Originally published August 1st, 2013 on the Escapist.
Games like Shin Megami Tensei IV are the reason I started playing JRPGs again. From intuitive and strategic turn-based combat to the mind-fucked setting and themes, there isn’t a whole lot to complain about if you’re a fan of the genre. Having only played the Persona series myself, I was a bit hesitant going in considering the franchise’s long history of ruthless difficulty. However, my girlfriend assured me that Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne‘s difficulty puts it to shame. After five hours of dying over-and-over in the introductory dungeon, I was about ready to call bullshit.
Then I started getting good. I started figuring out what did and didn’t work and by the time the game world really opened up I found myself hooked for two weeks straight. As sad as it is, very few games these days offer a real sense of accomplishment after a truly challenging experience. Too often do we find ourselves so frustrated with a section in a game that we’re just happy to finally put it behind us. Not with SMT IV . Considering how much goes into that strategy of every fight it’s less about the luck of the draw and more about simply outsmarting and outmaneuvering the AI. Discovering and exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses while trying to protect your own is the key to victory. The game can be an asshole sometimes, but for the most part it’s all on you.
Beyond its difficult, yet rewarding combat, SMT IV‘s story is pretty damn heavy, following the Shin Megami Tensei tradition of a boy getting caught between the forces of law and chaos. While many other JRPG franchises over the years have chosen to be subtle with their religious allegories, SMT has traditionally been very in-your-face about it and the most recent entry is no different. Case-in-point, God’s a fucking dick in this universe!
In short, this isn’t another adventure with the Scooby gang. Be prepared to have your values questioned, your friends hurt and for your humanity to go to the highest bidder.
“Welcome to the Cathedral of Shadows!”
What SMT IV does best, and what the series is known for, are the demons. Boasting over 400 individual demons that can be recruited and/or fused, there are infinite party compositions one could come up with. At the beginning of the game you start out as a lone samurai with nothing but the sword at your hip. As you progress through the game you can engage in conversations with demons and make deals with them in order to extort money, trade items, get quests or recruit them into your party. Each individual demon has his or her own skills inherent among all members of their race, but the real strategy in building your party comes from the act of mixing and matching their skills during the fusion process. In this process you take two or more demons and fuse them together to create a whole new one.
The never ending cycle of fighting demons, recruiting them and subsequently fusing them together will likely eat up the bulk of your play time if you’re like me and have a hard time letting go of your favorite demons. Recruiting isn’t nearly easy as it sounds, however. Some demons are real jerks and may ask for a large tribute in the form of some pocket change, an item or a smidge of your life force. Unfortunately, demons are never to be trusted and may just take your money and run. It may be frustrating at times, but it never really feels unfair as there’s a pattern to how certain types of demons react to things you do and say. It’s a learning process.
You can spend all the time in the world recruiting and fusing and still get your ass stomped into the ground by a difficult boss, however. SMT IV utilizes a unique turn-based system in which you’re rewarded with extra turns when exploiting an enemy’s weakness as well as a chance to “smirk”, granting additional combat bonuses . Your enemies are also entitled to this mechanic, so watch your ass! If you have a demon weak to lightning and the enemy’s shooting lightning bolts everywhere you either need to swap him out or start spamming Makarakarn (spell reflect)! The flipside to the weakness system is that if you have a special defense to a certain element that nullifies, reflects or drains its damage your demon may smirk as a result and your enemy will lose a few or all of its turns.
The recruitment system is quirky and funny, the fusion system is deep and rewarding and the combat system is strategic and tense. What’s not to love? Well, I suppose some people don’t like the fact that the fights are in first-person. Before playing the game I figured I’d be upset about this as well, but it really didn’t bother me.
“When People Get Backed into a Corner, They Stop Thinkn’ About the Consequences.”
SMT IV‘s story frustrates me. It has this fleshed out and intriguing setting with a new mystery to uncover around every turn. It provides a thought provoking, philosophical conundrum and is thematically consistent throughout. In addition, despite the bizarre nature of the story, very little feels out of place. However, a few things prevent it from being a truly remarkable story. Unfortunately, many of the characters feel like cardboard cutouts while others have little to no remarkable features that come to mind at all. You may know their face, their name and maybe even where they stand on the events of the game, but they don’t really have much of a personality to speak of.
The main character’s friends are the exception to the rule, thankfully, but aren’t without their own issues. The overarching theme of the story is a bit too literal making a lot of what happens to your friends incredibly easy to see coming. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot that are pretty awesome, and hard to call, it’s just unfortunate that very few of them center around individual characters. That aside, the story is pretty fucking cool. There’s a million things I could say about the game’s endings, but I won’t spoil them in this review no matter how much I want to (and I really want to)!
What’s interesting, and new for me considering I have only played the Persona games, is how much of a big role the actual demons themselves play in the story. Talking to any ol’ human would make you think they’re all bad and out to eat you, but there are plenty of tragic stories to witness when interacting with these entities, many of whom fight you against their will. You may even feel bad for putting them down when it’s all said and done.
“Won’t You Revive Me?”
Without spoiling story elements or getting way too deep into the game’s mechanics, there really isn’t much more to say about it. The interface is brilliantly designed, though the world map is cluttered and confusing. You’ll likely lose a few hours getting lost in Tokyo before you’re done with the game. The game looks great and the budgeted sprite work is forgivable considering the vast number of demons present in the game. As always, the music is fantastic. Leave it to Atlus to knock it out of the park every time. The combat tunes are chaotic and tense while many others perfectly reflect the mood of the story at the time they are played.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is an excellent addition to any JRPG fan’s collection, but it’s not for everyone. Its bleak world, dark themes and hardcore mechanics are sure to turn some people off to the experience, but I’m a sucker for these kinds of games. If it sounds like something you’d be willing to try I would highly recommend it. If you’re already a fan of the franchise, well, you probably already own it!
Shin Megami Tensei IV is available exclusively for the 3DS.
Who will you be: a man of the People, a champion of the Lord or an agent of Chaos?