Shin Megami Tensei is an old and respected RPG series that I bumbled into through the side door. I started with Persona 4 The Golden for the PS Vita, then moved on to Persona 5 for the PlayStation 4. I'm only now playing my first actual Shin Megami game—specifically, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux for the Nintendo 3DS. There's "coming late to the party" and "coming late to the party, refusing to say 'hi' to the host, and face-planting in the chip dip after guzzling six beers."
That's me. I'm the face-planter.
But it's the rowdiest party guests who have the most entertaining stories, right? Playing Strange Journey Redux only after tucking a couple of Persona games under my belt has caused me to make some interesting observations. I feel like I have one foot in my own house and another foot in a foreign land.
I expected some measure of culture shock when I started up Strange Journey Redux. Going in, I knew Shin Megami is based on dungeon-crawlers of olde, which means straight corridors, albeit with some modern amenities like terminals that let you save (Etrian Odyssey V's dungeon-crawling mechanics loosened me up nicely for more of the same in Strange Journey Redux). While Persona 4's randomly-generated dungeons echo the series' roots in the Shin Megami games, I found myself much more engaged by Persona 5's extravagant and glittering palaces. Still, forewarned is forearmed, so I have no trouble appreciating the corridors that form Strange Journey Redux's battleground, the demon-populated Schwartzwelt dimension.
Incidentally, it's those demons who occasionally force me to stop and remember I'm no longer trying to form bonds with teenagers while juggling my grades and a part-time job. There are humans in the Schwartzwelt, but they're your fellow soldiers on your mission to delve deep into the demon dimension (and sometimes they're merely snack food for those demons—or worse, living test subjects). Until I played Strange Journey Redux, I didn't realize the term "Persona" is incredibly literal in Atlus' spin-off series. Your friends in Persona 4 and Persona 5 are defined by whichever demon they tote around in their soul. When they make a pact with their demons, it's symbolism for getting a handle on who they are. Once that demon's been imprinted, they can't change it any more than they can change how they laugh, or how they walk.
In Shin Megami Tensei Redux, however, demons are disposable. While the protagonists for Persona 4 and 5 are "wildcards" who can use any Persona they cook up, their personality is still bonded heavily to whichever demon they start off with (Arsene Lupin, the initial demon for Persona 5's protagonist, is the basis for his "Joker" identity and all the tricks that come with it). By contrast, if you don't mush together demons to make stronger demons ASAP in Strange Journey Redux, you're going to find yourself outclassed by hostile demons very quickly. And with demons forming the backbone of your party instead of your armed friends supplementing battles with their demons' magic, you need to keep that churn going so you have a robust party ready at all times.
I simply don't grow attached to demons in Strange Journey Redux the way I get attached to Personas. The necessarily quick demon turnover in Strange Journey Redux might have something to do with my distant relationship ("Sorry, Shisaa, it's just business"), but I also wonder if Strange Journey Redux's straightforward demon fusion program is also part of the reason. When Persona 5 fuses demons by hanging your favorites or roasting them on the electric chair, it hits you where you live.
(Poor Bykakko. He was just a big kitty.)
Despite the different ways Persona and Shin Megami Tensei has players use demons for their benefit, I enjoy running into my old favorites from Persona in the depths of the Schwartzwelt. I feel like Captain America brightly pointing out "I get that reference!", except it's more like "I know that demon!" The demon designs in Shin Megami Tensei and Persona are iconic, and I've come to look forward to seeing Jack Frost and The Sandman as much as I look forward to seeing a Slime in Dragon Quest, or a Chocobo in Final Fantasy.
I don't know if I've played enough of the Shin Megami Tensei or Persona games to consider myself any kind of a series veteran, but at least now I understand the differences between Atlus' two series and appreciate them as much as I appreciate the similarities. Here hee-ho's to learning more about Shin Megami Tensei V in the months to come.