the old game leftovers that doesn’t quite hold up to the modern day as well as it should, particularly on a system like the Switch.
The actual dungeon exploration is another area that is so bad that it will likely stop me from ever revisiting this game. As someone may expect from a JRPG, there are various areas that you have to explore, generally these are literal dungeons of some kind. In SMT 3, they’re often abandoned buildings, which makes sense: this is a world that’s been destroyed, after all.
Unfortunately, this means that pretty much every dungeon is a square hallway of similarly presented tile sets. They’re all giant boxes. And if that weren’t enough, they often add in strange mechanics to help you traverse the area. Sure, that spices things up, but it often makes these blandly designed dungeons last twice as long as they would normally. I spent far too much time just blindly running through dungeons.
The worst offender is the optional Amala Labyrinth. This is the dungeon that beating Matador and the various other semi-optional Fiends unlocks. The idea is that by exploring this dungeon, the Demi-Fiend can properly come into his own power. Basically beating this dungeon is required to get the game’s True Ending.
It’s a bunch of red boxes.
These were pure torture to get through. They’d frequently have mechanics to traverse them that were seemingly almost random, like invisible walls, tiles that would teleport you to other parts of the map, etc. It’s obviously meant to be an additional challenge to encourage players to get ahead, but it exemplifies the poor overall dungeon design (which is further hampered by the music, which is so-so at best).
This part just has not aged well. In fact, it almost feels like it wouldn’t have been considered all that impressive back in 2003, with Final Fantasy X predating it by two years. It just feels unnecessary, and while I can appreciate the effort that went into trying to mix things up with various tricks, it just holds the game back.
I loved the game’s story. It’s a different beast than what I’ve seen before, and feels legitimately mature, unlike some games that brag about that sort of thing.
The combat is also pretty well done. It’s a neat take on the turn-based system that rewards you for thinking strategically. I may not have found it the best system (I still prefer Grandia’s, FFX’s, and another Atlus/SMT inspired game I’ll review soon), but it’s got its own benefits.
I enjoyed the challenging bosses that actually made me think my way through them.
But those dungeons and the overall slog of getting through them will likely forever stop me from playing SMT 3 again, and I’m not sure I could recommend the game to anyone who isn’t willing to put up with it.
7 a classic for a reason, and likely worth it if you’re into those type of JRPGs, but weak music and, again, those dungeons just holds it back