Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse 3DS Review — End of Days

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse 3DS Review — End of Days

One of the best RPGs of the decade gets a direct sequel. Does Apocalypse live up to its predecessor's impressive standard? Final thoughts and score!

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In my previous update, I went over some of the game's basics, along with my misgivings about the story. The more I play the more I realize Apocalypse is meant to exist not in parallel to Shin Megami Tensei IV but rather as an alternate outcome. I don't want to give away too much of the storyline, though; suffice it to say that this plot can't possibly coexist with any branch of SMT4's narrative. If the "neutral" story path was meant to be SMT4's true outcome, Apocalypse is about an outside force throwing a monkey wrench into the proper course of events and you, the player, dealing with the results and hopefully trying to set things right.

In short, it basically amounts to yet another iteration of the SMT4 story. That game was designed to encourage fans to play it repeatedly until they achieved the ideal ending; Apocalypse is basically a new story (with its own series-standard branching paths) that replaces the final leg of the other game. It's a pretty esoteric device for a video game plot, but then the Shin Megami Tensei franchise is nothing if not esoteric.

As I've played more of Apocalypse over the past day while while going back and forth with readers to follow up on the first part of the review, I've increasingly come to realize the biggest improvements this sequel makes to its predecessor come from subtle, quality of life features. While a tremendous amount of what you'll find here comes directly from SMT4, the developers clearly listened to fan feedback or complaints and made tiny tweaks throughout the game — generally minor refinements to issues so small that I had forgotten about them.

Consider the world map, for example. SMT4 called back to the early 32-bit chapters of the series (e.g., Revelations: Persona and Soul Hackers) once you reached Tokyo proper by dropping you in an abstract, polygonal representation of the city populated by semi-random encounters and NPCs rendered as triangular icons. While amusingly nostalgic for long-time fans, the map felt needlessly opaque; I've heard from many people who gave up on the game because they simply couldn't navigate to their next destination. Apocalypse retains the same basic map setup as its predecessor, but it adds a number of small features that make for a far less frustrating experience. A simple waypoint function allows you to look up your next destination and scroll the map around to find it; this goes a long way toward making movement throughout the city less painful.

You'll find Apocalypse is full of minor improvements like this. Everything from NPC icons changing when they have new dialogue to spout at you to the fact that the Estoma spell (which traditionally curtails random encounters) works more effectively make Apocalypse a far smoother play experience than the original SMT4 was. Not all of these changes make the game easier and more simplistic, though; balancing out the new quality of life improvements, you have the more complex rules concerning demon fusion. As always in SMT, Apocalypse allows (requires, really) players to recruit demons and then fuse them into new creatures, carrying forward your choice of the source demons' skills into the new party member. This allows for a remarkable amount of customization, but this time around the process has a complication to factor in that wasn't present in SMT4: A new demon's elemental affinities affect its potential skills. Transfer a powerful ice spell to a demon with a fire- or force-based nature and that spell will be weakened by innate penalties. Worse, it'll cost more mana to cast, forcing you to expend more for less impact. This becomes a significant factor in your demon fusions: Yes, you might be able to fuse a demon into a more powerful ally, but if doing so will weaken a special skill you've been cultivating through several generations of fusions, is the tradeoff worth it? Of course, you have many options for acquiring new demons in the game, but serious players will need to factor this new wrinkle into their overall strategies.

So far, I've found all of these changes to work to the game's benefit. The appeal of less frustrating navigation should be self-evident, but the more complex demon-making works well, too. I have a tendency to just kind of mash demons together haphazardly, and the steep penalties and impressive bonuses Apocalypse adds to the process have forced me to take a more measured approach to the Cathedral of Shadows app. And a game that expects me to invest more of myself into getting the most out of it is never a bad thing.

I'll continue slugging my way through the bombed-out ruins of Tokyo over the weekend and aim to have a final score up before the game launches on Tuesday. Please check back then for my final evaluation.

Final verdict

Playing Apocalypse in close proximity to Dragon Quest VII has been an interesting experience. There tends to be a pervasive notion that Dragon Quest is the most staunchly traditional RPG franchise around, the most creatively stagnant. I can't say I agree.

Shin Megami Tensei feels far more rooted in tradition than Dragon Quest — I wouldn't call it stagnant, but it definitely works according to a formula, even in offshoots like Devil Survivor and Persona. The core SMT games in particular invariably revolve around the advent of a demonic apocalypse centered in Tokyo, a teenager who rises to the occasion to turn back to tide (or not) by using some sort of arcane technology to forge pacts with demons, and a number of possible outcomes that usually, but don't always, amount to a three-way choice between law, chaos, and the neutral path. Apocalypse varies slightly from this formula — like Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, its story outcomes all skew more or less along a single alignment, with the different story results offering shades of one rather than a full spectrum.

Otherwise, though, it's largely business as usual here. My first impulse was to dismiss Apocalypse out of hand, because it feels so narratively superfluous: It's literally an alternate story to Shin Megami Tensei IV's "true" ending, meaning it either (1) never happened in canon or (2) overwrites the previous games proper outcome. Either way, it's kind of hard to get excited about that. And it does all this in the sandbox established by its predecessor, creating a more direct and subordinate story connection the franchise has ever seen outside of the parallel stories that comprised Persona 2's twin releases. Moreover, it does so while dealing in the same battle mechanics as pretty much every other SMT game: Turn-based combat, heavy emphasis on affinities and weaknesses, the same hundreds of demons to collect, the same fusion processes (and even some identical special fusions).

One of Apocalypse's nicer touches: The more ill-fitting SMT4 demon art that was contributed by several different guest illustrators has been redrawn by Masayuki Doi to fall much more in line with the series' style (though the game still has the problem of including a lot of older marker-and-ink Kazuma Kaneko illustrations alongside cleaner painted or digital images — the Morrigan effect at work. It's a common issue when it comes to succubi, apparently).

The longer I played, though, the more I found to like about Apocalypse. Despite a handful of irritating elements — again, the ghost of Navarre is annoying, and the dungeon mechanic he enables never feels interesting — it almost universally improves on the older game. What Apocalypse lacks in terms of a meaningful standalone story it more than makes up for with mechanical refinements. Nearly everything players complained about in SMT4 (at least in terms of combat and play rules) has been overhauled here, revamped for the better. This does make for a fairly challenge-free game at times, in large part because instant resurrection is baked right into the story, but you can always crank up the difficulty setting to a more merciless level if need be.

What I find perhaps most interesting about Apocalypse's story is its introduction of a third faction to the usual angels-versus-demons fare. Admittedly, I haven't played all the SMT games Atlus has published in the U.S., and I haven't played any of the ones that never made their way West, but the third faction changes the plot dynamic considerably. In SMT4, you most likely sided with either the Order or Chaos forces, or else you rebuffed both in favor of a humanistic angle. And that's usually how SMT goes: You're either with YWHW or Lucifer (or their stand-ins) or else you lead humanity to a more hopeful, deity-free existence. This time around, the armies of Order and Chaos always feel like outside agents, powers that become established before the protagonist comes into his own. The crux of the plot, then, revolves around your relationship with the new divinities (which seem largely drawn from Hindu and Norse lore in contrast to the Judeo-Christian figureheads that typically drive the larger SMT storyline) and how you choose to ally yourself with them. The previous game's protagonist also has an important (and perhaps surprising) role to play as well, despite this no longer really being his tale.

The story takes a few unexpected turns along the way, though perhaps none are so surprising as the importance of your partner characters. Apocalypse seems to take cues from Person to some degree, building up the importance of the main character's connections to his friends and allies. Don't expect any social links, but I feel like the supporting cast drives the Apocalypse story much more so than in any mainline SMT game I've played. Maybe this is all part of the inevitable drift toward anime that seems to afflict all RPGs, and I'm sure many long-time fans won't approve. As someone who couldn't really immerse himself in Apocalypse's plotline, though, it was fine, and I was just along for the ride.

But this gets back to what I was saying about tradition: SMT is arguably more of an old-fashioned, template-based RPG than any Dragon Quest. Apocalypse improves on the formulaic elements and occasionally tries to strike out an do something new. In that sense, it's hard to find fault with it. A slightly lesser take on one of the decade's best RPGs is no bad thing at all. It could be a little tough to squeeze Apocalypse in amidst this fall's heavy roster of portable RPGs, but it's worth making the effort.

Interface
Largely unchanged from SMT4's — it's a turn-based RPG with a ton of systems, so it's going to be complicated no matter that.

Lasting appeal
With multiple routes through a sizable RPG story, it offers hefty replay value.

Sound
Atlus packed a ton of (English) voice acting into a 3DS cart. Musically, it's hit-or-miss versus the previous game.

Visuals
Largely recycled from SMT4 (and earlier games), but still one of the most detailed and uniquely "realistic" games on 3DS.

Though more of an expansion than a standalone release in spirit, Apocalypse's narrative superfluity is made up for by the considerable refinements it contains over its direct predecessor. Whether or not you'll enjoy its plot and its emphasis on partner characters comes down to personal taste, but on the whole it's an engrossing and addictive role-playing experience... even if it can feel a little familiar at times.

4/5

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