It is common place these days for many single player game franchises to make forays into online gaming. From World of Warcraft to The Elder Scrolls Online, publishers have been taking established franchises and turning them into MMORPGs. The benefits of using an established IP with its own built in fan base are easy to see, as established settings and lore can ease production and a band of loyal fans provide guaranteed players and often free advertising. Imagine is the attempt by Atlus to transform their well-known and much loved JRPG Shin Megami Tensei series into a free to play MMO.
Released in 2007, Imagine is set in Japan in an alternate future where a war between humans and demons has decimated civilization. Imagine puts players in control of “DBs” or Demon Busters, who are skilled in the use of swords, sorcery and guns. In addition to these weapons, DBs are also trained in the use of arm mounted computers to summon and control demons to assist them in combat. Using these skills, players complete quests and make their way through the acts that make up the storyline of Imagine. Imagine shares a lot of aspects with single player entries in the series and fans of previous Shin Megami Tensei games will find many familiar aspects to enjoy. Those new to the series who try Imagine will find a MMO that, while visually and technically dated, contains a deep leveling system, an interesting setting and an army of demons waiting to be collected.
Aesthetics – 7.5/10
Most MMOs continue to be played for years after launch. This can have the unfortunate side effect of making an MMO appear dated or even ugly when compared to graphics of modern games. Imagine has the benefit of being designed with a rather simplistic art style. While the game wasn’t considered pretty, even in 2007, the graphics haven’t really worsened with age. Character creation is a simple mix and match of hairstyles, clothing and colours. Options for customization are lacking at first, but new appearance items can be bought in game, both with game currency and in the cash shop. Imagine features a wide range of demons, who serve as both enemies and allies, and the designs are simple and dark, fitting well with the post-apocalyptic setting. While enemies are well designed, cities, dungeons and outdoor areas all look rather bland and many areas look similar.
If there’s one thing that all of the Shin Megami Tensei games share, it is great music. Imagine is no different and Shoji Meguro’s score fits perfectly. From the hard and fast beats of the boss battle themes, to the dark and mysterious feel of the city theme the music does a great job of building the right energy and feel.
Gameplay – 7.0/10
The basic gameplay in Imagine is typical for the genre. Combat is in real time and is hotkey based. One of the neat little differences in combat is the addition of blocking and countering abilities that if timed correctly can negate or even reflect enemy attacks. Like many MMOs, the game also has a main quest line that leads players through the game’s dungeons and cities, while side quests are available at most hubs. There are two main areas where Imagine differs and they are arguably the most interesting and fun aspects of the game.
Unlike most MMOs, which have either a level based or skill based experience system, Imagine has both. Levels provide hit point increases as well as attribute points that can be assigned to typical stats such as strength or speed. While having a certain level is important for some things such as entering a dungeon or interacting with demons, the most important aspect of leveling is expertise. There are no classes in Imagine. Each character in Imagine has a maximum amount of expertise points that can be spent on several skills. By accessing the expertise menu, a player can choose several skills that will begin to gather points as the player uses appropriate actions. For example, to gain expertise in the shot skill one would shoot a gun, while to lighting an enemy on fire would raise the destruction magic skill. As the skill gains more expertise it advances in rank unlocking new active abilities and passive bonuses. Skills are available to allow melee, ranged and magic combat, as well as skills for different crafting and support builds. This system allows for a wide range of interesting character types by mixing and matching different skills, though the cap on expertise gain makes it so players must choose their skills carefully.
The other major gameplay feature of Imagine is the demon system. For anyone who has played previous Shin Megami Tensei games, the demon system is similar to how it was in previous games. For those new to the series, demons play the role of both ally and enemy to players. Any demon you face in the field, with the exception of bosses and a few unique storyline enemies, can be negotiated with. Assuming a player is of an equal or higher level than the demon a skill can be used to open negotiations. Depending on level and other factors the negotiations have a chance to fail, causing the demon to attack or succeed, which results in either the demon giving you an item or offering a contract. Once a contract is formed the demon can be summoned as a pet. A player can summon one demon at a time, which stays until killed or unsummoned, and can carry several to switch to outside of combat. There are well over a hundred demons in the game and almost all of them can be contracted. These demons gain levels and skills just like the player and each type can be vastly different in what it brings to combat. Once summoned, a demon will participate in combat, attacking or protecting based on its personality. Trust can be earned or lost with demons through time and actions and this effects the stats and combat actions of the demon. While demons will act on their own, skilled players can trigger demon skills from the hotbar or with hotkeys to increase combat efficiency.
Innovation – 6.5/10
MMOs are a genre that is heavy on borrowing ideas from those that have come before. Many of the aspects that make up Shin Megami Tensei Imagine are ones which players who have previous MMO experience will be familiar with. While skills are not unique to Imagine, the use of expertise as a skill based leveling system gives players a freedom in building their characters that is absent in many MMOs.
Despite its mostly archetypal gameplay, the one aspect that really stands out as both an interesting feature and the true focus of Imagine is the demon system. While some games have utilized a persistent pet to accompany players, there are few, if any, games that require these pets to be gained by conversing with them. The trust building between demons and players, both to negotiate a contract and to keep the demons happy once contracted, adds a unique and fun mechanic to a rather typical game.
Polish – 9.0/10
One of the benefits of a MMO being re-launched is that development teams generally have a chance to go back and take care of issues and bugs that may make the game look bad to new players when the game returns. Imagine has been re-launched twice as its development has switched hands between three different developers and at this point the game has seen several sweeping bug hunts that show in the gameplay. Bugs are rare in Imagine and the few that do pop up are small in scale. On top of being almost bug free, NPC pathing is solid which makes the constant use of demon companions a pleasure rather than a problem.
While NPC pathing is great, there are sometimes issues with the enemy AI. Sometimes an enemy will stand in the same spot or move back and forth while a player unloads several spells or gun blasts into it before finally turning its attention to the player. While these lapses in enemy attention can be annoying for a player trying to draw an enemy into melee combat they are, thankfully, rare.
Longevity – 7.0/10
How long a game is played is often based more on the type of player than the quality of the game. If a game is heavy on story then players who favour action will grow bored. If a game has nothing but action then role players and crafters may quit. Shin Megami Tensei Imagine is a game with a lot of grind. The level cap is high and experience comes slow. While there are quests within the game, the majority of experience and expertise comes from killing demons. This means that for those who like to slaughter every monster in their way on a quest for max level, the trip will be long and filled with action. Also for players who enjoy testing themselves in dungeon time trials or players who want to fill their demon compendium with every demon, entertainment can be continued to be found for a long time. However, the players who need a constant influx of new things to do may find that they quickly tire of the repetitive gameplay and repeating quests.
Social – 6.0/10
Without a strong community an MMO cannot survive and in order to support this community, social tools need to be available. Shin Megami Tensei Imagine provides all the basic social aspects that are necessary in an MMO. Multiple chat channels are available, partying is easy and clans are available to join. While all these aspects are present they exist only in a basic manner and there doesn`t seem to be a lot of player interaction outside of clans and dungeons.
This leads to the one social feature that Imagine does well, which is dungeon hubs. Outside of dungeons there are small hubs with merchants and bind points, as well as a teleport that allows parties to enter the dungeon. By providing all of this right outside of the dungeon it makes it easy for players to find others interested in doing the same dungeon.
Value – 8.0/10
A lot of MMOs are labeled these days as being free to play. Unfortunately, that usually that means free unless you want to do everything or free unless you want to be good. Thankfully, Imagine is neither of these things. While there is a cash shop in Imagine it serves to sell items of convenience and cosmetic changes. While buying in something in the cash shop might make it easier to kill that monster or survive that boss, it is never necessary to continue on with the game. That means that a player who wishes to experience everything the game has to offer can do so without having to pay additional money. The only cost to experience Shin Megami Tensei Imagine is time.
In the end, the only thing that really matters is whether Shin Megami Tensei Imagine is worth playing. If you're a fan of the series that loves online games then the answer is a definite yes. The dark feel, amazing music and robust demon system that make Shin Megami Tensei are all here for you to share with others. If you’re an MMO gamer who is a fan of the Pokémon-like idea of catching them all, then the demon system may also hold some appeal for you. For everyone else it comes down to a question of whether you can enjoy the lackluster graphics and the grind and repetition that can come at higher levels. Even if the answer would normally be no, Imagine is both free and a relatively small download so it may be worth a try. See you in Tokyo.