Shin Megami Tensei IV review: To hell and back
The Shin Megami Tensei series is an intimidating one, that much is an understatement. I had always heard great things about the series but the constant grinding and difficulty level always pushed me away. I’ve wanted to take the risk for years but something has always gotten in the way. Shin Megami Tensei IV on Nintendo 3DS shows me that I really should have taken that risk earlier.
Newcomers like myself might need a bit of a summary of just what it is that you do in SMT games. You play as a voiceless character (who is by default named Flynn but you can change his name) who is a demon hunter. You collect demons in a similar way to how you collect Pokemon but with a unique twist. SMT IV has a dark storyline that doesn’t shy away from intense subject matter and makes you want to see how it develops. The Pokemon comparison doesn’t do it justice though. There is so much more to Shin Megami Tensei IV than just being an “adult” spin on Pokemon.
That unique twist on demon collecting I mentioned is truly one of a kind. During battles you can talk to demons and try to convince them to join you. There are no set answers for these encounters so one demon might enjoy being patronized while another will attack you for doing so despite giving both the same answer.
Often demons will ask for a little bit of your health or money (called macca in the game) and this doesn’t always mean they will join you. Yes, you could give a lot of your money or items to a demon for it to simply walk away with your items. If it doesn’t like the answers you’re giving it you can lose attack turns and turn the tide of battle into your opponents favor.
The battle system is another trait of Shin Megami Tensei that you won’t see in other games. The Press Turn system allows you to potentially have ten turns before the enemy gets a stab at you and your party members. You can exploit this system by finding a demon’s weakness and using attacks that it is vulnerable to. If a demon is weak to ice attacks and you use that type of attack on it you’ll likely get an extra turn. Beware because this system works for your enemies too and you will see your entire party wiped out in a single turn many times over the course of the game. It is a fantastic touch to allow enemies to abuse this system just as much as the player can.
Boss battles are particularly delightful as these “strong demons” have unique personalities. They will ask you questions during key parts of battle that can give you or them an advantage. Answer correctly and the boss’s defense may weaken. Answer wrong and the boss will get an offensive boost. These are the only dialogue answers in the game that have a right/wrong answer. A boss battle early in game with an old friend of your character is particularly telling of how bleak and dark the game’s narrative will be.
Plot-wise the game’s story is a bit out there but makes sense within the context of the SMT universe. The game begins in 15th century Japan as you become a samurai. You set out on a quest to find the mysterious “black samurai”. This “black samurai” is turning innocent people into demons with dark “literature”. This is an example of the modern day symbolism that shines through. Its a message that can still be useful today because the citizens of your home country are ignorant to the ways of their world. They only know what they’re told by the Government and this “black samurai” is simply offering them more information about the world around them. Some of these people can’t handle this new found information and turn into demons themselves while others embrace it.
It speaks to the social issue of whether it is right to keep someone in the dark about something for their own good. Do you tell them about all the world’s dangers and hope they can handle it? Is ignorance really blissful? There are in-game decisions that influence how the story plays out, similar to the good/evil systems you’ve seen in other RPGs. Unlike other RPGs where the “renegade” or dark choices option is more fun than the “good guy” light option, SMT IV balances these two out very well.
Your quest to catch this evil-doer and uncover their plot takes you all the way to modern Tokyo. Yes, its a sort of time travel twist that is common in JRPGs but is fresh and exciting despite being done before. Character reactions to modern items like firearms and elevators are particularly comical yet effective since they’ve never seen anything like it. It is a bit silly to have characters use magic and fight demons and then be surprised at modern electronics and architecture though.
Demon collecting and an engaging plot stop the game from becoming stale or repetitive. There is always something new around every corner and new demons keep battles fresh. You can never really get comfortable with a set strategy. This isn’t like a Pokemon game were you can simply use an high level Fire type monster to take out everyone until you get to a section filled with water type monsters, making much of the game an easy experience until you have to deal with your main monster’s one weaknesses. No, Shin Megami Tensei IV’s demon system makes every battle a bit tense and it comes down to proper execution. Death is something you’re just going to have to get use to in SMT IV.
Graphically the game is impressive in its simplicity. A lot of the game is navigating between still 2D images. The artwork is top notch and full of personality. The 3D sections of the game usually consist of demon domains, dungeons, or small hub areas. The 3D visuals are crisp and pleasing without going overboard. Settings for these sections vary from ruined cities to empty woods with a lot of variety. Visually it is one of the best looking 3DS games, rivaling the very best games of the PS2 generation. It is out-shined by only a few 3DS games like Resident Evil: Revelations. Shin Megami Tensei IV’s art direction stands above nearly all 3DS titles though continuing a series tradition of being visually pleasing without the flashiest graphics.
Overall I’d say Shin Megami Tensei IV feels like a full console game that wasn’t restricted by the limitations of the 3DS system. I don’t just mean in terms of graphics either, presentation and music are high quality as well. The girth of content alone makes 90% of console games quiver in fear. It will likely take you close to 80 hours to complete the game and there aren’t any portions of it that drag. That’s a testament to the game’s developers that they can deliver an extensive, long experience without it getting old.
People say that the $40+ handheld game is dying out because of the $1 app market on mobile phones. SMT IV stands strong against that sentiment, proclaiming that full priced experiences are still superior.
The game has some flaws though they don’t hurt it enough to stop this from being a superb experience. Its a very difficult game, especially early on. For newcomers like myself the tutorial dungeon will push some away. Just getting your first few demons is a stressful process. The game overtly mocks you for choosing the “easy” difficulty setting and you can’t even pick this option until you’ve died twice. Easy isn’t a cakewalk either but you won’t die as often, cutting down on unnecessary frustration.
If the game is still too difficult for you the “Experience of the Afterlife” DLC is what you need. In a move like Fire Emblem Awakening’s “EXPonential Growth” DLC this allows you to level up your main character and demons quicker. It sends you into an area filled with demons who drop items (light and heavy grimoires) that let you skip an entire level. Some will say this is abuse and not how the game was meant to be played while others will be thankful that they can experience the game’s story with less frustration.
The streetpass features are pretty neat in that you can get items from fellow SMT IV players and possibly boost a demon’s stats with it. The problem with it is that it will be nearly impossible to find someone who has SMT IV since its such a niche game. Even then, most players won’t send out their best demons using the “demon delivery service” so you’re basically sending lower level demons into a social limbo, hoping they come back to you with goodies.
Ultimately they only flaws of Shin Megami Tensei IV aren’t a big deal. The game can be very difficult but that is intentional and doesn’t detract from it. Excessive grinding may push away those without patience but there is DLC to solve that particular issue. Shin Megami Tensei IV is an adventure that spans two time periods, hundreds of demons and 80 + hours. Atlus could charge full $60 console prices for this game and it would still be worth every penny.
(Review copy provided by Atlus)
Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn't compromise itself at all by being on the 3DS. It is unwavering in its personality, difficulty, sense of danger and overall design.