eirikr's Shin Megami Tensei IV (Nintendo 3DS) review

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  • eirikr has written a total of 8 reviews. The last one was for Shin Megami Tensei IV
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The Price of Greatness (Is $49.99)

The game's nameless silent protagonist, Flynn

Objectively, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a great game. It successfully modernizes key gameplay mechanics that have stagnated since the watershed release of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and introduces a unique, wonderfully-rendered rendition of a demon-beset Tokyo with amazing aural fidelity. For the Shin Megami Tensei neophyte, it’s easy to recommend as a definitive entry point (and no, the games’ stories are not connected, so you can jump right in here), while veterans will still be challenged by ruthless enemies that require thoughtfully-considered demon fusion to overcome. These statements would be at odds were it not for new features that make defeat more of a learning experience than outright failure, and the game mostly walks that fine line in stride. IV simply has the best gameplay seen in the whole of the Megami Tensei series.

The game’s gloves are off from the start, but this is balanced by key changes to dated series mechanics. Enemies hit extremely hard (you can die in around 2-3 hits at the beginning) but if the main character dies, it’s okay—your demons will continue to fight on. If everyone kicks it, well, then it’s off to the underworld to meet Charon, who would rather you pay a fee (with in-game currency or Play Coins) and be instantly revived than face an actual game over. The game also lacks random battles, replaced by enemy icons in the field that change appearances based on the type of demon they represent, but these digital homunculi are absolutely unyielding in their desire to stalk you or set up ambushes, making it difficult to always strike first and obtain the first advantage in battle. And even though you can save anywhere, all these factors ensure that tension isn’t decreased while you’re running around.

this snowman guy is, like, in all these games for some reason

Battle in Shin Megami Tensei IV also means the return of Press Turns from Nocturne which is a system that, simply put, rewards extra turns if you hit enemy weaknesses or takes the enemy’s away if you void their own attacks. On its own, it’s one of the best battle systems ever crafted, encouraging real strategy and carefully-considered choices over the brute force of raw numbers and stats. IV introduces a new element to the system called Smirking, which will randomly reward an offensive and evasion boost to a successful use of the system. While it’s really useful when someone on your team gets it, especially the evasion boost that will decimate the enemy’s turns, more often than not they will come to bosses from physical attack criticals, which can seem cheap. Enemy Smirks are more reason to ensure your team’s defenses are rock-steady, but it’s overall a random, battle-shifting element questionably inserted into a system that was designed without them.

This menu looks boring (and is also in Japanese), but you'll come to love it

Demon fusion and customization has also been overhauled. Upfront, and most importantly, this means that you can finally pick what skills you want on your new demon, like in Persona 4: Golden. This alone makes fusion multitudes friendlier than in previous games, ensuring that the only time spent in the menu is poring over choices rather than canceling in and out for the right combination of skills to randomly appear. While having selectable skills is a game-changer in and of itself, IV also includes a searchable fusion index which pulls from your registered demon compendium and allows you to fuse by specific criteria, such as how to fuse a particular demon with a particular skill. These upgrades are all the better because the game’s challenge actively tests your ability to make an effective team, which would be made frustrating if the game adhered to the old, clunky, random method of skill inheritance. The player character can also very easily learn skills from his demons, making him a highly effective unit and more than just a guy who shoots things and lobs healing items.

Post-apocalyptic over-the-counter drugs, for your convenience

The game looks fantastic and, relative to platform or no, may contain the best-rendered environments Atlus has ever produced, with tons of small details that will probably cause you to stop and look around (if only the enemies didn’t hound you while you did). Of course, everything that’s not 3D field exploration is 2D, including battles and cutscenes, and whether this part of the presentation is important to you may determine your level of engagement with the game. Even so, the perspective keeps the battles fast-paced and fun and the cutscenes make good use of stereoscopic 3D with layered static portraits that will zoom in and out when appropriate. The game’s music is phenomenal, ranging from the usual rock styles to synthpop and even some rare cases of dubstep; if there’s one part of the game that gets it right on all fronts, it’s this.

Unfortunately, Shin Megami Tensei IV is not free from minor issues that, while they don’t ruin the game, can be disappointing. While the unrelenting on-field enemies create a harsh environment from the beginning of the game to the end, it becomes a little absurd when you return to early areas late in the game and are still being bothered by these now-insignificant demons who offer less than a pittance of experience and are more of a waste of the player’s time; the one bone the game throws at you to mitigate this is largely insufficient. Three-quarters of the game’s demon compendium is lifted wholesale from Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, so you may feel some déjà vu. There are also some design decisions that make certain parts of New Game+ a pain and unfriendly to players who want to see everything the game has to offer. While there are more than just these and they don’t detract from Shin Megami Tensei IV’s big picture, it could be said that these aspects in particular were handled better in previous games, which is unsatisfactory in light of the other big, positive changes the game makes.

The design scorned 'round the world

…And now for the difficult part of the review, so I’m going to drop the stuffy pretenses and talk to you straight. During the year-long media blitz for the game, IV’s new, Kazuma-Kaneko-free demon designs were revealed, causing a small, vocal contingent of fans to be outraged while everyone else was merely shrugged their shoulders and moved on. If you’re in the latter camp, a player who’s craving a great RPG and doesn’t give a fuck about who all these crazy monsters actually are, Shin Megami Tensei IV will probably offer nothing but pleasure. Go buy it now, it’ll probably be considered one of the most complete RPG experiences in the 3DS’s library. However, if you’re like me and you know that what separates Shin Megami Tensei from other RPGs out there is its acute handling of mythology and religion and a general focus on those types of themes, then prepare to be…well, maybe disappointed is a little strong, but long-time fans have the greatest (and perhaps only) chance of being left cold here, a few designs and reveals in particular. The game does go in some very interesting places to compensate, but maybe not to the level of Strange Journey and definitely not to Nocturne. Regardless, there’s enough quality in Shin Megami Tensei IV that even the most ardent Kaneko worshipper will have to admit that the game is great, and isn’t that a hell of an achievement on its own?

15 Comments
Posted by neoepoch

I like the concept of the demon and angel redesigns. These things are incomprehensible to the human mind, so they went with designs that would be terrifying and uncomfortable to regular folk to see. I dig it. And this game is fucking radical.

Posted by believer258

Wait.

People hated this guy?

Huh. I thought he looked pretty cool. Evil and menacing and stuff.

I know that the way SMT games are usually spot-on with mythology is sometimes not quite up to par here, but that seems like a very minor complaint to me. Naturally, parts of the internet are going to claim that the world is ending, but I'd say that the little introduction to just who these demons are and where they come from does a hell of a lot more for the mythology aspect than spot-on demon designs. Sure, Centaur doesn't look one bit like a centaur, but now I can get a little bit of information on what a centaur is in case I didn't know already.

I'd really like to hear the artist's explanation of how his new designs relate back to mythology, though.

Posted by D_W

Some of the new designs are really cool, like Minotaur, others, like Medusa, are pretty damn dumb looking.

Great review though. I'm not too far into yet, but am really enjoying it and actually bought a 3DS solely for this game.

Online
Edited by wchigo

Nice review! As someone who's only experience with the SMT games is Persona 3 and Persona 4, would you recommend it to me? The first-person perspective battle system is a little weird when I'm used to seeing your party during a battle, and the whole talking/negotiating with demons to have them join you seems a bit daunting as well.

Posted by Vessel28

Great review, can't wait for it to come to Europe. Please could you elaborate on the problems with new game +? Assuming they are spoiler free of course.

Posted by Eirikr

Sweet, some comments on this thing now that it's been front-paged!

@believer258: It was a minority of fans who voiced concern over the new designs, but they were particularly loud, myself definitely included.

The thing is, the Shin Megami Tensei design aesthetic is about more than just being cool, and the demon profiles (which seem to be getting a lot of attention now but have been in every game since Nocturne) are only one side of what they represent. That there were already tons of awesome designs that do look cool and also pay respect to their respective myths is just credit to how talented and well-read Kaneko is.

Check out this short tumblr conversation about the demon Tlazolteotl to understand how important a demon's look's can be. Most people will look at it and see a woman emerging out of a toilet and just think "lol, that's weird/cool" and that's fine. But since she's a goddess who consumes impurities, that choice of using the toilet in the design has meaning. Meaning to what the demons represent is absent in a lot of the new designs, and that's where the problem lies to fans such as myself.

And to answer to @neoepoch's related response, it's such a cop-out answer to say that these things are incomprehensible to the human mind and as such that gives carte blanche to whatever. Another Shin Megami Tensei trait is that it recognizes that humans have been depicting such figures as angels and demons for centuries and largely hews close to those depictions. This is another reason why fans were upset, as many of the designs throw this out the window, such as Asmodeus, who is traditionally depicted like this. Shin Megami Tensei is not Final Fantasy, where it gives original interpretations of its summons within its own world, rather, as stated above, it recognizes what the demons meant to their original believers and interprets them through their own lenses.

Onto the others, @wchigo, if you want to branch out into other Megami Tensei games, this is definitely the most recommended to do so. Just know that the game has a particularly nasty difficulty spike at the very beginning, but it only gets more manageable from there.

@vessel28, yes, they are spoiler-free. I already mentioned in the review but didn't link the two together, but enemy encounters are really annoying in NG+ because they still will stalk you even though they are level 7 to your own 99. There's also some issues with certain quests being only available under really strict conditions and some other minor stuff that may or may not annoy you, but that's just the thing--it's minor stuff. NG+ is pretty robust otherwise, offering full carryover of your levels, demon compendium (not your party), and equipment/items. Playing through the game again is also rather breezy, it just has a few missteps as noted above.

Posted by neoepoch

@eirikr: I guess it is a "cop out", but I've seen the old designs for so long that, while they could be nostalgia for some it was sort of becoming stale for myself. I could understand how the new designs would be too complicated or over-designed for some, but for me it was clear that these beings are very otherworldly and especially the angels, while they could be "majestic" to me they were rather frightening depictions of them that made me question whether or not I would to join up with these guys. I mean are they even capable of empathizing with humans, especially when they look so far from human themselves?

No, of course not what a shocker

Posted by Eirikr

@neoepoch: But angels generally do look like humans. Whether or not they can empathize with humans is beside the point here.

Though I have to apologize, I didn't intend to judge your own response as a cop out, but it's one I've seen pop up a lot in a way to justify these new designs, and one I think is a really weak argument in light of hundreds and hundreds of years of angelic imagery in Western art.

Posted by Puflwiz

I'm just gonna say it now. I fucking love this game. It may even be better than Nocturne on my scale. I'm like 60 hours in, neutral route and finishing up the side quests for Masakado. I fucking love it. The new designs irk me thought, I hear Lucifer looks horrible. The angels are pretty terrible looking imo along with that Asmodeus. I can't wait to finish the game and kill all my friends in the process probably.

Posted by vikingdeath1

I finally buckled and my copy of this game should be arriving tomorrow, nice review duder!

Posted by Kerned

The game's nameless silent protagonist, Flynn

Hey... how can he be nameless AND be named Flynn? I call shenanigans, sir!

Posted by Eirikr
Posted by neoepoch

@eirikr said:

@neoepoch: But angels generally do look like humans. Whether or not they can empathize with humans is beside the point here.

"Generally do look like humans..." to who? I don't recall many instances of what angels actually look like aside from multiple faces and wings and burning swords. There may be thousands of years of angelic imagery but those are also artist interpretations based on the thought that angels should be relate-able to people if they serve as guides and the Lord's voice and all that other stuff.

Posted by Eirikr

@neoepoch said:

@eirikr said:

@neoepoch: But angels generally do look like humans. Whether or not they can empathize with humans is beside the point here.

"Generally do look like humans..." to who? I don't recall many instances of what angels actually look like aside from multiple faces and wings and burning swords. There may be thousands of years of angelic imagery but those are also artist interpretations based on the thought that angels should be relate-able to people if they serve as guides and the Lord's voice and all that other stuff.

To believers. Not all the angels are humanoid, sure, such as the Ophanim. The actual question "what do angels really look like?" is the stuff of philosophy. Shin Megami Tensei doesn't aim to answer that question. Instead, its MO when portraying various mythological figures is from the perspective of those believers, so thus the thousands of years of art are the prime sources. Check the Michael page for what's very obviously the inspiration for his original SMT design, taken from a traditional depiction on a church. This unbiased viewpoint is a strength of SMT's design aesthetic and gives it a focus with unique results in a sea of games that cull from the same mythological sources. Put the new archangel designs in a Final Fantasy game and they'd fit right in, but you could very rarely do the reverse.

Posted by Karmosin

None of the new designs that I've seen so far has impressed me. Kaneko is one of my favorite artists and it saddens me that he didn't do designs in this game. Really want this game though, to bad it'll take some time for it to get to europe but atleast it'll get me time to buy a 3DS.

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