Shin Megami Tensei IV Review

By Shawn Collier on July 10, 2013

In recent years Atlus has been on a roll with the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. This of course includes the Persona series, but there hasn't been a true mainline release since Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne released on the PS2. For that reason it makes sense that Atlus would decide to revive the mainline series with Shin Megami Tensei IV. For hardcore fans of the series, you already have this pre-ordered and paid for, but for those who aren't as hardcore or are newcomers to the series, the question is: should you pick it up?

Like in the previous Shin Megami Tensei games, SMT IV takes place in a world fuelled by Law (lead by God) and Chaos (lead by Lucifer). Both sides are locked in an unending conflict that sees the human race stuck in the middle. After taking part in a ceremony where they are picked as a samurai, the player learns of the samurais' role: to exterminate demons.

The difference between SMT and other games with a similar plot is that neither of the two sides are inherently good or evil depending on your perspective. It's for that reason that you'll have to make difficult choices throughout the game, which ultimately end up changing the world. SMT IV has four different endings which are obtained based on the choices you make throughout the game. And of course, for the true SMT aficionado, there's numerous side quests that help to further develop the game's world.

SMT IV's characters are quite well-developed, thanks in part to their excellent and incredibly extensive voice acting. The amount of depth Atlus put into their actions throughout the game is duly noted. Unfortunately the story isn't as well developed compared to previous entries, as it's a bit more laid back. When compared to how much Nocturne pushed the overall stories of Law and Chaos forward, it all seems a bit tame. That isn't to say that it's horrible in any way, Atlus just decided to put more emphasis on the characters this time around..

For most mainline SMT fanatics, the gameplay is where they expect things to excel, and they'll be pleased to know SMT IV doesn't disappoint. You'll engage in turn-based combat with up to three demons fighting alongside you, although demons can be switched out at will in and outside of battle. You can recruit demons by talking to them, although most of the time they'll ask for something in return for lending you their power, usually money or items.

One of the issues with this system, which should be familiar to fans of this year's earlier SMT releases (Soul Hackers or Persona 2), is that figuring out what the demons want in order to join you is incredibly obtuse. This especially true for new players, as it requires some serious devotion into the system to truly understand it.There is something to be said about learning from your mistakes, but in SMT IV's case it feels like you're stumbling around instead of learning from them. Additional upgrades, via the AI program Burroughs that lives inside the player's gauntlet, help to mitigate this somewhat, but they're aren't available in the game's early stages.

Fusing demons, a staple of the SMT series, has its own problems in SMT IV as well. Due to the game giving the player bonus EXP for recruiting a demon in battle, and the fact that most of the fused demons aren't that much more powerful than the demons you find in the current dungeon, it doesn't really feel like its worth the effort to go through the fusion process.

You will be able to progress fine for the most part by recruiting the local area's demons, which renders the fusion process a little bit redundant. SMT IV also overcomplicates things by splitting the demon's stats and skills between two pages instead of the one-page system found in Persona 3 and 4, which tends to overpower as you have to keep track of too much information.

Thankfully, the combat in SMT IV is incredibly polished and adds numerous improvements over its previous entries. It also adds some new elements to the mix. Similar to Nocturne, SMT IV utilizes the "Press Turn" battle system which rewards the player (and the opponent) when they hit an enemy's weak point. New to SMT IV is the "smirk" ability, which allows for the chance to increase the damage of your next attack and makes it near impossible for the enemy to land an attack on you. And even if the smirk fails to activate, the Press Turn system causes whoever landed the super effective attack to remove all of the opponent's turns.

The beauty of this system is that the enemy can and will use this against you at the same time you're using it against them, so battles essentially become little turn-based puzzles and it does a lot to engage the player.

Since the main character of SMT IV can't natively learn magic and other demon-like abilities, SMT IV introduces a "demon whispering" system. When your demons level up there's a chance they'll allow you to copy one or more of their abilities for use of your own or power-up an existing ability if you already copied it previously. Players can also dole out stat increasing points upon levelling up and unlock new abilities via Burroughs.

Speaking of battles, SMT IV's gets rid of random battles and has the demons roam the map. Similar to Persona 3 and 4, players can attack the enemy prior to battle to get in a pre-emptive attack, but on the flipside the opponent can do the same thing.For some odd reason, though, enemies regenerate without the you moving, which becomes a problem because the map can't be used when the game is paused in the menu.

This means that when you are trying to find your way, you can and most likely will get ambushed by a surprise enemy. Thankfully you can save anywhere this time around, but it's still annoying getting ambushed all of a sudden.

As far as the graphics go, this is one area where SMT IV simply excels. If you've ever played Ocarina of Time, you'd notice that the developer put a lot of work into making the world feel alive, which holds true in SMT IV. There's a certain shine to the game that's hard to explain without seeing it in person and it's helped out a lot by the 3D aspects of the handheld. Atlus also allows you to customize the protagonist's attire by equipping different armor and weapons, the latter of which comes into play on the field as some types have a different feel when you swing them at the enemy instead of each being a carbon copy of the last.

SMT IV goes back to the old-school 2D battles featured in Strange Journey instead of using Nocturne's 3D battles, but the artwork quality and plethora of animations given to each of the demons and their attacks more than makes up for the change. One minor issue some long-time fans might have is that the new demon designs are radically different from the previous mainstay demons and some of the pre-existing demons act different than their previous incarnations. It's not a major issue, but for the hardcore it'll be a little offsetting at first.

As far as the music goes, it's classic SMT and fits well with the mood and theme of the game, but compared to other entries in the series it's not all that memorable at the end of the day. That isn't saying that it's bad, it just one of those soundtracks that works more alongside the game than on its own.

Final Thoughts

SMT IV does a lot to help introduce newcomers to the SMT series while at the same time keep the long-time players interested and occupied, and in this is succeeds. The new demon designs and gameplay elements keep things new and fresh for the hardcore fans and it does quite a bit to cover up the game's more conventional story. SMT IV doesn't really push the series forward in any monumental way, but sometimes that's a good thing as the base here was already solid to begin with, even after such a long time after Nocturne's release years ago. If you have any interest in Japanese RPGs and have a Nintendo 3DS, you should signup to become a samurai post-haste.

Excellent use of the handheld's 3D capabilities.
Extensive use of voice acting for a 3DS title.
The battle mechanics are fun to use to your advantage.
The music isn't very memorable outside the game.
The demon fusing mechanics feel a bit obtuse.
Newcomers will get very confused by the demon negotiations initially.
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