Death and rebirth are fairly common themes in role-playing games, and Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call is no exception. It begins with a death. It ends with a birth. The fundamental difference between this and most other RPGs is what dies, what’s born and what happens in the meantime.

The death it opens with is the death of the world – or more specifically, modern-day Tokyo. An occult group has decided that the only solution to society’s wrongs is to tear it all down and start over again. You’re there to witness the reboot of reality and, as a result, are protected during the process. You’ve just survived the Conception.

It ends with a birth. Spoiler? Not quite. After the Conception, reality is in flux. The ultimate fate of the world is still to be decided and it’s this decision that that the game focuses on. There are now a number of factions fighting it out for control of the essential life-force that grants the power to reshape the world, and your decisions throughout the rest of the game will decide which of them succeeds and what philosophy the new world will be defined by.

The game plays like a cross between the classic home computer dungeon treks – Dungeon MasterEye of the Beholder – and Pokemon, the structure a series of huge mazes linked by an overworld map, combined with collecting a team of fighting demons that adds a huge element of catch ‘em all addictiveness.

Creatures from a variety of religions, mythologies and traditions now populate the world, all vying for position and pledging their allegiance to one of the philosophies in whose image they aim to reshape the world. It’s from their ranks that you recruit the members of your team. One of the commands you have during combat is ‘Talk’ – use it on an enemy and you’ll attempt to persuade them to join you. Provided that you can meet their financial demands, they’ll ask you a question, usually philosophical in nature. Select an answer that pleases them and they’ll come over to your side.

Knowing a little about the various mythologies and religions that these beings are plucked from can help to a small degree. When it comes to trying to recruit demons to your team, they seem to respect the answers that you’d expect them to – those who are warlike in their back-stories will be happiest if you give them the most violent answer on offer, those from more peaceful traditions will expect the opposite.

Battles are random and frequent – possibly too frequent for a lot of players, although those who’ve played, say, the Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire series will know what to expect. Sometimes you can run about for ages without tripping over a bad guy. Sometimes you won’t be able to take a whole step forwards without being attacked three times. Combat is turn-based, with a system that rewards the exploitation of enemy weaknesses with extra attacks and punishes attempts to batter your way through with unsuitable party members by limiting your attacking opportunities.

Combat is the biggest source of potential frustration. Whenever you meet a boss for the first time, the chances are that you won’t be able to beat it because you’ll have no idea of its weaknesses. You have to treat the regular appearance of the Game Over screen as a learning experience – something that you need to go through in order to figure out weak spots and strategies. Die, reload, use your newfound knowledge and change tactics to suit. This is a game that wears its difficulty on its sleeve – how much you get from it will depend on how prepared you are to accept death and rebirth as an inevitable part of the experience.

The one benefit of frequent death is that you get to witness the best Game Over screen ever. Everything whites out and you see your body crumple to the floor. The camera starts to pull away and reveals an endless spiral of angels encircling you – it moves upwards through the centre of the spiral, then spins up to give a view of the sky, with the spiral carrying on into a white infinity.

It is, to a large extent, the game that certain Christian fundamentalists have described Pokemon as. Join forces with demons. Mix and match beings from a variety of real-world belief systems. At one point, a heavenly voice – accompanied by the obligatory shaft of light – tells you to turn back from the path you’ve set out on as it offends God. How your choice will affect the tale’s eventual resolution is, as with all such similar cases, unclear at the time. You’ve got to go with your gut – this isn’t a game that provides you with an obvious distinction between good and evil, nor one that clearly labels its choices “Good Ending” and “Bad Ending”.

In terms of aesthetics, the implementation of cel-shading is as fitting and consistent as in Zelda: Wind Waker, giving everything a thoroughly convincing anime look. More impressively, all the character designs fit together perfectly. Any attempt to create a sense of visual coherency when dealing with creatures from such a diverse range of sources – from Christianity to Hinduism, stopping off at Sri Lankan, Norse, Celtic and Chinese mythologies along the way – should result in a godawful mess, but the artists here have somehow managed not only to avoid that apparent inevitability, but also made sure that each design keeps its individuality and sense of place while being consistent with the other art in the game.

When you’re not being assaulted by opponents, the environments possess an eerie stillness, reinforcing the feeling of being somewhere on the fringes of reality. Company is rare, with even the inhabited towns being sparsely populated. Both in terms of the atmosphere it creates and the gameplay that sits at its core, SMT: Lucifer’s Call feels like a message in a bottle, a title beamed in from another world. It stands out as a true original, as a game of real intelligence and ambition. Stick with it through the more demanding sections and you’ll be rewarded with a unique experience.

Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call (2005)

Developer: Altus
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PS2

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