We here at 30lives hardly ever fight over games to review; it’s either we draw lots for review copies or we review whatever we’re playing. That relaxed environment changed when I received a review code for Shin Megami Tensei IV. Our editor-in-chief fumed when I announced that I received a review code for the game; figuratively flipping tables and wreaking havoc over our non-office. He had a point: he’s played every single Megaten game (even the Namco-published Famicom ones), while I’m not too well-versed in that universe. Tempers cooled when we all realized that we’d rather have a fresh, unbiased review of the title: this is my first time to delve in the series, with Persona 4 Golden being my first Persona as well (review here). This indeed is the Year of the Jack Frost for me, personally.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is set in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado where Samurai are duty-bound to protect people from demons and uphold the peace in their land. An annual ceremony where Samurai are chosen marks the game’s outset. Youths from Mikado ceremoniously try to wield a mysterious gauntlet and only a few pass to become an actual Samurai. People dream of being drafted into being a Samurai as this essentially gives them a chance at a better life once they start serving the kingdom. Mikado—albeit peaceful—is divided into two classes: the Casualries (laboring class) who live in the outskirts of the castle, and Luxurors (thinking, skilled artisans) who live inside the castle city. In the game, you play as Flynn (in this case, I was Cheena—certainly a name befitting a manly samurai, no?), one of the chosen few who hailed from the casualries to serve as a Samurai in Mikado. You begin your training with fellow casualry Walter, and luxurors Jonathan and Isabeau as Samurai, but odd things start to happen in the kingdom. Demons start appearing through the land, and an enigmatic being only known as the Black Samurai is suspected to have summoned them from outside the contained dungeon, Naraku.
Engaging story. Shin Megami Tensei IV had a lot of twists that I did not expect. I am not sure if this is because I do not know a lot about the Shin Megami Tensei games, but SMTIV had my mouth agape in some of the crucial parts of the game so it is a nice treat. The writing is also of note in this game; the dialogue bits really helped shape the main characters as well as the demons, and made them more interesting. It is worth mentioning that the setting served as a good backdrop of the story. It is a wild mix of contrasting elements which would be best for you to experience firsthand.
Character art. I enjoyed the look of the characters and the Samurai garb they are wearing reminded me a bit of the Shinsengumi coupled with modern military uniforms. The art is very clean and rendered as best as the 3DS’ low-resolution screen can muster. The facial expressions are well-drawn and complements the excellent voice work of the game.
Voice acting. I found that the voice work for SMTIV was better than P4G. You can still hear some of the Japanese words being mispronounced, but it is a lot bearable this time around. Definitely an above average effort from Atlus. Also, I’m not sure but Walter sounds a bit like Kanji…
Animation cut scenes. It’s easy to take anime-style cut scenes for granted since they don’t produce as much wow factor as they did back in the old PlayStation days, but I’ll have to say the little animated breaks in this game are done very well. Nice detail on the character animation as well as background bits.
Difficulty setting. I talked to the editors to confirm if Shin Megami Tensei is supposed to be ball-bustingly hard. Almost everybody said yes, and I guess this is part of the game’s charm as well. Fortunately for people who cannot keep up with the challenging boss fights, there is a difficulty setting toggle from Prentice (Normal) to Fellow (Easy). This will at least help you not get stuck to the point of giving up on a great game because of a few roadblocks; so it is a good addition to the game. SMT purists might think otherwise about this inclusion but I find it a good call on the part of Atlus (see: Fire Emblem: Awakening casual difficulty’s success with players new to the franchise).
Burroughs and streamlined interface. As a Samurai, you have access to your gauntlet and AI which I call my annoying secretary, as she always has to announce that she’s registering a quest when it is as simple as getting breakfast with friends. Burroughs will help you complete quests and keep track of things inside Mikado and in places high and low. You can further improve Burroughs by purchasing useful ‘apps’ that will also benefit you and your demons (more skill slots, lessened MP cost for skill casting, etc.). I find this as a nice touch in the game as you have free reign on prioritizing which apps you think will help you better so this makes for a more personalized strategy. The user interface accessibility is also nice; it is pretty easy to control via the directional pad or the touch screen panel.
Addictive gameplay. Whenever I try to start a session of the game, I almost always exceed 3 hours. I just can’t seem to stop playing; the quests are compelling enough to make you think you can do “just one more quest and after that I’m done”, but this never comes until you are dead tired and your hands are about to fall off and your eyes about to shut down because it’s already 4 am and you need to sleep a bit so you can go to work. Aside from completing the quests, it’s the demon fusion feature that triggers the OCD in me. I just have to collect all (or two, as an extra fusion fodder). Like in P4G, this is an evil game feature for people who want to complete everything.
Streetpass Feature. Like all 3DS games worth their salt, Streetpass features make them all the more interesting and interactive as you get to give (and receive) player profiles to help a bro out. In SMTIV, there is a Digital Demon Service feature that lets you attach a demon for other people to get and use in their own games. I haven’t tested this feature yet with anyone for obvious reasons, but I am betting that this will be a nice sharing feature among friends and people you get to Streetpass on a regular basis.
Hodgepodge of art assets. I am not certain if SMT fans are used to it by now, but there seems to be a huge pool of dated art assets that are still being used for SMTIV, some dating back to the Saturn/PSone days. It doesn’t really bother me that much, but for others the difference in the art styles of the demons (some are painted and some are drawn comic-style) may be jarring.
Eleventeen million spawns. This can be another SMT thing, but I noticed that a LOT of demons spawn everywhere. The auto battle mode makes life easier as you can just nominate the AI to fight for you to speed up the combat (it uses default attacks only until you get to buy apps that will detect demon weaknesses and use apt skills instead) but it takes toll sometimes, especially if you just want to get from point A to point B but have to fight tens of repetitive battles to get there.
Dying in the game. Macca (the in-game currency) is hard to come by in the game and I am always so poor. Dying in the game will port you to the River Styx and will prompt a conversation with the boatman Charon. He will convince you to go back to the land of the living as he is dealing with too much souls who are in queue to cross the river. By paying Macca, you will be revived to your original condition before you died, but he just charges so much! There’s also the option of paying in Play Coins (he charged 10 when I tried paying mine) and it also felt like you’re ponying up a lot. Sudden Protip: always save so you can just reload your game when you die.
Things That Could Swing Either Way:
Camera controls. The camera controls of P4G on the PlayStation Vita was very intuitive and easy to use. Since the 3DS lacks the luxury of a second analog stick, this omission makes the camera controls a bit clunky. You have to use the L and R shoulder buttons to adjust your view and it feels a bit awkward pressing it as opposed to using an analog stick for easy access and control. This might be more of a personal preference though.
Forgettable music. I might not be fair in saying this, but the music did not really leave an impression. I am not sure about the other SMT titles, but the music in SMTIV feels a bit bland and none of the tracks really stood out for me.
Hard negotiations. The game’s combat is primarily hinged on being able to convince demons to join you as an ally and fight for your team. To do this, you have to communicate with them during your attack phase and try to convince you to join your ranks. You are questioned by the demon why he would want to join you and will ask you stuff such as consumable items or Macca to help sway their hearts to join you. Sometimes, the demons will ask you casual questions and depending on your answer, they will either join you immediately or start to dislike you. A failed negotiation will result to losing half or all of your turns, and this is a major pain especially if you are trying to recruit a higher-level demon. Failed negotiations can also lead to death at times as you lose your precious turn and will make the demons attack you right away, so you need to plan wisely. However, it must be stressed that I’m not sure if I am the only person having a hard time here by picking wrong answers all the time (I blame my lack of social skills), so I don’t know if you’ll have the same experience.
No Japanese voice option. The voice acting in the game is above-average so this omission didn’t bother me, but I can see some fans who might be disappointed by not having the Japanese voice over option.
All things said, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a solid RPG that you shouldn’t miss if you are a fan of Japanese games, especially Atlus titles and the series itself. It has all the makings of a great RPG, with top-quality production and the usual polish that you’d expect of Atlus.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is exclusively released for the Nintendo 3DS by Atlus USA. Pony up $49.99 to get a copy; you won’t regret it.
I would like to thank ATLUS for providing me with a review code and early access to the game. I can’t wait to get a physical copy as well to get the SMTIV and Fire Emblem Awakening rewards at Club Nintendo, not to mention the preorder freebies from the pack!