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.