Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online

Demon zookeeper.

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.)

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The cowgirl with the mace is fetching, but we can't keep our eyes off that sword.

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.

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