Shin Megami Tensei If… is a spin-off from the main Shin Megami Tensei series that is smaller and more confined than previous games. It was developed and published by Atlus in 1994.
This time the story is set in a school where a bullied pupil tries to summon demons in the gym, to deal with his harassers, only to wind-up being possessed by them and threatening to destroy the world. You play a group of schoolkids who team-up to try to stop him.
The game utilises the same kind of menu-driven combat system as seen in previous games, with a COMP (computer) used to fight, recruit and summon demons, as well as an auto-mapper that maps-out the various levels as you explore.
Combat is turn-based and your main non-demon characters can attack with physical weapons or guns, just like previously. Unlike before, though, gun ammunition can run out, so you have to make sure that you buy and equip enough ammo to last you during excursions. As before: human characters can also equip armour on their various body parts.
When a hostile demon is encountered you can choose to fight it or talk to it. If you talk to it, and say the right things, it will either join you, give you something, or leave. Or, if you piss it off, it might attack you without warning. You can only have one of any type of demon in your possession at once, and these recruited demons can be summoned to fight for you in combat. Seasoned Shin Megami Tensei players will know this system well, and in this game the demon recruitment mechanic does feel a bit more refined and forgiving than previously. You can also fuse demons together to make more powerful ones (at the right shop), which is a signature feature of the series.
Defeating demons in combat often rewards you with money (Macca), magnetite (MAG), occasional items, and experience points. Experience points can be used to level-up, and also to enhance your character’s personal skills (strength, intelligence, magic, stamina, speed, and luck). Money is required to buy weapon and armour upgrades, and also to summon demon allies. Once a demon has been summoned it then requires magnetite to keep it going, so keeping these consumables topped-up is an essential aspect of the gameplay.
Unlike in previous games, when a human character dies in battle they are revived at the last save point by a Guardian Spirit, who can teach them new skills and alter their stat points (based on how they’re specialising). And this Guardian Spirit changes each time they die.
There’s no overhead map between the ‘dungeons’ this time, and when you do eventually escape the confines of the school (into another dimension, divided into five different towers and based on “the seven deadly sins”) you are shown a transition screen that indicates your movement from one location to the next.
One other important feature of this game is that it has various different routes, depending on who your companion is, plus a hidden New Game Plus mode, called “The Akira Route“, that is only available after beating the game once, then re-starting and doing specific things as you play it. Choosing a different partner will significantly change the storyline, the worlds you visit, and the Guardian Spirits available, so is important. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see how to choose between these different companions.
Once again, team Aeon Genesis have provided an unofficial English translation of the game, and it is excellent (much better than the second SMT game), with a smaller, more compact font used and plenty of laugh-out-loud humour.
Personally, I enjoyed Shin Megami Tensei If… more than Shin Megami Tensei II, and possibly even more than the first game in the series. And while I’m probably not alone in thinking that, not everyone will agree. The positive reception this game received at the time of release led the developers to use the school setting in the spin-off Persona series, so it’s significant, at least from that point of view.
The four different routes:
Yumi: Choose ‘yes’ when Yumi talks to you after the school falls into darkness.
Charlie: Reject Yumi and go to 2-E on 3F (you get a better starting weapon if you choose Charlie).
Reiko: Reject Yumi and Charlie; go to the music room, walk around for a while; go to the club room and back to the music room. If Reiko is not there, walk around a bit more, then come back.
Akira: Complete the game and watch ALL the credits until it says “The End”; soft reset the console and start a new game. Then reject all the other partners; talk to the clubroom members; talk to the teacher who’s blocking the corridors on 3F; go to 1F and walk into the dead-end square near the music room. You should find Akira there. Note that if Akira isn’t there you’ll have to complete the end of the game again and try once more, so make sure you have a save near the very end of the game.