Shin Megami Tensei IV begins with a truly surreal set up. Your character (a protagonist you can name yourself) has two different dreams. One about a man in a desert asking you to help him save the world, and another about a different man asking you to help destroy it in hopes of making a better one. Shortly after, we are introduced to the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a place that resembles medieval Europe. Since the main character (I’ll refer to him as Hero) and his friend have just become of age, they are entering the Gauntlet Rite. This is where the local Samurai guild tests young men and women to see if they are compatible with oddly futuristic Gauntlets, which are capable of summoning demons and using them to fight.
Of course, Hero is compatible, but his friend isn’t. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to some other successful new Samurai. There’s Johnathan, the super polite and caring Luxoror (which is the high class of Mikado). There’s Walter, a brash but likeable Casualry (the lower class). Then there’s Isabeau, a woman who’s conflicted about many things. It’s not long before they’re sent on a mission to investigate a strange influx of demon activity inside a local dungeon called the Naraku.
From here, the story only becomes lukewarm at best. It has a terrifically interesting set up, and the main set of characters give a good first impression. But the issue is that the characters never grow beyond what alignment they are supposed to represent. It’s almost immediately obvious who is who as far as the Law, Neutral and Chaos idea goes. I’ve never played a previous SMT game, spin off or otherwise, and I could very early predict who would do what (not the specifics, but their general actions). That’s not to say they’re unlikeable. There are several moments where their personalities shine, and there’s even some humor in the proceedings. That still doesn’t help the fact that they’re all underdeveloped. On top of that, much of the mythology present in the game is very poorly explained. It might be because of the ending I got, but I didn’t have a good grasp on why the world is the way it is, and had to fill in many blanks based on my own assumptions. It’s different from a game like Dark Souls, where the entire point is the mystery. The writing and characters in this game just feel underdeveloped.
Thankfully, the atmosphere of the game is very strong. While exploring the first dungeon, I noticed a high level of detail in both the environment and in Hero. He animates very, very well, and looks incredible for a 3D character model in a handheld game. Environments are also well crafted, sporting little details like blood on the floor or waterfalls help sell the almost horror esque atmosphere. The music is also top notch. Dungeon themes are dark and foreboding, while themes in settlements and towns are quite neat, making good use of a synthesizer. The battle themes are all really well done too, and never really become tiresome despite the fact that you hear them the most.
But the biggest contributing factor to the atmosphere is the difficulty. Shortly after starting the game, you are tasked with recruiting three demons to form a party. This is much more complex than it sounds. Unlike in Pokemon, where you simply throw a Poke ball and hope for the best, Shin Megami tensei requires that you persuade demons to join your side. Demons will often ask questions and react differently depending on how you answer. But, the majority of the time, the main way to win a demon’s heart is to give them gifts. Sometimes they’ll ask for money, healing items or other things, and other times they may even ask for more outlandish things, like the chance to try out a new move on you or killing one of your allies. This system to recruit demons is simultaneously interesting and maddening. Answering a question in one way does not guarantee success if you’re asked the same question again. You need to gauge the demon on hand and try to answer appropriately.
Sometimes you can win a demon’s heart right away. I once recruited one by doing nothing more than answering a question in a certain way. Other times, you’ll give a demon a ton of items and money, only to have them run away. It makes recruiting both rewarding and frustrating. Speaking of demons, though, the design is exceptional. They range from creepy to badass, bizarre to heavenly. You may have a cool armored angel, a crocodile in chains and a god with multiple arms on your team. The variety is almost staggering, especially considering there’s almost no “clones” in the game; that is, palette swaps of enemies. The strong artistic design makes catching demons fun.
But, once you have one demon on your team, you are almost slapped in the face with the game’s difficulty. It utilizes something it calls the “press turn” system. Basically, you have one turn for each member of your team you have out. Assuming you have three demons, you would have four turns (one for Hero, one for each monster). But, exploit an enemy weakness, and you can earn an extra turn. Say a boss you’re fighting is weak to fire. Having everyone use a fire attack will allow you to attack eight times instead of four, allowing for almost complete domination. The catch is that the enemies can do the exact same thing to you. Hero’s weaknesses are determined by the armor you have equipped, while each type of demon has its own strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t immediately told to you, which makes the first time it happens very jarring. Plus, when trying to recruit more demons, they can easily get pissed off and attack you, wiping away your turns.
The game doesn’t exactly do a fantastic job of explaining this to you, which makes the beginning of the game very tough. It doesn’t take too long to get used to, though, and, when you learn the ins and outs of battling, it’s very fun. There is simply nothing more empowering than overcoming a boss that could kick your ass in a turn originally, only to discover its weakness and completely annihilate it before it even has a chance to act.
Ironically, this actually makes the game almost have a reverse difficulty curve. The beginning section of the game is quite tough, but, as it goes on, victory becomes a matter of learning weaknesses and exploiting them. That’s not to say the challenge goes away, though. Make one wrong move in battle even against a set of regular enemies and you can pay for it dearly. This also makes the game more about strategy than anything. I once encountered a boss monster early in the game that was clearly meant for a late game challenge. It was level 75 and my highest level monster was 25. After several failed attempts, I worked out a winning strategy and actually managed to emerge victorious. This helps the game stand apart, since victory in many other RPGs is highly based on the level of your characters.
That’s not to say leveling up carries no weight. On the contrary, leveling up is a driving force of the game. The character customization is almost insane. You see, when you level up, you are given five skill points to put into the stats of your choice (there’s strength, dexterity, magic, agility and luck). When your demons level up, they can sometimes transfer over their abilities to you. This, combined with the manual stat tweaking, allows you to create exactly what kind of party you want. I personally went for a mage that was loaded up with offensive spells and had ridiculously high magic and agility. On top of that, you get 10 app points, which allow you to modify various aspects of the game. For instance, you can add more slots to how many demons you can carry, or how many skills your demons or Hero can have.
The final aspect that allows for customization is demon fusing. Unlike in Dragon quest Monsters, where your monsters you want to fuse must be at least level ten, you can fuse any demon at any time you want. All you need to do is use a robust search engine in your gauntlet to see what kind of monsters you can make with what you currently have. When you do fuse two demons, you get to choose what skills the new demon can carry over, up to eight of them (assuming you purchase all the apps for expanded skill slots). When you have two freshly caught demons, this isn’t too much of an issue. Just give the new one all the skills they both have. But, as the game goes on and you have demons with more and more skills, you need to start making tough choices about what skills to keep and what ones to throw away. It’s a terrifically addicting system that throws a constant carrot in front of the player, both to further customize what king of fighters you’ll be using and to see what kind of new creature design you’ll be able to use.
While the battle system and the character and party customization are very strong, the same can’t be said for exploration. After a certain point in the game, you will be able to move around the overworld. However, you are a blue icon amidst a sea of grey, black and brown, and the way it’s designed makes it tough to tell where exactly you can and can’t go. Not only that, but, oddly enough, the world is filled with corridors. There are almost no open spaces, and, since enemies appear on the map and will chase you down, it makes avoiding fights quite tough. This can be frustrating when all you want to do is get from point A to point B. This is on top of the fact that the game doesn’t do a good job of telling you where exactly to go. It may say you need to get to a certain area, but it won’t tell you that you need to pass through a park, go underground and around the bend to get there. It’s frustrating at times, but, after a while, I got a good idea of where everything is. The frustration is also alleviated a bit when you find teleportation terminals, which allow you to warp to previously visited places.
Story missions often have you going from one place to another, or going into a dungeon to take down some big demon. There are, however, side quests that can be taken on, too. Objectives are usually the standard “get a certain amount of this item” or “kill this demon in this optional mini dungeon” but since the act of fighting and recruiting demons is so fun, the challenge quests are, mostly a great diversion from the main storyline.
In the main storyline, you make choices that ultimately affect what ending you get. There’s a hidden morality system that is only really mentioned by certain NPCs. In many situations, there are no easy answers. You must choose what answer best suits what you think is right. Depending on how you go about this, you can have a very different end game than someone else. For me personally, I got put on a path that I didn’t intend, and then something that almost made me stop playing happened. For the path I got, I needed to complete a good chunk of challenge quests in order to progress the story. Of course, the game doesn’t tell you this; you just kind of stumble upon the idea. And, of course, it doesn’t tell you which ones you need to do. To me, this artificially lengthened the game. By that point, I just wanted to get to the ending, but spent several (almost ten) hours beating side quests that are supposed to be optional. Even using a guide, I had a really tough time with it, since the game simply does not make it clear which ones must be completed. Once I got past it, the game’s generally fast pacing resumed, but for that period, it felt like filler.
Even though that nearly made me want to quit the game, Shin Megami Tensei IV is still an enjoyable RPG. It’s got a terrific atmosphere, great art design (also, Hero’s appearance changes based on what armor he’s wearing, which is a very nice touch since most of it is awesome looking), unforgettable demons and an insane amount of customization. It truly lets you play how you want to play with almost no restrictions. Despite the fact that the overworld is frustrating at best, the endgame can be annoying based on what ending you’re on the path to and that both the plot and characters feel underdeveloped, this is a worthwhile game for an 3DS owner that loves RPGs. Just don’t expect any handholding in either battle or direction. It’s most certainly not an easy game, but one that requires strategy more than anything else. It's also quite long; it took me about 60 hours to reach the end, and it has a New Game+ feature, further cementing it as a must own title for RPG fans.