Philip Tang ’15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff
There comes a point in many RPGs when the player’s party grows powerful—perhaps too much so. At this point, the player’s crew is strong enough to roam the world with assurance, with very little fear of failure or defeat. This aura of comfort manifests in many RPGs, but rarely does it show its face in the Shin Megami Tensei series. The latest numbered entry, Shin Megami Tensei IV, is no exception.
However, it’s impossible to deny that a portion of the game’s difficulty is attributed to luck. At times, enemies may appear right beneath your feet and gain a pre-emptive strike, allowing them to move first and wreck your entire party. When trying to recruit a demon to join your party, they may ask a question to which the three available answers are all the same. Picking the wrong one may result in them getting angry and attempting to tear your head off. Without prior knowledge, boss fights become a mosh pit of trial and error to figure out what element it’s weak to, if any at all— not to mention which elements it nullifies.
Even so, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a solid RPG that no 3DS owner and fan of the genre should miss.
Despite the genre, the story isn’t the most compelling. Still, it’s told as well as it can be, considering it involves heavy philosophical issues of morality, human nature and the complexities surrounding the roles of men, demons and God in a forsaken world. The characterization here isn’t the deepest, but it’s enough to grow at least a small attachment to the major characters—which is all you really need. There are two characters in particular that represent Chaos and Order, two of the three possible alignments the player can achieve (the last being neutral). In short, Chaos supports the desire to change the world into one where the strong can shape things to their will. Order supports the maintenance of the status quo and existing social and political structures. Decisions made throughout the course of the game, like whether to kill or spare a demon, determine the player’s alignment. Within the plot, alignment is only really a major factor toward determining the end of the game.
Players assume the role of a newly accepted Samurai of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado (It’s pronounced SOM-oo-rai, as the game’s stellar voice acting will constantly remind you; did I mention the soundtrack as a whole is awesome, too?). The Samurai are the elite and prestigious defenders, but their true role turns out to be secretly protecting the kingdom from demons by guarding the entrance to their lair and heading inside to cull them. The story is a little slow paced at first, but after about 6 hours of a very welcome and practical warm up, both the story and the game get turned upside down—for the better.
Where the story may fall short, the gameplay picks it right back up and then some. The game uses both menu-based and the usual overworld map navigation. Exploration takes place in third person, with an adjustable camera that can be placed right behind the hero or even over-the-shoulder like an action game. Random encounters occur in this mode in the form of enemies the premise. Like in series spinoff Persona 4, the player can attempt to sneak up on them and smack them to gain an advantage. Likewise, the enemies can do the same to the player if caught unaware—which in most cases is seriously bad news. As in, they can outright kill your whole party, or at least cripple them, since they get the first move. It makes for a bad time, which is why getting the pre-emptive strike prior to combat is a necessity to master.
Combat takes place in first person, a staple of the series. It might sound unusual to newcomers, but it works. The top screen of the 3DS is occupied by the glorious moving sprites of the opposition. Meanwhile the bottom is occupied by a menu featuring portraits and data of the hero and his party, comprised of himself and 3 demon companions. Combat utilizes the Press Turn system. By default, each unit has 1 turn available. However, by using an attack that exploits the enemy’s weakness or scoring a critical hit, only half of a turn will be used, essentially granting an extra turn. Gaining as many turns as possible is a core strategy of the game, and attacking so often as to deny your enemy the ability to even act before their gruesome death is a truly satisfying experience.
Even so, the Press Turn system can work against the player. Enemies can also gain more turns through hitting your team’s weaknesses or striking you critically. If an attack is nullified, blocked or reflected, the attacker’s team will lose up to their entire turn in addition to having their offense fail miserably. Fighting a new enemy, whose weaknesses you are oblivious to, is akin to fumbling around in the dark. You may get lucky and strike the weakness, or you may fail horribly and have your attack reflected back at you. When the player is on the receiving end of these penalties, which may happen more often than not, it makes for incredibly severe punishment—normally resulting in death or severe crippling. Notice a pattern here?
The hero’s stats and playstyle can be shaped as one sees fit; he can be customized upon each level up and his skills are absorbed from the demons in his party. The 3 demons in your party can be swapped in and out on demand during battle, and plenty of demons can be held in reserve in the stock. This encourages developing an array of demons with vast and varied move sets to contend with all manners of monsters-that-try-to-brutally-murder-you.
To obtain demons, they must be recruited via conversation. They’ll ask questions in addition to demanding some of your items and money. Being too compliant causes them to take your stuff and leave while laughing all the way to the bank. Being too defiant will make them want to kill you and end your entire turn abruptly. It’s mostly random, but certain races of demons have somewhat discernible personalities that you can attempt to cater to. It’s a messy and sometimes frustrating process, but a worthwhile one when the demon you had your eye on finally caves in and joins you. At least all negotiations, even failed ones, reward decent experience points.
The player can save at any time, thankfully. For those who forget to save for 2 hours and end up suffering an unforeseen wipeout (a not-so-rare occurrence, I assure you), there is an option to pay the keeper of the River Styx, Charon, a bunch of your money to revive at the moment before death. It’s a costly punishment, but sometimes losing money is the preferable option to losing hours of progress. Dying a few times will allow the option to reduce the difficulty, if one so desires.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature in Shin Megami Tensei IV is the demon fusion system. Players gain access to it early and are trained to love it, use it, abuse it. With it, two or more demons can be combined into a new monstrous companion that is able to inherit skills from each of its components. Whereas in a game like Pokémon, where one would tend to hold a stable of the same party members throughout most of the game, SMTIV outright demands constant fusions and upgrades. It’s best not to get attached to any particular demon, as recruiting demons and fusing them to gain more levels and abilities is the staple towards improving your party’s overall strength and versatility. The system is highly flexible, and planning ahead to successfully create a super-demon that can emit ice, fire, lightning and wind while resisting physical attacks and being able to reflect enemy magic is a feeling all too satisfying—not to mention rewarding, since it will definitely kick ass for you.
Even if some of the game’s difficulty is based on luck, the player’s chances are greatly improved by forming a versatile party of demons. It may take some time to get accustomed to the harsh ways of SMTIV, but when things finally click in, a fulfilling 40-plus hour RPG experience begins. You’ll have to be careful every step of the way, but overcoming the adversity in this game leads to enlightening satisfaction.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is available now for Nintendo 3DS.