The world isn't exactly short of bizarre, free-to-play Asian online PC RPGs. What seemed like a curio when Ragnarok Online appeared on these shores all those years ago has turned into a flood of free oddities - often of dubious quality and rarely of anything but passing interest.
If we were going to reach into those murky waters and pick out a potential gem, though, then Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online is exactly where we'd start. Why? Because the series' latest console releases - Persona 3 and 4 on the PS2 - are among the best console RPGs of the past four or five years, that's why. We're not saying that the online version of MegaTen comes loaded with expectation, as such - just that we approach it with a degree of optimism which most free MMOs don't warrant.
Fans will be happy to note that, thematically at least, MegaTen Online fits in very neatly with the rest of the series. The executive summary is that you play a survivor in post-apocalyptic Tokyo, a cyberpunk nightmare where the surface is overrun by demons, humans live in underground tunnel complexes called Homes, and the landscape is dominated by a sinister new tower called Shinjuku Babel.
(Some comments we've read from those working on the game - which has been out in Japan for about a year now, but is in open beta in the US and Europe at present - suggest that it actually fits between the first two Shin Megami Tensei games in story terms. We're not sure if that's actually true, but it certainly doesn't require any in-depth knowledge of the console games to get to grips with what's going on.)
Every player takes the role of a demon hunter, and MegaTen doesn't force you to make any hard and fast class decisions. Combat skills are broadly divided between melee, ranged and magical abilities, and while a degree of focus on one of those areas seems to be advisable, there's nothing to stop you from picking up talents from all three areas as you progress through the game.
Moreover, no matter which type of character you start developing, there's one key skill you'll have regardless - the ability to summon demons to fight alongside you. Not every demon you encounter will be instantly hostile. Some can be convinced to join you, either by talking to them or threatening them. Create a contract with such a demon, and he becomes available for you to summon (at a price which is paid in magnetite, one of the game's two core currencies).
You can only have one demon fighting with you at a time, but can bring several along with you into each dungeon and store many more back in the town. Moreover, every demon which you own has its own set of talents to learn and levels up independently of you - and if you think that's fun to keep track of, wait until you start trying to get your head around "combining" demons to create more powerful breeds. For fans of earlier MegaTen games, this will all be familiar stuff - for everyone else, we suspect, it'll seem like rather a dark art at first.
In terms of the moment-to-moment combat, MegaTen is a surprisingly ambitious game. Early on, you'll be able to get away with slashing wildly with your sword - but the fairly linear mission structure quickly introduces you to the more advanced real-time aspects of the game's battles. Dodges, blocks and counter-attacks aren't automatic or based on chance, but rather are based on real-time button presses in the action-RPG style. After seeing games like Age of Conan and Chronicles of Spellborn in the past year, this sort of real-time combat isn't quite as revolutionary as it might once have seemed, but it's still welcome.
Graphically, the game isn't about to blow anyone away. It's filled with gorgeous artwork and hugely imaginative demon designs, which is something we've come to expect from a MegaTen game, but it's also very clearly designed for low-end systems. The maximum resolution in the beta at present is 1280x1024, with no wide-screen support. While it's nice that this will probably run on a crippled netbook, we hope to see owners of more powerful systems being thrown a high-res bone by the time it comes out of beta.
One thing that won't change, though, is the fact that the game is largely composed of randomly generated dungeons, so the options for dramatic architecture are rather limited. Although that's something which players of the MegaTen console games have come to understand and even love, the random dungeons will, we suspect, be a dealbreaker for many players - especially when coupled with the fact that MegaTen is largely a Phantasy Star Online-style "lobby and instance" game, rather than a true MMO. Each dungeon is instanced for your party alone, and for the most part, the shared areas are social spaces, or focused on storyline.
If the screen resolution and heavy instancing makes you think that 2001 called and wants its game back, Imagine may not be the game for you. Although the character and demon progression is stat-heavy, it's not unfair to describe MegaTen as a "lite" MMO. Whether that's praise or condemnation is a matter of perspective.
Regardless, for fans of the series - or anyone intrigued by its lovely art and music, and peculiarly dark setting - Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online promises a remarkably faithful PC conversion of many of the best aspects of the console games. It's tied together with a brand new storyline, playable with your friends and compatible with even very low-spec machines. Not to mention that it's free to play, with western publishers Aeria offering full access to the game for free, and only asking you to pay for its "Aeria Points" if you want to speed up the process of kitting out your character.
Whether the collectible approach to demon-summoning and the seemingly pleasant and easygoing community will be enough to rope players in for the long term is another question. We're also keen to see what's left for Aeria to do during the beta period. Although the fully open beta means that the game's as good as launched in some regards, a bit more content wouldn't go amiss, and a few technical improvements to the client would also help. We'll be keeping an eye on its progress, and will report back when the game's officially out of beta and ready for primetime.