Trying something new.
I’ve owned a 3DS since 2011. I’ve played many of the noteworthy RPGs on the system, such as Fire Emblem, Mario & Luigi, and Pokemon. As I still play my 3DS in 2018, I wanted to give something else a try. Looking into some of the more prolific titles on the system, I stumbled upon Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Developed by Atlus, Shin Megami Tensei IV is the fourth entry in the long-running Shin Megami Tensei series. As a first-timer to the series, I dove into the game after a bit of consideration. From the time I started it to when I finally beat it, SMT IV is unlike anything I’ve ever played. As someone who enjoys JRPGs and is a huge fan of Atlus’ hit, Persona 5, I want to see how this game stacks up in 2018. If you’re a Persona fan who has never played Shin Megami Tensei, this review may help you form a decision on whether or not to get it.
What’s Shin Megami Tensei IV about?
Shin Megami Tensei IV is the story about the samurai from the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. Several characters are selected to become the new Samurai of Mikado, those who defend their land from demons and uphold God’s will. A Samurai must also learn to tame demons by befriending them. They become your party members, and will change and evolve over time. I’ll get more into this later.
Gather demons, fuse them. Your fellow samurai – Jonathan, Walter, and Isabeau – will help you in battle. Instead of being party members, they support with attacks automatically after your turn. The four of you are tasked with finding the Black Samurai, a mysterious woman who is accused of turning local residents into demons. Being forced to break your samurai code, from orders above you, you must enter a tower. Descending that tower will take you to the post-apocalyptic city of Tokyo. From there on, the main game begins and you will investigate scenarios, take on quests, and slay demons while hunting for this mysterious, black-clad figure.
Shin Megami Tensei IV plays like traditional JRPG. You run around the city, spot enemies on the field, and can attack them for pre-emptive strikes. Once you’re out of a town or dungeon, you will explore the map of Tokyo from an overhead, icon perspective. This means you’ll enter towns as an icon and encounter enemies as such while going over the map itself. Once you enter the next town or dungeon, you’ll go back to third-person view. Keep in mind nowhere is safe. Towns are located underground and are sparse in number. Nearly everywhere you go is a danger zone.
In battle, you have your demons. The ones you summon and the ones you fuse join you in battle. You can fight your enemies off with attacks, magic, or even recruit them. Think Pokemon in a way, but keep in mind SMT has been around longer. Also, the monsters are based on Celtic, Japanese, Biblical, and all sorts of other lore. Talking to them initiates a conversation point, or negotiation, some of which can be friendly, hostile, or even seductive.
You can form a party of up to four, yourself included. The rest remain in your Stock, which you can upgrade through App Points. You can then recruit more demons to fight for you. Early on, you can also learn to fuse them. They will become a different demon altogether, while you can choose which attacks to keep. Using your App, your built-in companion, Burroughs, can also upgrade abilities such as how many attacks you can keep.
Atmosphere of Tokyo.
The atmosphere of Shin Megami Tensei IV feels post-apocalyptic. While the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado feels clean, with some rural areas and a castle city that feels like it’s set in the past, Tokyo feels like a dystopian hellhole. To be frank, it’s overrun with demons littering the streets. You can even loot dead bodies. Moreover, the main characters are confused with the modern-day technology. Despite the use of technology fitted on their arms (the “Gauntlet” with functioning mobile communication), the lifestyle of the common, modern-day person confuses them frequently. As Tokyo is eclipsed by Mikado (the “ceiling”), they don’t get sunlight. The people may even loot dead bodies who enter the outside just to survive.
You have shops, bars, and weapon shops. You gain money by looting “artifacts” and having them appraised at shops. The bars can’t even afford genuine cuisine, hence the bartender says, “Ersatz, of course,” while your team struggles to stomach it. They’re hailed as “angels,” looked upon as heroes who will end the crisis. However, the source and cause of the crisis becomes more and more clear as you progress further into the game. Talk to NPCs to learn the story of how and why Tokyo became such a barren wasteland.
Moreover, the consequences and choices of your actions will play out a part in what happens late in the game. You can take a “Law” or “Chaos” route. The “Neutral” route is the true ending route. However, you can only access it from fulfilling specific requirements. That said, this game warrants multiple playthroughs, hence New Game+.
Comparing to Persona.
I first completed Persona 5 before coming to this. Coming to SMT IV was a culture shock. Despite Persona being a spin-off from the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series, it has formed its own identity and an ever-growing fanbase. Persona is much more character-driven, focusing heavily on everyone’s backstories and how they affect the player’s emotions. The characters in SMT are based more heavily on identity and motive. Walter represents Chaos, Jonathan represents Order, and Isabeau represents the Neutral path.
Battles take place in first-person. They’re not the beautifully-animated, stylish battles of the Persona series. In both games, you’ll see many familiar demons and recruit them. However, you play as all party members in Persona, each with their own demon. Here, the demons themselves are your party. You won’t get the smooth jazz and vocal sounds in SMT. Much of it is atmospheric and moody, with the occasional catchy theme. The battle themes are kinda generic, but also fairly intense. The bar theme is my personal favorite.
Finally, Persona features over 100 hours of gameplay. This is enough to tell a giant story, fill relationships with people, and change the world. Shin Megami Tensei IV clocked in at just under 40 hours for me, but still felt like a long game. If you’re looking for the same action in both games, let this serve as a notice. They could be from entirely different series. Besides monster designs, clever designs, and the struggle against social paradigms, you’d never know they were part of the same series. Persona fans, be wary when playing SMT IV. It’s a much different experience.
Rough around the edges.
In addition to being a dark and gritty game, SMT IV will challenge you greatly. The default difficulty is quite hard, and Naraku – the first dungeon – is notorious for being extremely difficult. It shows no mercy for the new player and will destroy you with the powerful demons. This means repeated trips to Charon, who will return you to life in exchange for Macca or Play Coins. Once you clear Naraku, the rest of the game isn’t as difficult. However, I digress. I find changing the difficult to Easy to be appropriate for a first-timer. You lose no reward for doing so, and can enjoy the story at your leisure.
Enemies aren’t afraid to crush you. Late-game bosses can cast moves to repel magic and attacks alike. Even in the early-mid game, you’ll be ambushed by enemies attacking you on the map, forcing you to flee at some points. Some of the battles come with auto-reinforcements, forcing you to fight on the defensive, sometimes after losing a demon or two. It becomes a revolving door of healing demons and putting them back in your stock.
This game also won’t guide you. You’ll trek back and forth between towns often. While exploration is encouraged in this game, it also feels required. With little sense of direction, you may be forced to use a guide to find your destination. It’s not marked on the map, and neither are any of the cities. If you don’t remember where Shinjuku is, tough luck. Keep looking around or use a guide.
Some interesting facts.
Shin Megami Tensei IV was originally promoted, by Nintendo, with Fire Emblem Awakening. They showcased a deal where you could buy one and get credit back to buy the other. This was likely an attempt, by Nintendo and Atlus, to introduce JRPG fans to both of their latest games.
Different artists designed all the demons in the game. Persona fans will certainly find many of the types familiar, such as Jack Frost, Lilith, and others. But the differing art styles shows the amount of work into the creativity of demon design featured.
Persona 5 features downloadable content from past SMT and Persona titles. This includes the gear of the characters in Shin Megami Tensei IV, as well as a battle theme!
Story and Battle.
Shin Megami Tensei IV’s biggest pro is its storyline, easily. As mentioned before, it’s not as character-driven as Persona. However, it has its own merits. Your decisions and actions lead into one of three endings, which will ultimately shape the world. It’s not afraid to get into discussions of morality, metaphysics, and forcing you into making a difficult decision. The dialogue in this game involves tons of swearing from people living a hard life. Everyone just wants to get by.
You can play and customize SMT IV in various ways. Feel free to set it to Auto-Battle. There’s also a skill that lets you target weak points. Much of the depth comes from uncovering an enemy’s weakness and exploiting its element. Use buffs and debuffs to keep your team alive and the enemy’s weakened. Keep your team strong!
A few noteworthy flaws.
Keep in mind this isn’t a perfect RPG. In some ways, it feels dated. Besides monster and character designs, it’s not a pretty game. It’s dark and gritty. But moreover, the factors of getting lost, crushing newcomers on the default difficulty, and not streamlining your quest with locations feels dated. Some of the battle music feels like generic keyboard and guitar riff. It sounds like stuff I’ve heard in other RPGs before. Also, you can only accept one side-quest at a time. It tells a good story, but its mechanics feel like they could have used a serious overhaul.
Also, I should mention demons are extremely picky. They will rob you of your items, money, and health before running away or even attacking you sometimes. It becomes a high-risk factor that sometimes yields no rewards. In Persona, you can at least use a skill that allows party members to continue negotiations with a demon. Here, you at least need some of the Scount App skills to make negotiating just a little easier.
I hopped into Shin Megami Tensei IV to try the main series for the first time. The onset of the brutal difficulty initially turned me off. However, I stayed for the storyline. I wanted to see it through to the end and see what it was like. The story itself leaves me with tons of questions, some of which involve myself. If you’re looking for a game that tests your morality, this is an ideal title.
It’s a rough RPG with old-school elements. It’s not as friendly about quality of life improvements in today’s games. With the recent release of Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse, though, I’ve heard of a number of improvements involving gameplay. However, I don’t see myself playing it anytime soon. Not because I disliked this game, but my backlog is full as it is. Moreover, Atlus confirmed Shin Megami Tensei V for the Nintendo Switch. I am at least eager to see if the developers will attempt to streamline the mechanics a bit more.
With that said, if you try this game, feel free to play Easy Mode for a standard, balanced challenge. You’re also welcome to replay the game on New Game+ and try the DLC missions as well. There’s a lot to do. And if it piques your interest and you’re willing to overlook some of the flaws, there’s a great story to tell.
SMT IV remains a solid game. Far from perfect, but not without its excel points. If you’re a 3DS gamer looking for a new RPG, stay prepared. It might even be better to try Apocalypse if you want something fresher. Persona fans, it’s radically different in many ways. Play SMT for its own merits as opposed to its comparison to Persona. Finally, give yourself that long look in the mirror after you beat the game. The ending might make you think for a good while.
Thank you for reading our Shin Megami Tensei IV review! Which ending did you get the first time? Are you a first-timer to the series? Let us know in the comments below!