Genre: Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Until recently, I was beginning to think that after spending over 100 hours with Persona 4 Golden, around 40 hours with Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, and untold hours getting crushed online in Persona 4 Arena—all in the span of less than a year—that I might have been getting Shin Megami Tensei-d out. I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case. After nearly nine years expanding the universe through its various spin-off series, Atlus has returned to the burgeoning franchise’s main line with its latest 3DS dungeon-crawler, the fantastic Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Since the release of 2004’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Atlus has become increasingly popular as both developer and publisher, but in some ways, the company has been a victim of its own success. Every time there is another release in the Persona line, role-playing-starved gamers end up wanting more from Atlus—but more of that style of game. The Shin Megami Tensei line is made up of a variety of titles, though, and each serves as a testbed for both new features and alterations of established mechanics. As with Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy line, this sort of shared development leads to a considerable amount of cross-pollination, with each title having elements found in other releases mingled with its own series-specific core mechanics. This approach has been increasingly difficult as of late, given the rise in prominence of Persona. Most recently, there was some blowback from gamers who went into Soul Hackers wanting and expecting the type of engrossing relationship-building system delivered by Persona‘s social links, but instead found a far more traditional dungeon-crawler that focused on combat and exploration rather than character events. To Atlus’ credit, they have not let the success of Persona pigeonhole the franchise, and because of that, longtime fans will find a lot to like in Shin Megami Tensei IV.
None of that is to say that the latest entry won’t be as engaging to newcomers as it is to series veterans. On the contrary, Shin Megami Tensei IV serves as an excellent entry point to the series as well as to dungeon-crawlers in general. The considerable number of gamers who first experienced the Shin Megami Tensei universe with Persona 3 and continued on to Persona 4 (2008, 2012) then to Soul Hackers (2013) will find that their time spent with its predecessors will be very illuminating when it comes to Shin Megami Tensei IV, as it quickly becomes clear how the developers approach the franchise as a whole and each series individually. Longtime fans will also note several changes from the game’s predecessor, Nocturne. It’s because of the development team’s ability to cherry-pick the best elements from each series and apply them appropriately that the franchise remains fresh, with progression taking place small, calculated step by small, calculated step, allowing them to find a happy medium between satisfying fans and attracting new players.
I found that Soul Hackers, as entertaining as it is, lacked the kind of engrossing storyline that its premise promises. The charm of the era shines through in the game’s fascination with the Internet and virtual reality, but the dull characters and lagging, humdrum overarching plot put too much pressure on a combat system that is still finding its footing. The game is still very good and a great way to get acclimated with the line, but it left me wanting something more substantial. Shin Megami Tensei IV proved to be just that. Players are immediately introduced to an intriguing world that only becomes more mysterious as the plot unravels into a bizarre tale that mashes together the future, the past, science fiction, mythology, and social constructs.
As Flynn, players find themselves in a curiously European-looking castle city around the Middle Ages. However, Flynn isn’t a knight but a newly christened samurai, a guardian assigned to protect the country of East Mikado and its inhabitants from demons. How he became one only adds to the mystery, as he was chosen by a mechanical gauntlet during a special ceremony. This gauntlet, bestowed in a city seemingly centuries old, comes with its own AI, Burroughs. Burroughs not only offers advice but also notes quest progress, keeps track of challenges (side quests), allows saving and loading anywhere in the game, and allows access to apps, programs that can do anything from replenish health points with each step to translate demon speech. The gauntlet itself can scan and map areas, translate mystic script (Japanese), and boot a demon-fusing programing called Mido.
The mystery only deepens once demons are spotted outside of their natural habitat, a cave within Mikado Castle’s walls called Naraku, and in the countryside. Flynn and the other newly ordained samurai are on a mission to assist with helping villagers and killing the remaining demons, when they happen upon the Black Samurai. This strange person, dressed in an alien armor, has been spreading something called “literature” to the people, which causes them to realize that they, the Casualries, are being taken advantage of by the privileged Luxurors and in turn become demons. During the search for the Black Samurai, the religious class of monks, led by Abbot Hugo, intervene and assign Flynn and his companions the task of tracking down relics (technology similar to the gauntlet) in addition to fighting demons. Their meddling quickly causes friction within the samurai order, with some willing to obey the Abbot and others irritated that they are being distracted from their sworn oath to protect the people. The outcome of this division, the cause of the recent demon outbreak, and the truth behind the monks’ interference plays out as the story unfolds through the hunt for the elusive Black Samurai.
Unlike with Soul Hackers, I was immediately drawn to the game’s world and themes but my interest never waned. That said, those coming from the Persona titles will find the lack of character development and interaction disappointing. Players are often accompanied by their fellow samurai, but they have no direct control over them and rarely interact with them. Their role is more intrinsic in nature, and that is to act as a moral gauge to determine the player’s alignment. Certain situations arise that cause them to engage in a dialogue that will inevitably see several in disagreement with one another over their orders, and each will turn to the player for their thoughts. There aren’t many choices during these moments, but the choices taken do have an effect on the game’s outcome. Unlike in Persona, the characters serve to elevate the story rather than the story the characters. That approach works here because of how well the story mingles such disparate topics as politics, science fiction, and mythology. And while the story might not delve as deep into each as I would have liked, it has enough plot twists and steady reveals to remain interesting throughout.
Upon first entering the world, players will see a set of static screens that allow them to choose from locations within Mikado Castle, the attached surrounding city, and a handful of locations around the countryside. Shortly after becoming acclimated with the rustic landscape of East Mikado, players will find themselves in a half-destroyed contemporary Tokyo, and spend much of the game venturing around its various districts on a world map. Here, as in the previous titles, the player is represented as a stylized icon that swiftly moves around the city streets, battling enemies, talking to residents, and investigating hubs and dungeons. Unlike in Nocturne or Soul Hackers, there is no danger meter while traveling, and enemies, also represented by icons, are now visible before they attack. Now that they can be seen beforehand, enemies can be avoided by either being bypassed, if there is enough space, or by waiting for them to disappear before respawning. Avoiding them is not particularly easy, however, because they are not restricted by the buildings and debris that stops players in their tracks. These hindrances can actually be something of an annoyance because the dark color palette makes the dead ends, rubble, and structures blend together; this, along with the camera’s constant reorientation after battle, makes learning the lay of the land overly difficult. Fortunately, discoverable terminals are located around the world, allowing players to transport between them and save a considerable amount of time.
Once an area or person of interest is encountered, it’s simply a matter of pressing a button to ‘interact’ with them and initiate the conversation or the process of entering the area. Passers-by rarely have anything of interest to say, often repeating the same bit of information regardless of how long it has been since they were initially engaged. Others offer directions, which help as players make their way around the labyrinthine districts of the city. Once in a hub, players are either immediately find themselves in a room and have nothing to worry about, or they will be in a navigable area with enemies, relics, and interactive objects nearby. In these areas, the camera shifts to a third-person perspective and enemies will spawn and respawn all around them, taking all manner of forms. As with the enemies on the world map, these do not stay spawned for long and will vanish if they are not attacked or spot the player. They do, however, have a contact indicator, and if it changes color, that means they have noticed the player and are rushing towards them in an effort to land the first blow. Hitting an enemy with Flynn’s weapon before they make contact is crucial for survival because of the automatic bonus first-contact hit when the round starts, which often inflicts the additional damage necessary to cut battles short; the equipped weapon also matters, as each functions appropriately in the hubs, so spears have a longer reach but are somewhat slow, daggers have a short reach but are fast, blunt weapons are slower, etc. New to the series is the ability to ‘look’ up and down in designated spots. If the player approaches a ladder and looks up, an option appears to scale it, and similarly, if they approach a ledge and look down, they will be able to descend to a lower level. The iconography used to indicate these spots, as well as many other world elements, is similar to those found in massively multiplayer games, which creates an interesting contrast with the dreary world, combat animations (e.g., blood splatters on the screen, frozen enemies shatter, etc.), and crazy, if it at times garish, demon designs. They are also sorely missed in the handful of maze-like demon domains, which use the same hideous dated textures throughout with little in the way of identifying markers.
Players will need acute situational awareness at all times in order to get the jump on any nearby enemies. Ensuring the first attack, or a free initial hit, is absolutely critical in a game that can be absolutely merciless. The turn-based combat system is similar to others in the series, with each side receiving a set number of attacks that can be increased by landing a critical strike or exploiting an enemy’s weakness. Every character, whether human or non-human, is sometimes neutral but always proficient at and susceptible to one of the various attack types: gun, physical, lightning, fire, ice, force, dark, and light. The system is both elegantly simple and involved, allowing for some incredible combos, with weaknesses and critical hits extending attacks by up to two per character and strengthening the blows to the point where much more powerful demons can be killed before they even know what hit them. But it’s also unforgiving, as this system cuts both ways: players will need to save frequently because enemies can just as easily get the first attack or hit discover a weakness, and defeat the party during the first round. I lost count of the number of times my team opened a door to fight a dungeon’s boss and was wiped out before they had a chance to launch a single attack. Even low-level demons can inflict massive amounts of damage, which makes this one of the few games where holding back isn’t recommended—fights are fast and brutal—and where a character’s agility and luck traits (to increase the chance of first strike and landing critical hits) are actually important. Even when a strategy seems to be working, things can quickly go downhill, as enemy reinforcements pour in for the second or third time and end up victorious simply through attrition. Fleeing is an option, but it isn’t reliable enough to count on. It’s even worse when the defeat comes about because one of the AI samurai teammates completely botches their turn by attacking with a spell that the enemy has already successfully blocked or countered.
Not all demons are out to kill humans. In fact, demons provide a bulk of the player’s fighting force, and serve as what little there is in the way comic relief. As before, players can negotiate with demons in order to convince them to switch sides, and then fuse those demons with others who have previously been swayed or summon one of their type at a later time for a fee. Their strange designs and abilities are primarily what keeps combat interesting, and finding a new fusible standard or special demon type in Mido is always exciting. Negotiating with them often sparks lively conversations that are just as frequently filled with bad puns and rude putdowns as they are cut off prematurely by a hungry demon eager to forego talks in order for a nice meal of human flesh.
Scouting them out is dangerous, however, as a demon breaking off talks results in the player immediately losing all of their attacks for that round. Still, it is often worth the risk, as being confronted by a type that is in the player’s stable will cause the aggressor to break off the fight once contact is made, and they will often give gifts, such as macca (money) and items, for befriending one of their friends or relatives. Summoned demons will also augment the player’s capabilities considerably by whispering their skills to the player once certain levels are reached, which can not only bestow entirely new spells but enhance ones that the player already has access to. If there is a complaint, it’s that their demands become too routine at times, constantly wanting items, money, or the player’s health, though they sometimes want the life of a summon demon, but players can always try to cheat them or break off contact to test their resolve. Trying to memorize the strengths and weaknesses of each demon type is a game unto itself, and while such an unforgiving system can lead to some absolutely infuriating encounters (and sudden deaths), the breadth of the tactical possibilities that the demons and their abilities allow for provide a much-needed element in combat to keep it exciting.
Death will come, though, and it will come often. No matter how well a party is designed, how much players level grind, and how well-equipped Flynn is, death is constant. After dying, players can load a save file or continue from the spot they died by paying the cranky Charon, ferryman of River Styx, to let them live in either macca or Play Coins. Atlus continues to be one of the very few companies to allow players to use the coins, and it’s nice to have something to use them on—especially when it comes to saving precious money. The Street Pass feature is also used for demon interaction, but as whenever Street Pass is used, it’s more a novelty in North America due to the system’s requirement for a fairly high density of owners in an area to really make an impact; still, it’s nice that Atlus continues to take full advantage of the system’s features. While the Street Pass feature might go unused, players are advised to walk around with their 3DS to stock up on their Play Coins—they’ll need them.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a fantastic dungeon-crawler that features an interesting story, an engaging combat system, and an intriguing world. Although the character interaction is light, the player’s friends serve their purpose well in gauging the direction of the player’s moral compass. The AI can be inconsistent at times, and the world overly tiring to navigate early on, but on the whole, Atlus’ latest makes for another excellent entry in the Shin Megami Tensei universe.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)