The true Goddess returns
Just to get this out of the way before we dive into the review: Shin Megami Tensei IV has no Social Links. You won’t be dating classmates, you won’t be forming bonds with little old ladies, and you won’t be having intimate moments with others on your team that then upgrade their abilities in battle.
I say this because there’s some confusion these days on what a “Shin Megami Tensei” game is for those who are newer to Atlus’ franchise. And, to be fair, part of that is the fault of Atlus USA. In order to create an easy way for Western fans to follow the company’s various games about demon summoning and devil combating, every game at this point is tagged with the Shin Megami Tensei moniker. In Japan, however, Shin Megami Tensei is a very specific series of games that exists as part of the bigger Megami Tensei brand; the Persona games, meanwhile, are a sort of side spin-off that once fell under the Megami Ibunroku banner.
For us English speakers who don’t know our new Goddess rebirths from our records of a Goddess’ mysterious tales, Atlus USA’s move makes sense. It’s just, with the popularity that the Persona series has now found outside of Japan, sometimes people come to expect every Shin Megami Tensei game to play similar to them. They don’t—especially Shin Megami Tensei IV.
The last time we got a true Shin Megami Tensei title was back in 2003/2004, as Sony’s PlayStation 2 played host to Shin Megami Tensei III—better known on our shores as Nocturne. When its official follow-up was announced nearly a decade later for the 3DS, there was some surprise that such a major title in the franchise would be released on a portable system.
Yet, at the same time, it also wasn’t surprising. Atlus had made the DS the target platform for Strange Journey, Devil Survivor, and Devil Survivor 2, and we also can’t forget the remake of Soul Hackers that later came out for Nintendo’s 3D handheld. While the various Megami Tensei titles have their devoted followers, games like these just aren’t projects that will sell millions of copies to both the casual and the hardcore alike. So, outside of Persona—which, at least for now, seems like a brand loyal to the kingdom of PlayStation—launching Shin Megami Tensei IV on a system that has a decent install base yet offers less-costly development just makes sense.
To be fair, though, I also had some concerns in terms of what the platform would mean for the potential scope of the game. No offense intended to Strange Journey, but that was a dungeon crawler that could play out similar to Atlus’ efforts with Etrian Odyssey and be completely satisfying. With a release on the level of SMTIV, I hoped that the team could create their vision for what the game should be without needing to make any major compromises.
That’s one of the first real questions that I went into SMTIV with, and it’s one of the things that will linger in your mind while you’re playing—especially as the answer to that question can, at times, be a bit mixed.
In fact, mixed is the best way to describe the overall design of Shin Megami Tensei IV, as it exists as a sort of hybrid of Atlus’ efforts in the demon-befriending RPG genre both past and present.
All of its dungeons and major locations are fully rendered in 3D, and while it’s obvious that none of them have the scope of what you might find on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, they also don’t feel hampered by the small screen. As the story kicks off, you’re pushed into the training dungeon of Naraku; while the dimly lit cave may lead you to believe you know what kinds of labyrinths you’ll be exploring for the rest of the game, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It doesn’t take long before your adventure opens up to a whole variety of locations scattered throughout SMTIV’s world, balancing between those that play on familiar themes in the franchise and others that feel unique compared to what’s come before.
Then comes battle—and, suddenly, you may feel as if you’ve been whisked away to a completely different game. Gone are the polygonal dungeons, and along with them your player character (whose model is updated every time you make an equipment change). In their place are static 2D artwork and interfaces, as fights play out in first-person interactions and demons are represented onscreen by sprites that feature no animation.
This contrast—modern-era 3D exploration versus old-school 2D combat—isn’t a bad thing, gameplay-wise. Instead, it’s on a stylistic level where the cohesion doesn’t always seem to manifest. I appreciate SMTIV as a game that bridges the gap between the new era of MegaTen and its classic days, but I also couldn’t help but wish that the entire package had felt more like one big whole instead of a variety of pieces sewn together. As a perfect example, I offer up another Atlus 3DS dungeon-crawler: Etrian Odyssey IV. While that game kept much of the series’ retro feel and design, moving combat and monsters to 3D felt like a logical step of progression. We’ve seen many of the various demons from SMTIV fully modeled in games such as Persona 3/4 and the Raidou Kuzunoha titles, and not having similar representations of those classic demons here feels like a wasted opportunity.
I know the argument: There’s such a wide variety of demons available here—new, old, and in between—that it would’ve taken a lot of work to craft the 3D models. That’s a fair statement, but I also think it’s fair to expect Atlus to do exactly that. Sure, I feel a bit guilty making such demands of money expenditure at a point when the entire company isn’t exactly on solid ground, but those demons are the bread and butter of the MegaTen games, so if anything deserved the attention, it’s them.
And, really, all of this wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it weren’t for one of my main personal gripes with Shin Megami Tensei IV: the 2D artwork used for the demons.
On the character-design side, I’m totally happy with the work of Masayuki Doi—I really like his style, his designs are great, and his work fits in well with other games in the series. On the demon side, the unfortunate reality of just how much effort would be needed to produce portrait art for every single demon means that there’s a wild mixture of art from older games, newer games, games in between those games, and brand-new monstrosities created not only by Doi himself, but also various guest artists from the world of tokusatsu media (Japanese live-action fare like Godzilla, Kamen Rider, and Ultraman). The result is a hodgepodge of demon design sensibilities and art styles, some of which greatly clash with one another. For some, the complaint about this aspect of SMTIV may seem trivial, but given how iconic the demons are and how big of a role they play in the game, that inconsistency never sat well with me.
It’s a good thing, then, that the gameplay those demons are involved in is so enjoyable. Shin Megami Tensei IV builds upon a long history of Atlus fine-tuning combat, and survival comes from being smart about which demons to befriend and team up with, what skills to make use of, and how to best utilize the options gameplay provides for getting the upper hand. I’d expect the teams at Atlus to know how to do thrilling demon encounters at this point, and they certainly do—but I also wonder if there isn’t too much of the expected here. As polished and refined as many of the game’s systems and combat options are, we’ve seen (and played) a lot of this before. I can’t help but wish that something a bit grander had been done with the gameplay of SMTIV—something more unexpected compared to what’s come before. I know some of the die-hard MegaTen fans look down at the recent-era “casualization” of the Persona series, but why those games have taken off as much as they have is because they integrate classic elements of the brand with new concepts and experiences. I wish more of that drive to take chances had been seen here, because as fun as SMTIV‘s gameplay is, it can also feel a bit too safe at times.
To be fair, there are ways in which SMTIV breaks away from previous iterations, and one of those options is a pretty fascinating new addition that makes a huge impact: demon whispering. As your demons level up and learn new skills, they’ll sometimes offer up their roster of tricks for the taking. Without any penalty, you can replace one or more of the skills you currently have available to your main character with the skills that demon has. It’s definitely an interesting way to offer up the learning of new abilities, and you can use this option to help fill in the technique gaps among your go-to lineup.
Another feature introduced here for the first time (to my knowledge) is talking to bosses mid-battle. Demon conversations have long been an important part of the MegaTen series, and SMTIV puts plenty of emphasis on negotiating with your foes in order to sway them to your side or con some extra cash and items out of them. Now, however, the game provides you with the opportunity to converse with some of the boss monsters that you’ll face off against. How you answer can gain you an advantage in the fight—or it can invigorate the demon to boost its attacks if the answer you provide isn’t to their liking. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a super-huge aspect of the experience, but it’s one of many examples of what Atlus puts into these games that make them so special.
In fact, Shin Megami Tensei IV is packed with elements that remind me of why I because a fan of the franchise in the first place. Even as Dragon Quest goes online and Final Fantasy splits into an endless amount of different projects, Atlus continues to use their MegaTen games as a platform for showing what can (and should) be done with the Japanese RPG.
While SMTIV’s cast isn’t the strongest the series has seen, its members—to me—still display more personality and charm than many other non-Atlus RPG rosters I’ve gotten to know over the years. As for the adventure those characters are subjected to, I’m rather hesitant to even say much about it, lest I spoil anything. I knew enough about the plot going in to know that I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, what time period the game took place in, or how the different settings I’d seen were even going to come together. Unsurprisingly, not knowing those answers was a good thing, as I got to enjoy every twist and turn as they popped up during my journey—and I hope that’s how you can go in as well. Though the game may feature some narrative elements that won’t be a total surprise to longtime MegaTen fans, it’ll still sink its hooks into you pretty quickly and refuse to let go.
I also can’t move on without making quick mention of the atmosphere and setting in Shin Megami Tensei IV. After playing plenty of games in the franchise over the years—and Soul Hackers not all that long ago—it can be easy to take what’s going on in those regards for granted. When I stopped to fully appreciate those elements at various times throughout the game, I was really reminded just how different Atlus’ efforts feel from the other offerings out there. I have no idea how they can keep going back to the same kinds of concepts yet make the trip seem fresh and new every single time. Sure, part of it’s the mixture of fantasy, future, and the modern era, a concoction few others RPGs seem to attempt—but it’s also how they present that mix that provides such fantastic results.
Unfortunately, Shin Megami Tensei IV also falls into one of the trappings of Atlus’ MegaTen efforts: difficulty. Or, more specifically, the trouble with getting difficulty properly balanced. The first couple of hours of SMTIV can be downright cruel, and not in that good “difficult but meant to teach you how to survive in the world” kind of way. Those early goings are hard without true purpose, to the point where I could see players giving up on the game before they make it out of the first dungeon.
That tendency—punishing players for what seems like sadistic satisfaction—is one of the few true complaints I have with Atlus when it comes to MegaTen titles. Games can be difficult, but they also have to offer proper learning curves, and developers need to always ask themselves if what they’re doing is true difficulty or if they’re making something hard by making that portion of the game cruel. That issue of proper difficulty balance is even more pronounced once you get further into the game. For longtime fans, what unfolds from there might actually be on the easier side of what you’d expect. Get the right roster of demons under your control, make full use of the Press Turn system in battle, and you may find yourself not having as much trouble downing bosses as you’d like. Of course, if you’re not a veteran of games such as SMTIV, you might think I’m crazy for saying the game gets too easy the further you get in, and you may still feel like too much of the game is just too hardcore to be friendly. (But hey, people also think I’m crazy for believing that Dark Souls is too easy.)
Atlus’ struggles to find that perfect blend of challenge and fairness is like a high school student who can always get a score above 90 percent on a test, but who can just never seem to ace those tests without missing a question or two. And, really, that’s Shin Megami Tensei IV in a nutshell. There’s so much fun, enjoyment, and entertainment to be had in your journey through the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, but there are also plenty of ways in which the team failed to ace what they were trying to accomplish.
With more overall consistency in style and design, a bit of improvement to the characters, some more innovation to its gameplay, and some actual use of the 3DS’ touchscreen for interface navigation, Shin Megami Tensei IV could have been an amazingly strong new major chapter in the Shin Megami Tensei saga. Instead, we’ve gotten a game that’s really, really good—but which also, for me, just misses the mark in what I’d hoped to see from such a prominent new release in the franchise.
|Developer: Atlus • Publisher: Atlus • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 07.16.2013|
While it falls a little short of what I wanting for a long-anticipated new major chapter in the Shin Megami Tensei series, Shin Megami Tensei IV is still a highly enjoyable RPG that mixes Altus’ trademark flair for style with some new ideas and engrossing narrative twists.
|The Good||A stylish, sophisticated RPG romp through an engrossing tale of demon summoning.|
|The Bad||Gameplay and combat are great, but they don’t stray far enough from what we’ve seen in previous games.|
|The Ugly||Demon designs when they don’t come from the legendary hands of Kazuma Kaneko.|
|Shin Megami Tensei IV is available exclusively on 3DS.|