Imagine: The Phoned-In Shin Megami Tensei Installment
I think there's, hypothetically speaking, potential for an MMO set in the universe of Shin Megami Tensei. The venerated RPG series has more than enough distinct features and characteristics that, with the right attention and development team, could make for a really interesting game, especially in a genre for which people tend to cry out more variety. Atlus has repeatedly shown that it's very capable of providing things like moving stories and is more than willing to experiment with large overhauls to series mechanics. Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine is none of those things, however. It's a functional, free-to-play MMO, and you can do much worse, but it's hard to not get the feeling that Atlus just arbitrarily phoned this one in, especially since it was hallowed top-down shooter studio Cave, of all companies, taking the development reins on this one.
Once the gameplay actually kicks in, that's when Imagine truly starts slowly, but persistently going downhill. As a free-to-play MMO, Imagine naturally has an economy dictated by those who play for free and those who pay for extra content with real money. For all intents and purposes, though, the game limits the payable items to fancy costumes and high-end weapons and items that are more or less just as competent as anything else you could find for free. The fact that this more or less puts free and paid players on equal footing is probably the highest compliment I have on offer for the gameplay, as the rest of it never really goes beyond mediocrity.
Take the combat, for example. As a player, you can set yourself up for a few predictable classes, be they gunner, melee, or spellcaster. The interface with which you attack, defend, and counterattack are very similar to games like World of Warcraft, where you'll select a command from a task bar, watch it execute in real time, and then deal with any timers that might affect how often you can choose a particular option. None of it is broken, but it's more often than not very boring to fight most anything, bosses included, and considering Imagine's genre, there's a lot of combat to had. There's no real variety to be had; the same tactics tend to work for the same situations and if you do run into a bit of a rut, you often have to change your style only very slightly before you regress back to the usual antics. The same way you fight a boss is the same way you fight the enemies leading up to it, which, in turn, is essentially the same way you fight your very first enemies. Evolution on any front is not one of Imagine's main concerns and it shows in every battle.
Player classes and enemies do, however, need some more balance tweaking. People who play as gunners will find that they'll probably have an easier time with the game than anyone, since their reload times aren't as dramatic as a mage's spell cooldowns or swordsman's swing timing. The fact that their shots also often push enemies away from them for high damage even early on just makes it frustrating for people trying to develop characters of other classes. Enemies are also inconsistent in the difficulty curve they have on offer, possessing both an AI that may or may not arbitrarily attack you at any time even without you targeting it and raw power that kill you swiftly and infuriatingly, thanks to experience penalties you take for dying and reviving elsewhere. In one early mission, for example, you have to take down a larger version of a fairly common enemy. But doing that means going through hordes of other enemies that more or less attack very aggressively on sight with lightning magic and since you have very little at your disposal to easily counter it at that stage in the game, you're bound to die numerous times just so you can take down one enemy that isn't even nearly as difficult. You never quite know when it's coming and it's because of that quality that it's hard to ever really get a sense of confidence in your own fighting abilities over the course of the game.
In fact, the levelling system in the game is just as aggravatingly plodding. As an MMO, it's natural to expect that you won't level up as fast as in conventional RPGs; it's how the game is meant to keep you attached to the world for longer stretches. The real problem becomes apparent pretty quickly when you see that the game will outright cut off the main single-player quests until you reach a certain far-off level. You'd think this would be at least somewhat resolved through the game's dungeons, but those have difficulty curve issues of their own that, in turn, mean that you'll likely be excessively repeating the same few instances you can actually bear consistently if you go that route. The only remotely viable route beyond that is to party up with friends as they do earlier story quests that hand out hundreds of thousands of bonus experience, but even that route is only possible if you find people willing to put up with just as much repetition as the dungeon. Throw in the expertise system, which is like your abilities' own levelling system done purely by mashing the corresponding key over and over in battle, and you get the impression that Imagine deliberately tries to bore its player populace. When you finally do reach that elusive level that lets you progress in the storyline, you get a sense far more of relief than of accomplishment, only to have it shot down quickly enough with another halt in the quests until you reach a levelling goal again.
Perhaps most unfortunate of all is Imagine's very poor use of a Shin Megami Tensei standby: the demons themselves. As you run around Tokyo, you'll be able to recruit demons who can then fight by your side. On a combat level, they operate just like your actual player character does and you can even manipulate their movement control manually with a very shoddy camera if necessary. Fusion is also present in the game and works pretty much like what you would expect, although you have no say in what abilities the new demon inherits by default and what they'll get through experience. Having said that, more or less everything else related to the demons that you would expect from a Megami Tensei game is poorly implemented.
The recruitment process is especially depressing, since it lacks any sort of finesse one might expect from other games in the series that use it. It really boils down to trying out one of several different talk commands on a demon repeatedly and then praying that they'll agree to join you, which is a rarity in and of itself. The expertise system allows you to unlock more talk commands as time goes on, but that element of sheer randomness never disappears, depriving the system of any real strategy whatsoever like other implementations of it in other games. Once you do recruit a demon, that's not even the end of it, as it costs magnetite, a demonic currency, to even summon them, which really discourages having variety in your attack patterns and strategies very often. Those who are accustomed to just switching demons on the fly without consequence in games like Persona will probably find this feature very jarring, and rightly so, since there's no real justifiable reason provided by the game, storyline or otherwise, to limit how often you're able to pull out and call in demons. As a result, you end up with pretty large levelling discrepancies between the back-up demons and your mainstay that render the neglected ones useless anyway.
On more technical fronts, Imagine is admittedly serviceable. The graphics don't do an especially artistic job at rendering a ruined Tokyo, but it's low-end enough to also allow the game to run on most computers today. The sound is also fine, although the lack of voice acting is, again, disappointing. As befitting an MMO, the game also comes with the requisite community features of parties, clans, and bazaars, all of which are pretty bare-bones, but functional without any real complaints. Thankfully the people you'll probably be playing alongside are both friendly and knowledgeable about the game, but that's not a technical merit so much as it is just luck of the draw with the game's marketing. The game is also patched pretty consistently to provide bits and pieces of new content and glitch resolutions.
When it's all said and done, Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine just lacks heart as both a Megami Tensei game and as an MMO. It's natural to conclude that the game probably won't revolutionize anything to begin with, especially since its free-to-play model isn't conducive to funding a development team that can afford the time and money to revamp the gameplay whenever it's needed. Plus, the fact that Atlus has little real credit for it beyond licensing the series' name hardly helps. But it's still sad to see the game as it is fall so short of the legacy provided by numerous other installments in the series. It feels almost as generic as an MMO can get and the elements from the Megami Tensei series that are there feel phoned in and don't integrate all that well with the rest of the game. There's definitely room for an MMO uniquely done Megami Tensei-style, but Imagine isn't it. You can do much worse than play this free game, but it's still not really a game worth even the most hardcore series fan's time. It's best to just ignore Imagine and remember that the Megami Tensei name has been done justice far, far better elsewhere.