Shin Megami Tensei IV puts you in control of a young man from the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. This Medieval kingdom holds a ritual to determine which of its youth are able to become Samurai, sworn protectors of the land. The ritual consists of putting what looks like a futuristic sci-fi gauntlet on your hand and touching an LCD screen to see if it responds. Sure enough, our unsuspecting farm boy of a protagonist gets chosen and his life as a Samurai begins.
While the premise sounds like your normal cookie cutter fantasy plot, it very quickly spirals out into classic Shin Megami Tensei crazy town. Elements of the modern day start leaking through to this castle village, including books and manga. A mysterious black samurai starts spreading knowledge that turns people into demons. Soon, you will find yourself traveling to a modern day ruined Tokyo, doing battling with primordial deities to determine the fate of the very universe itself. It’s all very twisted, screwing with your mind while bombarding you with religious imagery at every turn. In short, it’s a worthy plot from the series that made killing god commonplace.
SMTIV is, at essence, a mission-based game. At any given point, you can either take on the current story missions or scavenge the countryside for optional questions. Granted, you don’t have to scavenge that hard. Town navigation in SMTIV is all handled via a menu, making it hard to get lost. Really, all you have to do is stop in a tavern to fill up on sidequests that will keep you busy for a long time. That being said, there are still plenty of quests to find in dungeons, given to you by NPCs, and even offered to you by enemies you encounter, so it’s still worth it to look around a bit.
The quest system also doesn’t let you work on two quests at once. You have to select one to specifically do, at which point other quests in the area get shut down. This can make the game feel unfortunately slow at points.
Completing missions gains you experience, items, and Macca, SMT’s version of money. Missions are never too complex, usually consisting of, “go to place X to kill enemy Y and collect N number of item Z.” That’s not to say they aren’t hard, however. You're routinely given quests that are far over your skill level. It also warns you before accepting high level quests, but just looking at them staring back at you uncompleted is enough to make anyone foolishly rush into a boss fight they aren’t ready for.
Speaking of difficulty, SMT games are known for being incredibly hard and SMTIV is no exception. You will likely die several times within your first few battles. Enemies will randomly pull out full party kill skills out of nowhere. Random encounters need to be fought like boss fights, and boss fights have to be fought like extremely tactical encounters where everything counts. You’ll frequently find yourself heading into battle against a random enemy on the map only to find yourself dead a few seconds later.
The new press-turn system only makes battles even more one-sided. Basically, every turn you get four actions to take, one with each of your party members (your main character and 3 demons). Doing anything uses up one of these actions, unless you manage to score a critical hit or exploit an enemy’s weakness. In that case, you only use “half” of an action, allowing the other half to be used again by another party member’s attack. Unfortunately, missing an enemy uses up two actions and hitting an enemy with something they are null to or can reflect uses up all of your actions! On one hand, this makes battles feel very strategic, as you exploit enemy weaknesses and use your half actions to success. On the other hand, the enemy can easily strike at your weakness once and wipe out your whole party.
Luckily, death is on your side. Charon, the ferryman of death, has been swamped with work from all these other SMTIV players dying all the time. Bribe him with some Macca, or some Nintendo 3DS Play Coins, and he will let you come back to life exactly as you were before the battle that killed you.
One of the key features of SMT games is the ability to recruit enemy demons you face into your party. This is still present, but each enemy you face has its own personality. Enemy demons will ask you a series of questions, and ask for several bribes before coming along with you. Unfortunately, it’s never clear whether demons want you to intimidate them, bribe them, lie to them, or something else entirely. Demons of the same race don’t act the same way at all, so your responses are really just a random crap shoot. While this does mean that you’ll sometimes waste a ton of items on an enemy that will then just run away, it also means some enemies will just join you out the gate for absolutely nothing. Demons are weird…
The Demon Fusion system from prior SMT games is also back, and it has been seriously overhauled. No longer do you have to confirm/cancel over and over again to get your demon to have the exact spread of skills you want. Now you simply pick the skills off a list from the two demons you fused to make it. You can now fuse demons whenever you want, not just at a save point or specific demon fusion station. Also, the demon fusion system allows you to run search queries that can be sorted by level, skills, whether or not the demon is new, whether or not you have to recall a demon from your compendium to fuse it, affinities and resistances, and much, much more. It’s incredibly streamlined and it prevents you from having to print out huge charts just to be sure you will get the demon you want.
Your character, on the other hand, progresses through his levels in far more traditional RPG style. Every level gets you stat points which you can distribute however you like. Along with these points, you’ll also gain “app points” which allow you to buy passive skills from your gauntlets touch screen A.I. These “apps” include things such as more skill slots, more slots for demons in your party, higher demon fusion levels, passive HP and MP regeneration, and more. Unfortunately, these apps also include basic things like maps, which the game needs to be playable. Sadly, the U.I. is really very clunky until you progress an hour or so into the game and unlock basic one and two point apps that upgrade your general usability.
You can also purchase equipment like helmets, leggings, armor, and weapons to adjust your stats further. Unfortunately, this equipment actually shows up on your character during battle and on the map screen and none of them are as cool as the original character design. Eventually, you’ll just look like some generic doofus in mismatched clothing rather than the badass digital samurai that you are.
One of the biggest flaws in SMTIV is the “Final Fantasy XIII problem.” The game really opens up after you reach Tokyo, giving you a world map and many locales to explore. However, you don’t reach this point until nine hours in, during which you are constrained to mostly linear gameplay. SMTIV holds back nifty things like the ability to send off demons to battle in other players’ games using Street Pass until you have past the point that you want to bother experimenting with it. Even as you near the final areas of the game, SMTIV still manages to have a last tutorial or two to throw your way.
Regardless of its flaws, SMTIV is a game that keeps you playing for several reasons. For one, attempting to fuse the perfect demon is still a lot of fun, even moreso now that you can use search functions to see what demons you have missed along the way. Second, the story really does make you feel like you matter. There are multiple endings and nearly every choice you make has some sort of impact. Third, the challenge actually makes the game worthwhile. Many modern day RPGs hold your hand through most of their dungeons just to let you see the story, but SMTIV makes you earn it. You’ll have plenty of eureka moments that make you feel like a genius for figuring out an enemy’s weakness and exploiting it till it works.
SMTIV is a fine addition to the Shin Megami Tensei series of games, and a great RPG for the Nintendo 3DS. If you are a fan of this dark series of JRPGs, or a fan of JRPGs in general, you should give the game a try.
This review is based on a publisher supplied copy of Shin Megami Tensei IV for the Nintendo 3DS.