Atlus has made the 3DS the system of choice if you need to get your JRPG fix. The latest entry in the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series brings its signature hardcore gameplay and mature storytelling from console to portable, while streamlining many of the franchise’s irritable features.
In the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, those who turn eighteen years of age must participate in a ritual at Mikado Castle to see if they’re one of the chosen to become a demon-slaying Samurai. It’s here that you learn of the dual-class Mikado populace, split into the entitled Luxurors and the modest Casualries. As one of the newest recruits, you and three fellow ‘prentices’ set about your training by entering a Naraku dungeon to prepare themselves to defend this technologically-infused medieval world. Without giving too much away, things quickly go awry as your character faces the Black Samurai, and finds himself in the middle of a vast struggle that will uncover the true nature of the Kingdom of Mikado and determine the fate of the world. Although the twist and turns are tad predictable, Atlus went all out with Shin Megami Tensei IV‘s story and setting, going far beyond what you’d expect for a portable RPG and an M-rated title.
Visually, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a mixed bag. Unlike Devil Summoner on the 3DS, SMTIV plays out from a third person perspective. While a lot of care and detail was invested in the 3D environments and cutscenes, the pixelated demon sprites used during combat are a little weak when compared to everything else. Environments are effectively drenched in darker hues to focus on the hellish atmosphere of each underground chamber, and patrolling enemies glow so they can be dealt with an advantageous preemptive strike. The stereoscopic 3D effect adds a lot to the presentation, but it has a few issues that will leave you toggling the slider; some of the larger demon sprites tear across layers very easily, and menu elements are often hard to tell where they’re supposed to sit in terms of depth. Where the game does excel is in atmosphere, thanks in large part to the soundtrack. The music, sound effects, and ambient noises come together to craft a truly enthralling aural environment. This is a game best experienced with headphones.
Navigating the game and making different decisions will bring your character to terms with his own alignment, be it Law, Chaos or Neutrality. How that alignment affects the storyline provides just enough variety to make multiple playthroughs enjoyable. While there are always objectives to progress the main storyline, you’re constantly flanked with Challenge Quests and side missions, from slaying rare demons to standard fetch and escort missions. The Challenge Quests make up a good chunk of the gameplay and are only somewhat optional, since they unlock important clues and can influence the ending of the game. Of course, with such a massive game there are inevitably pacing issues. The world map is rather minimal, and I found myself regularly wandering around aimlessly because the objectives themselves were often vague.
While the branching story and its human protagonists are engrossing, the real stars of the game are the demons you’ll encounter. With over 400 demons available–the largest in the history of the series–the variety is extremely impressive. From endearing to bizarre, each is universally enchanting thanks in part to wonderfully designed portraits and idiosyncratic dialogue that infuses them with a huge amount of personality. Their temperament is further displayed when you’re engaged in a staple of the Shin Megami Tensei series: negotiation. Some question your loyalty, some need to be impressed by your strength, while others just want an item or some Macca–the demonic currency of choice. Figuring out how to approach each situations is frustrating in the beginning, but once you get a hang of their personalities, you’ll become a pro at negotiation.
Once you’ve amassed a satisfactory compilation of demons, you can fuse them together to create new, higher-level allies with the help of Mido, your bearded pixelated host in the Cathedral of Shadows. Melding together two or more demons together will form a new entity, passing on skills and traits to the next generation. Roaming around locating a particular demon in order to create the perfect creature is addicting and the fusion process is so simple to use that you’ll lose hours just going through different combinations. Recruiting and fusing demons is important for keeping up with the increasing enemy levels, but it’s also important because they can pass on skills to your character through ‘Demon Whisper.’
Assisting you in your journey is a sultry AI woman named Burroughs. Aside from occasional providing you with advice, she also manages your Apps, which are add-ons you can purchase throughout the course of game. You’ll earn 10 “App Points” with each level gained, and you can activate upgrades like increasing the number of skills the your character or demons can learn, recover HP and MP while walking, increase how many demons you can have in your party, decrease MP costs, improve demon negotiations and more. When combined with ‘Demon Whisper,’ it’s a fun way to customize your character as you see fit, to give you the best chance of surviving the game’s unforgiving difficulty.
Played from a first person perspective, the combat system use the ‘Press Turn’ system based around eight elemental strengths and weaknesses, from physical, gun, ice, fire, force, electric, light, and dark attacks. SMTIV adds a new special status condition called “Smirk.” If you (or your demon) hits an enemy’s weakness, this new condition will increase their damage output and reduce their weaknesses through their next turn. But be wary, enemies can expose your weaknesses, which could lead to your entire party being easily taken down instantaneously. Dying doesn’t necessarily mean game over, as Charon – the being responsible for rowing dead souls across the River Styx – can be bribed with either Macca or Play Coins to turn a blind eye as you scurry back to the land of the living.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a little daunting and newcomers may be hesitant to dedicate nearly 70+ hours to a portable RPG, but with the ability to save your progress at any point, it’s easy to complete a few quest and to go on with your day. The game also touts a StreetPass feature dubbed the “Digital Demon Service”, which allows you to share a profile card and a dedicated demon with other players. This demon can gain extra levels, return with gifts, and perform special fusions to create new demons, but as long as it’s attached to your DDS card, you won’t be able to summon it into battle. Fusion via StreetPass is also possible.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is an ambitious, sprawling sequel fans have been waiting nearly a decade for, and I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with this entry. Even if you are not familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei series, the inclusion of the well-balanced Easy mode makes this entry the perfect introduction to the JRPG demon-hunting series. It’s a really wonderful package of RPG goodness that restores my faith in the JRPG genre.