Shin Megami Tensei IV Review
The apocalypse, desert, suggestive moaning, and a girl wishing to be saved. That is how Shin Megami Tensei IV, the first main entry in the dungeon-crawling RPG series in almost a decade, begins. A lot is thrown at you in the first few moments that I was left wondering what this game’s story actually was all about. From there you awaken from this strange dream to a serene lake in the year 1492. It is a special day for you and your childhood friend as you both go to the annual Gauntlet Rite where very few people are chosen by the futuristic bracelet to become a fabled Samurai of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. Of course, you are one of the five chosen and are immediately sworn into a life of duty to a country inspired by a mixture of medieval European and Japanese culture.
Thus begins your journey to eradicate all demons from the land, all the while learning about the role of religion, social classes, order, freedom, and power in society. If any of that sounds familiar, it is because this game has some mature themes that are paralleled in our own world. This journey is more than fighting demons (though that is quite enjoyable). This is a journey in which you answer the question: what do you believe in? What are your ethics? Many times throughout the game you will be asked by a fellow samurai or even enemy in which your own personal morals are brought up. Many times I found myself pondering my answer for some time, as each decision you make in the game affects the ending you get. There are four total, one of which I’ll go ahead and tell you is a bad ending and causes you to miss out on the last three to four hours of the game. This is a story that is not always clear and yet somehow deep and meaningful, but I honestly didn’t realize it until after the credits had rolled.
The game has one major flaw, though. The beginning of the game starts out rather good and then quickly descends into repetitive and linear work, mostly caused by the lack of varied locations. For the first 10 hours of the game, I was stuck in the same dungeon, minus a moment of relief around the six- to seven-hour mark that unfortunately ended too quickly. This can be hastened to an extent as majority of this time was spent grinding, searching for hidden items, and learning more about this very difficult game. While I was limited to my own efforts, walkthroughs, wikis, and tips will be great assets that can smooth that first part of the game and make it go by much faster. But for someone in my position or one who wishes to beat the game without any help will find the first part to be a great hindrance.
It’s best compared to the very long and slow beginning of Assassin’s Creed III, paired with the same old locales like what happened in Dragon Age II. Strange pronunciations and writing led me to believe that there was something inherently wrong with the translation as well. Don’t be discouraged, though, as the game picks up after that tenth hour (or earlier) mark and you figure out that the writing was purposely created that way. To be honest, what came after the first part honestly felt like a completely different game that just so happened to utilize the same combat system. Leading up to that moment of change in narrative, the only saving grace was the brief moment of respite that I previously mentioned and its combat system. Despite that, the rest of the game and all its other features are so amazing and well-done that it completely overshadows the issues that I had. There were times I could have given up and played something else or take a break, but I just kept wanting to play this game.
Let’s get this out of the way, I do not normally play a game to experience its gameplay. I usually pick a game that is story-driven or has an experience that, well, I want to experience. Because of this, there are few games where I truly enjoy the gameplay and think it is fun. That especially goes for RPGs, my favorite genre in video games. However, Shin Megami Tensei IV has gameplay that had me smiling and having a good time. It is partly due to the fact that the game does such a great job of teaching you how to play, making it the most accessible game yet. While it teaches you the basics, mastering the game is no easy task.
Exploration takes place from a third-person perspective, except during a few places like the World Map, where it is from a top-down view that anyone familiar with other MegaTen games will automatically recognize. There are no random encounters in dungeons, as each monster pops up in plain view and will chase after you similar to Final Fantasy XIII. You have the option to run away (which a lot of the time doesn’t work) or attempt to attack the monster before it reaches you, granting you a preemptive strike. The same goes for the enemy as well, they can also get a preemptive strike, which you do not want to happen. Even on the easiest difficulty level (which is unlocked after dying twice), this game is very difficult, even for a SMT game.
Speaking of dying, you can be resurrected each time you die by paying with Macca (in-game currency) or Play Coins, which you probably don’t use except for New Leaf or Soul Hackers anyways. The actual battles themselves play out from the first-person perspective, with animated demons that are easy on the eyes. The same trope of talking with demons and asking them to join your party is still here. The combat itself uses the Press Turn system from Nocturne, where basically critical attacks or attacks that are a monster’s weakness grants you another turn, while misses and blocked attacks cause you to lose a turn. The same system applies to the enemy as well, so that is worth noting. I can not stress enough how important it is to save between every battle in the first few hours of the game as you start to learn the system. It wasn’t until 10 hours into the game that I first utilized the autobattle function, because that was when I finally began to understand everything.
SMT IV is very rewarding though, because by the end of the game I was a master and felt invincible, unlike in the beginning, where any moment I could be beaten (and was). Like Pokémon, the demons are necessary to beating the enemies as it is impossible to go alone. Recruiting demons doesn’t end there, as there is a fusion system in which you can fuse different demons together to create different, more powerful ones. Beating bosses (of which there are dozens, optional and otherwise) unlock the ability to fuse them as well. Some demons even evolve into more powerful forms as they level up. I had only one demon in my entire playthrough that evolved, but he literally evolved six times through the course of the game (even getting a sex change a couple times, too). Boss battles are where the game truly shines as you will be tested to your absolute limits and forced to change your strategies on the fly.
While there are a few shortcomings, such as a monotonous start and several moments where the game literally leaves you clueless as to what to do or where to go next, a thoughtful narrative, truly satisfying and brutal gameplay, and a deep, lengthy game makes you sometimes forget you’re playing on a handheld. Outside of battle and cutscenes, the game can be saved at almost anytime, allowing for easy playing on the go. Also, while many games like Skyrim are notorious for noticeably long loading times, SMT IV has almost no visible loading whatsoever. City to dungeon, world map to battle, there is almost always a seamless transition. Even loading a save is nearly instantaneous. There were never any technical issues noticeable in the game; Atlus has truly done a fantastic job crafting a mature and console-like experience in the palm of your hand. 3DS owners and RPG fans take notice, this is a game worth your time and money this summer.
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Release Date: July 16, 2013
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)