2013 is turning out to be quite the year for fours. We got Etrian Odyssey IV, Persona 4 Arena, Persona 4 Golden, and Rune Factory 4 is still on the horizon. Now we have Shin Megami Tensei IV marking the latest 3DS release from Atlus and the newest game in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise.
In a word, I would describe SMT4 as unique. It’s one of those rare games that hardly pulls any influence from other games. You play as a teenager in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. The game starts you off waiting in line with your childhood friend to take part in a ceremony that will decide whether or not you will be chosen to become a samurai.
The overall tone of the game is established at this point as medieval fantasy. But it pulls a bit of a trick on your once you actually take part in the ceremony, which involves a mystical gauntlet that decides if you are worthy to wear it or not. But this “mystic gauntlet” turns out to be more like a futuristic smartphone embedded in a metal glove. Yet the characters interact with the technology as if it were godly and magical, which is a very interesting dynamic.
The story continues with your friend being rejected by the gauntlet, which chooses you instead. Only then is a samurai’s duty revealed to you: To fight demons. They fight demons in true SMT fashion; by befriending and fighting alongside other demons. This job seems simple enough at the start, but it quickly spirals into something much deeper. Suicide, religion, class struggle: these are all themes that are present in this mature game.
Exploration in Shin Megami Tensei IV is interesting. While you almost always have a set objective, the game doesn’t hold your hand to lead you where you need to go. At most you will have a description of where you are to end up, but there isn’t an arrow or lit up path guiding you along the way. This is in no way a downside, though. When you get lost in this game’s dungeons it almost feels like you were supposed to. Much of the enjoyment of this game comes from off the beaten path.
The mechanics used to make befriending and fighting demons come to life are impressive. The fighting system goes beyond simple turn-based combat with the “Turn Press” system and a weakness and resistance system similar to that of Pokémon. Turn Press can be simply described as “When you make smart strategic decisions, you get more time to act. When you make a poor strategic decision you get less or no time to act.” An example of this would be hitting an enemy with an attack type it is weak against, resulting in an extra action during your turn.
The system for capturing demons is also quite complex. You can use an action during battle to attempt to convince a demon you are facing to join your quest and stop fighting you. This is achieved by talking to the demon and deciding how to react to its requests or questions. Demons will ask all sorts of things, whether it be shaking you down for your hard earned macca (the game’s money), or asking personal questions that they don’t really want an honest answer to. It feels like having a conversation with someone you have never met. While the questions may seem simple, you have no idea how the person who asked it will react to your answer. This has a very high risk vs. reward aspect, though. If you lose the negotiations then your turn is forfeit and the enemy gets to act.
The strategy evolves even more once demon fusion is introduced. Demon fusion is a mechanic in which you take two demons that you have allied with and combine them to create a more powerful demon. This is the only way to access the mightiest demons in the game and is essential to have any hope of making it through this incredibly difficult experience. These features all combine to create some top-notch combat that accentuates the enthralling story.
SMT4 doesn’t lack in the visual department either. It is filled with beautiful, complex artwork. Each demon looks unique and amazing. The characters have very impressive design as well, however the voice acting falls a little flat. Same with the music; while it is orchestrated well it ends up feeling a bit boring.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is one of the deepest, most enjoyable games on the 3DS to date. The mature story and interesting gameplay make it a must have for anyone that enjoys JRPGs and it may be enough to get an open minded player hooked. Though it is one of the hardest RPGs I have ever played on handheld, and a newcomer to the series will have to make use of the ability to switch freely between easy and normal difficulties.