While we've seen quite a few games in the Shin Megami Tensei series (and its various related sub-series), the core fourth game in the series, Shin Megami Tensei IV, was released all the way back three years ago in North America (and a year later in Europe). While some of the other games venture into other territories, the mainline games always stick to Japan, of which SMT IV was no exception.
SMT IV had the main character Flynn, a Samurai from the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, venture down into the chaotic remains of the city of Tokyo which was enveloped in a war between the forces of Merkabah and Lucifer. While the original game had various paths you could end up taking based on your actions, per series tradition, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse specifically uses the neutral path.
Players take up the mantle of the character Nanashi (amusingly fittingly translating essentially to something close to "no name"), a rookie in Tokyo's Hunter Association. As a rookie, he's tasked with menial chores alongside his friend and fellow rookie Asahi. And for those who haven't played the original game, the game even does a quick brief rundown of the core critical events to try to get you caught up to speed, although it's really optimal that you ideally play through the original at least once to get a better idea of what's fully going on --- but if you can't the game does a good enough job at catching you up.
Of course, this being a SMT game and all, Nanashi and company runs into a high-level demon within the first half-hour of the game and Nanashi ends up dead. You may think, "well, this is a bad way to end the game", but luckily the game gives you another shot when you get reincarnated by the lesser god Dagda in return for becoming a puppet to carry out his will. On the flip side, though, you get a major strength boost and get the power to summon demons. So it's not all that bad.
If you've read my Shin Megami Tensei IV review, you'll already know one my highlights from that game was the character interaction. It was an element which really helped push along the narrative at times when its core was plodding along. I found Apocalypse's narrative to be a bit tighter in focus which was a welcome update, and I was glad to see once again that the character interaction and depth was standout again in this entry.
Something the Shin Megami Tensei series has always done well is play the clashing between the the Law and Chaos factions against each other in a way that plays both to and against how you'd expect, and that's something that returns again in Apocalypse. It's also interesting to see Flynn's actions from another perspective.
This is also helped greatly by Atlus's excellent localization and English voice track direction. I loved Dagda's little quips especially, as well some of the minor demons who had enough of that smartass-ness to them that you want to deliver the beatdown to them quick. The accompanying soundtrack is also quite lovely, balancing well against the tone and atmosphere of the game.
As I played through Apocalypse, I could see how the developers tried to both fix niggling issues in the original and introduce aspects of other successful entries in their other sub-SMT series while not alienating the core SMT fans. One aspect where the latter is most evident is the modified partner system. In a stark contrast to SMT IV you're almost always tagged along with a partner during the game, with their speciality changing depending on the partner. They also have a gauge which increase as they attack, buff or heal. Once said gauge is filled, it interrupts the enemy for a single turn, giving you the chance to deliver a solid beatdown to the group. It's a nice way to give something for newcomers to ease themselves into the battle system with (alongside the easier difficulty mode), without diluting too much what the core of SMT's battle mechanics are.
There's some other battle-related changes as well in Apocalypse. The series trademark spells Hama and Mudo aren't relegated to insta-kill strength anymore, instead being regular magical attacks (light and dark respectively). The catch is that when the caster (either you or the enemy) is in Smirk status, they retain their trademark insta-kill ability. So series veterans may dislike this change to a degree, but it's welcome for newcomers who may have disliked getting one-offed by an unlucky string of successfully landed spells by an enemy.
Speaking of Smirk, the mechanic introduced in SMT IV, it's been rebalanced in Apocalypse. Instead of working where an ally character landed attack which would have normally caused the Smirk status on an enemy, causing a super-powerful attack from them, allies can't cause smirking if their attacks clash with the enemy --- in which case they'll use up one of your items.
Continuing with the quality-of-life improvements in Apocalypse, another area where things have been spruced up is with demon fusion. Unlike SMT IV, each demon's natural attributes take into consideration what types of spells they're best suited for. So for instance, an electric-type demon is going to land a much stronger electric-powered spell than a fire-type demon. There's also an additional bonus of the demon's getting less MP to cast spells of their particular type, which ties into this new mechanic. This makes for keeping a more well-rounded stable of demons instead of swapping out skills on your core stable of stock demons.
This is aimed more at beginners and those who may not play the game super frequently, but another additional feature is the new Mapper feature, which has a bit more detail than SMT IV's maps as well as a handy button that instantly points you to where you need to go next.
From a visual perspective, it's a mixed bag with a major caveat depending on whether or not you played the original SMT IV. If you never played the original, the gritty and rough look and feel of Tokyo has a wonderfully depressing atmosphere to it that feels right at home with the game's plot. But if you're a returning player, especially if you just recently finished or replayed the original, many of the locations you'll encounter are essentially the same again here in Apocalypse. It makes sense from a story perspective, but some players may have liked to have seen a little bit more variety.
When it comes to Atlus's mainline Shin Megami Tensei franchise, we're used to seeing only mainline releases every so many years with entirely new plot threads involved. So getting to have a game that comes back to an existing title, but still feels fresh and new with its own improvements on the franchise is a welcome surprise. At the end of my review of the last game I said I wanted to see what a future game in the series using it as a stepping stone would bring. And while I may have initially been expecting an entirely new entry in the series with that remark, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse feels like a proper new entry in the series in its own right. You'll be doing yourself and the game a disservice thinking anything else.
|The new gameplay mechanic changes make things more friendly to newcomers while still keep the series's core intact.|
|The narrative is a bit more tighter in focus this time around compared to the original SMT IV.|
|The English voice track and localization by Atlus is exceptionally top-notch.|
|If you just recently played the original or replayed it, the reuse of locations may be of annoyance to you.|
|While I liked it from a newcomer standpoint, some of stalwart fans may dislike the modifications made to the core formula.|
|While the game does its best to get you up to speed, if you want a complete picture you optimally should try to play or at least catch up on the original.|