Thoughts on Shin Megami Tensei IV’s alignment/path system

This post will be spoiler-heavy, so for those who haven’t played or come extremely near finishing Shin Megami Tensei IV, steer clear. Not that anyone reads this blog anyway, but spoilers are spoilers and need a warning.

Your four main characters, plus one guy who is clearly unimportant from the moment you meet him and who disappears pretty early on.  That's not a spoiler.

Your four main characters, plus one guy who is clearly unimportant from the moment you meet him and who disappears pretty early on. That’s not a spoiler.

If you’ve played Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (or SMT I or II, or Strange Journey, etc.) you’ve come across SMT’s alignment system. It’s not in every SMT game, but it does feature in the “main line” of games not counting spinoffs like Persona and Devil Summoner. And it’s a big part of SMT4, going so far as to determine the fates of both your world and the other world you enter about 6-8 hours into the game.

The idea behind the alignment system is that your choices affect what sort of person your player character is. Throughout the game, your silent protagonist will be met with dialogue options and choices of action that, taken all together, will determine whether he goes the Law route, the Chaos route, or the devilishly difficult to achieve Neutral route. As legions of D&D players already know, law and chaos don’t mean “good” and “evil” – a lawful character is more of a “law and order” type, while a chaotic character plays by his own rules and values strength and charisma over tradition and custom.

Two of the characters in SMT4 represent the Law and Chaos paths. The game doesn’t even try to hide this fact: it’s right there on the box.

Atlus, just making it as obvious as possible.

Atlus, just making it as obvious as possible.

It’s also obvious from the dialogue that Walter (left, the demonic-looking guy) and Jonathan (right, the holy-looking guy with the jewfro) represent these two options. In fact, they’re not really much more than cardboard cutouts: simply plain representations of the law and chaos paths. (If you’re playing an SMT game for the story and the characters, go for Persona 3 or 4. Not this.) Walter’s all about bucking the rules and doing his own thing, while Jonathan wants to enforce the rule of the kingdom, maintain the peace and have people stay in their place. Agreeing with one over the other in dialogue choices swings your alignment accordingly. Taking certain actions (for example, “kill this guy” or “let him live”) also have an effect on your leaning.

What the game isn’t so forward about is that the remaining character, Isabeau, represents the Neutral path. The token girl-warrior character of SMT4 is the lone voice of reason, trying (but failing) to pull Walter and Jonathan back from the extremes of their two ways of thinking, which they drift towards as the game goes on.

At a certain point late in SMT4, the game locks you into one of these paths based upon your actions . At that point, you’re required to follow the route you’ve “chosen.” You may have to help Jonathan and the archangels of God destroy “purify” humanity. You may have to help Walter and Lucifer unleash a swarm of demons upon the world, with all the chaos and death that will inevitably follow. Or you can take the third option – the best option.

I chose to take the Neutral path. “Chose” isn’t quite the word, actually; I managed to take the Neutral path, because Atlus has made it damned hard to lock into in SMT4. It involves a careful balancing of choices and a little luck. The reason I wanted Neutral was that the Law and Chaos positions in SMT games are extreme to the point of insanity. Neutral tries instead to find a solution without destroying the world in some dramatic way. The “God” of IV’s Neutral route and the one your character and Isabeau will join forces with is Masakado, the protector of Tokyo and the only god character in the game who actually gives a damn about its people. That’s pretty cool, I think. A lot better than the crazy God/Lucifer routes of Law and Chaos. Also, in Law and Chaos you get bossed around by a god to achieve an end you probably don’t want. Screw that. I like to do my own thing.

[NOTE: If you also like to do your own thing and want to go Neutral, refer to the guide here. There are other ways of doing it, though. I didn’t follow a guide at all but simply tried balancing my Law/Chaos responses and actions while referring to the reputation guy present in every Tokyo bar to find out my alignment throughout the game. Mine was a rough strategy, though, and definitely isn’t guaranteed to work.]

Demifiend, the best SMT protagonist, seen here doing his own thing (which happens to involve a whole lot of violence.)  Art by Kazuma Kaneko.

Demifiend, the best SMT protagonist, seen here doing his own thing (which happens to involve a whole lot of violence.) Art by Kazuma Kaneko.

But I do have a complaint. Atlus seems to have decided to punish the people who chose Neutral, because they require the completion of every quest left unfinished in Tokyo before the endgame. Some of these quests are real pains in the ass to find. One of them involves a fight with Beelzebub, possibly the hardest (and almost certainly the cheapest) boss in the game. This fight pretty much forces you to level up to an unreasonable point or to simply dive in with the best party possible and hope that you emerge alive. SMT4’s tendency to drop a quest on you without an explanation or even a hint of where to go or what to do just aggravates the problem. The Neutral path game hits a brick wall in terms of pacing after the decision at Ichigaya, and there are a good 20 or 30 levels to gain after that depending on how much you’ve leveled. Other SMT titles don’t have that kind of drag near the end.

The really important question, though, is whether taking the Neutral path was worth it. I’d say it was. Finding a truly good solution for the people and fighting against the two extreme positions of Law and Chaos really puts a nice cap on the end of the game. The pure draggy grinding it involved was unnecessary and irritating, but in the end I’m happy I went Neutral. I just wish Atlus could have made it a little less unbearable getting there.

Also, this happens.

Also, this happens.

For a review of SMT4, where I generally praise the game but complain more about some of its annoying aspects, look here. If you’d rather learn about SMT3, this game’s PS2 predecessor (and IMO a better game, though my opinion is just that) see my review of it here.