Sunday, October 1, 2023

The Best Atlus Games on Nintendo Hardware

For when you need a break from Final Fantasy

To help you punch up your backlog, I have put together a list of the best Atlus games that you can check out on Nintendo hardware. While we may never see Persona 5 on the Nintendo Switch, we do have a few options that are even better.

If you spend much time on Nintendo Watcher, you’ll know that we have a soft spot for JRPGs and Square-Enix. The site got its start talking about Final Fantasy X after all.

However, over on the Nintendo Watcher Podcast, you will also hear me speak regularly about my love for Atlus. I have gushed about Shin Megami Tensei V more than once. It is a great entry into the series! You should check it out. However, Atlus has a lot more to offer those who dive into their back catalogue.

While Atlus has a prominent publishing arm, that deep catalogue made narrowing that list down to my Top 8 impossible. Instead this list focuses on the best Atlus games from their first-party studios. With that out of the way, let’s dive in!

The Eight Best Atlus Games You Can Play on Nintendo Hardware

Trauma Center: Second Opinion

Itself a remake of the 2005 Nintendo DS game, Trauma Center: Under the Knife, this 2006 Wii launch title is a great example of the stranger side of Atlus development.

A surgeon simulator combined with a visual novel, it is Hasbro’s Operation meets bio-terrorism. When talking about the best Atlus games, the weirder entries deserve some love.

Much of the runtime is spent reading, but the narrative here is full of interesting (if predictable) twists and turns. However, what sets Trauma Center apart from other visual novels is its gameplay. As a Wii launch title, Trauma Center made great use of the system’s motion controls. While Nintendo would eventually perfect their motion control input with the Wii MotionPlus, Trauma Center showed off that promise in the early days.

The controls were not without their problems, however. Playing with the DS stylus was certainly more responsive since early motion control lacked precision. However, it is undoubtedly cooler to close up after surgery with the chunky Wii Remote than the dinky DS stylus.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked, released in 2011, is a remaster of the first game in the Devil Survivor spin-off series. Some of the best Atlus games take their inspiration from dungeon crawlers or resemble games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. However, the Devil Survivor spin-offs take inspiration from tactics RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission.

Devil Survivor excels in two significant ways: a complex, branching narrative and deep party-based combat.

Devil Survivor Overclocked has a hefty narrative with multiple endings dependent on choices made during the course of the game. It is impossible to see the entire story in a single playthrough. Between battles, there are free roam segments that allow you to complete sidequests and interact with NPCs and party members. However, certain actions progress time and this requires you to think carefully about what to do next.

The combat offers a fresh take on the traditional tactics RPGs. In many games of the genre, an individual sprite will either represent a single unit or a squad. With the latter example, individual squad members are more representative of hit points than unique combatants.

Devil Survivor Overclocked changes this trend. Character sprites represent squads of three unique combatants which each act independently of one another. This adds an additional layer of tactical planning to every encounter. Placement becomes more important when a single elemental mismatch can result in the immediate death of an entire squad, and forming squads with balanced loadouts is essential for success.

Etrian Odyssey IV

Honorable Mention: Persona Q2

Any Etrian Odyssey game could have found its place on a list of best Atlus games. The quality of the games is consistent between entries, making every entry worth checking out. However, I chose the fourth entry because I believe it is the best starting place for new players.

The Etrian Odyssey series takes its inspiration from the beloved DRPGs of old. These games are familiar to anyone who grew up playing Wizardy or Ultima. Etrian Odyssey tasks players with building a party of adventurers and spending hours mapping dungeons and battling increasingly ferocious monsters.

The difficulty here is lighter than earlier entries, but it is still common to find your entire party wiped out in a single turn if you come to the dungeons unprepared. Thankfully, most party compositions are viable in this entry. The slow drip feed of more advanced classes presents players with a more gradual learning curve. That is not to say that you can be thoughtless in party composition. Knowing how classes complement one another is required for beating the games optional superbosses.

Etrian Odyssey IV was the first entry on the 3DS and brought with it some changes to the formula.

For starters, it was the first entry to have something that resembled a traditional story. EOIV was the clear inspiration for the Untold remakes. These remakes would come along a few years later and expand the first two entries with traditional story modes.

A more controversial change to the formula was the addition of an overworld map. Many fans of the series have rightfully pointed out this change can feel out of sync with the series. However, I believe that it breaks up the oppressive atmosphere of some of the games brilliant dungeons and gives the world a sense of scale that is often lacking in DRPGs.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hacker

Honorable Mention: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux

Originally released in 1997 on the Sega Saturn, this classic Atlus RPG was rereleased on the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. With an upcoming sequel set to release later this year on everything but the Switch, now is the perfect time to check out this underrated classic from Atlus’ catalogue.

More recent entries in the SMT main and sub-series have largely pivoted to third-person dungeon exploration. However, Soul Hackers is firmly from the era of first-person dungeon crawlers.

It may lack some of the gameplay refinement of more recent entries in the SMT series, but it makes up for the lack of Press Turn combat with a far more compelling demon affinity system.

Like all Shin Megami Tensei games, Soul Hacker‘s combat centers around recruiting and fusing demons. However, Soul Hacker comes from an earlier era of Shin Megami Tensei games where your demons are less than friendly. The likelihood of a demon doing what you ask of them is dependent several factors beyond your character level.

Each demon in your party has a unique personality. When you give them a command, the game checks how well they like you before deciding what to do. Sometimes they acquiesce. Sometimes they do something else. By allowing your demons to act on their own, making choices they agree with, and spending more time with them in your party, the odds of them listening to you will increase.

While it can suck to have your party wipe because your strongest demon refuses your command at a crucial moment, this frustration is outweighed when an unruly demon you’ve been wooing for several hours finally listen to a command they would typically refuse.

Shin Megami Tensei IV (+ Apocalypse)

Honorable Mentions: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster and Shin Megami Tensei V

There is no list of best Atlus games without a Shin Megami Tensei entry.

For a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game, you can’t really go wrong with any of the above suggestion. For many, Nocturne is the best JRPG of the PS2 era. Its arrival to the Nintendo Switch makes playing it a no-brainer. I have already made the case for Shin Megami Tensei V on the Nintendo Watcher pod, so I won’t rehash those details here.

Instead, on the brink of the 3DS’ demise, I wanted do draw attention to this overlooked duology. The first game in the core Shin Megami Tensei series to receive a direct sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV is my favorite of the mainline entries. While it returned the series to its first-person perspective following the wildly successful Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, it kept many of the quality of life improvements found there and refined them further.

The Press Turn combat system returns, but now enemies are seen on the overworld. This allows players more control over which demons to fight and when to avoid battles. In addition, the new “Smirk” system encourages you to manipulate enemy weaknesses. Players are granted a small chance of entering “Smirk” status upon successful exploitation of weakness or critical hit. This status grants the player temporary combat buffs that make them hit harder and become more resilient.

Like all good Atlus games, SMT IV encourages multiple playthroughs.

The staple Shin Megami Tensei Good, Evil, and Neutral routes make a return. Multiple endings encourage replaying the game to see new perspectives and fight different bosses. Demon fusion grabs some much loved improvements from the Persona series. This allows players more granular control over demon builds when compared to Nocturne. With something like 400 demons available in the compendium, there is plenty to encourage you to explore additional playthroughs.

The sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse it is absolutely worth a go if you like the original. Set 25 years after the first, the game explores the ramifications of those events. By shifting perspective to a normal resident of Tokyo, the scope of the first game comes into clearer view.

Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology

Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology is often compared to Chrono Trigger as yet another time-hopping narrative about halting the apocalypse. While that comparison is fair on the surface, the game has more in common with Chrono Cross‘s parallel universes. Regardless of which comparison you find more apt, the story of Radiant Historia is told with a seriousness and maturity that is lacking in many JRPGs.

While the game commits the cardinal sin of forcing players to work deliberately and diligently towards a “True Ending,” it never locks you out of this option and allows you to complete it on a single playthrough. The addition of a new “Perfect Ending” and more anime-inspired character portraits were controversial for fans of the original. However, the fully-voiced dialogue and gameplay additions make this the definitive version of the game.

When I think about what makes the best Atlus games, it tends to come down to their gameplay systems.

I appreciate the fact that they are unafraid to experiment with turn-based combat. The Press Turn system is beloved by fans of Shin Megami Tensei and Persona, and for good reason: it feels good getting extra turns! Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology understands this well and gives players total control over both turn order and enemy placement.

In combat, players can see the turn order on the left-hand side of the screen. During the player’s turn, they can pass their turn with another unit (friend or foe) in the initiative order. This puts the passing player in a state where all hits against them are critical hits until they act. This forces the player to think before making decisions, but rewards for carefully gambled turns are usually worth the risk.

This is because Radiant Historia allows you to manipulate the placement of enemies on a 3×3 grid during combat. By using movement changing attacks, players stack enemies on the same square and do increased damage with each added turn. Letting enemies take a few free shots allows players to end combats in a single turn with a well-planned combo.

Catherine: Full Body

Now for something a little different. While most of the best Atlus games are JRPGs, this puzzle game should not be slept on.

When Catherine originally released in 2011, fans were excited for the next game from the Persona devs. With the success of Persona 4, Atlus had begun to find a more mainstream audience for their relatively niche JRPGs. Imagine the surprise when it was revealed that, instead of a sequel to the critically acclaimed turn-based RPG. Instead, the next game from the creative team behind Persona 4 was an action puzzler with heavy social simulator elements. The game was largely a successful expansion of the ideas presented in Persona‘s much loved social links.

However, the real joy of playing Catherine is not the narrative, but the lightning fast and brutally difficult puzzle-action gameplay.

While Catherine would fail to sell as many copies as Persona 4, it was successful enough to spawn a remastered. 2019’s Catherine: Full Body added new endings, an additional love interest, and expanded gameplay.

The main action of the game takes place in protagonist Vincent’s fevered dreams. Vincent must play a series of deadly puzzle games each night in order to avoid dying in his sleep. These sequences play out as a race against time as Vincent climbs complex block pushing puzzles.

As Vincent makes his way up the increasingly complex towers, the ground continually falls out from under him. The game peppers stages with trap blocks, foes that attempt to push you from the towers, and power-ups to speed progression. While the puzzles start out relatively tame, some of the late-game stages had me retrying a puzzle fifty or sixty times before moving on. Luckily, puzzles are relatively short and the time between death and restart is near instantaneous. The action always feels frantic and fluid.

Catherine also contains a competitive multiplayer mode. In this mode, two players compete in an unending race while trying to impede their opponents progress. This mode was so successful that it spawned a rather active competitive scene within the community. Tournaments of the game’s Colosseum mode pop up at national and regional FGC events regularly.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore

Now, my final pick for the best Atlus games to play on Nintendo Hardware: Tokyo Mirage Session #FE Encore.

Originally teased in January 2013 as a major crossover event between Nintendo’s Fire Emblem and Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei teams, the excitement around this announcement was palpable. Fans of both series were excited to see how these two prolific teams would combine these disparate series. Speculation ran rampant for a couple of years while news about the games progress stalled.

When the game finally resurfaced in late 2015, Tokyo Mirage Session #FE was not what most fans expected. Aside from character names, there was almost nothing about the game that resembled Fire Emblem or Shin Megami Tensei. The game had more in common with Persona, than the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games teased in the original announcement. It didn’t help that the game released towards the end of the Wii U lifecycle. This limited the audience and hurt sales. Luckily, the game has a new life on the Switch with the Encore edition. This new version adds all the DLC of the original game alongside some quality of life improvements.

Nonetheless, the game we did get is perhaps one of the sharpest offerings in Atlus’s storied catalogue.

Set in modern-day Tokyo, the game drips with style. You are tasked with investigating a series of unexplained disappearances with the help of your Mirages. Mirages are Shin Megami Tensei Personas reskinned as famous Fire Emblem heroes. Unlike the high school setting of Persona, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore places you in a Japanese idol agency. This is a J-pop idol adventure through-and-through.

While the games setting may be off-putting for some, the story is a touching. It is also a serious examination of the horrors of an industry that turns people into commodities.

Aside from being a flashy and colorful, the game is some of the best combat that Atlus has ever offered. While the Mirage system is not as complex as the demon fusion of a mainline Shin Megami Tensei, the Session Attack system ramps the Press Turn to a whole new level.

Unlike the All-Out-Attack from Persona, Session Attacks allow you to chain skills between character turns to build impressive combos. These can also be started or extended with rare Performance Attacks unlocked through story and side content. When a Session Attack comes to a close, there is the chance of your party releasing an Ad-Lib Performance. These are powerful character specific attacks complete with flashy, and extensive, animation sequences. If this all sounds complicated, its because it is. Nonetheless, pulling off a successful Session Attack of 20 or more rounds is immensely satisfying.

So there you have it, my personal Top 8 best Atlus Games on Nintendo hardware. Hopefully if you stuck around until now you have seen something you like.

Matthew Pilkington
Matthew Pilkington
follow me on twitter: @zeroparse

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