Published on August 29th, 2013 | by David Arce0
Shin Megami Tensei IV | Review
DEVELOPER: ATLUS | PUBLISHER: ATLUS | PLATFORMS: 3DS
The Shin Megami Tensei series has had an erratic release history over the past decade. Their most well-known games aren’t their major releases, but rather, their spin-off Persona series; and the time between each main Shin Megami Tensei game has been lengthy, with Strange Journey and Nocturne releasing in 2009 and 2003 respectively. With the release of Shin Megami Tensei IV, the main series makes its first ever stop on the Nintendo 3DS. It is a dark, punishing and strangely gratifying experience that is probably the best JRPG on the console right now.
When I booted up the game and played for the first time, an omnipresent voice boomed at me to state my name. I went with a short and simple name, ‘Ren’. After a series of unsettling hallucinations, I find myself working as a Samurai, where Ren is charged with protecting the people of Mikado by repelling demons. To fight demons alongside him are three other prentices (rookie samurai): Jonathon, a humble and sincere young Luxuror (upper-class person) who wishes to keep the peace in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado; Walter, a lively and rebellious young Casualry (lower-class person) who wishes to overhaul a stagnant world; and Isabaeu, a stern-yet-unsure Luxuror still trying to find her way as a Samurai.
Throughout the game, your decisions will have an impact on not only the storylines, but on your comrade’s fate as well. You’ll be tasked throughout the game to choose between Jonathon’s dream of protecting the people of Mikado and maintaining the status quo and Walter’s desire to be rid of the shackles of God and bring about chaos. The game pulls no punches in presenting tough choices to you, and does a good job keeping the morality gray, which makes the narrative all the more compelling.
The three prentice Samurai who accompany you are very well written, with some genuinely funny moments to go along with their fancy way of speaking. The demons themselves are also a joy. Those encountered as potential recruits or in boss battles have plenty of hilarious lines, and their unpredictable personalities lead to some of the more entertaining moments in the game. During boss battles, they’ll even ask you questions which, depending on your answer, can shift the tide of the fight through buffs or debuffs. These dialogues really showcase the excellent localization work Atlus is known for.
Atlus have done a great job when it comes to creating an interesting setting in Shin Megami Tensei IV. They were able to take a colorful, mystical, medieval kingdom and a dilapidated, gloomy city, and write a coherent plot logically connecting the two. Each location is as detailed as it is compelling. My favorite dungeon involved the bright neon lights of a deserted district in Tokyo with demons flooding the area. The soundtrack is quite varied, with the use of bagpipes in one area, while another scene plays hard rock without feeling out of place at all. I still can’t get the main boss battle theme out of my head because of how awesome it sounded. The interface deserves a mention too, pushing a smartphone-style “app” system on the bottom screen of the 3DS.
The battle system may seem pretty simple, with its turn-based mechanics and minimal interface, however it actually holds plenty of depth with some unique battle commands and use of extra turns. The ‘Talk’ function gives you the option to scout or negotiate with demons about either joining your party, or trading items. You gain extra turns by attacking the enemies elemental weaknesses or scoring a critical hit, and this is essential for getting through any battle unscathed. These two mechanics provide fresh dimensions to the dungeon crawling experience and saved my skin countless times when I would otherwise be out of health or MP. Leveling up in the game gives you 5 points to distribute to each of your stats while your demons receive 5 points in random stats. You can also learn new skills through demon “whispers”, which occur when a demon has learned all the skills it possibly could and allows you to choose one of these skills as your own.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is dauntingly difficult during the first dungeon, Naraku, if you’ve never played any of the previous installments. The most effective way to survive the battles is to hit the enemy’s weaknesses to stock up on extra turns, save and heal often, and preemptively strike the enemy outside of battle. On my first save file, I had done none of these things, and Ren died a good twenty times before I could even complete Naraku.
The way that death works in Shin Megami Tensei IV is a bit different from other RPGs where you simply respawn at the last save point. When you shuffle off, you’re sent to a murky river and meet with the ferryman, who brings deceased souls to Hades. He feels that there are too many souls to deal with and offers a deal to revive you. Pay the man with Macca (the in-game currency) or Nintendo Play Coins to continue on your merry way. This essentially made the game over screen another entertaining game mechanic.
A word of warning: I found myself dying so often and accumulating so much debt it became prudent to begin a new file from scratch. Mind you, this is on the normal difficulty. After a few deaths you can switch the difficulty to easy although I refused due to my stubborn pride. Thankfully, the game eases up by itself 5 hours into the playthrough.
Instead of random encounters while traversing a dungeon, you come across digitized silhouettes of demons that will run toward you when they notice your presence. The game makes it simple to engage in battle with them: slash the silhouette for a preemptive jump on the demons or wait for them to run into you and ruin your day. Trust me when I say you do not want the demons to get the first hit; if they do, it’s more than likely they will get to attack first and kill at least one of your demons before you even blink. Dodging them is easy enough at first, though it gets trickier as you progress through the game. The dungeons in Shin Megami Tensei IV do drag on, leaving you desperately wanting to move on to the next bit of story or next stage of the game. It is a pain that some of these dungeons are so long, as you’ll need to go back all the way to the beginning just to heal your party if you’re low on health or magic.
Once you finish the Naraku dungeon you’ll be able to use the Demon Fusion application from the main menu. You’ll be introduced to a pixelated AI named Mido, who guides you through the app and explains how to fuse the demons you’ve recruited in your party. Demon fusion is essential, and, thankfully, it is an addictive feature all on it’s own. There’s a robust selection of demons, all with unique strengths, weaknesses and special abilities. The app is even has advanced search options for those wanting specific demons, a compendium to buy demons you previously recruited or fused, and glitches. Yes, glitches. I once had a demon fusion going while Ren was at level 25, and, after fusing two demons around that same level, I inexplicably came away with a level 45 demon. Given my earlier struggles, feeling overpowered in a video game has never felt so right.
Shin Megami Tensei IV provides the player with an enormous amount of content, with dozens of sidequests and optional dungeons, along with the option to play a New Game+ mode to get another one of the game’s multiple endings. You can easily find yourself playing for 50-60 hours on your first playthrough. The game provides an experience worthy of the time investment, with an engrossing storyline, interesting characters, a rock solid battle system, and fantastic presentation. There aren’t many RPG developers who manage to hit on all aspects of an RPG like Shin Megami Tensei IV has, and Atlus deserve the dollars of any fan of the genre.
RELEASE: 24 JULY 2013