I played Apocalypse in Japanese, so I feel I can speak to the merits of both games. They each have their pros and cons, even if they're overall generally excellent at what they do. In terms of sheer mechanics and approachability, I definitely agree that Apocalypse is the more refined game overall, albeit not by that much, if only because IV was already a significantly polished game to play in a lot of respects. It's definitely true that it's a gentler introduction to the systems that define a Shin Megami Tensei game specifically versus Atlus' other games. The difficulty curve up front is toned way down in Apocalypse while still doing a solid job of getting you up to speed on how demon negotiations and the like work. (You're also able to switch between difficulty levels at any time, though I found that to be tempting much less often than in IV.) That being said, I do think the dungeons in Apocalypse are generally much more of a slog to get through compared to IV, even given that game's hard initial dungeon. The dungeons in the latter half of Apocalypse in particular get so tedious in terms of arbitrary traps and whatnot that you can't really plan ahead for that they nearly made me put the game down for good, especially the last two. Apocalypse features some of the worst Atlus dungeon designs in over a decade. They may have gone back and fixed some of these things for English localization, but I have no idea and given how rare it is for Atlus games to have significant content changes these days between versus, I'm doubtful it actually took place.
Narratively, like the others said, IV and Apocalypse go for pretty different things, so your mileage will potentially vary significantly depending on what sort of storytelling you like to get out of your RPGs. IV doesn't have nearly the same level of emphasis on character building that Persona games traditionally have; instead, the emphasis is more on world building, especially by way of talking to NPCs and engaging in sidequests. I still really like the main storyline in that game, but the characters themselves are largely archetypes that are designed to help you evaluate and explore moral issues within that world. It's totally an approachable game in its own right if you haven't played any of the other entries, but some (not all!) of the best parts of that story and how it's executed rely on you having previous experience with the older games, especially the first two games, of which only one has been made available in English officially through Atlus USA within the last few years. There are great little call backs to that history, but they're very easily missable if you don't have that experience beforehand, which I think is partly responsible for why that game's story wasn't well received in some circles.
Apocalypse, on the other hand, still has player choice and morality stuff built into it, but there's a much bigger emphasis on character development and the thematic stuff that it explores in relation to all that is at times arguably a lot closer to a traditional Persona game than an SMT one like IV is. I would personally argue it doesn't often do a particularly great job at re-exploring fairly worn territory and that it makes parts of that story weirdly hackneyed to a fault in ways you don't often see in other big Atlus games, but it's hardly an outright train wreck, either. It is, however, true that some of the major beats of the story do make significant references to characters and events in the previous game. Overall, it's mostly a standalone game, but some character cameos and plot twists might not feel quite as potent without that prior history. Either way, I would personally argue that you shouldn't come into this game expecting Persona-level character development and banter, but it's generally at least solid at what it does, even if I have my own misgivings about this change in stylistic direction on a personal level. I'll also say that I think the way the game is structured makes it feel like less of a grand adventure compared to IV; it doesn't really "go places" both literally and figuratively to quite the same extent, which I found to be pretty disappointing, but not an inherent deal breaker.
So, overall, I would say play Shin Megami Tensei IV if:
- You don't mind a storyline where character development takes a bit of a back seat and you'll have to talk to NPCs and take up side quests in order to get the most out of its world building and back story. (I can say that a lot of my favorite moments from this game are from that axillary content, however, and that it's worth your time exploring if you have the time, energy, and motivation to do so should you pick this game.)
- You're okay with an initially high difficulty curve for the first dungeon. I would argue that this is by design so as to ensure you come out of it with a solid understanding of all the major combat mechanics, but I'm sympathetic to those who found it a little excessive and intimidating back when the game first came out. The difficulty curve smooths out significantly after that first dungeon, though, and, at least in my case, the majority of your deaths may well come from the game's optional fights, rather than the main storyline.
Otherwise, play Apocalypse if:
- You really do prefer character-driven stories and are what you've come to expect from Atlus games as a result of your time with Persona games. Again, I would emphasize that this game's character building has been done better before in other Atlus games, especially within Persona proper, but it's usually pretty okay. In exchange, though, I'd say that the world building, NPC dialogue, etc. aren't nearly as strong as IV's in comparison, but it generally is just an issue of different strokes for different folks, rather than the game fundamentally failing at anything critical in that respect.
- You'd prefer something of a gentler introduction to SMT mechanics that aren't shared across Persona games and a smoother difficulty curve that generally skews somewhat easy by default. While the raw combat and negotiation mechanics in Apocalypse are definitely refined over IV, the actual act of playing the two games is overall really similar, so you won't inherently be missing out on that much mechanically if you choose to go for IV instead. You'll just need to be prepared to have it go a little rough at first in that initial dungeon, but it really does prepare you well (maybe even too well) for the rest of the game.
Hopefully that helps! Between the two games, I honestly like IV a lot more overall than Apocalypse, but I've also been playing Atlus RPGs for nearly 10 years at this point, so my criticisms of it are ultimately probably pretty relative to someone who's completely new to mainline SMTs. Ultimately, with a little patience, I'd say you can't go wrong either way, but Apocalypse still has enough elements are recognizably mainline SMT that it's probably the slightly safer bet if you don't otherwise have strong feelings about the type of storytelling it does.
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