My first experience with a Shin Megami Tensei game was when I played Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne while I was in college. I bought the game in anticipation of Persona 3, not realizing how different the two games really were. While Persona 3 tasked the player with juggling a number of high school relationships — with, you know: people — Nocturne had me conversing with demons in the ruins of Tokyo. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Minor differences aside, SMT3 left a huge impression with its darkly stylized world and unflinching difficulty. Hell, my blog gets its name from Nocturne!
When Atlus hooked me up with a review copy of Shin Megami Tensei IV, I was skeptical that a portable title could create the impact I’d come to expect form the series. Releasing the next game for the 3DS felt like a missed opportunity to bring SMT into HD. I was also bummed that the demons themselves — of which there are literally hundreds to recruit and combine — would be depicted with 2D sprites rather than 3D. I didn’t have to play Shin Megami Tensei IV long to realize that, despite my grumblings, the game can definitely hold a candelabra to its esteemed predecessors.
Shin Megami Tensei IV begins with your protagonist being chosen to become a samurai. In East Mikado, the job of the samurai is a simple one: slay demons. You’re joined by three other newbie samurai: the rash Walter, the serene Jonathan, and the stoic Isabeau. Each have their own ideals and beliefs about the natural order of the world (largely shaped by their orientation within the kingdom’s caste system) and these beliefs shape their actions throughout the game.
At certain key points in the story, these tagalongs pop out of nowhere and comment on what’s happening. It’s kind of jarring. Their reactions to certain events — like suddenly stepping foot in a futuristic dystopian world — left something to be desired. While I understand that these characters offer different points of view, they remained shallow and predictable.
You’ll be asked to make important decisions throughout the story. And there are some that are doozies. At one point I was asked whether or not I wanted to kill a particular demon holed up in a government office building in Shinjuku. When I finally told him to amscray, he began making some great points about humans — always quick to judge everyone but themselves. As a samurai with one simple goal, I shouldn’t have hesitated… Unable to decide in that moment I closed my 3DS, and did some soul searching. I ended up sparing that demon. I appreciate that these decisions aren’t easy, because if they were, then they’d only really be offering the illusion of choice which I HATE in most games that feature an alignment system.
Nearly everything is quest based in SMT4. Quests can be accepted at taverns, and quest details are stored on your high-tech gauntlet. Despite some technological assistance it’s not always clear where to go or what to do next. Let me give you an example. At one point I arrived at a bar and began talking with the patrons. I like to talk to NPCs — most games encourage it, and SMT is one of those games. Anyway, one of the patrons asked me if I was from Mikado. I didn’t quite trust him, so I said “No.” It was an option after all. Hours later, after banging my head against the wall and translating a Japanese wiki I discovered that I had to say “Yes” to this stranger in order to unlock a quest needed to advance. Huh? Why allow me to come so close to advancing but offer one last hurdle? Once I did know how to continue in the story, I was eager to see what the next story arc had in store, but being completely lost was not uncommon.
Combat in Shin Megami Tensei IV is what you’d expect from the SMT series, but with some modernizations. Battles are turn-based, with the most agile units acting first. Hitting an enemy’s weakness deals bonus damage and grants an additional turn which is a huge advantage. One update to this system is the “smirk” mechanic. When a unit hits an enemy’s weakness, there’s a chance that they’ll “smirk”. After smirking, that unit’s critical rate and evasion rate increase, making them much more dangerous for the remainder of their turn. This nuance can really turn the tide of battle and is an effective way to reward a player who uses their head.
There is a ton of customization when it comes to your party. Your protagonist’s stats can be raised however you see fit with each level. Upon leveling up, your character will also receive points that allow you to unlock apps for your gauntlet. These offer persistent benefits such as additional skill slots for your character or recruited demons. My personal favorite app allowed my character to recover MP while walking around a dungeon. This allowed me to keep a steady stream of magic at my disposal and decreased the frequency with which I’d have to heal. If you have an idea of how you want your party to jive, well… there’s an app for that.
Dungeons are explored in the 3rd person perspective, and engaging an enemy here is critically important. Enemies appear as a kind of floating pixelated mass that moves towards you when it spots you. Kinda creepy, really. Striking that mass with your equipped weapon before getting hit can result in a pre-emptive battle. Failing to do so means getting caught by surprise, with the enemy acting first. I was really impressed to discover that when I changed from a sword to a lance, the actual attack animation in dungeons changed as well. Rather than an arcing sword slice, the lance quickly stabs forward, which I found to be a much more successful way of striking an oncoming enemy. Still, if I had one Macca for every time being caught off guard resulted in a Game Over… Let’s just say Shin Megami Tensei IV has definitely conditioned me into staying alert during my dungeon crawls.
Speaking of Game Overs — they’ll happen a lot. Sometimes it’s a necessary step towards learning about a particular enemy. But when your party falls, you’re not necessarily boned. After dying, your characters will arrive at the edge of the river Styx where Charon himself will gladly accept a bribe of either Macca or Play Coins. I walk everywhere with my 3DS so I always have a healthy supply of Play Coins ready for old Charon. It costs a fair amount, so this feature isn’t something that takes the difficulty out of SMT, it’s just a nice security net for if you happen to forget to save after several hours of play. Also, what a clever way to incorporate 3DS functionality into the game!
I have some gripes about the game’s presentation. Major story characters are only ever seen in 2D, be it their lush dialog art or simplified 2D sprites. There are points in the story where these two vastly different looking sprites will talk to each other, and then the game will return to the third dimension when it’s time to get back to dungeon crawling. I’m sure some of this has to do with the limitations of the 3DS, but I still found this graphical flip-flopping irritating.
Shin Megami Tensei IV failed to impress me with its supporting characters, and there were times where I was hopelessly lost and frustrated. When I was on track, the game provided a mind-bending story with a refreshing level of challenge and party customization. This package was enhanced with some great modernizations to the series albeit not enough graphically. If you’re not afraid to meet your maker (and send a bribe his way) SMT4 belongs in your 3DS.