Shin Megami Tensei IV

SMT4 is the first I’ve played outside of the Persona 3 Portable spin-off. It’s funny to me that as kids we used to mock religious panic about Pokemon being a gateway to Satan, but now people like me come pretty close to bringing that fear to life by comparing SMT games to Pokemon when trying to get others to take a look. Forget Charizard, I want to take on the armies of YHVH and fight in the name of Chaos. Oddly, I haven’t heard a peep out of the southern baptist nutjobs. Ah, well. Hail Our Glorious Prince, The Morning Star.

Combat and difficulty
The game has a difficulty curve that starts punishing and only gets easier, and the early parts of the game were slow and grindy. Even past 10 hours I was worried I wouldn’t find much to like, and it was only at about 16 or 17 that I got comfortable. The game is also strict with resources early on, and not unlike Fire Emblem’s balance-breaking DLC, there are purchases in SMT4 that shower the player in money, experience, and skill points. I shuddered to think that they deliberately only provided a trickle in the base game to entice players to the DLC, but the later parts of the game strike a better balance.

I did eventually buy the DLC during a sale, and didn’t especially love or regret the decision, considering that the grinding sucked, but the game was most engaging when I was planning out how to kill a DLC postgame boss so I could take its abilities for my own. I wouldn’t recommend it at full price, though.

Players who have taken the leap often tend to romanticize the difficulty of these games, but the main story’s challenges aren’t really much of a hurdle. During most of the game you can heal easily and for free, and you can always save wherever you want, both features that were absent in P3P, the so-called “casualized” spin-off game I played. You couldn’t do these things in Etrian Odyssey IV, either, which still stands to me as the better example of a hardcore 3DS experience. SMT4 luckily doesn’t structure its challenge around MP/item conservatism the way many games do, both shooters and JRPGs alike. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really fill the hole with anything else, like Yasumi Matsuno-style cleverness, either.

Even for the challenge DLC and postgame fiend fights, once the player understands how things work, it’s all about going in with the right set of monsters prepared. Usually the player tries to target elemental weaknesses, abusing “press turns” to keep opponents from getting a chance to act, and casting a few generic buffs and debuffs every turn. Battles are simple, but go wrong often enough when enemies get the first shot and hit the player’s own weaknesses, interrupting your own turns. This is mostly a question of luck, which is also the case with random enemy reinforcements, a much more crude take on Etrian Odyssey’s clever FOE interrupts. All this randomness is the wrong way to boost the game’s difficulty.

There’s less variety in builds than EO4 had, and all players seem to end up doing the same thing with their demons in postgame. That’s unfortunate, but selecting a demon’s skills and fusing them is still much more interesting than combat itself, especially with the extremely unbalanced skills that reward players for beating the jerks who use them, like skills that triple damage dealt or simply give the player more turns.

I saw my party get wiped out a good number of times, but not frequently, which I think is a satisfying place to be at on the spectrum of challenge, but it would have been better if the game was harder, yet less random and tedious, more fair. The worst offenders are the postgame fiends, who only have a 1 in 256 chance of appearing, artificially padding the challenge by making nerds like me reload their saves for days. Some of them took quite a bit of preparation and luck, but I beat most of them in a few minutes, after taking hours to find them. I wish I could say what sick impulse drove me to even bother.

Let’s try to list just how much of the game is frustratingly RNG-based:

  • Number of hits on the better spells (refrigerate, plasma discharge).
  • Fusion accidents and summoning of Famed demons.
  • Appearance of the postgame Fiend bosses.
  • Possibility of reinforcements in random encounters.
  • Enemy attack choices, which can make the difference between the enemy losing its turn or making the player lose theirs, or being invulnerable while the player acts.
  • Answers to multiple choice questions when negotiating with demons.
  • Sales in shops.
  • Value of relics gathered from a relic point.

I’m beginning to think that calling SMT a challenging game is like calling a slot machine a challenging game. Your odds are low, but is that really a challenge?

User interface, user experience
There were a number of UI/UX hangups. It takes too long to use quick-travel teleporters, which would be a great joke if it wasn’t true. I don’t know who thought all the repeated dialogue was a good idea, but the chatter is especially bothersome in shops and bars, as characters repeat themselves every time you enter and exit the submenus, and on each individual item purchase. Getting verbally notified of quest progress whenever I pick up loot used in a quest I already finished, as if I’d want to do it again, is also bad. Audio was English only, and the acting wasn’t always perfect, but I definitely liked Mido and a few others.

Game Overs also take too long, even though the idea of meeting Charon and bribing him to not do his job properly is extremely cool (I always reloaded my saves anyway, since money was tight). There’s some redundancy in menu options, no conversation log or “scroll back” option in conversation, and a few places are only navigated by confusingly-nested text options with little visual or spatial aid. Mikado is the first part of the game, which is an unusual place to under-budget, but it’s no accident that the game really started to appeal to me around the time I found my first gun, and shortly afterwards, the next quest-hub in Ueno.

The Cathedral of Shadows interface is actually extremely helpful. The contrast between it and most other UI elements makes me think they spent all their time and money on it. Its sorting options actually do away with the need for a lot of table-checking on FAQs and wikis, and that’s great. I’d like it more if you could add multiple filters of the same type, like searching for two moves to put on a demon at the same time, but I’m being a little too demanding, since I wish all the world’s data could be as helpfully collected and neatly sortable as the fucking tsundere database. As far as in-game tools go, it’s far more than I expected to find in a handheld title. It reminded me of the Diablo Auction House.

Story and feeling
SMT4 is more ambitious and loaded with content than EO4, and doesn’t try to hide behind “retro aesthetic” to do things cheaply or to avoid breaking new ground, although it does seem to struggle with its budget in a few places. The story is much longer than EO4’s, but still not as overwritten as your typical Final Fantasy, Tales game, or typical anime to come from the usual narrow set of influences. SMT4 lacks the charm that the EO4 characters have, but it has its own strengths, and it’s funny sometimes. It raises a lot of questions and doesn’t always answer them overtly, which can be frustrating if you’re trying to piece together elements of the world lore that aren’t supposed to be secrets. But building theories from little pieces of villager chatter is usually better than cutscenes that go on for too long.

Much of the tone of humor and attitude can be inferred from a few conversations with demons. You catch these satanic Pokemon by talking to them in combat and picking random dialogue choices that often end with the demon trying to contrive some reason to punch you or leave based on what you said, as if they were all elementary school bullies with an inflated sense of their own cleverness. It’s a lot more amusing than throwing a pokeball–I wish I had to convince a Koffing that I wasn’t going to shove it in the PC and never use it again–but it’s also less skill-testing, and it does get old, especially when you realize that the outcomes of your choices are random and not per-demon. Considering how P3P just spun a bunch of cards around and had you pick one, I’d say this is a step up, but that game also had the player forming social links that were necessary to fuse the worthiest personas, so this feels more shallow overall. When I found Chi You in SMT4, I gave him a couple worthless items and he immediately joined my party. I felt sad about it, because in P3P, earning the right to build that same character required several in-game months of staying out late in a bar with an old monk on the weekends, and it was both absurd and fascinating. I missed that.

There are certainly a few grand moments. Getting out of Naraku was a powerful experience, a lot like leaving Midgar in FF7 (ironically, though, SMT4’s world map ends up being the most irritating thing to navigate in the whole game, probably even more than the Domains). Sliding into Blasted Tokyo also reminded me of stumbling into some big paradigm shift like Chrono Trigger’s Antiquity period–I felt like I was playing something great, although I had few doubts as to which was the better game. Maybe every JRPG will have to live under that shadow forever.

I hate to criticise issues that could only be resolved by throwing money at them, but a lot of area designs were too simple; more of the “standard flat maze” designs as seen in the entirety of Persona 3’s Tartarus. These one-texture Domains are definitely a budget shortcut, especially given the contrast with some of the more varied locations of the game. Jumping down from heights and across stones in a pond in some park in Shinjuku. Crawling under a fence a stone’s throw away from Shibuya’s 109 building. These are the things you remember when you look back, and the things that make Etrian Odyssey look bad. The last two terminals of the game also seem to have reserved space for entirely new quest hubs that there was no development time or money for. That’s just my instinct, but it’s very unfortunate if it’s true.

I have no serious complaints about the music, but only a few tracks jump out at me. They made the right choice in writing several pieces for the Cathedral of Shadows where the player is bound to spend a lot of time, and one of those is definitely among my favorite tracks. Mikado’s theme has definitely absorbed the mood of that kingdom for me, but the crown goes to the world map, without a doubt.

Like P3P, it certainly distinguishes itself from different from other RPGs. A lot of games make quests seem urgent but still let you put them on hold for 20 hours while you do sidequests, but SMT4 usually takes a wider look at things: the story and the quests are consonant; suspension of disbelief isn’t generally required on a gameplay level. There’s also something to be said for the ludic value of the way your hero’s clothes and weapons and beliefs change as you’re exposed to the side of the world that’s so alien to your own.

The main character usually seems barely more important than his travelling companions, which is refreshing, but only really makes sense if players assume on their own that the reason we don’t see allies summoning their own demons is because our UI and gameplay camera are showing us an abstraction of everything that’s really happening.

Things get more dissonant than that, though. It’s obvious for a large part of the game that you may not be on the heroic side of the conflict, but your enemies are always quick to add “I love killing people” when they’ve been getting a little too close to rebuking you for your tactless approach to conflict resolution. Some are pretty talkative though, and it’s hard to accept the logic of a “skip automatically back to town” moment while escorting a prisoner that would probably be willing to explain the plot of the game if you had only asked.

The game’s moral choices are poorly handled. Your choices are tracked on a single axis which represents Law versus Chaos. This is generally meant to refer to authoritarian control versus anarchy (whichever way you define it), but also goodwill versus spite, politeness versus passion. It’s like the Mass Effect nonsense system which never knew whether Renegade meant Evil or Badass or Pragmatic and just lumped it all together, but SMT4 makes it worse by only tracking one number as a positive or negative, which means bad deeds cancel out good ones; specific flags never come back to bite you. It also obfuscates this information so only the obsessive players will get a non-bad ending. These are problems that many western RPGs solved a long time ago, which I feel means the developers need to leave their filter bubble and play some.

I never got all my questions answered–I don’t really know how the land above Tokyo was physically configured, or what the state of the rest of the world was, or how time was passing. There were a number of questions I didn’t have answered about Mastema, Lilith and Gabriel (and a few other things I’ve probably forgotten about) until speedrunning the other routes and taking a look at the DLC. It was hinted once or twice that the surface mirrored the underground, and I noticed a few little things like Cebouia/Shibuya, but I probably barely scratched the surface of the lore there.

If you are psycho enough to get all the route stickers on your save file, which even I didn’t bother doing, I’d recommend the Nihilist ending first, since you can then make dialogue choices in your first playthrough without worrying which route you’ll end up in. You also won’t miss any route-locked New Game Plus quests (which should have all just been available the first time around, honestly). But it’s still a pain in the ass no matter what order you do them. If the game is a slot machine, the casino robs you of time more than money.

Conclusions
SMT4 is often a fun and creative game, but it wasn’t nearly the JRPG masterpiece I was searching for on the 3DS: it beats Bravely Default and Fire Emblem: Awakening, but like Pokemon X/Y and even Etrian Odyssey IV, it’s another mixed bag. Despite the reservations I had with it, EO4 still holds the crown. It and Pokemon both have less shallow combat. SMT4 has a better questing experience, and a more enjoyable storyline, though if you just want a story, grab Ace Attorney 5.

While travel and moral decision-making elements give the SMT games a sense of epic scale that Persona trades for visual novel elements and deeper characterization, I think this trade will continue to leave SMT at a disadvantage as long as the budget is constrained and the ethical systems fail to grow.

This is a game that’s a little slow to take off, but can be rewarding. It’s different, more worldly than the average JRPG, even reminiscent of Mass Effect as you wander around the quest hubs like Shibuya and Ueno, but it doesn’t quite go far enough, mechanically, in its influences. Unless there’s a meaningful shake-up in future design goals, I’d far rather play Persona 4 or 5 than a Shin Megami Tensei 5.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.
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