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?
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.
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.
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.