A review of Shin Megami Tensei IV

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After 5+ months of playing SMT4, I’ve finally finished it as far as I care to, meaning I got one out of the three endings. I could have easily blown through it in one or two weeks if I weren’t a student, but that’s life. My open memo and exams prevented me from doing much of anything else through the months of October, November and the first half of December.

Firstly, I can definitely say that SMT4 was worth what I paid for it. A lot of people were surprised at the $50 price tag on a 3DS title, but that $50 was for the deluxe package. And those of us who’d been waiting for an SMT4 for years were more than happy to throw our money at Atlus.

So fine. I’m a huge Shin Megami Tensei fan and I loved the game. But how does the game hold up in a more objective light?

smt4start

First, the story. It’s nothing special. The plot is the kind that anyone who’s played an older SMT game will recognize and the characters aren’t interesting – in fact, they’re so one-dimensional that I don’t think the designers even meant them to be interesting. SMT4 is an RPG, but it’s not about the story. Its gameplay is the main selling point.

So, the gameplay: it’s solid and mostly consists of the same old demon battles/negotiations and frustrating boss fights that SMT vets are already familiar with. Pretty much every fight in every game in the SMT series, including the Persona titles, hinges on the elemental strengths and weaknesses of your party and the party you’re fighting. As a result, most non-boss battles in SMT4 are extremely one-sided, and having a strong party that balances out its weaknesses is a must.

This is all pretty standard for the SMT series. But I do have a few complaints about SMT4 – aspects of the game that knock a couple of points off its score.

1) The pace

For the most part, the game has a pretty good pace – from the “late early” to the “late mid-game” sections, I guess; maybe from 8 hours to 40-50 hours in. But the early and late games are a different matter. SMT4 takes about 6 to 8 hours to really get started and to get interesting. This isn’t such an issue, but it could turn off gamers looking for an immediate hook. (By contrast, SMT3’s “hook” comes about half an hour into the game – so the makers don’t have an excuse here.)

The late game is a more serious issue. If you plan to pursue the Law or Chaos paths, you maybe won’t have to worry too much about it, but the Neutral ending piles requirements on the player that essentially force him to grind. Granted, Atlus added a paid DLC add-on that makes late-game grinding quick and easy, but we shouldn’t have to pay extra for it, should we? In any case, the grind that the Neutral path required of me really put me off. I’m a student, Atlus – I have shit to do other than play games. Okay?

2) The boss battles

SMT4 uses the Press Turn system that was created for SMT3: Nocturne, its PS2 predecessor. The way it works: your player character, your own demons and enemy demons have unique strengths and weaknesses to the different elements, including physical attacks. If you happen to hit an enemy with something he blocks, you lose two “turns” where you’d normally lose one. If it’s an element he repels or absorbs, you lose all your turns and he acts immediately. If, however, you hit him with in a weak spot – for example, he’s weak to wind and you hit him with wind – you only lose a “half turn”. So you can accumulate turns and wipe out most enemy parties before their turn comes around. SMT4 compounds this effect with its “smirk” mechanic, which will sometimes give a guaranteed crit to a demon (or the protagonist) if he hits a weak spot or gains a critical. The same goes for enemies, by the way: they can also crit/hit your weaknesses, gain more turns and wipe out your party thus.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

So what’s the problem? The bosses are the problem. Specifically some of the later bosses. The especially strong ones can and will abuse this system to wipe you out utterly. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal but for two issues:

– One of your allied NPCs also often fights with you, and he (or she) is completely fucking stupid when it comes to fighting. This means he’ll hit a boss with a physical attack after he’s cast Tetrakarn, a spell that reflects physical attacks. This means the boss will get a smirk on the next round, and he will crit and possibly destroy your party through no fault of your own (unless you get lucky and the boss wastes his smirk on a buff or a debuff spell or something similar.)

– Bosses will sometimes make the first move. This really, truly makes no sense to me. Nocturne and the other SMT titles always gave your party the first turn in a boss fight, the idea being that you could prepare yourself for his or her attacks by throwing up shields, buffing/debuffing, and so on. Here, however, a strong boss – and that’s a whole lot of the bosses in SMT4 – will, if he gets first shot, destroy your party or break it to the point that you won’t be able to recover on your turn. All you can do at this point is reset the game. Why Atlus chose to do this is beyond me, because all it adds to the game is pure frustration. It’s the difference between a tactically demanding and difficult boss fight and a downright cheap one. Sadly, quite a few of the boss fights in SMT4 comes down to either pure luck or brute force.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole.  Okay, not really a spoiler.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole. Okay, not really a spoiler.

3) The quests

Most of SMT4’s quests are interesting and make sense within the story, but a few are completely stupid and nonsensical. Just wait until you’re forced to take a picture of a particular building for some jerk for no reason at all. This won’t be a problem if you’re going Law or Chaos, but Neutral and just plain completionist players will find it almost impossible to manage without the help of a guide.

It seems like all I’ve done is complain about SMT4 for a thousand words. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s bad, though. It’s a very good JRPG. The music and art are classic SMT, even without the work of the amazing Shoji Meguro on the soundtrack. The gameplay is pretty fun, and anyone who’s obsessive and weird enough to want to recruit and fuse every demon in the game (like me) will love the good old negotiation system, which can produce some strange results. The story and atmosphere in SMT4 are lacking when compared to those of Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and some other SMT titles, but they’re not bad in themselves – just in comparison to older, better games in the line.

The fact that I find SMT4 lacking probably has a lot to do with my growing up with classic PS2 SMT titles. Nostalgia isn’t something one should consider when trying to fairly judge a game (or anything else for that matter) so I’m not in the best position to judge this title. Still, these are my honest opinions, six months after the fact. If you’re an SMT fan and you own a 3DS, you’ve already played SMT4. If you’re not a fan but the above sounds appealing to you, and you don’t mind some old-school style cheapness and frustration, I’d say go for it – the game might not be worth the unusually high sticker price to you, but it’s probably being sold used at this point. It will give you dozens of hours of gameplay, so you’ll be getting plenty of game for your dollar.

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.

How to talk to a demon

As I play through Shin Megami Tensei IV at a snail’s pace, I find that one of the most interesting and frustrating parts of the game is the demon negotiation function. SMT veterans will know what I’m talking about, but here’s a basic explanation for newcomers.

compensation

Some SMT titles have a feature that allows your player character to talk to demons during battle. Talking to a demon can be a really good idea sometimes – depending on the course of the conversation, a demon might give you an item, money or a piece of advice. It might also choose to quit attacking you and run away – if you already have a demon of the same type with you, for example, it will recognize its “friend” in your party and leave you alone. Some of the conversation branches can get extremely strange. Depending upon the demon’s type and personality, you might have the opportunity to threaten it, bow down to it or even to hit on it (female demons only, as far as I’ve been able to tell.)

Nekomata joining your party in Shin Megami Tensei III.  She's one of the best early-game demons to have around for her skills.

Nekomata joining your party in Shin Megami Tensei III. She’s one of the best early-game demons to have around for her skills.

Most importantly, though, negotiation is the only way to recruit new members to your party and get the components needed for demon fusion – a whole other subject in itself. As you play SMT IV (or any other SMT game with the recruitment function) you’ll most often find yourself negotiating with demons to recruit them. Recruitment involves a both asking and answering questions. Most often you’ll start things off by asking one to join your party, and then the demon will begin to ask for random items, amounts of money, or portions of your HP/MP to take for themselves. This whole process can be pretty frustrating just for the fact that giving the demon items is no guarantee that they will join you. Sometimes they’ll ask a final question, and your answer will piss them off and make them attack you, breaking off negotiations. Sometimes they’ll simply run away with all your items and money. There’s usually nothing at all you can do about this (the Detain skill in SMT III is a nice exception to that rule.) Occasionally, they’ll lead off with a question and your answer will make them so happy that they’ll join you straight up, no haggling required, but these instances are rare.

A pretty typical SMT demon question from Devil Summoner.

A pretty typical SMT demon question from Devil Summoner.

SMT III is even more fun in this respect because it lets you attach negotiation skills to demons, something you can’t do in SMT IV or any of the others (as far as I can tell, at least.)

SMT III lets you fuse Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who has the unique ability to offer booze to potential recruits.

SMT III lets you fuse Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who has the unique ability to offer booze to potential recruits.

Demon negotiation is easily one of the most entertaining parts of playing an SMT game. It’s a feature that really sets SMT apart from other game franchises. You go into every fight not knowing whether your enemies will attack you, join you or run off with a bunch of your stuff. It adds an element of unpredictability – and sometimes of humor – that really lightens up an otherwise pretty dark series of games. And if it goes well, you’ll have a new friend.

jackfrost