Where to begin? I'd imagine most of the people who have decided to purchase the game in question already have ties to the series with one of the other localized releases. That said, Shin Megami Tensei IV fits in well with its brethren. The game begins much like others; you're a young pleb looking to make your way up the social hierarchy, and the only way to do that is by being chosen as one of the warrior class, or Samurai. On one's 18th birthday you'll be tasked with journeying to the temple and undergoing the Gauntlet Rite, in other words the ceremony that determines whether or not one has the capacity to become a Samurai. These gauntlets contain the series staple, COMP. These COMPs allow our heroes to translate demonic languages, recruit demons and store those recruited demons within the COMP for safe-keeping.
Obviously, our young hero is shown to have the fortitude needed to become a Samurai, but as the saying goes there truly is, "No rest for the wicked". Promptly after having a gauntlet clasped upon our wrist, the young hero is tasked with going down into the castle's catacombs to battle, recruit and defeat the dark beings that lurk down below. Very quickly you'll realize that this game (well, the entire series in actuality) is very unforgiving and known to give veterans and newcomers alike a run for their money when it comes to difficulty spiking. You'll learn to save often, and you'll learn the enemies' weaknesses as well. Otherwise, you'll be seeing the GAME OVER screen an awful lot of the time, and that isn't very fun.
Now, with weaknesses being mentioned, the first topic I'll get on about is the ever important (at least when referring to JRPGs, or any RPG for that matter) battle system. The battle system for the Shin Megami Tensei series is the Press-Turn Battle System. This system was originally brought to fruition in Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne, but has since gained popularity in Persona 3, Persona 4 and SMTIV. This is a battle system that entails learning the weaknesses of one's enemies, and using said weaknesses against the previously stated enemies. Now, I know what you're thinking, "That sounds an awful lot like all RPG battle systems. How does this differ?"
Well, I'm glad you asked how it differs, because it differs greatly. The Press-Turn Battle System rewards extra turns in battle each and every time you're able to take advantage of an enemies' weakness, but the same goes for your enemies. If the enemy team can exploit any weaknesses on your side of the battlefield the tide can be turned on you very quickly and without much warning. This is the main reason why I chose to make my main character into a formidable magic user. If the main character can use magic efficiently it's much easier to work in conjunction with your demonic allies to exploit weaknesses and end enemy encounters without much hassle.
Building an efficient character is a huge part of the game, and with five different stats to distribute points into things can get a little confusing if you're not familiar with the series. Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), Magic (MG), Agility (AG) and Luck (LU). These five stats will determine not only your effectiveness in combat, but also what your specialization will be as the main character of the game. Ultimately, it's your choice of how you want to play the game. The Shin Megami Tensei series has always allowed a great deal of customization for the player character. Strength helps to increase the strength of one's physical attacks (normal attacking), and to a lesser extent skill damage. Dexterity increases the damage of skills relating to both guns and physical attacks. Magic increases the damage of your magically oriented spells. Agility determines turn order, the ability to flee from battle as well as evasion rates. Luck is a bit of a catch-all stat; it sort of effects everything to a minuscule degree, but mostly it deals with critical hit rates and how well your characters can recover from status aliments.
My personal preference was tilted toward a magic build. Not only because magical spells in the Shin Megami Tensei series are extremely powerful and devastating, but also because it isn't often that main characters in the Shin Megami Tensei series are allowed to be magic users. I wanted to rebel against the established system. Also, magic knights are my favorite hybrid class, but I digress. Any variety of stat builds can carry their weight through the game, but I personally believe that magic users are one of the most powerful and efficient class builds available for use in SMTIV.
So, how does one learn abilities and magical spells? That's a simple question to answer, and the answer is... Through the demons you fight, recruit and fuse together. Every time a demon learns all of it's basic abilities (the abilities a demon gains through leveling up), a Whisper Event will occur. These Whisper Events allow the player to choose from any of the skills learned by the demon in question, and inherit the ability to use the selected skill/spell as well. With this system in place it would behoove the player to constantly switch and experiment with new demons in the party; if only for the chance to learn new abilities.
As much as I love the Shin Megami Tensei series; there are few games out there that can frustrate me quite as much as them. Most of that frustration has to do with the recycling of older, antiquated mechanics that have since been put out of use in most games, or have been retrofitted to be more efficient and less burdensome. SMTIV being the newest entry in the mainline Shin Megami series; it still retains many of the features that make it a great SMT entry, but it also helped to bridge the gap between the older entries and features that many of us expect in modern games.
One of the greatest additions that I can't praise enough is the ability to save anywhere and everywhere. Thank goodness! Many of the older games had a first-person, dungeon crawler perspective, enemy encounter rates were insanely high, enemies often had access to high-level magical spells or insta-death abilities and save/healing points were few and far between.
Also, that brings to light another fantastic mechanic change; there are no more random encounters. All enemies can be seen on-screen and can be avoided if proper measures are taken. Care must be taken, however. Many of the monsters on-screen are exceptionally fast and will catch/eat your face if provoked enough.
Another exceptional addition to the game is an improved Demon Compendium. Your compendium is a compilation of all the demons you've ensnared and fused together. These demons can be called upon at any time through the compendium, as long as you're willing to pay the price for them. The more powerful the demon, the more Macca (in-game currency) it will cost you to summon that demon.
There was a point in time within the series when you'd have to go and find a Cathedral of Shadows to fuse your weakening demons into something more, but never again. Now, you'll have access to the Cathedral of Shadows whenever you please. No more backtracking through irritatingly complex hallways and corridors just to strengthen your party of demons. The Cathedral of Shadows is made even better through the use of the Demon Compendium and the ability to choose criteria for fusion searches. If you're a fan of a certain demon race, you can create a search within the Cathedral of Shadows menu for those types of demons specifically.
While there are many new mechanics in the game that have created a far more enjoyable gaming experience; some annoying mechanics still remain. For one, there isn't any sort of overworld mapping system. You'll gain access to terminals over time that allow teleportation between the terminals you've discovered, but when you're on the overworld it can be very confusing as to where your next objective is, or how you're even supposed to get to it. A lot of the game relies upon listening to in-game dialogue very carefully to figure out new locations or objectives for the party, and while I respect that old-school style gameplay, the experience can be very jarring for those without adaptation.
Another plus is that there are many side-quests and missions for the party to partake in, but a lot of those mechanics are bogged down by unclear directions and a terrible overworld that is a chore to tread across. Still many of those side-quests tend to result in gaining some of the best equipment in the game, and allow access to many of the most powerful demonic allies, so they're worth the extra effort put into them.
Not much to say here other than it's a fairly generic storyline, especially when compared to past games in the series. You're a young man, you've just turned 18 years old and now you have to take the Gauntlet Rite to see whether or not you're Samurai material. Well, it turns out you're not only Samurai material, but you're also going to be the one human being with the ability to sway the world in the direction of Law, Chaos or Neutrality. Law, Chaos and Neutrality are the mainstay factions of the series. These are the forces vying for power and needing just a little something extra (YOU) to push their ideologies wholly onto the remaining specks of humanity. The cast isn't terribly interesting; they're not the worst, but they could have been a lot better. All I can say is that every character plays their role well within the context of the game. If you want a lot of gripping, deep and relateable characters, Persona, is the Shin Megami Tensei series for you, but if you prefer weighing out differences between overarching ideologies and committing humanity to whatever decision you've made, then the mainline Shin Megami games are the ones for you.
I wouldn't say the game had the best story, but it fit the theme and carried the Shin Megami Tensei name proudly. It has that unique, dystopian, post-apocalypse Tokyo setting, urban wastelands filled to the brim with demons and it's making me commit to morally ambiguous choices that could ultimately come back to bite me in the butt. What's not to love about a game like this?