The Shin Megami Tensei series has always been synonymous with challenge. From the way each title weaves moral choices into its narrative to the ubiquitous steep learning curve, Shin Megami Tensei forces players to think carefully and strategically. However, one component the series has lacked is the ability to bend the difficulty in either direction to customize the experience. Much like this year’s excellent Fire Emblem: Awakening, Shin Megami Tensei IV sets out to change this with mechanics that welcome new players while still being an arduous endeavor even for veterans.
The story focuses on a silent protagonist named Flynn, a commoner who becomes a samurai in the kingdom of Mikado. Once he undergoes a ritual to become a samurai, Flynn is equipped with an artificially intelligent gauntlet named Burroughs. Much like the “Pip-Boy” in the Fallout series, the gauntlet serves as the pause menu, assisting the player with quest notes and vital statistics. Burroughs also contains Shin Megami Tensei’s signature demon fusion system, which is where all of the player’s allies will be created or purchased, and an app system for various upgrades. The first few hours of Shin Megami Tensei IV are spent exploring Mikado’s countryside, as well as its tenebrous, multi-layered dungeon known as Naraku. Upon combing the depths of Naraku, Flynn slowly uncovers secrets that ultimately lead to a strange journey well beyond the friendly confines of Mikado.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a decidedly non-linear experience due to its quest system. There are main quests that progress the story when completed, and challenge quests that can earn the player extra items and money. Additionally the game offers DLC quests that offer a way to completely circumvent the tedium of gaining experience, money, and skill points. All of these options combined with the adjustable difficulty serve to either reduce or increase challenge. This is an unprecedented level of customization for a numbered Shin Megami Tensei entry, and a welcome change.
The press-turn battle system introduced in Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne makes a return for this installment. Battles are triggered by making contact with enemies visible on the screen. Much like the recent Persona titles, preemptive strikes occur when Flynn slashes an enemy before they make contact with him, which is important because otherwise the enemy can act first and cause critical damage. Each enemy has some type of weakness, and as spells are cast to exploit these weaknesses, extra press turns are obtained. However if the enemy gets the first strike, they can gain press turns of their own and lay waste to Flynn’s entire party before the player even gets a chance to act. Curiously there is no defense stat to manipulate, not even with equipment, further stressing the importance of covering weaknesses and striking first. With no defense to rely on the game is balanced toward persistent offense, and if that fails the player must resort to buff or debuff spells, items, and above all else a little luck with the random number generator. All of these systems coalesce to form one of the most intense, thought provoking, and flat out enjoyable battle systems the turn-based RPG genre has ever seen.
Overall the design choices serve the apocalyptic aesthetic of this game well. From the intricately detailed demon animations to the appropriately hellish 3D environments, the game truly stands out among other 3DS rpg’s. The score (composed by Ryota Koduka, Kenichi Tsuchiya, and Toshiki Konishi), while not up to the lofty standards Shoji Meguro has set for the series, never particularly offends either. The fact that the battle theme changes multiple times throughout the 80+ hour adventure is quite refreshing. It must however be stated that the overworld map design is simply atrocious. Flynn’s party is represented as a marker on the map and the player laboriously moves it around in search of items and new locations. The problem is that nothing on the map is clearly labeled. One must actually enter each location in order to remember the name of the place, which leads to hours of wasted time spent wandering. As if that were not egregious enough, while on the overworld map there is no way to counter random back attacks, which as previously discussed can lead to unavoidable deaths and loss of progress. The overworld map is a glaring example of poor game design, and will no doubt turn many players away in frustration.
Another of the game’s missteps is the plot and character development. The support characters seem to have no real reason to continue other than a sense of duty, and their personalities are merely placeholders for the law, neutral, and chaos morality alignments. Nearly every plot twist is telegraphed, and the story does a lackluster job of keeping the player engaged. The world Shin Megami Tensei IV presents is gloriously nebulous, oppressive, and fraught with peril. The plot has every opportunity to support all of those things; instead its banality becomes a disservice to an otherwise marvelous experience
Shin Megami Tensei IV appears to be a transition title for Atlus, an attempt to incorporate new mechanics to draw in new players. The quest structure and myriad customization options are fine additions, but they cannot make up for the clear lack of focus evidenced by the predictable plot and abhorrent overworld map. The juxtaposition of an exquisitely engaging battle system with such an unwieldy story makes one wonder if this game was a rush job, or if perhaps too many hands were on the steering wheel during development. Shin Megami Tensei IV is certainly a journey worth taking, but it is a shame that in a game so dependent on player choice, the only element that cannot be altered is the level of frustration.