Shin Megami Tensei IV Review

The first "true" MegaTen title in 10 years isn't just a brilliant RPG; it's also a cutting statement on the genre's decay over the past decade.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

Shin Megami Tensei IV is, well... it's a Shin Megami Tensei game. Which is to say it's the sort of game where you're likely to have your ass handed to you repeatedly in the first hour of play. The sort of game where you can set up a perfect team to take on a tough boss and perform flawlessly for several rounds... only to have that boss land a lucky hit and parlay that lucky shot into a total party kill before you can even respond.

However, Shin Megami Tensei IV is also a game published in 2013. Which is to say that when you do inevitably die, the game gives you an option to continue straight away. And if you die again, it takes pity on you and lets you lower the difficulty level. At no point does it ever become a cakewalk, even on easy mode, but the simple fact that an easy mode even exists indicates how much has changed since its direct predecessor, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, launched in 2003. Even this series, which defines itself by its unrelenting difficulty, makes kindly allowances for the player. You can save anywhere now, and the death of the player avatar doesn't equal an immediate game over.

This in itself is no bad thing; on the contrary, anything to ease newcomers into one of gaming's premiere RPG franchises should be welcome news. But the newfound clemency of video games as a whole has come hand in hand with a host of less positive trends, many of which have hit Japanese RPGs particularly hard. These days, the genre often seems like little more than a shell of its former self. The grand, cinematic adventures of the PlayStation and PS2 era have been shuffled over to portable systems, their visuals reduced from dynamic 3D to poor paper cut-outs, their sweeping quests trimmed down to linear slogs determined by simple menus or railroaded by plot. I love dungeon crawlers like Etrian Odyssey, but there's no question the recent flood of those games has everything to do with how inexpensively they can be slapped together.

And at first, Shin Megami Tensei IV broke my heart. After all, this was positioned as the first "real" chapter in the MegaTen series in a decade. Sure, we've seen the Persona spin-offs, the Devil Survivor pseudo-tactical games, Strange Journey, even a long-delayed English version of Saturn classic Soul Hackers. But SMT IV doesn't feel any more remarkable than any of those games. The graphics have, not unexpectedly, been trimmed down for its portable format; gone are the slick 3D character and demon models of Nocturne and Persona 3 and 4, replaced by the slightly animated old-school sprites that debuted in Strange Journey for DS. Talking cut-out heads relay the story, and you move through the world via menu selections, just like every other spendthrift RPG on every other portable system. Your cast of characters essentially consists of a troupe of college students: 18-year-olds inducted into a warrior order and living together in a dorm.

Only the central dungeon in the town of Mikado, a demon-infested lair called Naraku, seems to push the system to any degree. Naraku consists of great-looking dungeons presented through a strange high-tech style that clashes with Mikado's medieval European feel but cleverly calls back to the series' primal origins, a novel in which a socially awkward hacker forges a demonic pact through the Internet. As another nice callback, Naraku is presented much like Tartatus in Persona 3. It's a single central dungeon into which the adventurers delve again and again, pushing further with each outing until forced back home to rest by exhaustion.

And yet, SMT IV lacks many of the elements that made Persona 3 so engrossing; it offers no social links with which to build relationships, no real-time calendar to propel the plot beyond your demon-capturing exploits underground. SMT IV looks great in action, and it grows more and more satisfying to play as you unlock additional features for your Gauntlet (the device that enables you to team up with the demons you encounter), but the minimal presentation and style still leave you with the impression that the series has at last fallen foul of the attrition that's sapped away the vibrance of so many other Japanese RPGs.

And then you get to Tokyo, and everything changes.

I don't think it's really a spoiler to mention that most of SMT IV is set in Tokyo, despite what initially appears to be a decidedly old-world universe. After all, the opening moments of the story drop you in a desolate urban scene that could only be Tokyo, with the promise of more to come, and the so-called "mystic script" featured on your Gauntlet and on signs is clearly Japanese. And let's not forget that the reason Strange Journey didn't see release under the name SMT IV a few years back is because the story wasn't set in Tokyo. A true Shin Megami Tensei game requires a few mandatory elements, like moral choices and demon fusion, but perhaps most of all it requires Tokyo to have the crap kicked out of it by a demonic invasion.

SMT IV certainly delivers on that front, but it's different this time around. Unlike in previous games, you don't witness the devastation; it happened years ago. And neither is it a matter of total annihilation, as in previous games; while the city is overrun with eldritch creatures whose tremendous power is matched only by their hostility for humankind, many survivors eke out a living in the city's underground areas (ever been in a Tokyo subway station? They're like tiny cities!) while others make their fortune as demon hunters. A barter-based economy has cropped up, as brave souls venture into the Akihabara electronics district in search of pre-collapse luxuries like computers and camera film. But the exact nature of what happened, and Tokyo's seemingly impossible relationship with the pastoral world of Mikado, lives at the heart of the mystery that drives SMT IV's plot.

The plot unfolds in the style of classic RPGs that turned so many of us into fans in the first place a decade or more ago. Once you leave Mikado, the simple, menu-driven interface melts away to reveal an endless series of dungeons and shanty towns, all interconnected with an upgraded take on the old-school SMT overworld: Your party still navigates the world represented by a triangular map marker, but the map sprawls in three-dimensional splendor, complete with semi-random ("semi" in the sense that you can see them coming) encounters with enemy mobs. While the path to the story's end involves linear progression -- do this, then that -- you're free to strike out and explore hidden corners of the world or take on any number of side quests. You can run missions for the hunters, forage for your own barter materials, collect demons, fight incredibly powerful creatures who have set up lairs over particularly valuable resources, and more.

I won't lie: I haven't quite reached SMT IV's ending yet, but not for a lack of interest. There's a ridiculous amount of things to do in this game, and I'm determined to explore all the side material and build up my demon compendium before I advance to the end game. I intend to finish at my own pace, and, since it's kind of a slow summer for games, I hope to pursue the alternate endings as well. Because, of course, SMT IV offers different paths to the end: Law, Chaos, and Neutral. As always, these are different than "good" and "evil," and SMT IV does a much better job of selling the different paths as equally viable than many other entries in the series.

As in Strange Journey, your hero's companions represent different alignments, and before the end you'll be forced to collaborate with one and come into conflict with the others. While the more nuanced options of Nocturne are sorely missed, SMT IV still makes good on the traditional trinity of choices. It particularly differs from Strange Journey in making the side characters' motivations a lot more believable: Gentle Jonathan comes from wealth and privilege, while the more cynical Walter comes from a background of poverty and oppression. Law alignment in SMT generally involves maintaining the status quo, so it makes perfect sense for Jonathan to take that perspective and for Walter to want to change the system. Yet neither seem unreasonable in their choices; given the opportunity to reshape the world to their choosing, they pick the approach that speaks to their convictions rather than greedily seeking power or blindly following some impossible dogma.

The role-playing in SMT IV goes far deeper than the core moral choice. Yes, you have to pick an alignment, but you can also choose how you approach many of your moment-to-moment choices. RPGs invariably revolve around combat, and there'll be times when you're forced to fight. But killing isn't the only way to make it through a battle, and for those who prefer to talk their way through a fight, SMT IV's conversation system may be the series' best yet.

For starters, it's fully customizable; your only mandatory conversation skill is the one that lets you recruit demons, but you can unlock many others with the App (skill) points you earn at each level up. You can negotiate truces, ask for items, and request money. You can also choose to augment the cash and experience you earn for various combat actions, or even for fusing demons. Conversing with demons has other benefits as well; some demons will offer you new side quests, while others will beg for mercy and join your party if you spare them. These communication abilities come at the expense of other combat capabilities, so the amount of flexibility the App system offers is considerably more subtle than the usual RPG rubric of "Do I want to be a mage or a fighter?"

And, it should be said, Tokyo's sprawl provides an engrossing backdrop for all of this. The post-apocalyptic scavenger society you encounter in your quest plays host to a number of factions that seek to gain power over the remains of humanity, and new mysteries unfold as you venture further into the game. You don't need to have played any previous SMT title to understand the story, which technically stands alone, but it's crammed with nods to other entries in the series. Disappointingly, in light of the game's premium price, some of the highest-level fan service is locked behind pay walls in the form of downloadable content; still, the retail release is feature-complete, and the add-ons will apparently consist primarily of easy ways to farm cash and experience, or ultra-high-level battles to test the dedication of fans, so it doesn't feel like a cheat.

Still, my favorite thing about SMT IV is the way it manages to be a great RPG and simultaneously a cutting commentary on the current state of the medium. The opening hours with their idyllic setting and menu-driven interface contrast with the more complex presentation of Tokyo's ruins: An unsatisfying simplification built on the remains of a once-vibrant genre. The characters, born and raised in Mikado, can't grasp the true nature of their home. But as we, the players, view the story from a real-world perspective, we understand the ultimate artificiality of Mikado. We see a devastated metropolis, and with it, an RPG that reminds us of a bygone era where this sort of creative effort was a given rather than an exception.

Certainly the SMT franchise hasn't been immune to RPG trends of the past decade. Heck, the past few Persona titles have embraced them while elevating those clich├ęs to a higher level. But with SMT IV, I feel like Atlus' designers are pushing back, skewering the decline of a medium while reminding us how great it can be when done right. It's a masterpiece of a game that takes a strong stride forward for the series while fixing its gaze determinedly on the past to remind us not to settle for anything less than excellence. It's a bold position to take, but one that I very much appreciate.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Visuals: While a step back in some ways from Nocturne, it manages to create some of the most detailed and atmospheric environments on the 3DS. And what the character sprites lack in panache they certainly make up for in numbers.
  • Music: Exactly the sort of music you'd expect for a game about a post-apocalyptic war against demons: Dark, intense, edged with guitar rock. Meanwhile, the peaceable kingdom of Mikado is characterized by more pastoral tunes.
  • Interface: Brilliant: A remarkable degree of storytelling happens through the visual interface, from the way menus dominate the early hours to the computerized overlay that clashes with the medieval world of Mikado.
  • Lasting Appeal: A lengthy RPG in its own right, SMT IV offers the usual degree of SMT replay value by providing different story paths in the later hours. A ton of side content and DLC makes this as big or small a time investment as you like.

Shin Megami Tensei IV offers all the things you'd expect from the series: Demons, moral choices, and the rock-paper-scissors balance of combat. Despite its move to a portable console, this really does feel like a game worthy to be the next step in SMT's evolution. Don't let the first few deliberately underwhelming hours of the game fool you; SMT IV deserves to be ranked among the genre's best.

5 /5

Shin Megami Tensei IV Review Jeremy Parish The first "true" MegaTen title in 10 years isn't just a brilliant RPG; it's also a cutting statement on the genre's decay over the past decade. 2013-07-10T22:05:00-04:00 5 5

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Comments 32

  • Avatar for Stealth20k #1 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    amazing score and review
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  • Avatar for sadius551 #2 sadius551 4 years ago
    Absolutely cannot wait for this now. Fantastic review.
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  • Avatar for Damman #3 Damman 4 years ago
    I may just pick this up. I loved the two latest Persona games for their mix of story/character progression and customizable builds. The Etrian Odyssey games have never interested me as they seem like plenty of the latter, but not enough of the former to pull me in. Is it safe to say that SMT4 falls in the middle somewhere? It sounds as if your choices and alignment will affect the other characters as the game plays out, so maybe it's not as completely crafted of a story as P3 and P4. This review gives me the impression that there is still some of that here for me.Edited July 2013 by Damman
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  • Avatar for phatcorns #4 phatcorns 4 years ago
    I just recently finished Persona 3 Portable as my first entry into the megaten series and I found Tartarus just too long. The combat was just not quite interesting enough for me to justify such a long trip. However, the social links were so much fun to build up, even if all I was doing was basically pressing X to advance.

    With all that said, I'm still unsure whether I'm going to be interested in this or not. From what it sounds like, the Tartarus-like setup is quickly abandoned, but there are also no social links. Still, going to give it a shot anyway.
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  • Avatar for Nghsk #5 Nghsk 4 years ago
    Ahh, this is really nice to see. I'm totally stoked to see games like this becoming more of A Thing in the portable scene.
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  • Avatar for Mindwater #6 Mindwater 4 years ago
    The first "true" MegaTen title in 10 years isn't just a brilliant RPG; it's also a $50 game, on a console noted for $40 (or less) games. Developers are quick to attribute the need for higher game prices to the ever-increasing development costs of modern triple-A games, but this game is neither modern nor triple-A. So, why the price hike? Is Atlus charging the proverbial Square-Enix tax?
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  • Avatar for JeanLucAwesome #7 JeanLucAwesome 4 years ago
    @Mindwater You get the soundtrack as well as a 176 page artbook. I'd say that warrants the extra $10.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    I don't review games based on price. Feel free to use the information I've provided to make your own purchasing choices according to your budget and needs.
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #9 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    Oh man, I'm hyped as hell for this one. I bought a 3ds this year in the light of the announcement of this game and Jeremy's review of EOIV (which I loved to death). Really, the next week couldn't get here faster!!
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  • Woah, didn't expect the game to come with biting commentary on the state of JRPGs built into the gameplay. Atlus has been pleasantly surprising me with this sort of thing since I was introduced to them, and I couldn't be happier.

    Certainly getting this one.
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  • Avatar for TPaulBuzan #11 TPaulBuzan 4 years ago
    Atlus has just just about single-handedly turned the 3DS into my current favorite system. Between this, EOIV and Soul Hackers I'm set for the rest of the year.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #12 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    Don't forget the Etrian Odyssey remake coming out later this year. And that's just Atlus. What an amazing system for RPGs this has become... even if Square won't bother porting all those great Dragon Quests.
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  • Avatar for chaosyoshimage #13 chaosyoshimage 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Don't you mean localizing? But yeah, if we don't get Dragon Quest VII, I'll be profoundly sad. I doubt we're getting Pirate Slime. Might get Monsters, but I'm not as excited about that one.

    Also, the new Etrian Odyssey is THIS year? We just got one this year! Crazy how fast these games are getting localized now. I guess I'll wait until that comes out to start the series. Although, I might grab IV if it ever goes on sale for relatively cheap.
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  • Avatar for SlimeBeherit #14 SlimeBeherit 4 years ago
    @chaosyoshimage Nintendo should buy Atlus for that amazing localization team! That's right, from SE to Nintendo to Atlus, seems like that's the only way we will get DQ : (
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  • Avatar for TPaulBuzan #15 TPaulBuzan 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Yup. The 3DS has become the little RPG machine that just keeps on giving. And, honestly, outside of one or two key franchises ("Souls" games I'm looking at you) I'd much rather do my questing on the go. Just suits my work/life balance a whole heckuva lot better.
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  • Avatar for Kayma #16 Kayma 4 years ago
    I'm pretty excited about this, but the dark and gritty post-badness Tokyo that MegaTen games always have really makes me pine for whatever bombastic pop art craziness will come with Persona 5.
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  • Avatar for Mindwater #17 Mindwater 4 years ago
    @JeanLucAwesome I buy my 3DS games from the eShop... where is my soundtrack and my 176 page artbook?
    @jeremy.parish It's easy to say you don't review games based on price, but for most of your readership, price is a significant factor. Normally, I respect your opinion, but I must disagree with you here.
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  • Avatar for SlimeBeherit #18 SlimeBeherit 4 years ago
    @Mindwater Jeremy's $50's doesn't equate to someone else's $50, and theres definitely no way it's equal to the world. It's better to set the price aside, review it, and let the reader decide wether it's worth their $50.Edited July 2013 by SlimeBeherit
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  • Avatar for Mindwater #19 Mindwater 4 years ago
  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #20 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @SlimeBeherit Exactly. It's the height of arrogance for anyone to presume they can speak for someone else's budget. Some people spend hundreds of dollars a month on games. Others can only afford a handful of games a year. There's no way I can speak for both extremes, so I don't try.
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  • Avatar for Mindwater #21 Mindwater 4 years ago
    I don't believe I was out of line mentioning the fact that the game is $10 more than 'normal'. By the number of down votes my comment has received, you'd think I insulted someone's mother. I don't disagree with the review, the score, or the fact that the game deserves a purchase. My only gripe is with the inflated price. Perhaps the soundtrack and the art book are worth $10, but the eShop price doesn't reflect that... it's still $10 more, but with none of the added value. I'm not belligerent, I'm not trolling, I don't blame Jeremy, and my opinion (if I may say so) is not unreasonable. I think we all can agree that, whether your budget is $50 a month or $5,000 a month, a 25% increase in price limits the number of games you can buy. I love games; I assume everyone here does, too. I want to purchase as many as I can get my grubby, little hands on. Surely there are none among you that can fault me for that.
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  • Avatar for laxking97 #22 laxking97 4 years ago
    Just wondering what exactly does the "partial nudity" and "sexual themes" rating include and how much of it is there? The game sounds fun, but I don't know that I want to play someone that's filled with all of that.
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  • Avatar for Thusian #23 Thusian 4 years ago
    Price isn't an issue to me I am getting the Fire Emblem deal so effectively I am getting SMT4 for $20 and I am getting the box copy for the soundtrack.
    I'll take the $30 rebate from Nintendo and throw that on the Wii U eShop for either Wonderful 101 or Wind Waker HD if W101 does not hold up. Then after spending 50 there I get another 5 back as credit again.

    Woooo Gaming the system.
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  • Avatar for daysofstatic65 #24 daysofstatic65 4 years ago
    @namander Will this be your first foray into a non-Persona SMT title?
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  • Avatar for turbocats #25 turbocats 4 years ago
    I've never played a game in this series before...but with the glowing reviews (especially this one), my love for RPGs, and the discount when paired with Fire Emblem, I may not be able to resist. Will I be missing much if I dive in without playing previous titles?
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #26 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @turbocats There are no concrete story connections between this game and the previous ones. However, they use a consistent "world view" -- spells, demon companions, etc. The names can be kind of confusing, but there's a rock-paper-scissors element to it, so just keep an eye on weaknesses and resistances, and for god's sake recruit a party of demons ASAP.
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  • Avatar for daysofstatic65 #27 daysofstatic65 4 years ago
    @namander Then I believe you're in for a treat. The main SMT series (of which this is the fourth installation), is typically more focused on dungeon crawling. Which may sound bad, compared with the often lush immersive quality of the Persona series (post P2 anyways).

    But trust me when I say that SMTIII is absolutely the best RPG I've ever played. It's so pure; so driven and focused on satisfying players with ideologies, difficult combat and exploration.

    Persona 3 and 4, while absolutely fantastic in their own right, lack this constant interplay between combat (which was more tense in SMTIII), exploration and minimalist narrative. You'll see what I mean by weeks end. Ha.Edited July 2013 by daysofstatic65
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  • Avatar for adamprimaeros95 #28 adamprimaeros95 4 years ago
    Not enough has been said about the music for this game, it's gorgeous. There are sound rips floating about in YouTube you can listen to for yourself. Brassy, toe-tapping synths sitting in the same boat as medieval court melodies and an excellent rock-out boss theme which starts up during a fight at the best possible point of that song, dang.Edited July 2013 by adamprimaeros95
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  • Avatar for justinleighton10 #29 justinleighton10 4 years ago
    I'm a handful of hours into this and it feels decidedly different from the rest of the SMT titles that I've played. It's easier to get into to, but I miss the lovable characters from Persona 3. I'm hoping I get more attached to these ones eventually, but if I'm going to spend 100 hours with them I have to have a connection or an engaging battle system. Right now it feels like the opening of Dark Souls where I'm lost and am still piecing together the mechanics and the world. Once that ends and I stop having to save after every battle in case I die then I'll settle in. Burroughs is making that transition substantially easier luckily.
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  • Avatar for justinleighton10 #30 justinleighton10 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Any chance you're going to do an episode of Retronauts about SMT?
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  • Avatar for Darkarm66 #31 Darkarm66 4 years ago
    I'm playing, I'm playing, I'm playing. I'm 30 hours in and I just can't get hyped for this game. The combat system is just abysmal to me: there's no reward for actually planning teams and tactics out in advance: it feels every battle is determined on luck and there's no real consistency to battling. And how can an old school setting on top of old school design count for biting commentary?
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #32 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    This is just what I was expecting from a Full-blown SMT sequel. Most fans that come into the series nowadays are coming from Persona/Devil Survivor spin-offs, that focus heavily on character development, whereas the core SMTs focus on an already destroyed dystopia and focus on building up to a world much bigger than the ambitions of your puny avatar (in contrast to the world). I loved this game's niceties on the talking parts, though the save anywhere feature and Charon's revivals take of the edge most of the time. This is the game I was waiting for since completing Nocturne back in the day. About 10 hours in. The weekend can't come fast enough so I can put in some decent hours in this gem!
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