The Price of Greatness (Is $49.99)
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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?