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Ishtar, my beloved...
I went into Shin Megami Tensei II immediately after beating the first game, which speaks to both my desire for more and my concern that waiting any longer would cause me to disharmonize with SMT's first-person perspective. The last thing I needed was to run around directionless and disoriented until I puked all over Valhalla. Okamoto doesn't need me to embarrass him like this, he's already on my ass for screwing around in weird VR programs.
Shin Megami Tensei II goes a step beyond being the best of the SNES trilogy-- it might be my favorite JPRG on the console. SMT1 was enjoyable enough for what it was, and I have some pretty mixed feelings about If..., but SMT2 is one of those games I think about several times a week and which I badly want to do a second run through, if only I could justify the level of commitment required against my bloated backlog. If you've been following me on this site, then you may either take that as high praise or a concerning sign of my worsening psychopathy.
LAW: This bit again. It's going to be a long review.
Ok, maybe it won't be that long, because while I do adore Shin Megami Tensei II, it is very mechanically similar to the first game. The most significant change is in the total number of available demons, many of whom have gone on to become franchise staples, like King Frost and (my wife) Ishtar. Mara is also here, if you're into that sorta thing. Are you into that sorta thing?
Send me a DM if you're into that sorta thing
Shin Megami Tensei II is a sequel more in terms of scope and production and is otherwise structurally identical to the last game. You still want to spec towards using guns and roll with a team of Zio wielding demons, it remains the most effective path through the game. However, battles are more bombastic, faster paced, and benefit from some exceptional sprite art and imaginative character designs. Few battles from the first game stand out, and they're mostly tied up with major story beats, like the fight against Thorman (he's Thor, man) before the ICBMs launch, and the climatic battles against the Law and Chaos heroes. Conversely, I remember even the minor bosses of SMT2, like Betelgeuse, who is terrorizing a mine located outside a demon pasture full of demon bulls, and the 12 Shinshō who test Aleph's strength in Geburrah's maze. To me, they're just as impactful as the larger story battles against Kuzuryu and Satan.
CHAOS: I convinced Satan to stop running a concentration camp and radicalized him.
Alternate title: Ah shit, I'm lost in the Diamond Realm AGAIN!
Even the simple act of navigating through Shin Megami Tensei II's world remains largely unchanged from the previous game. You're still trapped in a first-person perspective whenever you're not in the overworld, and both dungeons and towns (which might as well be dungeons in their own right) are still fabricated from a small number of similar looking pieces that can make the adventure a bit disorienting at times. Everything I said in my previous review is applicable here, right down to the fact that I can't blame anyone for bouncing off of a game like this. Not only is it easy to get lost, you might do so within the first ten minutes given how much more open everything is. If you stick with it, however, you will acclimate and maybe, just maybe, you'll find yourself having a little bit of fun.
What sets SMT2 apart, however, is how involved some if its dungeons can be. This is going to be a love it or hate it kind of deal, either you're way into exploring caves full of imperceptible pits that must be used to carefully navigate between floors, or you won't. You'll either be screaming at your TV set every time you see yet another patch of poison tiles, or you'll do like I did and start cheering, jumping on your couch, and absolutely destroying everything around you as you're consumed with animalistic glee. I see a teleporter maze and I go absolutely feral with excitement.
Part of why I find this all so engaging isn't in any particular enthusiasm for these sorts of gimmicks on a mechanical level, but rather because Shin Megami Tensei II just sets this mood that makes it so easy to let go of all external factors and just sink in with the game. It's a bit of a hard one to describe, but anyone who has ever driven down the i15 at dusk on the tail end of a long trip probably knows what the general sort of atmosphere of this game is. A barren landscape colored in purples and oranges, brief glimpses of industrialized civilization in the distance, and hanging over you a distinct sense of loneliness, of fatigue, and anticipation. Yeah, it's another "George listened to a lot of Coast to Coast AM" game. Something about SMT2's world just got me thinking of Art Bell's home/studio, nestled out there in the desert East of the Rockies, stories of cryptids, aliens, and government conspiracies being shared under a blanket of stars.
As romantic as I'm trying to make this all sound, it mostly meant I was slipping around on greased up floors while trying to navigate a maze of invisible walls while Art, exacerbated, reminds everyone that he only wants calls tonight from time travelers. Lot of semi-truck drivers are time travelers; in case you didn't know. What an interesting profession.
Look, my brain is like, a single unopened slice of Kraft singles American cheese, I may be assigning a very specific Rocky Mountain-Far West vibe to this that doesn't necessarily apply (and almost certainly wasn't in the mind of the Japanese staff at Atlus who worked on the game), but it makes sense to me! And it's something I find vastly appealing and extremely Weatherby-core. Shin Megami Tensei II may not share the same atmosphere as Nocturne, but in terms of how deeply it resonates with me, it's pretty damn close, and that's saying a lot.
The larger cast of demons you can recruit also offers a lot more in terms of how you can alter your party's composition, and it helps both the Jakyou Manor/fusion and negotiation systems feel like they have more depth despite not changing fundamentally. You can also recruit human characters that appear in random battles, and I love their designs. I could pour over the concept art for the first two Shin Megami Tensei games all day, and in fact they're a huge point of motivation for me to get into coloring my own drawings, for which I began using (digital) copic markers due to their use in SMT's artwork. I'm not trying to plug my crap-ass illustrations, so much as I am trying to make a point that being inspired to improve creatively because you like a peice of media so much speaks to the sort of strength and staying power it has with you on a personal level, and boy is that true of me and Shin Megami Tensei II.
NEUTRALITY: Whoops! Your artificial messiah killed the creator god.
Shin Megami Tensei II's story is a lot more complex and involved than the first game, which itself was pretty threadbare but enjoyable despite its lack of substance. Set in the same universe as that game and following its Neutral Route ending, Shin Megami Tensei II takes place in Tokyo Millenium, the last known human settlement after the nuclear apocalypse that kicked off half-way through the last game. The former protagonist, known as "Hero," has been assassinated and his kingdom co-opted by YHVH and his four archangels, which have pretty much turned the whole place into a fascist state. YHVH wishes to pass his judgment upon mankind but first requires The Messiah. Growing impatient, three of the four archangels disobey YHVH's orders and create an artificial Messiah, Aleph, SMT2's silent protagonist. Instrumental though you may be, like in any Shin Megami Tensei game your fate is up to you. Maybe you do want to team up with your best friend Satan and ascend to space, fire a death beam from above and reign over what's left. Or perhaps you just think that god fella deserves a good punch to the nose instead. Uh, the choice is up to you or something.
There's a lot of really great beats that play out along your journey, like your rival, Daleth, getting zonked on a love potion and agreeing never to fight you again because he's happily married now and doesn't have time for that shit. A particular favorite of mine is discovering that Arcadia - a paradise that at a glance is too good to be true - is really just a simulation, and its inhabitants brainwashed husks jacked into VR. Shutting that shit down probably isn't good for them, but I did it anyway.
Tokyo Millenium feels like such a believable and unique place that it's a large part of why I want to go back and experience this game all over again. I just wanna spend some more time there, hit up a few bars, talk to some mutant babes, and who knows, maybe Luis Cypher will show up for a couple of drinks. Truly this is a place where everybody knows your name... They also want to kill you and take all your magnetite, but they have character and that's really what's important.
Unfortunately, I live in the boring old pre-apocalypse. Ugh. The last time I tried to make friends with a Jack Frost IRL, I got stuck inside a Dairy Queen walk-in freezer. Apparently Jack Frost isn't real, which is bullshit, and I wasn't allowed back there. Garbage.
But maybe if I get through my whole backlog then I can fire up Shin Megami Tensei II again and just... fade into its world. That sounds nice. I only have uh, 260 more games to play first.
I'm going back to the Dairy Queen and this time I'm bringing the Megido Fire.
Played as part of my 2023 Summah Games.
Finally, it's Summah. Ok, well, not officially, but it is 98 degrees where I live and it'll be 115 before I know it. As far as I'm concerned, the conditions are right to lock myself indoors, AC blastin', sun pourin' in through the open blinds, wearin' the shortest pair of short shorts I can find, light dancin' across my bare legs with a peanut butter smoothie in one hand and a Nintendo 64 controller in the other.
But this is not just a story of Summah delights, for I have a dark Summah Secret to confess: I was not always havin' a Summah...
Truth is, I'm a Winter kind of guy. As much as I'd like to keep this bit going that I stole from Howard Kremer, I've always been more comfortable when it's cold out. I thrive in snowy conditions, I like it when harsh blizzards create hazardous conditions that keep me from food and emergency medical services, I think it's nice. When I relocated to a literal desert fifteen years ago, I had to force myself to become more Summah-minded, because the season is so long and so inescapable that not attempting to get something out of it would mean trapping myself in a state of seasonal misery.
So yeah, I'm havin' a Summah. A mandated Summah! I'm serving out my Summah sentence alone, stuck in Summah solitary, forced to play Super Mario Kart 64 by myself. That's right, you thought I wasn't going to talk about the game, did you? Fooled you again-- I just don't know how to write!
The following statement might as well be made of pre-fabricated parts, because I've said it before and I'll surely say it again: Everyone I knew in [insert year of game here] had a copy of [game], it was in frequent rotation during sleep overs and after school get-togethers, and I now have a disgusting amount of nostalgia bottled up for it, virtually preventing me from internalizing its negatives and disliking it as a whole. Unfortunately, I have nobody to play this with as an adult, so there is a bit of a barrier there preventing me from fully sinking in with Mario Kart 64 the way I'd like, and perhaps that does lay bare some of its more problematic elements, but I still come up liking this game. Yeah, the rubber-banding is bad (perhaps worse than in the previous game), and you could argue this is the origin point of Mario Kart as a series intentionally screwing over players out of fear that winning would result in diminishing amounts of fun. You can also watch Toad get flattened by a semitruck, so are you really going to complain? I'm not.
It is also to Mario Kart 64's credit that it has so many well designed tracks, some of which are pretty memorable. I think 64's take on Rainbow Road is the one that's at the front of everyone's mind. My own custom cup would probably feature Toad's Turnpike, DK's Jungle Parkway, Banshee Boardwalk, and Royal Raceway. In all fairness, there's a few clunkers as well. Bowser's Castle is rotten with hairpin turns and traps that make it rather unenjoyable to race through, Yoshi Valley's twisting and intersecting routes result in a track that's only rewarding if you've memorized the best path through, and Kalimari Desert is honestly just kinda boring.
But is Mario Kart 64 a Summah Game? That is, after all, why I decided to play it. Well, I've been in my lab doing the Summah Science, diluting Mario Kart with Arnold Palmer and checking its PH balance, exposing it to intense UV rays, and subjecting it to other Summah endurance tests (backing over it with my Toyota Avalon.) I've finally reached a verdict:
Mario Kart 64 scores a 7.2 on the Summah Index Scale. It is a game with slightly above average Summah vibes, thanks to its numerous sunny levels, hot deserts, and comparatively brief escapes to Wintery environments. However, in order to truly Have a Summah with Mario Kart 64, you may want to open a window and play it on a particularly hot day. Mario Kart 64 excelled at UV testing but did fail the Avalon pressure test.
I'd like it very much if someone sent me a new copy of Mario Kart 64 please
So first of all, this is a hugely misleading cover. You fight like, one dragon, and he's a little fella. You break into his home and run a clinic on him, it's totally unprovoked and it made me feel bad. But that shouldn't deter you from picking up Vandal Hearts. If you're looking for a solid entry point into tactical RPGs or are a veteran who would like to play one that's a bit less involved and more relaxing, then you can't go wrong here.
Vandal Hearts doesn't have the same level of narrative or mechanical complexity as Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre, but lacking multiple convoluted systems and poorly localized intrigue allows it to comfortably occupy a more casual spot on the Tactical RPG spectrum. Not having to fret about equipment or even what units to take into battle is weirdly to its advantage, as Vandal Hearts shapes each battle around a specific problem. Maybe your ship is being boarded by another boat, creating two distinct bottlenecks for you and the enemy, or perhaps you're on a bridge that is being destroyed one rung at a time, creating a sense of urgency to cross while engaging with the enemy. Levels feature more interactivity, allowing you to spring traps to take out whole platoons of soldiers or create ambushes by closing off your opponent's route. The tactical element of Vandal Hearts isn't in how you manage the growth of your army, but in how you deploy the same set of constants amid numerous variables.
This does mean you have a distinct lack of control over party composition. Every character is named, there is no means of recruiting anyone that the story doesn't already provide you. Because of this, units do not die after being incapacitated for a set amount of turns, because that just wouldn't work narratively. Instead, they beat a hasty retreat when their HP is depleted, immediately taking them out of battle. Except for Ash, the protagonist. That dude just dies, it's an automatic game over, meaning you do have a "king" in play, a valuable piece that must be moved around more judiciously, forcing you to make cost vs. reward determinations given how effective he can be in combat. However, knowing I would not permanently lose other units afforded me the freedom to play more recklessly, setting up dangerous assaults that I believed would pay off significantly even if it cost me a unit. Any resulting stat deficits from a unit no longer generating exp is easily overcome, as attacking a more powerful unit rewards a hefty experience bonus that can help a lagging troop rapidly catch up to the rest of the pack. Conversely, attacking a unit weaker than you reduces the amount of experience your unit earns. In this way, I think Vandal Hearts is better about regulating your party's overall level than Tactics Ogre with its hard cap.
Although there are no random battles like in Final Fantasy Tactics or long, winding side quests like Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts does have the Trial of Torah for anyone who really wants to stretch the experience out, or for those who might like to unlock Ash's Vandelier class for the whopping four battles you'll actually get to use it in. To access the six trial maps, you'll need to uncover key items hidden on specific tiles of specific maps in the main game. Since these items are invisible, you'll either need to carefully comb every map or - being of sound mind as you are - refer to a guide. Since you cannot replay battles, if you miss a single item you'll permanently screw yourself out of completing the trials. Even when you do access the trials themselves, you'll need to open a chest containing a prism before clearing the map of enemies. Fail to do that and you'll also screw yourself. Also, the trials don't let you earn experience, so the only tangible benefit to doing them is unlocking the Vandlier class and getting a slightly different ending. It is a little wild to me that in a game so naked about how it operates there's this one facet that is seemingly designed by a manic for maniacs.
Anyway, I completed all the trials and am now checking myself into a mental health clinic.
Narratively, Vandal Hearts isn't anything special. The plot is very one dimensional and many of its twists can be seen from a mile away. Even some of its bigger reveals are handled in a way that makes them feel like a bit of an ass-pull despite putting in the work to earn it ("Oh, I just remembered I'm able to use ancient magic and am the last of my kind" is almost word-for-word something that's said near the end of the game.) It's an ugly game, too. I'm not sure who designed the character portraits. Probably like, an alien that only knows what humans look like because someone described them once. Somehow it ends up looking better than Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment, which looks like a fake mobile game from a YouTube ad. Hero Wars-ass looking video game.
There's not a whole lot of meat on this one, and it's going to be a matter of opinion whether that makes it good or bad. Personally, I'm into it, and I think it's a great starting point for anyone looking to get into Tactical RPGs but who may also find themselves a bit overwhelmed with genre darlings like Tactics Ogre. There's a low barrier of entry here, but it does a great job at highlighting some of the elements that make this TRPGs so appealing.