Shin Megami Tensei IV
Since its inception in 1992, Shin Megami Tensei has managed to be both wildly popular and utterly unknown all at once. Coming a full 11 years after the last numbered title on the PS2, the series has since had its punishingly difficult post-apocalyptic Tokyo morality adventures totally overshadowed by the lighter, easier Persona spinoffs. The two have become night and day in terms of tone, but is old-school SMT still able to wow us in the modern day?
That question takes a bit of answering. First, the plot. We start in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a feudal land dominated by the sprawling castle to which our protagonist arrives. Society is split into two factions: the Casualry (peasants) work the land and craft goods for everyday use, while the Luxurors (nobles) act as soldiers, merchants and monks. Every year, young men and women undergo a trial to become Samurai, chosen by a mysterious, futuristic Gauntlet. Naturally, you succeed and are let in on the big secret: right there in the middle of Castle Mikado is the entrance to Naraku, an underground haven of demons. As a Samurai, you must delve into this dungeon and combat the demons, harnessing their powers for your own use.
Soon enough, you are tasked with chasing down the Black Samurai, a mysterious figure turning the citizens of Mikado into devils. Your quest leads you deep underground and into a giant revelation: encased in a massive rock dome is the present day city of Tokyo, bustling with humans and demons alike. From this point in, investigating Tokyo becomes your main concern, unfolding into original SMT form with demons, danger and moral quandaries galore. Though the story is not nearly as robust as other RPGs of this era, the focused pace of the narrative can feel very refreshing, the underground city still replete with sidequests to fill your time if you so wish.
The battle system will feel familiar to anyone who has played SMT or Persona before. Your party takes a round of turns, then your enemies, retaining the classic Press Turn system carried over from SMT III: Nocturne before it. When you use an element the enemy is weak to or land a critical hit, you are granted an extra turn. Successive Press Turns grant you even more, giving up to an entire round of extra turns. But be careful: striking an enemy with something it blocks or repels can take all your turns away from you, and the enemy is just as capable of working the system as you. Other notable aspects are demon negotiation, a randomised negotiation with demons to recruit them to your side. Outside of battle, there are App Points which accumulate as you gain levels and can be used to unlock abilities, demon fusion, allowing you to combine your ally demons to create more powerful ones, and Demon Whisper, a one-time event which allows a maxed-out demon to pass its abilities onto yourself.
Harnessing all these systems is no small feat and can prove daunting, especially with the infamous SMT difficulty level. Though the game no longer immediately ends when the main character dies, having your party wiped out brings you to the shores of the river Styx, where a harried Charon admits he has far too much work already and can bring you back to life for a portion of your money. Die again, and the game unlocks an Easy Mode for you, speaking volumes about the game’s approach. SMT IV is not a game where you can grind thoughtlessly. If you stop paying attention or select the wrong action, it’s incredibly easy for even a random battle to completely destroy your party and send you right to the afterlife. Whether the player relishes this kind of challenge or not is entirely up to them. Personally, I find that victory is all the more satisfying when it’s so hard-won.
Yet another hallmark of the SMT series is the morality system, something which the Persona games have not carried over. Rather than simple Good or Evil, players can choose to follow the more subtle courses of Order, Chaos, or take a Neutral path. Helpfully for newer players, these two sides are represented incredibly clearly in your fellow Samurai. The brash Walter, a Casualry peasant like you, tends to favour Chaos, whereas the well-read, noble Jonathon is passionately committed to keeping Order. All choices are entirely up to you, and your final party member, the female Samurai Isabeau, often offers a more reasoned middle ground between the two. How the story unfolds and what the fate of Tokyo and Mikado is falls to your choices, making for a compelling story without needing to be a ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’.
- Compelling world with a focused story
- Deep battle system with many interesting quirks
- A much subtler morality system
- Old-school frustrating difficulty
- Obtuse directions and quests
So all in all, SMT IV fun to play while still offering challenge. It’s only in the smaller areas where detractions begin to spring up. The world map seems deliberately obtuse, regularly leading to situations where the game tells you to go to, say, Shibuya and then give no clue of where that is. Though this happens more often in sidequests, the main story is also often dragged to a halt as you retread the whole map, looking for the one passage which might lead you to where you need to go. Perhaps this wandering was factored in, allowing you to accidentally gain a few levels while lost in the city, but gamers not used to this kind of independence may quickly grow frustrated. The aforementioned difficulty can be a big turnoff as well: if you’re not spending time clearing sidequests, it’s all too easy to hit a wall where you simply have to stop and grind. Negotiation, too, can lead to frustration: even giving the same response to the same demon won’t lead to the same result, leading to plenty of lost cash and items as you try fruitlessly to charm a new ally.
But all of those are smaller asides. Essentially, SMT IV is a game that demands time and patience. For those who are willing to give it, there’s a subtle narrative in a compelling world which is well worth your time, but each step into modernity it has taken leaves deep furrows of obtuse and difficult gameplay behind that seriously detract. It’s worth the commitment, but don’t expect a walk in the park. The path of a Samurai is not an easy one.