Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series of role-playing games have always strayed from the beaten path when it comes to RPG storytelling, featuring a unique and compelling blend of contemporary settings (usually with a dash of cyberpunk for good measure) and realistic, morally ambiguous plotlines that often demands difficult decisions from the protagonist, and in turn the player. The series’ main titles have often presented the player with multiple flawed yet compelling philosophies, and asked them to choose which path, if any, they would stand for. The latest entry in this series, Shin Megami Tensei IV for the 3DS, is no different in this regard, and ultimately tasks the player with charting a new course for the world.
The story of Shin Megami Tensei IV begins in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a medieval society made up of a curious blend of European and Japanese culture, where children who come of age have a chance to become Samurai. Your character (named Flynn by default) is one of these chosen youths, along with the boisterous Walter, caring Jonathan, and standoffish Isabeau. Of course, this being a mainline SMT game, the group soon finds themselves in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Tokyo, which dwells beneath their kingdom. Tokyo has become a desolate place where humans dwell underground and demons roam the streets. Soon, the Samurai become embroiled in the politics of different factions across Tokyo, and discover horrifying revelations about the city and their own kingdom- revelations that will test their friendships and their loyalties, sending each one of them down a wildly different path.
|Your companions will react differently to your decisions.|
That isn’t really a spoiler, by the way, as the game makes it perfectly obvious that Jonathan will ultimately come to represent Law, Walter represent Chaos, and Isabeau some form of neutrality between the two. The Law-Neutral-Chaos alignment is something the series has been doing since the very beginning, and it is put to great use here. Unfortunately, the actual plot of Shin Megami Tensei IV is a tad weak compared to its predecessors. This is mostly due to the game’s pacing- despite a strong opening and a far more compelling second half, once the player is first turned loose on Tokyo the game opens up quite a bit, and it is easy to get so lost in the exploration and questing that the main plot loses a bit of its focus. It doesn’t help that the characters, while likeable, aren’t quite as fleshed out as we have come to expect from Atlus games. They are essentially extensions of their alignment, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and they do develop into their roles naturally), but the game is clearly more focused on the setting and exploration of the world than on the characters themselves.
Of course, the gameplay provides the meat of the Shin Megami Tensei experience. For those who don’t know, this is a turn-based RPG where the player is able to negotiate with demons in order to get them to join the party, essentially turning the game into a macabre version of Pokemon. Atlus has made several major improvements that certainly make SMT4 much more accessible and less tedious than earlier games in the series. In particular, the improvements made to demon fusion are a gift from YHVH, as you can now immediately select what skills will be carried over to your new demon. In earlier games, the skills would be random, causing players to cancel and reselect the fusion materials until they got the result they were after. The ability to pick and choose what skills are inherited greatly cuts down on the time spent in the Cathedral of Shadows, and makes it easier to make powerful demons. Being able to save anywhere is also a great addition, since it essentially gets rid of the frustration of running back to a save point after accomplishing something, only to die en route.
And die you will, because while SMT4 is more accessible than prior games in the series, it is by no means easy. The game actually suffers from a steep difficulty curve at the beginning, where you have no skills and are trying to successfully recruit a party of demons. After a couple trips to the game over screen (where you can bribe Charon the ferryman to return you to the world of the living), the game allows you to bump the difficulty down. The difficulty can be adjusted at any time, so players who find themselves growing frustrated have that option. For me personally, after that initial spike in difficulty was overcome, I found the lower difficulty to be a little too easy, and ended up playing the rest of the game on the normal setting. Make no mistake, SMT4 is challenging, but rewarding. It encourages the player to build their party with the proper arsenal of skills to hit an enemy weakness (which gains you an extra turn in battle), and to proceed with caution (getting ambushed by enemies is a veritable death sentence, so save frequently).
|This should look familiar to SMT veterans.|
Character development is a little more limited here than it was in the last game in the main SMT series, Nocturne. In Nocturne, you had a vast array of demonic parasites that would grant different abilities and stat increases. Shin Megami Tensei IV instead gives the player a handle of skill points to be distributed with each level up. Skill acquisition is handled by Demon Whispers. When one of your demons learns all of their available skills (or during randomly triggered conversations), they will allow you to transfer skills from the demon to the player character. It’s a simple system, and it does make it easy to build characters in certain ways (just transfer the skills you want from your demons and put the necessarily skill points into Magic or Dexterity), but I just found it to be a little less interesting than the skill system from Nocturne.
The game’s presentation is a little uneven. On the one hand, the 3D environments are quite nice, and are chock-full of loot to grab and enemies to slay. Shin Megami Tensei IV truly invites the player to explore its dark and desolate world- players will find themselves combing every inch of the map in search of treasure and rewards, whatever the danger might be. The battles, however, are presented from a first-person perspective, with 2D enemy sprites and static backgrounds. The same goes for the majority of conversations, and while the art is nice, it does give the game a slightly more ‘budgeted’ feel. The music is a similar mixed bag. Series mainstay Shoji Meguro did not compose the music for this game, and while the music is suitably atmospheric and fits the tone of the game, it also lacks some of the energy of Meguro’s works.
Still, at the end of the day, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a very good game. I don’t think it reaches the heights of Nocturne or Personas 3 and 4, but it’s still a solid RPG with an interesting world and challenging, strategic combat. Newcomers should prepare themselves for a bit of a shock when the game starts, but don’t be discouraged, Samurai- it’s a long journey ahead.