The Shin Megami Tensei series is somewhat of a cult-hit with RPG fans. While it hasn't gained the most steam stateside, the also mature-rated Persona series has gotten Shin Megami Tensei local acclaim since the release of the third Persona game on the PlayStation 2–which is a bit ironic because in Japan, Shin Megami Tensei and Persona aren't spinoffs of one another.
Either way you look at it, it's been a while since a flagship Shin Megami Tensei game has been released, and the fact that it's been released on a portable platform is a welcome surprise.
What Is It?
Shin Megami Tensei has always been about taming demons, and the fourth entry in the long-running series is no different. This time, the game takes place in East Mikado, a country with seemingly medieval customs with the existence of kingdoms and classes (namely the noble "Luxorers" and the peasant "Casualries") with clashing ideals.
The game puts players in the role of Flynn, who accompanies a friend to an event called the "Ceremony of the Gauntlet" where qualified Luxorers and Casualries dawn a high-tech gauntlet that deems whether or not the wearer is going to be a samurai.
Unfortunately for Flynn's friend, nothing happens, and in a predictable turn of events, the gauntlet summons Flynn to be a samurai (not unlike Harry Potter wrongfully qualifying for the Tri-Wizard Tourament in The Goblet of Fire and the sister of Katniss Everdeen being required to enter The Hunger Games).
Before all that happens, players are treated to flashbacks and glimpses into a dark future that foreshadows the importance of in-game choices.
Along with Flynn, a handful of other samurai are summoned, and each of them were in Flynn's strange dreams.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't pick up steam until about five hours in. Luckily the gameplay is interesting enough to provide just enough of a push to keep players, and especially newcomers, going.
Why Should I Care?
Whether the game calls the main character a demon tamer, a samurai, or a Pokémon trainer — it doesn't matter. The bottom line is players are required to recruit enemies into their ranks to succeed in this old-school-style dungeon crawler.
But unlike Pokémon or Dragon Quest before it, players don't have to deal significant damage or throw balls at their desired demons. They just need to reason with them and get on the same page.
That's easier said than done.
Some demons will be simple and ask for random sums of money, and some will even dare you to allow them to attack you. That's all fine and dandy, but half the demons will end negotiations or randomly flee after obtaining what they want from you.
But if you're lucky enough to recruit a demon, the dungeon-crawling becomes much more manageable. Up to three demons can accompany Flynn in turn-based battle, which has largely gone unchanged.
When you attack an enemy's weakness, you earn an extra turn for the character that attacked, including your own demons, so there's a good amount of strategy involved. Of course, what works for you will also work for the opposition, which can result in a lot of cheap deaths. None of this is out of the ordinary in Shin Megami Tensei.
You're going to die a lot, and again, dying is as common as it gets with this series. But to make the game more accessible, the game handles death in a rather unique way.
Instead of the standard "game over" screen, players are sent to a wasteland by the river Styx where they meet a tired ferryman who will offer to revive and send you back to the moment right before you died… for a price, of course. It starts off being monetary, but if you can't afford the payment, the ferryman also asks for Play Coins, the currency you come across when walking around with your 3DS. If you don't have any of that stuff, you'll be revived anyway but will have to pay up once it's afforded.
The second time you die, which is probably inevitable, you'll unlock the ability to change the game's difficulty on the fly. Whether or not you use this function is up to you, but making the game easier definitely helps in giving the player an understanding of what to expect in battles. The story doesn't change if you mess with the setting either, so it's something actually worth doing. But if you'd rather stick with the challenge, it'd also be a good idea to save as often as you can, since that ability is always accessible throughout.
As challenging as taming demons and the battles can get, Shin Megami Tensei IV also has a pretty robust fusion system. Again, it's something you unlock a little later in the game, but the ability to fuse any demons you want significantly opens up the strategy in a myriad of different ways. The true beauty in fusing demons in the game is finding out how much stronger they are than others made available. While it's nice to have a challenging dungeon, sometimes it's just as rewarding to be able to flawlessly crawl through these areas without any problems.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Players expecting an RPG with a high quality presentation should look elsewhere. Short of the $50 special edition of the game including its own strategy guide and music CD, the in-game presentation of Shin Megami Tensei IV is nothing to write home about visually. The soundtrack is great and the voice acting is fine, and while the art design with the characters and demons is as good as it gets, the game's overall look leaves much to be desired. The environments when actually dungeon-crawling are actually fantastic for what the 3DS can do, but aside from that, most of the wandering around you do in most RPG's is replaced by point-and-click menus like the ones found in Persona 3 Portable or Ace Attorney.
That's fine for those games mentioned, but Shin Megami Tensei IV has dungeon exploration and a world map, so one would wonder why time spent in towns has to be done through menus. To go along with all that, as deep as the battle system can get, it just looks uninteresting. It takes a page out of the 16-era book by simply showing random animations signifying attacks, rather than showing demons actually attacking demons.
Truth be told, the Shin Megami Tensei series isn't one for everybody. Nintendo's leaflet in the game's packaging and $30 eShop deal states that "if you liked Fire Emblem: Awakening, you'll love Shin Megami Tensei IV." That really isn't the case.
It can be annoyingly difficult, the story for some could be too hellish to really take seriously on top of taking a while to open up, and it features a lot of old-school filler that people have grown to hate, like required grinding and backtracking. Players patient enough can get by all these annoyances, and luckily for newcomers–Shin Megami Tensei IV is the perfect experience to give the series a try, and at around 45 hours for a full playthrough, it's actually the shortest game in the series and a worthy addition to the hardcore gamer's 3DS library. Just remember to save. Often.