Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online (longest. name. ever.) is perfect for Rise and Shiny: it is unusual, makes some people uncomfortable, free-to-play, and more "indie" than "AAA." I've played it off and on since its release but never found the time or desire to really push into it. After all, the combat in the game takes patience and knowledge, something that requires, well, patience and knowledge. Over the last week I decided to dive right in, changing my normal procedure of blindly downloading, playing, and socializing. I broke my habit of ignoring the wiki and the information from the playerbase, and I have decided to actually immerse myself into a week-long college course on whatever game it is I am playing at the time.
The effort paid off big. The combat became more enjoyable, and the game made more sense. I met some very nice community members, and even found myself wanting to go through an epic hour-and-a-half dungeon experience. The game is not without its frustrating moments, of course. Starting out can feel like a pretty overwhelming experience. While there is a great beginning tutorial to help players understand the complicated combat system, many areas of the game require information that is so hidden that you must simply look it up in a wiki.
In fact, as I played through some of the main storyline missions, it made me wonder who first discovered the secrets behind the wiki. For example, I had to have a certain item in my inventory or a certain demon at my side in order to convince an NPC to allow me to move on to the next step in the quest. Some of the items were seemingly so random or loosely connected that I would never have had any idea unless I had stumbled across the answer in the wiki. This can make you feel like you have no choice but to consult the wiki, which breaks your immersion and could easily be avoided if the NPC were programmed to say, "Make sure you have X in your pocket." Clues were possibly hidden within the NPCs' speech, but they shot right over my head if so.
Graphically, the game is very unique -- a little bland, here and there, but still very different. In fact, I would rather have a game that featured flowing graphics that looked like they all belonged in the same world, rather than a game with trees or textures that do not fit at all. And let's face it, the real stars of Imagine Online are the demons -- tameable monsters (many of them humanoid) that fight at your side. The sheer variety is mind-blowing, and as you grow to understand the lore, the cartoony ones fit perfectly well and are not distracting. After all, they are all products of someone's subconscious, so the differences in their looks work perfectly.
Demon-capturing/mixing is a game in itself. I spent a long time "window shopping" on the wiki in order to find a short, melee-based demon to complement my ranged fighter. As I looked, I found so many cool-looking monsters that I started to dream of the day that I might reach the level needed to tame them. Even then, I swear that I saw new mixes of demons in game every time I logged in. I wonder: How many developers does it take to make this dark army, and what do they put in their water?
After demons, combat definitely takes the next slice of cake. It's not your typical "easy mode" combat, but instead it needs your full attention, even when you're fighting a mob that, seemingly, is an easy kill. Certain attacks must be timed, and certain moves need to be countered, in order for you to survive. The combat reminds me of Mabinogi, almost a game of rock-paper-scissors on steroids. You will begin to notice which weapons or magical attacks are stronger or weaker, and switching between weapons is easy enough to allow for experimentation during battle. I held on to to three different guns, for example, and simply pressed the corresponding hotkey to find the appropriate weapon that caused the most damage.
Your demon is to be considered carefully. Demons can complement your attacks (and your outfit) and can even be controlled entirely by you by pressing the tab key. I had no idea when this ability would come in handy, until I fell in battle. As I lay there and watched my demon die, I had sudden lightbulb moment: I could control him and possibly still win the fight!
Imagine Online is one of those funny games that inspires uber fandom. With the level cap recently being raised to level 97, there is plenty to do (and to grind on). The cash shop literally sells powerful weapons -- some of the most powerful -- costing around 20-30 US dollars. Of course, the in-game offerings are not shabby at all. I'll be honest and say that I love when a game just blatantly sells powerful items in its cash shop. It's becoming more common than even a year ago, and I like it. In my opinion, if you are going to sell items like XP pots or appearance armor, then why not weapons or gear? After all, who says that powerful weapons are taboo while "fluff" items are not? Do those fluff items not have the same, if not more, value to some players? If you don't think so, then you have spent no time in the usual hangout inside many free-to-play games. Fashion is king. (For the record: In order to alleviate a wall of comments, it is still uncommon for free-to-play games to sell items, especially the best items, in their cash shops. While it is becoming more common, in my opinion this is because the Western audiences are warming up to the idea. Free-to-play is in a very good position right now.)
Will Imagine Online stay on my hard drive? It has for a long time. Will I return to it more often than before? More than likely. Time is even more important to me than before, especially since I will be tossing away the old Rise and Shiny rules and will try to learn as much as I can while in game. There are many games that I love that I will just have to wait to play.
Take your time with Imagine Online; it's intense. Enjoy all the great cutscenes that pepper your leveling experience. The community was always helpful and friendly, and the wiki is filled to the brim with tips and information. While the cash shop does sell some of the best items in game, I had no issues surviving until level 19 without spending a dime.
But that new shotgun does look awesome.
Next week we will be looking at Uncharted Waters Online, which is currently in open beta. I am on the Gama server and my characters name is Beau. (UPDATE: UWO is actually sytill in between betas, so I am going to be looking at Planet Calypso instead. My name on the island is Beaugh, so add me and check it out. So far, it is much improved.)
Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. We meet each Tuesday and Friday night at 9 p.m. EDT (6 p.m. PDT); the column will run on the following Sunday. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email, or follow me on Twitter or Raptr!