The odd one out

The “After Armageddon” part of Mega CD exclusive After Armageddon Gaiden‘s title reflects the game’s setting: Here demons rule the world, and have done for so long most humans are nothing more than naked livestock, kept in pens and incapable of mouthing anything more complex than meaningless animalistic sounds. The pre-made team of demons you control aren’t here to save them or right any perceived wrongs done by one side to the other, this bleak reality is simply how life is for everyone on either side of the eat/eaten divide.

For those of us who are prepared to swear until they’re blue in the face that the Mega CD’s remake-ish port of Shin Megami Tensei is the best version of the game ever made this sounds like a gift straight from the (dark) gods themselves, especially as the case for this grim adventure also bears the Mega Role Play Project emblem; an official Sega seal designed to promote some of the company’s highest quality work in the popular genre in an effort to woo RPG fans away from the Super Famicom’s seemingly limitless supply of the stuff. It’s the same mark found on RagnacentyThe Story of Thor, Sega’s excellent reworkings of Falcom’s first two The Legend of Heroes games and more, every single one exceptionally beautiful and a delight to play.

Apart from After Armageddon Gaiden.

Some of the starter battle sprites would honestly look unimpressive on the NES, with one party member in particular appearing to be little more than a pink mush. This crude work might have been forgivable if the art team’s time had been spent creating lush animations and multiple hit reactions instead, but outside of spell effects (all of which fail to outshine any thoroughly average 16-bit competitor you can think of) there is virtually no animation to speak of. So maybe they stuffed the CD full of high quality cutscene art instead? They didn’t. It is no exaggeration to say that Phantasy Star IV, released the year before this in Japan and running on stock Mega Drive hardware, has a far greater quantity of better looking event artwork. Dig deeper in After Armageddon Gaiden and all you find is a game that feels like it belongs to another time, some very ordinary RPGing hiding under superficially innovative ideas that consistently crumble under the mildest scrutiny. Take shops, for example. After Armageddon Gaiden doesn’t have shops. What it has instead is “Dust”, mostly awarded from fallen enemies and rarely from other events, which is then used to create equipment and restoratives for yourself by selecting it from a menu just like… just like you were exchanging gold for items in a shop. Your party includes a sentient blob of slime – that’s unusual. Or it would be, if they didn’t use the same generic equipment slots – head, body, hands and so on – as every RPG hero who ever went before them. It’s an odd clash between a neat concept and bland execution that only becomes more pronounced as the party learn how to evolve into new forms and end up with either too many or not enough of most limbs, yet we’re still asked to buy (sorry, use Dust) leather boots for nonexistent feet. Imagine if powerful claws were unable to hold a delicate magical staff, or a weaker evolution’s flaws could be compensated for by versatile armour? Imagine if they had, if absolutely nothing else, designed your party’s forms around the game they were starring in?

This idea of evolving your team is equally underwhelming, performed by picking a stat-boosting human from a randomised list to eat and then choosing the final outcome of this feast yourself from one of three possibilities. There’s no excitement, danger, or effort to it, and it sure as heck doesn’t help you connect with your team either – a team that are pre-named and have their own personalities (slender as they are) – as they become so physically different from their previous selves that if it weren’t for the same names appearing at the top of the text boxes they could honestly be anyone, the changes so disjointed and extreme the next stage of sexy succubus Freya’s evolution can be a faceless worm-thing with pincers on the back. Bahamut Lagoon took great care to ensure your dragons were visibly growing in size and becoming more exaggerated versions of one particular type, Atlus’ obvious demigod-summoning counterpart embraced the anarchy of demon fusion from the start… but these are just swaps, one sprite replaced with another while the game insists undergoing such a huge metamorphosis is no big deal.

The good news is you can at least choose the frequency of the random encounters you run into while you’re out and about, whether to attack everything you can find (read: battles so frequent you might literally not be able to take a full step in any direction before triggering the next one) to completely ignoring the little guys (meaning you skip almost all noncompulsory fights). This welcome option, the one you can adjust to suit your tastes at any time you like, is quickly rendered useless by the game’s unwillingness to take its own feature into account: The number of fights you choose to (not) do makes no difference whatsoever on an upcoming boss’ stats, so if you’ve been merrily skipping all the filler then all you’ve done is made yourself under-levelled and easily defeated.

It’s a game that raises more questions than it answers, although they’re sadly not the sort of clever head-scratchers anyone would hope to find in a post-post-apocalyptic world: For a game so keen on using such an attention grabbing setting, why does it refuse to do anything with it? Why does it give us a world full of demons only to make them act like humans? Why am I still going from one place to another via frustratingly fiddly maps filled with winding paths just to talk to the guy in charge in the big house at the back of the village before going through a dungeon to fight someone? Why are the cast no fun to be around, neither chaotically demonic outside of the same taste for human flesh every demon they meet seems to have nor plain likeable either?

There’s no doubt After Armageddon Gaiden is far from the first RPG to fall into these well-worn ruts but after opening with such a breathtaking premise and considering both the format as well as the genre’s relative maturity on its release (the Saturn debuted in Japan just over a week after this came out) it feels like a huge letdown to see it mindlessly repeat issues that had been solved by other games on weaker hardware years earlier and take you through feeble reenactments of better games plot twists. Even the destruction of the world ends up feeling hollow as everyone you’ve met up to that early point in the story is either nonverbal, hostile to some degree, or Random Town NPC Guy. There’s nobody to feel sad about losing, there’s no reason to care if the weird bio-organic monster town near an already visible ruined and deserted human city is reduced to ash. After Armageddon Gaiden is the gaming equivalent of a beautifully written symphony played on a kazoo: It’s an experience packed with fascinating ideas – the only problem is the execution’s all wrong.

[Ko-fi supporters made this post possible – and they got to read it a week early too!]

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