Decisions, decisions. From the very beginning when Shin Megami Tensei IV was announced, the game’s developer and publisher, Atlus, promised that the player would be given many important decisions throughout the game, and that those decisions would have a drastic impact on the main character, other NPCs, and the outcome of the story. Has Atlus delivered on that promise? For the most part, yes. The game is filled with countless seemingly important decisions. And yet as is the case with many games boasting “branching storylines,” the forks in the road often reunite, and so playing the game more than once is only partially a new experience.
A Story of Law and Chaos
Shin Megami Tensei IV contains a storyline and setting that is interesting at the very least. The main character (default name: Flynn) lives in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and is given the rare honor of becoming a Samurai. As a Samurai he must protect his country by entering a dungeon called Naraku and battling the demons there. But as events unfold, it turns out that beneath the dungeon is an entire other country that is nothing like his home. As he travels alongside Walter, Jonathan and Isabeau—three fellow Samurai—through his choices he discovers what kind of person he really is, and decides the fate of both countries.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a game that refuses to hold the player’s hand, and its storytelling is no exception. While there is a fair share of exposition, many of the game’s finer points are made with such subtlety that one might not even notice them the first time through. A lot of useful and important information is spoken not by the main characters during story scenes, but by common NPCs that might go entirely ignored by a hasty player. To a patient player, every location in the game is a mine of information, but it is very easy to leave that mine untapped.
Through your decisions throughout the game, the main character with come to terms with his own alignment, be it lawful, chaotic or neutral, and how that alignment affects the storyline provides just enough variety to make multiple playthroughs worth playing, even if most of the game remains unchanged. Actually, of the many decisions made throughout the game, it is really a single big decision towards the end that determines the final path you end up on, however certain choices can only be made at that point according to the main character’s alignment.
Finishing the game allows the player to start over, preserving their collection of demons and other collectables, and providing the option to start at the same level from when the game was completed—including items, currency, etc—or to start at level 1. In either case, despite that single decision determining the outcome of the game, the player must play through the entire game again in order to see the other endings. This is partially due to the fact that there are only 2 save slots available in the game. The player is encouraged to replay the game over and over again on a single file, and it keeps track of which endings have been viewed.
Still, starting over from the beginning isn’t as much fun as you might expect. As I mentioned before, aside from a couple of forks in the road, the majority of the game will be identical to what it was the first time through. And just to make things even less convenient, the maps that had been revealed while playing through the first time have to be revealed again. The second and subsequent playthroughs will take much less time than the original journey, however, especially if you choose to preserve your character’s level and equipment when starting over. What is normally a 40-60 hour campaign can be completed in less than 10 hours if all of the optional content is skipped and the player has a party capable of winning most fights while auto-combat is enabled. But skipping through everything isn’t much fun, and a few extra save files could have gone a long way and saved a lot of time.
A Shin Megami Tensei game for a Shin Megami Tensei fan
Fortunately, there is a lot to like about Shin Megami Tensei IV, so you might find playing through it multiple times quite worth the time. First of all, to fans of the series, rest assured, this game is full of all of the things that make Shin Megami Tensei what it is known for: tons of demons, brutal difficulty, and labyrinthine dungeons.
The basic flow of the game involves exploring the world while completing the main storyline quests and a lot of side quests (mainly hunt or fetch). As each main storyline quest is completed, a bit more of the world becomes available to explore, and with it, a ton of side quests get unlocked. What’s interesting is how difficult it is to get around the world.
Each section of the world is divided by impassable terrain, and there are usually tunnels or secret paths that connect them, many of which contain roadblocks according to which part of the story you have reached. Complicating things further are the vague instructions provided to the player for each of the quests. It’s not uncommon to be instructed to go to a location you have never even heard of, and aside from a small list of locations you can fast travel to, most of the locations are not named clearly on the map until you are actually there. I hate to say it, but the mapping system simply doesn’t provide enough information. Some players may enjoy how vague the quest objections can be as it encourages exploration, but others will surely find it frustrating, especially after spending hours searching the world and fighting through tons of battles only to remain lost.
Traversing the various dungeons and hostile locations of Shin Megami Tensei IV is a bit more straightforward. In this case the map system is pretty good. You can use the touch screen to switch between floors, which is helpful when trying to navigate mazes on multiple levels. The map also keeps track of doors, stairs and important locations such as shops, rooms and spots where you can find relics to sell later. Occasionally there are spots where you can climb up or down a level. Controlling this is a bit awkward, because for some reason you have to press up or down on the dpad to look in the direction of where you want to climb before pressing A to follow through with it, and these locations aren’t always remembered on the map.
More demons than ever before
While exploring dangerous locations, enemy demons appear on the map in a glitchy looking matrix style silhouette. You can strike them with your weapon to start the battle with the initiative and with a bit of damage already dealt to the enemies. If you do not do this, there is a possibility that the enemy team will strike first. Most of the demons will attempt to run into you while you are exploring, and sometimes they appear suddenly and in alarming numbers.
Speaking of demons, Shin Megami Tensei IV features the largest list of demons in the history of the series—over 400 of them—and collecting them all is no small task. Expect to spend most of your play time battling demons or recruiting them to your cause, and to waste away hours fusing them into stronger demons.
If you do decide to try to collect all of the demons in the game, first of all, good luck, and second of all, you will have a couple different methods of collecting them. As is common in this series, the main character can attempt to talk with demons instead of fighting them. If the conversation goes well, he can attempt to recruit the demon(s) onto his team by bribing them with gifts. If the conversation goes poorly, the demon may take the gifts and run away or attack the player. Talking to demons is a good way to get a few demons into your party, but more powerful demons can be created through fusion.
The fusion system has come a long way since Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, and what was once an endless process of guess and check is now a very convenient searching system that makes it easy to fuse new demons. The search parameters include every option you could hope for. You can choose to view only results that are new demons, or to include or exclude a specific demon from your party in the fusion. You can even have the search utilize the entirety of the demon compendium to make fusions out of demons that aren’t even in your active party (for a price). With such a powerful fusion tool, collecting the majority of the demons actually isn’t that difficult, provided you have enough money to burn away on fusion. There is a list of demons that can only be recruited by completing specific quests or optional objectives, however, so getting every demon isn’t quite as easy as spending a day fusing.
I enjoyed the fusion system, and yet as someone who has played the majority of Shin Megami Tensei games, it was a little too familiar. The evolution of the fusion system and its ease of use actually made the whole process a bit mindless. Whenever I got new demons and leveled them up so that they learned their last new skill, I went back to the fusion system like clockwork, and it got a bit tiresome after a while. As great as it is to have over 400 demons in the game, the truth is, demons are nothing more than a collection of stats and abilities, and since they stop learning new ones after gaining a few levels, even if you have a favorite demon, there is little point in keeping it. 99% of the demons in the game will be nothing but fusion fodder for the 1% you will hold on to at the end of the game, and only rarely will a demon have a unique ability.
With that being said, the demons themselves are still interesting, and this game certainly sets a new standard for the series. Each demon has a few paragraphs describing their place in real world myth, and there is beautiful full screen art for each one of them. It’s great to see the classic demons make a return in Shin Megami Tensei IV in such artistic form! And the new demons fit in perfectly well with the classics.
The demons look good in combat as well which takes place in a first person perspective. The smaller sprites aren’t as exciting as the full screen art, though it’s nice to see many of them are animated. But once in a while you will encounter a boss that does use the full screen artwork in combat, often complete with animation, and these encounters are appropriately impressive.
Press Turn Combat
The battle engine will be familiar to anyone that has played Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne or Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2. The press turn system gives the player a turn icon for each active party member. A normal action, such as an attack, consumes one turn icon, and when all of the icons are gone, the enemies get their turn. Taking advantages of enemy weaknesses while attacking will only use up half of an icon, so if the player makes the right decisions, they can double the number of actions they take per turn while dishing out extra damage. On the other hand, if an enemy blocks an attack, it wastes two turn icons instead of one, and if an attack is absorbed or reflected, the turn ends immediately no matter what.
I’ve always enjoyed this battle engine, and it was a lot of fun to spend more time with it in Shin Megami Tensei IV. It is at its best during long battles, especially boss encounters where the momentum can shift at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, I’m starting to notice a disturbing trend with the games in this universe. Basically for normal enemies, if the player is playing properly, the enemies should be defeated before they get a chance to act. On the other hand, if the player makes a mistake or is caught off guard, it can be terribly punishing. The choice shouldn’t be between playing perfectly and seeing the game over screen, should it? I’d think basic encounters should last a couple of rounds, not be over before the enemy acts or ended prematurely by an unavoidable game over screen. And yet that is often what it boils down to, especially early in the game. In my case, I was surprised by my very first encounter, and was defeated before I could even enter a command. This happened many times throughout the game, and encouraged me to save very frequently.
The game does have an option for players that reach the game over screen unexpectedly. They can either pay in Macca, the Shin Megami Tensei currency, or in Play Coins (earned by using the 3DS pedometer) to be revived in the moment before the encounter that defeated them. The problem with this is that it is almost always too expensive, and it is completely undermined by the fact that the game can be saved at any time. Why would I spend an absurd amount of Macca or a lot of Play Coins when I can just reload my save file? Ultimately, this entire system ends up making the game over screen far more time consuming than it should be. There is no fast way back to the title screen. You have to watch a bunch of dialogue and refuse to pay a couple of times before it will actually say game over.
Assuming you survive the first encounter and get into the swing of things, the game’s difficulty does ease off after a while. As the main character levels up, the player can choose how to distribute 5 stat points among Strength, Dexterity, Magic, Agility and Luck. If the player decides not to be a jack of all trades and focus specifically on either magic or physical combat, it’s pretty easy to create a powerful character by disregarding the useless stats. The main character learns new abilities from demons that have reached a high enough level to learn their last skill. While certain skills are not transferable, most of the basic skills in the game can be taught to the main character in this way, though at the beginning of the game, he only has 4 slots for skills. If he learns the same skill twice, it will level up, reducing the MP cost to cast it.
Parent demons can also give their abilities to the resulting fused demon. With some creativity and patience, it is possible to make incredibly powerful demons, such as one that is immune to all attack types (except almighty), or one with enough abilities to exploit every enemy weakness in the game. Once a couple of these demons have been created, the difficulty of the game goes from brutally challenging to mostly trivial, despite some very mean demons that must be defeated towards the end of the game. But in a game that gives so much freedom to the player in terms of how they customize their party and characters, it is not surprising that it is possible to become overpowered.
In the end, how much you enjoy Shin Megami Tensei IV will depend on how much you enjoy the Shin Megami Tensei formula. For players coming from the Persona series, Shin Megami Tensei IV might be a bit of a culture shock. There are no high school kids or all-out attacks here. The majority of the game is a series of dungeons, puzzling exploration and lots and lots of combat. The hardcore Shin Megami Tensei fan will feel right at home with this worthy successor to the series, but casual players will likely be completely alienated by the inconsistent difficulty and uninformative quest descriptions.
Personally, despite a few frustrations here and there, I really enjoyed the game as a whole. I’ve seen 3 of the game’s 4 endings now, and they were so different from each other that I am actually eager to see the one that I haven’t seen yet. There are still more side quests I want to complete and more demons I have not yet fused. And there’s also a harder difficulty setting that I want to give a try when I’m ready to start the game from the beginning at level 1 again. Although I’ve played over 85 hours of Shin Megami Tensei IV in just a few weeks, I’m not quite ready to put it down. That, in and of itself, should be proof enough that there is a pretty enjoyable game here. Casual players might want to consider their buying decision carefully, but for any fan of the series, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a safe buy.
Ari played 85 hours of Shin Megami Tensei IV before writing this review. He received a copy of the game from Atlus for review purposes.
Available on: 3DS
Version Reviewed: 3DS