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 clichés 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.