Shin Megami Tensei has always been a fairly niche franchise. Outside of the increasingly successful Persona series, recently seeing a great deal of success with Persona 4, most Mega-Ten games have a fairly limited appeal in the west. While modern Persona games are appealing due to their social links, bright colors, and emphasis on flashy High School drama, the SMT series proper is essentially its antithesis, with an emphasis on isolation, desperation, and generally, an insular heavy theme.
In fact, “insular” is probably the best way to describe the newest iteration in the SMT franchise, as SMT IV does very little to welcome new fans. But for those of you who are already in, you really can’t go wrong, even if a few corners were cut to bring the game to the 3DS.
I’ll cut to the chase, SMT IV‘s Kingdom of Mikado setting is incredible, with its own unique blend of cyberpunk-medieval-samurai fusion. I immediately fell in love with the game’s location, and within mere minutes of entering my first dungeon, I was hooked. Around 10 hours in you’ll encounter the first twist — which while I won’t ruin here, I will say it blew my mind. The over-arching themes are a bit on the nose (rich vs. poor, chaotic free will vs. order), but as a general rule I enjoyed the moral choices I had to make, as the game doesn’t painfully quantitate them as a contrived “GOOD” or “BAD” statistical boost.
In terms of gameplay, SMT IV sticks to its franchise roots, as it’s a very old school JRPG that involves turned based menu combat. Keeping in line with the oldest of the old, party participants are not animated like the Persona series or many other Mega-Ten iterations, instead only displaying enemy models on-screen. But despite the lack of theatrics, combat is engaging and satisfying thanks to the weakness system, which allows you to earn extra turns and temporary boosts (called “smirks”) if you target a foe with a particular element or nab a critical hit.
It forces you to balance your party, as you can’t simply hoard one or two elemental types and hope to win — you have to be constantly evolving. Since you won’t be recruiting human party members, you’ll be taking your pick of up to three other demons, as well as a number of stock positions available as backup options. In order to actually recruit demons, you have to either fuse existing party members, or recruit them by talking.
In true SMT fashion, talking to demons ranges from surprisingly cordial to utterly bizarre. Some demons will literally ask for half your inventory before they swear fealty, and even then, they’ll run away with your gear and leave you forever. Others respond very well to compliments and flattery, and will join you right away, as many still will take your compliments as in insult, deem you weak, and vow to destroy the essence of your soul.
There are over 400 demons available in the game, and let me just say, it’s the most addicting “catch ‘em all” system yet. With literally hundreds of different fusion combinations and recipes at the touch of a button, it’s incredibly easy to spend hours strategically raising and developing your team. Thankfully, once you catch a demon it remains in your tome forever so you can just re-purchase it again with Macca (the main currency of the series), which is a nice touch. In fact if the party system wasn’t so good, I would have longed for a more modern combat system.
If you ever feel like straying from the main path you may come away disappointed, as a great deal of the sidequests involve antiquated Fed-Ex/fetch objectives. I recommend mostly sticking to the core plot, which doesn’t really drag all that often as it takes you all across the world with its fairly interesting tale of intrigue and branching paths. If you’re not particularly well versed with SMT games and want to give this one a shot, SMT IV is actually pretty accommodating, given the fact that it features one of the most robust tutorials in all of SMT history.
It’s also incredibly forgiving, as it’s one of the only games with an “easy mode” option, and after death you have the ability to resurrect exactly where you left off with either Macca or 3DS Play Coins. Newcomers will be especially pleased to hear that the easy mode can be toggled on or off at any point without penalty, and you can save anywhere, even in dungeons. It still has a few difficulty walls here and there, but nothing a solid grind and a few demon fusions can’t fix.
But while the dungeon crawling aspect looks great aesthetically throughout the entire journey (as it shows a full 3D model of your character), the corner-cutting I mentioned earlier rears its ugly head approximately 10 hours into the game in other areas. As you start to enter more and more rooms and engage with the game’s NPCs, the pixelated inhabitants start to look worse and worse. I’m not normally one to complain about visuals, but re-using the same assets over and over can really take you out of the game, especially when the developers don’t even bother to reconstruct their poses, leading you to feel like you’re talking to the same “tired old man” 1000 times over.
The main map navigation is also fairly jarring, as the “pawn” icon returns to facilitate a minimal world crawl experience that just falls flat. For those of you who aren’t aware, many games in the SMT franchise utilize an arrow icon (a pawn) to traverse the world map. Now, back in the 90s this was a forced necessity due to hardware limitations, and it didn’t feel that out of place. But this is 2013, and using the same system on the 3DS is odd, especially given the fact that most of the game is absolutely beautiful.
In fact it’s abundantly clear that Atlus had a ton of ambition for SMT IV, but much of it is held back by the hardware. Like many old school games, many of the fantastic elements and major plot points will require a little extra imagination on your part, as there are no pretty high-budget Square Enix quality cutscenes to help you along the way. For some (myself included to an extent), the lack of production values can actually be a plus, forcing you to visualize part of the world and the story in your mind’s eye. But for most people out there, a certain level of flashiness is required, and even the hardiest of SMT fans will probably long for more as you cross the 20 hour mark.
As far as RPGs go, SMT IV offers up pretty much everything you could ask for, provided you’re willing to overlook the aforementioned technical issues. Once everything is said and done (which will take you anywhere from 30-60 hours, depending on your penchant for sidequests), you can tackle the game again with New Game+, which allows you to retain nearly everything you earned the first time around, and best the newly unlocked “hard” difficulty setting. New Game+ is a SMT staple and I’m glad it returns here, as I love that I have the ability to take my creatures I’ve spent hours training with on a new mission.
Shin Megami Tensei IV will do little to shake your notions of the series if you’ve already attempted to get into it. Like the newly released Soul Hackers 3DS remake, many areas feel a bit too antiquated to serve the needs of anyone but pre-existing SMT fans. But unlike Soul Hackers, SMT IV doesn’t have the excuse of being developed as an adaptation of a game from 1997. Even with its blemishes though, I really enjoyed my time with Shin Megami Tensei IV, and the demon collection and fusion system remains just as addicting as ever — just don’t expect it to top some of the other entries in the series, including Nocturne.
This review is based on a digital copy of the 3DS game Shin Megami Tensei IV.