Review

Shin Megami Tensei IV

Reviewed by Cliff Bakehorn, Posted on 2014-09-25

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The latest installment of the Shin Megami Tensei series - SMT IV for the Nintendo 3DS - was also one of the greatest.

You may not be as familiar with Atlus's Shin Megami Tensei franchise as classic role-playing games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or even Pokemon.

It is high time for that to change.

Heavily inspired by demonic lore, full of mythological beasts, geared toward the niche RPG fans...indeed, Shin Megami (and its many spin-off titles) is a unique one that has always marched to the beat of its own drum, so to speak.

The series' fourth installment (numerically speaking, at least) arrived last month on the Nintendo 3DS; in the months leading up to its release, Shin Megami Tensei IV really seemed to be gathering a lot more press than its predecessors ever did before launch. Perhaps this has something to do with the recent success of the Persona series, or maybe the efforts of Atlus are finally getting the deserved attention: it definitely isn't the first game in the franchise to appear on the 3DS, but it had the most hype, and in turn the most to prove.

SMT IV - Banner

Fortunately, SMT IV doesn't miss a single note - from the hundreds of demons to collect and fuse, to the streamlined "Press Turn" battle system...even the quick-paced nature of the handheld-friendly "challenge quests" and the early stream of DLC support seems to prove that SMT IV was built by Atlus to be one of the top role-playing games on any handheld, period.

That being said, what makes this one so special? I'd like to break down some points of focus regarding Shin Megami Tensei IV - starting with many of its best qualities, and ending with some of the parts I didn't enjoy as much:

YAY: Shin Megami Tensei IV brings the series' signature style to the Nintendo 3DS with brilliant results.

As I mentioned earlier, the entire Shin Megami Tensei franchise has more or less played by its own unique rules. More importantly, the series has a very distinct sense of style and atmosphere that separates it from most of the better-known RPGs. None of this is lost in the transition to handheld; even on the 3DS, Shin Megami Tensei IV puts you into some very macabre settings and situations.

Shin Megami Tensei IV 1

The game starts simply enough, with the protagonist (named "Flynn" by default) taking part in a ceremony to determine if he will become one of the legendary "Samurai" warriors that protects the land from demonic forces. Naturally, he's chosen to become a Samurai, and joins the ranks of his fellow trainees Walter, Jonathan and Isabeau. Equipped with fancy, A.I.-infused "gauntlets" on their arms, the team sets out on missions and quests given to them by a group known as The Order.

SMT IV - Gauntlet

It isn't long before the events of Shin Megami Tensei IV start to spiral outward and quickly unravel, taking our protagonist and his Samurai crew from their humble castle-town roots to the most demon-infested areas of Tokyo, all in the name of fulfilling their duties to The Order. They explore forests and city streets, even parks and underground metro stations filled with the depraved denizens of the region. They even enter the foreboding domains of powerful demons; the environment immediately shifts away from the natural landscape to maze-like corridors that would be right at home in the Alien films.

SMT IV definitely carries on the series' incredible art direction, character and demon designs, mood-setting music and devilish themes. I was thoroughly impressed to see that almost all of the dialogue was paired with solid voice-over; I even found myself compelled enough by the game to sit through many of the conversations between characters with the text set to "Auto", just so the spoken conversation between the characters sounded more natural and organic. This was pretty effective at pulling me into the cast and the cryptic, unwelcoming world - in fact, even more so than any previous Shin Megami Tensei title has managed before.

SMT IV - Plot

YAY: There is a ton of depth found in the demon system: there are hundreds of unique monsters found throughout the game, many of which must be recruited through conversation or "fused" via the Cathedral of Shadows.

The process of conversing with and recruiting randomly-encountered demons to your party is nothing new in the Shin Megami Tensei series; in fact some of the other 3DS installments are based heavily around this idea. On the other hand, SMT IV takes this system and adds a lot of depth - with over 400 different demons to find in the game, variety never seems to be much of a problem.

SMT IV - 5

Basically, rather than combating the random demons alongside your fellow Samurai partners, your protagonist must form a team of the very monsters found throughout the game. It's a lot like Pokemon, only with a very unique, demonic twist. In fact, rather than merely throwing Poke Balls and leaving the success or failure rate to be decided by an intensely complicated algorithm, SMT IV forces players to engage in conversations with their foes. In order to successfully recruit demons, you'll have to fulfill their desires somehow - demons are pretty selfish, and won't help you for free, after all.

SMT IV - 1

Some demons require only a little coaxing to persuade; sometimes you'll have to toss them an item or let them leech some of your HP/MP. Others can be more persistent, haggling Macca and valuable items from you. This conversation system is truly one of the most entertaining and unique parts of the game; sometimes you'll say just the right thing at just the right time, and an opposing demon will immediately join forces with your party. Sometimes they will take items, leech your health, and then attack you before running away from the battle - leaving you completely empty-handed and with less loot than you carried into the battle.

If it sounds ridiculous, it's because it kind of is ridiculous - Shin Megami Tensei IV may not work around all the complex math-based mechanics that dictate the flow of the Pokemon games, but its unique randomness can be equally rewarding and maddening.

YAY: The "Demon Whisper" feature allows you to inherit skills and spells from your roster of demons, keeping things interesting and greatly expanding the abilities of the main character.

SMT IV - 6

Getting back on track; the point of recruiting a bunch of different demons, farming XP from random encounters, and leveling up your party boils down to keeping a wide variety of offensive options at your disposal, as well as obtaining new skills and spells for your main character. You see, demon skills can be passed on to your protagonist through the "Demon Whisper" feature; basically this lets you pick from all your demons' skills upon leveling up, adding new skills or even powering up the ones you've already mastered. Boosting the power of your favorite spells can be very rewarding, adding quite a bit of damage or higher chances of afflicting status effects. There is a limit to the Demon Whisper - it can only be performed once with each demon, so you really have to choose the skills to inherit or pass on very wisely.

SMT IV - Mido

The demons in SMT IV do not evolve the same way that you would expect from the creatures in Pokemon games: although some of them will indeed change their form upon reaching a certain level, most of them take new shapes when they are "fused" in the Cathedral of Shadows. This nifty feature (handled by an amusing A.I. character known as Mido) lets you combine two or even three demons together, usually resulting in a much stronger monster. There are plenty of interesting demons encountered throughout the game, but some of my favorite party members were crafted in the Cathedral of Shadows, and I particularly enjoyed the sense of reward when I finally found all the demons necessary for a "Special Fusion". These special monsters are generally stronger than even the best regular demons - in fact, many of them are bosses, or recurring characters from past Shin Megami titles.

SMT IV - Demon

As you have probably guessed by now, Shin Megami Tensei IV's development/team-building process works like this: recruit demons, level-up demons and obtain skills through Demon Whisper, fuse older demons to create new ones, learn stronger skills, repeat. If I have just one complaint about this system of gaining party members/abilities, it's that the demons in your stock become slightly less valuable when you've obtained all of their skills, or once they are no longer able to perform the Demon Whisper to power up/pass on abilities. Clearing out your roster for new demons can be tricky at certain points; do you choose to risk using weaker or unfamiliar demons in order to learn different skills, or do you stick with your tried-and-true fighters, relying on your protagonist's skill set to dominate the opposition?

That brings me to my next point...

YAY: The "Press Turn" mechanic focuses on attacking weaknesses, inflicting status ailments, and developing a strategy for constantly barraging the opposition with the right skills.

The turn-based battle system in Shin Megami Tensei IV seems pretty traditional at first glance - and it is, at least on the surface. You see, SMT IV is actually a very deep game: the battle system blueprint features the standard skills, elemental affinities, status-affecting spells, and so on...but how it all works is so much more streamlined and also so much more complex.

SMT IV - Battle

Quite like Pokemon, it quickly becomes a point of focus for you to learn the elemental weaknesses of opposing demons - at first it seems nice for blazing through the low-level demon battles, using first-stage elemental attacks to blast them (quite literally) out of the battle. Before long, your only chance of surviving even random encounters requires you to have a solid understanding of SMT IV's "Press Turn" mechanics.

The idea of the "Press Turn" system plays with factors such as risk/reward quite a bit; at the start of each combat round, you're given an action for each of your party members. As you go through and begin choosing skills and attacks, your performance in battle is immediately reflected by the Press Turn action icons at the top-right corner of the screen. Normal hits will take away your action for the round, no big deal - the action icon fades from the screen, and you attack with the next demon in your stock.

Where it gets interesting is when you start hitting your foes with the elemental spells or status-afflicting moves that they are stronger or weaker against: basically, super-effective moves preserve your action icon for another turn, giving you an extra chance to attack the enemy team. On the other hand, the punishment is equally severe for missing attacks - or even worse, using attacks that can be blocked, reflected or drained by your foes. When you miss or have an attack blocked/absorbed, you actually lose one or more of your action icons - this means you can effectively screw up your round in battle pretty quickly if you are sloppy with your decisions. Attacks with high-critical-rate/low-accuracy, for example, are a huge risk to take - just when you thought you might remove an enemy from the battle, your attack could miss and end the turn, giving  the enemy the upper hand.

SMT IV - Press Turn

Before you've spent too much time in the game, you'll encounter plenty of random mobs that have widely-varied weaknesses. You'll also encounter powerful bosses with few (if any) weaknesses, resistances to most status effects, and more. Keeping a diverse set of offensive spells and attacks is key, as well as forming a party of demons that aren't weak to the same kind of attacks or afflictions.

SMT IV - Horde

You would think the complexity of the Press Turn system would be enough, but Shin Megami Tensei IV really cranks up the difficulty when the enemy demons and boss characters start taking advantage of the same mechanics offered to the player. Indeed, CPU-controlled, randomly-encountered demons can absolutely decimate an unprepared or unhealthy party. When your weaknesses are attacked, the extra turns really make the enemies hit harder, and some of them even seem to "learn" your weaknesses, resulting in the same relentless assault upon your demons as they are capable of dishing out.

YAY: The quests and delivery missions are set up nicely for a very handheld-friendly experience.

As I've already hinted, Shin Megami Tensei IV really benefits from its excellent pacing and sense of reward granted from completing its various "Challenge Quests". These quests are all found in one convenient menu, and serve as both the plot-directed objectives as well as the random fetch quests, missions for hire, and distractions on the side.

SMT IV - 7

Perhaps the best part about the mission design in SMT IV is that it remains so "handheld-friendly" despite the fact that you're supposed to be invested in a full-length, portable RPG. Rather than demanding that you engage in long-winded quests at all times, Shin Megami Tensei IV pieces its challenges together in smaller "bites" that take slightly less time to finish, but seem to be equally rewarding when you're reaping the spoils of your deeds.

At the beginning of the game, your missions are simple enough - they usually involve tasks like executing a special boss demon hidden somewhere in the world, delivering special looted items from fallen enemies, and hunting down a set number of demons in a given area. Before long, you'll engage in Hunter Tournaments against powerful NPCs and their team of demons. You'll scour the Tokyo region for specific characters or locales to photograph. You'll find and activate terminals that can fast-travel your party across the map. The various mission types go on and on; you can even accept and complete side-quests from the occasional random demon wanting more than a battle.

Again, the best part of this design/style of progression is that it constantly feels rewarding, even if it's just in smaller and more frequent doses. The sense of moving on from one quick fetch quest to the next hunting mission before getting back on track with the plot actually reminded me a bit of playing Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where I was constantly but happily distracted by all the things I could do at any given point.

YAY: There has already been a steady stream of downloadable content following the game's release - promising to say the least. Even better, the DLC at this point has already extended the content found on the original cartridge.

Though it is not normally one of the factors I'd consider "important" for the initial review of any game, SMT IV has been getting plenty of downloadable content support from Atlus, including three separate updates since the release of the game - each with a handful of content packs.

Shin Megami Tensei IV - Freedom Armor

I admit that it was mostly out of curiosity that I decided to invest in the DLC for Shin Megami Tensei IV, I was ultimately pretty happy with the decision. I purchased both of the first two bundles, which yielded some new delivery missions with special armor pieces as a reward (seen in the image to the right), unlocked a handful of demons that could be obtained through Special Fusions, and even dabbled with an XP-farming quest that sent my main character's level skyrocketing pretty early in the game. There were a few more "farming" DLC packs, including one that focused on stockpiling Macca (money) and one that rewarded you with items that could be redeemed for additional App Points.

Normally I would frown upon the idea of purchasing digital content to further my own progress in any video game, but the cheap prices for the DLC ($0.99-$2.99) as well as the generally difficult nature of the game made it pretty difficult not to want to explore some expanded content.

Now that I have pointed out most of the better qualities of Shin Megami Tensei IV, I would like to mention a few points of criticism - although it comes close, Atlus's latest is not perfect, and is dragged down a bit by the following issues:

NAY: Progressing through the plot can be difficult, mainly due to the limited hints and arbitrary comments from NPCs regarding your destination/objectives.

If there is one issue that consistently popped up during my time with SMT IV, it was the progression of the plot. Although I was certainly engrossed in the cast more than I expected to be, and intrigued by the setting enough to explore at my own pace, I never really felt like I was constantly "on track". Again, the comparison to Skyrim works pretty well here: SMT IV can sometimes make it very difficult to focus on your primary objective, and even worse, the vague hints and dialogue cues from NPCs don't always give you very much direction.

wpid-smt-iv-3ds-2.jpg

This problem isn't exclusive to Shin Megami Tensei IV; to be honest, it could be more of a personal issue, as it seems to happen frequently when I dive into JRPGs. I rarely have the attention span to focus on a lot of directions in any video game; with most of the locales in SMT IV named after cities or regions of Japan, the tasks of memorizing the layout of the world map and keeping track of my destination at any given point were more difficult than they should have been.

Basically, even when using the Prima "Starter Guide" that came bundled with my collector's edition of Shin Megami Tensei IV, I often found myself wandering around, lost and absolutely clueless about where I should have been going or what I should have been doing. This rarely became a problem; I usually spent that time battling demons, farming XP and expanding my stock of party members by recruiting the monsters I had not yet collected. There was always plenty to do to stay occupied, but as rewarding as the game feels when you're on the right track, it was too bad that I spent a lot of idle time grinding through the same mobs of demons in many of the early areas.

NAY: The world map is similar those found in past SMT games, but SMT IV's remains one of the most tragically difficult-to-navigate that I can recall.

Part of what exacerbated my difficulty with progressing through the game was simply navigating the world map, which - I'll be honest - is the worst overworld map I can recall in any JRPG the past decade. I mentioned this before, but my first impressions of the game had not even revealed the true misery that is exploring its world map.

To be fair, SMT IV's world map isn't much different than the overworld areas in past Shin Megami Tensei titles, but the fact that it's so difficult just to make out the terrain and clearly see where you're going is a pretty considerable issue. Just take a look for yourself:

[caption id="attachment_3489" align="aligncenter" width="470"]SMT IV - World Map This image was taken from a phone camera (hence the grainy quality), but still shows how poorly laid-out the world map can be. The actual visibility in-game isn't much better.[/caption]

I feel like the image above speaks for itself; it can be almost impossible to navigate the map without perfect lighting, just because the design of the environment is so murky. There are roads and paths that connect all over the place, with dead ends and poorly-indicated landmarks scattered throughout. Finding the next major city can be tough enough, never mind the process of locating some of the smaller areas that you're supposed to find during certain Challenge Quests.

NAY: The difficulty curve is not at all forgiving, and could easily turn away casual players or impatient/inexperienced RPG fans before the plot really even takes off.

Finally, my last minor issue with Shin Megami Tensei IV: the difficulty curve is more like a difficulty moon rocket, as the challenge seems to pick up immediately just a few hours into the game.

As mentioned before, the Press Turn system works equally for your party and for your foes: this makes the game very difficult, especially when an opponent manages to "learn" your weaknesses and turns the tables by exploiting them relentlessly. Bosses are particularly notorious for this, and with their limited weaknesses, it can be a process of trial-and-error to see what works and what doesn't before you're actually capable of causing much damage. Never mind bosses, though - even random demon mobs are capable of picking apart your team in a few quick rounds. This makes entering any new location somewhat stressful, as you are still learning the basics of the new demons - never mind having strong enough attack/magic skills to wipe them off the screen in a single turn, at this point it can become a test of survival very quickly.

SMT IV - Charon

Unlike most modern video games, the penalty for screwing up and seeing the "Game Over" sequence is quite punishing. Your first mishap will take you to the River Styx, where the ferryman Charon greets you - fortunately, Charon has a bit of a population issue around his neck of the woods, and he prefers to send you back to the land of the living...for a fee. Each trip to the underworld (essentially each Game Over screen) results in Charon's taunting, followed by the offer of reviving you and placing you at your current position for either Macca or Play Coins. The amount of Macca that Charon demands from you seems to be random, but his fee was always punishing enough to significantly affect my Macca savings. In fact, you can actually go into debt with Charon - he puts your death toll on a tab, and says he'll collect when you've got the cash. Paying with Play Coins seems preferable, until you make the same mistake that I made - spending dozens of Play Coins (which require far more effort to obtain than Macca) before realizing that you should just save frequently (and I mean frequently) and re-load your previous file if you make any major mistakes.

There is an easier difficulty setting - in fact, there are no penalties for switching from the Prentice setting. You even seem to find the same items and relics scattered about, encounter the same kinds of demons, and level up at the same pace. This negates some of the issues I had with the difficulty curve, but doesn't really make the game a lot easier by any means...never mind the personal shame of lowering the difficulty setting when recommended by the game itself.

SMT IV - Monks

Conclusion:

In the end, Atlus hoped to put out one of 2013's biggest Nintendo 3DS titles, and it goes almost without saying that they've accomplished that goal. Shin Megami Tensei IV is a brilliant role-playing game, easily the finest on the handheld and one of the best I've played in well over a decade. Few JRPGs have managed to captivate both my interest in the plot and in the fundamental game mechanics the way that SMT IV has.

Although the difficult nature of the game might be a tough wall to climb for certain players, fans of JRPGs, the Shin Megami/Persona/Digital Devil Saga games, and Atlus's unique style will find a lot to enjoy here. The recruiting, battling and fusing of demons is addictive and engaging, quite the same as the Pokemon series, just with a much more adult-oriented tone and theme. It's perfect for those who want to quickly pick up and play a few Challenge Quests, but equally enjoyable for anyone who wants to sit down for half a dozen hours to grind and farm XP.

In conclusion, I really want to point out how impressed I am with Atlus - as an individual who grew up during a generation dominated by Square-Enix franchises, the bizarre themes of the Shin Megami series are actually quite refreshing - and the quality of Atlus's titles just seems to increase time and time again. I loved Code of PrincessDevil Survivor: Overclocked, and now Shin Megami Tensei IV, the best of them all.

Reviewed by Cliff Bakehorn

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