It's not easy being human...
You begin your adventure in Mikado where you'll receive basic training on the battle system, recruiting demons, and finding loot. SMTIV isn't a hard game per se, it's just an unforgiving one. For folks who haven't played any past games in the series, the best, modern comparison would probably be that of the Demon's/Dark Souls games. However, luck is definitely more of a factor here. You'll need to mind your step early on in the game so as to get the jump on enemy mobs, but background RNG-like mechanics can make battles go from incredibly easy to instant death.
That's just the way SMT plays. You're either going to love it or you're not. Some folks will claim the game is too easy until they get whacked in the backside by the RNG, and others will complain it's too difficult because they don't take proper advantage of enemy weaknesses and such.
In spite of the variances of battle, there are ample ways to ensure your safety throughout the game, and that means approaching SMTIV with the proper respect. The mobs in dungeons are fast, so you won't necessarily want to be zipping through new areas where the enemies are strong.
The balance on the normal difficulty is pitch-perfect in my mind, and you never really need to grind in this game. You'll gain more experience from scouting demons and completing quests than you will from regular battles, which makes the whole experience feel more like a true adventure. And yet, you'll still get a good 60-70 hours minimum out of your first playthrough because there's just so much friggin' stuff to do.
Tons of side quests, but not the same tired assignments we've trudged through hundreds of times in other RPGs. Lots of the quests feel more like puzzles or complete mini-adventures, and none of it is throwaway material in my book.
The main adventure will task you to pay close attention to what's said by NPCs; you can't simply rely on the quest documents to lead you by the nose. You'll also have to play around on the overworld map a bit to figure out how to proceed.
This is the first of my few complaints. It's no secret only a fraction of the game takes place in Mikado, and then you'll eventually find yourself in Tokyo where the bulk of the story progresses. However, the overworld map in Tokyo offers no location information, which makes no sense since you're wearing an A.I. gauntlet throughout the entire game. It makes travel around Tokyo a bit of a hassle sometimes. I can understand not listing places you perhaps haven't yet visited, but once you've trounced through locations, they should be marked on the map.
It's a minor inconvenience, though, in the grand scheme of things, as you'll find terminals throughout Tokyo that make getting around fairly easy. Then, it's merely a matter of scouting out small chunks of the city.
The moods of this game are incredibly varied but organically connected to make for an experience that easily hooks you. The music on the overworld map is one of both lament and hope, yet park areas have a survival-horror vibe due to the spooky background theme. The way mobs can jump out at you, surround you, or even trap you always gives the game a strong sense of danger and urgency. Even revisiting early areas of the game can be daunting when doing sidequests, since low-level enemies can still throw a monkey wrench in your progress.
SMTIV also marks, for me at least, the height of storytelling for the series. Sure, the chaos/law characters are obvious and their choices predictable, but the story as a whole is remarkable, told with a finesse and polish that trumps any past games in the series, as well as other SMT spin-offs. We knew Atlus would go that extra mile to have the voice work match the Japanese release, but the acting is much, much better than I had anticipated. There are many voices you'll recognize for sure if you've been gaming for a while, and they're used to especially good effect here.
The music is an incredibly important ingredient in the game's foundation, lending both eerie resonance and calming relief to various parts of the game. I found myself just resting my 3DS on my lap at times so I could enjoy the Tokyo overworld music, or I'd let battles run overlong so I could rock out to the combat themes. There's a surprising amount of variety, too. No skimping here on the soundtrack.
There are, however, a few other eye-rolling quirks present in the game, in particular the poor descriptions that tell you what each of the MC's (main character) stats are supposed to do. Folks on the forums are still trying to hash out the true value of investing in stats like Luck and Strength because the game offers only vague descriptions that suggest there's much more at play than merely what's listed.
That aside, you do get some nice options in terms of how you want to build your character. You can focus mostly on physical skills, gun skills or magic, or you can be a jack-of-all-trades, investing greatly in Luck in hopes of landing lots of critical attacks.
And critical attacks and hitting enemy weaknesses are a major consideration in SMTIV. The Press Turn battle system rewards both you and the enemy anytime one of you successfully lands a crit or hits a weakness. You get an additional turn and a chance to "smirk," and trust me the tide changes greatly for either side, depending. Smirking significantly raises your critical rate, evasion and voids weaknesses for a single turn. It's a game changer, which will force you to be very careful with the spells and skills you choose to use against enemies, since smirking can also occur if you miss an enemy or hit them with an element they drain or nullify.
As a sort of aside, and a bit of a rant, Atlus once again opted to add an Easy mode, and my main problem with it is you can change between Easy and Normal on the fly at any time throughout the game. Some folks argue, well, "just don't use it." But it's there and it bothers me. It changes a fundamental quality of the game, and I'd prefer it not be there. Easy mode as an option is great, but you should be locked into it if it's the mode you choose, and there should be substantial incentive for players to stick with the Normal difficulty, otherwise why bother?
I mentioned specific negatives, but now I'll give some attention to specific things I found particularly awesome. It's a lot of little things, really, like how detailed the fusion system is now. You can narrow your search like never before, and being able to fuse using demons in your compendium is a total boon. To be sure, it's balanced by the high cost for summoning demons from your compendium.
The way the camera leaves you facing outward when exiting rooms; the way NPCs drop subtle hints about objectives outside the main quest you can discover that are of value; the way auto-battle disengages automatically should enemy reinforcements show up. There are just tons of little tweaks and design characteristics that make the game a joy to play. The Press Turn system is pure candy. All the "little things" in the game just make the overall experience that much more enjoyable.
The tale is both told and delivered with excellence, but I warn you now, this is not one for the kiddies. The game doesn't get all that graphic in terms of visual violence and nudity, but the themes of the latter parts of the game are quite grim. This one's rated mature for good reason.
SMTIV is a high-stakes game. You're never going to be that powerful. You're always going to have to be on your toes and approach enemies cautiously, always being keenly aware of your surroundings. The story also twists and turns, and staying on a specific alignment path may prove quite difficult. There's a lot of grey area that speaks to the heart of the problems we face daily as human beings. There's allegory here that stretches preconceptions and easy answers, and you'll love the game for it.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is probably the best thing I've put in my Nintendo 3DS system since I purchased the handheld at launch. The game isn't perfect – it has some weird, quirky design components that leave me wondering, "why did you do that?" – but as a combined adventure and video-game experience, it is a masterpiece of glorious, decadent indulgence and reflection. This isn't the bubbly, pseudo-hip storytelling you might be familiar with from the series' spin-offs, but rather an adult adventure that pays off in spades. From the multiple endings and endless sidequests, to the vast demon compendium and incredibly well-thought-out Cathedral of Shadows, this game is worth its weight in macca.