Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei IV remains one of my favorite games of this decade — a deep, complex, and incredibly surprising RPG built on a fascinating premise. Due to its 3DS exclusivity, SMT4 never really found the enormous audience it deserved, but any serious RPG fan has, in my opinion, an obligation to experience it for themselves.
I do, however, find my feelings regarding its sequel Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse somewhat more mixed. Or rather, its sequel of sorts. Called "SMT4 Final" in Japan, Apocalypse evidently began as a remixed ultimate version of the 2013 RPG before mutating into a work that goes in its own direction but doesn't quite stand alone. It's more of a side story to SMT4 than a sequel, tied closely to the previous game's plot while centering on a new hero. As such, Apocalypse recycles a great deal of SMT4's content, yet it doesn't entirely feel like a rehash.
Instead, what we're left with is an odd creature, like an RPG hermit crab: A new story that's moved into another game's shell. Apocalypse takes place almost entirely in locations from SMT4: The near-future ruins of Tokyo, the last bastion of humanity in a world otherwise devastated by nuclear war. "Towns" here consist of different metro stations within the Yamanote circle, all rendered with loving care to perfectly resemble real-world train stops cluttered with the debris and wear of housing survivors for 25 years while demons maraud overhead — the same stations (with the same non-player characters!) that you journeyed through in SMT4. Some of the dungeons carry over as well.
But this time, you don't play as an otherworldly "samurai" returning to the devastated real world from the sequestered bubble of a fantasy realm. Instead, you play as a young punk who has only ever known the demonic hellscape of post-nuclear Japan, hoping to do his part to help ensure humanity's survival in the wake of the mounting battle taking place in Tokyo. The cast of the previous game plays a major role in the story, but you see them only as an outsider. Your brief encounters with SMT4's hero (canonically named Flynn) reinforce his power and general awesomeness: He and his companion Isabeau have stats 50 times as high as your own and can win battles in a single stroke that threaten to overwhelm you.
In fact, the game drives home the general shabbiness of your own protagonist (nicknamed "Nanashi," or "no-name," by his own companion Asahi) early on when he's effortlessly slaughtered by a high-ranking lieutenant of one of SMT4's main antagonists. Where SMT4 took a slow approach to kicking off the story by allowing you to believe the entire adventure would take place in a medieval kingdom for the first 10 hours or so, Apocalypse gets right into things by killing Nanashi at the very outset. It's here that the game begins in earnest: As you descend into the afterlife, you encounter a demon named Dagda who decides to turn you into his "Godslayer" and promises (or rather, threatens) to resurrect you endlessly every time you fall in battle until you satisfy his mysterious ambitions.
The Shin Megami Tensei series enjoys a unique privilege: As its central concept centers around wars between literal angels and demons, it can freely deal in deus ex machina. The supernatural players who drive Apocalypse's plot are both inscrutable and powerful, and the conventions that so often feel frustratingly hollow in typical role-playing game plots actually work here. Yes, you the player are reduced to a pawn in some larger scheme, granted only enough strength and insight into the bigger picture to make you a more effective tool for the shadowy figures in the background. But when you're cast as a scrawny teenage refugee caught up in the machinations of actual gods like Thor and Lucifer, your powerlessness kind of goes with the territory.
At the same time, though, Apocalypse's no-nonsense cut to the chase does make it feel more like a typical SMT game. SMT4 stood out from its peers thanks to its fake-out opening story phase; even though the setting eventually shifted to a variant on the franchise's standard modern Tokyo, the enigmatic realm above the city continued to play a huge role in the game and added greatly to the story. The tower that links the kingdom of Mikado to Tokyo still sits at the center of the city, but the clear separation between the new hero and SMT4's Flynn drives home the fact that Mikado isn't really part of Nanashi's tale.
Instead, this new story works more like a subplot of the original game's: It runs in parallel to SMT4's "neutral" story path, ultimately leading to alternate outcomes. Unfortunately, SMT4's neutral outcome was incredibly difficult to achieve without the help of a guide. I ended up going "lawful" in my review playthrough, so I can't really speak to how neatly Apocalypse fits into that story besides the reverence the people of Tokyo have for their champion Flynn (SMT's neutral outcomes typically elevate humankind while rejecting both the lawful dogma of YHWH and the destructive anarchy of Lucifer) and the fact that his battle companion is Isabeau. Supposedly, though, Apocalypse's branching story line offers only only neutral outcomes, all different from those of the original game. So there's not much sense sense in looking for total consistency between the two games, which is probably just as well, as some of the play mechanics here don't really jive with where Apocalypse is meant to fall in SMT4's narrative. For example, why does the "world map" start out all blocked off to impede Nanashi's freedom of exploration when, by this point in SMT4, Flynn had basically opened up the entire city?
So, Apocalypse essentially amounts to a new creation designed as a tangent to the old. Even if the constant familiarity and dependence on the original SMT4 does undermine its sense of uniqueness, at heart you're still left with a Shin Megami Tensei game... and that's no bad thing at all. Apocalypse makes further refinements to the series' rich combat mechanics, meaning that unless you go with the easiest difficulty setting you're in for a challenging and frequently tempestuous role-playing experience.
Customization plays a crucial role in Apocalypse's design, perhaps even more so than in the previous game. While Nanashi doesn't have access to Flynn's futuristic "Gauntlet" device, his Dagda-haunted smartphone performs essentially the same functions. You earn "app points" every time Nanshi levels up, which you can then invest into phone apps to customize your experience. This fine-tuning ranges from basic functionality (allowing you to recruit more demons into your party) to methods that allow you to gain extra cash from battles or massively increase the overall difficulty level.
Demon recruitment plays a significant role in Apocalypse, per usual. The game includes hundreds of different demons, and you can entice all but bosses to join your party by pursuing the correct conversational gambits with them. These mid-battle chats appear to be even more unpredictable than ever, in a good way; making the same dialogue choices with a given demon type will have different outcomes from battle to battle, which reinforces the sensation that the monsters you're trying to ally with are fickle and unpredictable. But Apocalypse mitigates what could be little more than annoying randomness with a newfound cohesion: A demon with whom you share a failed recruitment conversation in one battle will eventually show up again in a later encounter and may remember having run into you before, developing a fondness for you in the interim and happily joining up that second time around. Knowing the demonic personality types involved can also prove helpful in steering your conversational gambits: A demon with an "old man" persona will tend to respond better to politeness and respect, while the likes of rowdy monsters and proud feminine demons can be more fickle in their responses.
Demonic fusion in the Mido app works the same as in SMT4 (and every other MegaTen game), with both level and demonic race determining the outcome of pairing together two monsters. Fused demons will inherit skills from their "parents," allowing you to customize your new creatures while simultaneously requiring you to make tough choices when paring a ton of great abilities down to fit the limited number of skill slots available to your new demon. This time around, skills can also mutate more dramatically through fusion.
As with the minor differences in conversations and fusions, the improvements Apocalypse brings to the MegaTen formula tend to be fairly subtle. The "press turn" concept continues to evolve here, rewarding players for making smart choices in combat and inflicting steep (sometimes game-ending) punishments for inept tactics. When you hit an enemy's weak point, the attacker is likely to "smirk," potentially gaining an extra attack for that turn and enjoying special boosts to certain standards skills on their next action. Enemies can gain a "smirk" bonus as well, though, and the game AI isn't shy about hitting your party members in their weak points; this isn't one of those RPGs where the computer attacks thoughtlessly, and you can lose an essential combatant in a flash when an enemy hits their weakness, smirks, and repeats the attack.
On the other hand, those same tactics work for you, too. The game's first major boss encounter maintains the fine MegaTen tradition of completely curbstomping unprepared players; it can use a skill on itself to gain smirk status and follow up by blasting the entire party with a devastating group elemental attack. But the game gives you several options for triumphing: You can use a special ability that nulls an enemy's smirk, or you can use an expendable item to reflect element attacks, or you can just use brute force and grind for experience. The franchise's emphasis on status effects and elemental targeting means that the advanced side quests that show up throughout the main story can give you a leg up; with a properly tuned party, you can venture into dungeons where enemies far more powerful than you dwell and still come out ahead, raking in ludicrous experience and cash for your incisive tactics. Risk-reward is alive and well in Apocalypse's world.
Of all the improvements Apocalypse offers, though, my favorite is definitely the way Atlus has made the previous game's Street Pass function available via Internet. While you can still Street Pass to swap info with other players, you can also go online and "encounter" 10 players at a time, trading valuable items. Since Apocalypse has already been out in Japan for quite some time, the online trade space is currently populated by people who have sunk hundreds of hours into the game and are willing to exchange some wonderfully valuable goods. While this is likely to change in the short term after the U.S. release floods the servers with new, inexperienced players, it's great to be able to Street Pass with Apocalypse players outside of PAX or a trip to Japan. You can also send out a demon with your online ID card and allow them to either develop new skills or fuse with others' demons — a crap shoot, but one that can yield enormous benefits. The one down side to Internet swapping: You can only do it once per every two hours of game time, and if you allow your attached demon to die in combat your trade attempt will fail and you'll be forced to wait another two hours before you can log on again.
My least favorite "improvement" here comes in the form of Navarre, the annoying green ghost of an annoying smug samurai from the previous game. Imagine if while playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword that Groose died and was given Fi's role — it sounds amusing at first, but it quickly wears on you. Especially since Navarre plays a key role in dungeons, functioning as a key to unlock doors through simplistic environmental puzzles. Navarre is one of several battle companions you can team up with throughout the game; unlike in SMT4, you can choose which companion you have active to end each turn with a free, randomized action. But even if Navarre isn't set to be your active companion, he still tags along and make obnoxious comments as both part of the story and through random battle interjections.
Navarre also ties in to Apocalypses's other middling mechanic, in which all your companions will team up to launch a massive unison attack. In theory, this should be marvelously helpful: Each companion in your retinue will use a special skill to buff or heal the party, then follow up with a physical attack. This can be of great value in difficult battles. The problem is that, so far as I can tell, there's no way to control when these unison attacks come into play. A team meter builds after each round of combat, and once it maxes out your companions will go all-in at the end of the next turn, resetting the meter to zero. This can be intensely frustrating when it happens in some scrub battle right before you take on a boss, wasting a valuable limited attack. It's not a game-breaking flaw, but being able to exercise a little more control over this precious commodity would be greatly appreciated.
Overall, though, Apocalypse amounts to more of the same; for the most part, that's a good thing indeed. It's a meaty, involving role-playing game, filled with MegaTen standards and adding its own refinements. While its story does lose much of its predecessor's sense of uniqueness, there's something to be said for its lean, get-to-the-point setup. I hesitate to call it as great or essential as SMT4, but it's nonetheless one of the best RPGs available for 3DS — a system with no shortage of them to begin with. I still have a way to go before I reach the end of Apocalypse, though, so check back on Monday for my final evaluation.