At first blush, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse may look like a reconfigured version of 2013's Shin Megami Tensei IV, but that belies its complexities. It’s practically an entirely new adventure that comes with a host of enhancements to core gameplay and character progression. The result? An incredible RPG that surpasses its lofty predecessor in almost every way.
Nanashi and Asahi might not be related by blood, but they’ve formed a familial bond as two young would-be Hunters in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Hunters help the populace by battling and taming demonic hordes that exist above ground in the city’s now-eternal night. They also serve as a lifeline for humanity, helping people forage and survive in the midst of a supernatural conflict between the hellish forces of Lucifer and the almighty angels of Merkabah.
Since Apocalypse’s story runs concurrent to Shin Megami Tensei IV’s Neutral Path storyline, folks who have played the original will see events and characters from a different perspective--that of the people living in what remains of Tokyo. While it helps to have some familiarity with the original, the game’s starting events ramp up so quickly that you're immediately engaged with the story at hand. While Shin Megami Tensei IV makes you slog through the dull-as-dirt setting of Mikado before you get to see the far more interesting demonic Tokyo, Apocalypse puts you right in the middle of the perpetually dark megacity, where all the interesting events and plot development take place.
Apocalypse’s amazing sense of visual design manages to create a terrifying-yet-beautiful vision of a ruined metropolis. You explore fallen structures and landmarks, forage through rotten train stations, high-end shopping centers, and parks to find scraps of the old world to pawn for cash. The demons that roam and attack passersby are a mix of iconic Shin Megami Tensei designs and all-new art, some of which is particularly awe-inspiring--you know you're in trouble when you encounter a giant, makeup-smeared donkey-headed creature with a ripped torso and a peacock tail.
Beyond the story and setting, however, Apocalypse makes a host of improvements to its core gameplay that immensely improves the experience of demon hunting and exploration--save for the map, which is still as difficult to discern as it was in Shin Megami Tensei IV. For starters, the simple act of receiving new quests is now mostly automated. Instead of having to report back to a hub, quests are automatically delivered to Nanashi’s cell phone, and registered as complete when he accomplishes their goal; an elegant way to streamline the questing process. In addition, all of the game’s difficulty settings are unlocked from the get-go, and you can freely switch between them instead of forcing your way through a demoralizing cycle of deaths to access the easy difficulty setting.
Beyond the story and setting, however, Apocalypse makes a host of improvements to its core gameplay that immensely improves the experience of demon hunting and exploration--save for the map, which is still as difficult to discern as it was in Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Demon recruiting and fusion, a crucial component to the core Shin Megami Tensei games, also sees an interesting overhaul. Certain demon types that were once impossible to recruit through normal means can now be invited to join via the in-battle Scout command, and they have new conversation trees to explore. There’s also a brand-new element introduced where demons receive additional, innate buffs or debuffs to particular skill types, which needs to be taken into account when fusing demons to create new variations. For example, a primarily magic-damage-focused demon may have innate penalties on physical skills, but they get a bonus damage or MP reduction effect on electric and healing techniques. This is something you need to take into consideration when picking which skills to pass on to demons that result from fusions. Sure, you can make a Jack Frost with fire skills, but when it’s got an innate damage-dealt penalty on fire skills, wouldn’t that skill slot be better used for something it’s actually good at?
Combat itself benefits from improvements, too. While the engine is the same turn-based Press Turn system seen across several SMT games, two additions make a big difference in Apocalypse. The first seems minor at first: an overhaul to the Smirk status. By scoring critical hits and/or hitting an opponent’s weakness, a character or demon can score an extra turn in battle and potentially trigger the Smirk status, which negates that character’s own weakness while guaranteeing a critical hit on the next turn. In Apocalypse, however, Smirk can also grant normal skills a guaranteed additional effect, such as status debuffs or instant kills. Smirk was already crucial in Shin Megami Tensei IV, but intelligent use of it in Apocalypse makes battling a lot more efficient in the long run.
Everything about Apocalypse looks, feels, and sounds great; the excellent soundtrack works to enhance the feelings of exploration in a darkened, destroyed world. All of the gameplay additions improve elements where the original Shin Megami Tensei IV was lacking.
The other (more visibly important) addition is the partner system. A bevy of partners join you over the course of the game, including your friend Asahi, a kid from the Yakuza, a woman with the powers of a fairy queen, and the reincarnation of SMT4's obnoxious heel, Navarre. One character can be assigned as a partner, and they’ll join you in combat, attacking and providing backup under AI control. Partners can be targeted and damaged by enemies just like a normal party member, but since they’re not on the front lines, they can’t be targeted by several skills--a reality that's both detrimental and beneficial. Each partner specializes in different skills, such as buffs, healing, or direct damage, so picking the right partner for the right battles is crucial. After they’ve fought for a certain amount of turns, your team comes together for an all-out attack, using their combined skills while teaming up to deliver big damage and cancel an enemy’s turn entirely, making them invaluable for extensive boss fights.
Everything about Apocalypse looks, feels, and sounds great; the excellent soundtrack works to enhance the feelings of exploration in a darkened, destroyed world. Your demonic servants roar, cry, and yell in the heat of battle, making combat feel more lively and risky than ever before. All of the gameplay additions improve elements where the original Shin Megami Tensei IV was lacking. Meanwhile, the story’s eagerness to get into the heat of the new conflict makes it quick and easy for you to become caught up in this bewildering, dangerous world where humans, gods, and demons coexist. Apocalypse is a fantastic RPG that goes above and beyond the original Shin Megami Tensei IV to become one of the shining gems of the 3DS library.