BADGP Reviews: Shin Megami Tensei IV
Shin Megami Tensei IV (Atlus)
Released: July 16, 2013
October 7, 2013
Review: Not Nocturne: For Better or Worse
For a somewhat brief history of the Shin Megami Tensei universe see my Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga review conveniently linked here: https://badgamingpodcast.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/badgp-retroactively-reviews-shin-megami-tensei-digital-devil-saga
-Reviewing the Reviews-
I am going to start this review a little untraditionally. I would like to deconstruct some of the common themes I discovered while reading a number of reviews for SMTIV. Two things that come to the forefront when reading the range of reviews provided by Metacritic.com: 1. The reviews highlight a greater conversation that begun on November 19, 2006 with the launch of Nintendo’s miracle box, the Wii. That conversation being the elitism between the perceived “hardcore” gamers and their looking down upon the lowly “casuals.” And directly related to this debate is #2: One apparently cannot review SMTIV without at least mentioning high school teenagers or Persona. Let’s take a look at some of what comes out the reviews for SMTIV:
“I like quirky, demon-summoning high schoolers as much as the next Persona fan, but you haven’t truly experienced a Megaten game until you’ve tried to wrap your mind around the infamous conversation system.” – GamesBeat (95/100)
“…it’s also proof that Atlus has not lost its touch with the main Shin Megami Tensei series. Despite how radically different it is from the Persona series, this post-apocalyptic adventure is no less engrossing.” –RPG Fan (93/100)
“True Shin Megami Tensei fans should pick it up without hesitation, and anyone who enjoys RPGs should strongly consider it as well.” -Cubed3 (90/100)
“Like a bottle of fine scotch, SMT IV won’t be for everyone – but those RPG enthusiasts who can appreciate its subtlety and challenge will cherish it for years to come.” –Pocket Gamer UK (90/100)
These blurbs highlight what I am talking about. There is an elitism here. “True Shin Megami Tensei fan,” “you haven’t truly experienced a Megaten game until…,” “Like a fine bottle of scotch…those who can appreciate it…” I get the feeling that those who completed/reviewed Shin Megami Tensei IV feel superior to those who only play the Persona games (and only the modern ones at that). Why is this? I am certainly guilty of considering myself a “true” MegaTen fan for having played nearly all of them versus those who have only played Persona 3 & 4, and yet those two are far and above my two favorites! I propose that it boils down to difficulty and accessibility. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is probably the game I would consider to be the hardest game I have ever played. This is due to its unwelcoming introduction and absolutely crushing first several hours. It serves as a literally monumental barrier of entry and having overcome it is a trial that can be shared with others who have also overcome it and players feel a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment. I share the feelings as the above reviewers, but hopefully I will not be pretentious enough to state something to the effect as: “You don’t know Shin Megami Tensei if you have only played Persona.”
The core series and Persona are very different, and reviewers (in general) could not separate the two. Several reviews lambaste SMTIV for having weak characters when it is obvious that the reviewer is comparing them to Yukiko and Yukari (characters from Persona 3, 4). The characters in the core series represent ideologies, they are not supposed to grow and be well rounded like Chie and Akihiko (more Persona characters). The main reason why reviewers would compare SMTIV to the modern Persona games is that we have received Persona 3 & 4 among numerous other offshoots of the main series since Nocturne. There was nine-year gap between Nocturne and SMTIV, so it has been a while. We here at the BAD Gaming Podcast put a high value on comparisons in our reviews, but I felt that the reviewers forgot that the core series and Persona series are comprised of different core philosophies and this perhaps negatively impacted their review scores. Okay, now that I got that out of my system, let’s talk about the actual game.
-What is Shin Megami Tensei IV?–
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a turn-based Japanese role-playing game that takes place in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and a dystopic Tokyo. Demon collecting and fusing, the series staple, returns along with the divisive conversation system. SMTIV looks gorgeous (one of the best looking games on the system), has a fairly good soundtrack, and has some of the best presentation out there. Atlus really went all out on this one. The voicework is excellent, the environments varied, and the art direction and demon design are as good as ever. The lengthy adventure goes to some weird places. The writing is solid, and the story is good enough if not a little predictable. Overall, SMTIV is a huge endeavor both from Atlus and for the player to commit to, but much satisfaction is to be found in this challenging and engaging journey.
-Refining the System-
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a game of wonderful systems and their interactions with each other. Atlus continued to surprise me with how refined and small changes are in fact, game changers. SMIV is a master’s class in honing and fine-tuning their craft of challenging JRPGs. Having much experience within the universe, the number of alterations to the SMT formula is staggering.
-If the Main Character dies in a battle, the battle is no longer immediately over.
It took me a while to adjust to this; I would become frustrated when the main character would die only to be hit by a wave of relief when remembering that the fight continues on.
-The game gives fusion recommendations.
Gone are the spreadsheet-like lists of demons and possible fusions. In are what the game considers to be the best demons possibly available to the player. Though I rarely took the game’s recommendations, it was nice to see the game make an attempt to streamline and become more accessible to more players as well as be more visually appealing.
-One may use Play Coins (earned from walking with the 3DS in sleep mode) in order to revive if the player does not want to use their precious in-game currency.
This is madness. But again, it is nice that SMTIV provides the option.
-The player may save anywhere (this is possibly the biggest and most game-changing addition).
What makes games like Nocturne so incredibly difficult is the gauntlet that is the space between save points. Being able to save anywhere changes everything. Though it is likely implemented for the convenience of being on a handheld, the elimination of savepoints effectively kills the tension that made Nocturne, at times, terrifying. In turn, this makes the game infinitely more playable and accessible. I play few games for the pure challenge, and SMTIV carries a different tone and feel by simply allowing the player to save wherever they would please. I am somewhat conflicted about this change, but due to it being on the 3DS, I suppose it is necessary.
-No more random battles.
Another massive divergence from Nocturne, and strangely enough the enemy encounter system is now virtually the same as that found in Persona 3 & 4. Small and large digital amalgamates attack the player and spawn a battle. One of the better features of Nocturne was its availability of two items that could raise and lower the encounter rate, thus making grinding more time efficient. I generally find a distaste in random battles, so chalk this one up as a good change.
-All moves may be chosen from when fusing.
Yet again, those who have played Persona, or any other of the SMT off-shoots will understand how big of deal this is. In the past, there was an element of randomness to what moves would be passed upon fusing two demons. Now, the player may choose which moves gets assigned to each demon.
-The “Demon Whisper” system for how the Main Character learns additional moves.
This is the system for how the main character learns moves in SMTIV. When a demon learns its final move that it can learn, then the player may choose from all of the demon’s moves for their own.
-The player may earn +1, +2 etc. to the Main Character’s move-set through repetition in “The Demon Whisper” system.
When the Demon Whisper system activates if the player already knows one of the demon’s moves, that move will gain a +1, +2, up to how many times you can do it. This adds strength to that move making it more effective.
-There is now a break after every attack.
Previously, the player queued up all of one’s parties’ moves at once and then they were all unleashed. This allows for more time to learn weaknesses and resistances. It makes a surprisingly large impact on the flow of the game.
-There are enemy hoards.
Apparently a good enough idea to be stolen by Pokemon, except SMTIV does it much better. Where the hoards of Scraggy and Wingull in Pokemon X/Y, are tedious and not fun, SMTIV’s hoards get a set number attacks, kind of like mini-bosses, they offer a chance at more experience.
-Physical attacks now take MP instead of HP.
This change was quite the revelation. In past SMT games and the off-shoots, physical skills took health instead of mana. I typically would be drawn to the more magic using demons and tailor myself to be a magic user, so that I was not constantly hurting myself. Making them use the same resource kind of makes them the same and I do not think that this is a good change despite it being an effort towards accessibility.
-The “Escape” percentage increases if the first attempt fails.
This is a neat and appreciated little feature.
-There is a cool, new system where the player may decrease a boss’ stats if the correct answer to a taunt is chosen.
At certain points during big boss fights, the player will be offered a dialogue option, the result of which might lower the bosses stats if answered correctly. Dialogue options are one of my favorite game mechanics and this is a fantastic use of it.
-The App upgrade system is incredible and an exceptionally innovative way to build a character.
I quickly fell in love with the App system. All character upgrades are purchased in this system. The player earns App Points upon leveling. I enjoyed it so much, due to it partially felt like I was cheating or gaming the system. Those familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei universe know that one may only fuse demons up to the player’s level. There are apps that may be purchased to up the fusion level and one can create demons greater than one’s level. This freedom in customization was my favorite part of the game and made the game replayable and enormous amount of fun.
It is probably clear by now that Atlus put a lot of heart into Shin Megami Tensei IV. The technical changes and refinements to their formula is thorough and comprehensive.
-Negatives, What Holds It Back?-
I was largely impressed with Shin Megami Tensei IV, but it is certainly not perfect.
Like many JRPGs, SMTIV, has a slow first two to four hours. Things begin to pick up when the player makes it to Tokyo.
Exploration is a part of the core series, but I often felt more lost in SMTIV than I was exploring for the sake of it.
The narrative presented in SMTIV is nothing special. The gameplay and freedom in customization is where the game shines.
SMTIV is not as good as SMTIII. This is not the worst thing, but it is a little disappointing.
-Concluding on Shin Megami Tensei IV–
There are many things that I like more about SMIV than I do not like about it. For example, a late section of the game entitled: The Passage of Ethics, remains as one of my “Most Memorable Moments” of the year. The game asks some hard questions and forces the player to take a stand for what they believe in, in an inspiring sequence of moral ambiguity. I like that the characters are not terribly exaggerated, and are thus more believable and realistic. The amount of refinement to the Shin Megami Tensei formula, the strength of the core gameplay, and the freedom in customization make Shin Megami Tensei IV quite an appealing package that is an absolute must-play for JRPG fans. Despite not being as good as its predecessor, SMTIV carves enough of its own identity and challenges the player both in its difficulty and its beautiful war of ideologies.
8.8 out of 10