Shin Megami Tensei IV is, despite its numeral, the latest in an extremely long-running series of Japanese role-playing games, and the fourth of the mainline series. Carrying a focus on demon fusing and decision-making, the new 3DS game offers an extremely meaty and very high-quality experience for those eager for a new JRPG.
SMT IV follows you, starting as a new samurai in the peaceful, vaguely old-timey Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. As a samurai, you are tasked with protecting the people from demons using your power as a samurai and your demon-summoning gauntlet that allows you to summon demons that you recruit on your own. While out on a mission in the underbelly of Mikado, you stumble on a substantial, not so old-timey discovery that triggers the massive plot that is this game. And as the game progresses, you go to places that might be a bit more sprawling, modern, and familiar than the classical Japanese setting that the game starts you out with.
The gameplay of Shin Megami Tensei carries a few similarities to Pokémon, while being very much its own thing in the process. The first-person combat places you alongside three demons with a series of physical and elemental attacks to fight other humans and demons with. Like the aforementioned Pokémon, the key here is to recruit the strongest demons you can and fight by exploiting the enemy’s weakness. If you use a fire attack on someone weak to fire, your team gets an extra turn to attack the enemy. It’s a superb, simple, and thoughtful battle system that forces you to assess your opponent and strategize the optimal way to chain attacks together and potentially wipe out all of your adversaries before they even get a chance to attack. Doing so is often easier said than done, and the challenging boss fights are oftentimes efforts of knowing when to defend, when to heal, and when to attack at the perfect time (or else risk immediate annihilation).
To gather these demons who fight alongside you, you need to interact with them by actually talking to them in battle during wild encounters and convincing them to join you, whether it be with Macca (the in-game currency), items, the right response to a question they ask you, or otherwise. Although recruiting demons to be your allies is far less predictable and more of a gamble than simply catching them like Pokémon or drawing them on a card like with Persona (it’s always a shot in the dark if they’re going to take your gestures with hostility or satisfaction), it’s a compelling gamble when you have to decide if it’s worth the risk of talking to and giving this demon your items or answering his questions only to potentially have him flee battle or attack immediately after doing so.
That said, convincing demons to fight with you in battle is only one of two ways of getting a demon on your squad — the other being fusion. As you and your demons level up (by completing quests or defeating your enemies), the demons you use are going to start becoming less effective as you come across more powerful demons. To combat this, your gauntlet (that also handles menus, saving, and more in addition to your demon stuff) offers a program that allows you to fuse your demons together to create stronger demons, and register your demons to a compendium that allows you to summon any of the demons you used to have for a sum of money. The demons you fuse oftentimes have stronger stats and attacks, more stats to learn (your demons run out of attacks to learn after only a few levels), and allows you to cherry-pick the best skills of the demons you fused to create a superb fighter handcrafted by you. It’s a very addictive process that allows a degree of customization in how you run your team, and fans of earlier SMT games should feel right at home.
Without spoiling too much, the story involves you and your samurai exploring a “futuristic” and ruined country beneath the surface of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and deciding whether to use your power as a samurai to shape the world into one of peace or chaos. For all of the strategy and decision-making to be found in the combat, further crucial decision-making is required in deciding the path of all of humanity through the game’s several key moral decisions. Some smaller decisions in the game only make you out to be slightly one way or another, but a few of the decisions task you with making major decisions that not only shape the fate of the in-game world, but can also alter how significant parts of the game play out. I enjoyed these decisions because they were interesting in that they went beyond “Do you want to murder this family for -1 karma or protect this family for +1 karma?” and instead forces you to ask deeper questions about what the best thing to do for a world and humanity that is arguably messed up beyond repair. Do you create an everlasting peace or turn the world into one of chaos? Or, perhaps, is there another option?
This is only amplified by the fantastic world set up by Atlus that is ever-changing and more messed up than most games I have ever played. The game carries some sense of realism thanks to the well-written dialogue, sobering art-direction, and excellent voice-acting, which only provides heavier impact when issues of the power of God’s will and the effects of your actions start to feel heavier than most video games.
The gameplay is split between the aforementioned first-person combat and third-person exploration of the futuristic-yet-destroyed city under Mikado. The exploration mostly acts as areas to encounter demons, find items in chests and such, and carry out quests. It’s standard RPG exploration that becomes special because it feels like it belongs in a classic PS2 JRPG rather than what you might expect on a handheld — mostly due to the use of 3D character models and the level of detail put into abandoned malls and torn-up city squares that really puts you in the heart of the action. There are tons of quests, side quests, and places ripe for exploration in the game, but this is also where a bit of the frustration in the game lies. Because there is so much to do and see at any given time, you are given almost no direction on where to go for quests (and not much good explanation in your quest log), and the world map in itself is a pain to navigate with wild encounters at a slightly annoying frequency.
And for those of you asking if this is a newcomer-friendly RPG, this is without a doubt a game made with you in mind. The story requires no prior knowledge of the franchise to get into, there’s an easy difficulty available for those of you who want to enjoy the game and the story without the substantial challenge, you can actually pay in-game money to get revived after you die, and above all, the game just isn’t that difficult. SMT IV isn’t a cakewalk (there are a few really rough bosses and enough challenge for most regular people), but any seasoned RPG fan who has been playing the series for a while should be able to get through the game on its standard difficulty with an insubstantial level of resistance. Thankfully, there is Expert difficulty and New Game + available after the credits roll, but I feel like the hard difficulty should have been available from the start to better accommodate the folks who have been playing the series for years. On the positive side of things, the story is just as deep and just as messed up as any other Shin Megami Tensei game.
Visually, the game looks great. Following the messy 3D models and the sprite work of DS era JRPGs, SMT IV looks like a game that would have been right at home on the PS2 in all of the best ways. The character models and in-game models outside of battle look detailed and smooth and the demon portraits in battle, though flat images, still look sharp and have an intense level of care in them. The soundtrack, meanwhile, also stands out for its tremendous main theme and frequently memorable soundtrack suited to the myriad of scenes and locations presented in the game.
Even with all of this praise, the game is not without some minor issues. Because it’s a 40 hour JRPG, Shin Megami Tensei IV runs into problems of pacing when there are periods of several hours when the story gets deeper and harder to comprehend (which is fine initially, as it’s intentionally raising questions) but proceeds to answer none of the questions you probably have about the game until the 30-40% mark at least. Other times, there are periods of a few minutes where huge parts of the plot are revealed but are explained so briefly that it’s incredibly easy to miss one sentence that makes the following gameplay hard to follow if you don’t have the means to look up what just happened. Granted, the writing is good enough that it’s really just a matter of making sure you pay close attention (and I understood 99% of the game when all was said and done), but I wish that such a substantial plot could have had a better paced flow of asking questions and answering them at more reasonable intervals.
I have a few gripes with the structure of the plot and the overworld, but it’s hard to hate this absolutely massive game. The characters are likeable, the gameplay is accessible for most while maintaining a mostly-proper traditional core, and the plot is one that sticks with you for more time than it should have any right to. In other words, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a great JRPG in its own right, and certainly stands as the best one yet on Nintendo 3DS.