Shin Megami Tensei IV is not a game to dive into half-cocked.
Don’t misunderstand – the latest in Atlus’ long-running, sprawling role-playing franchise is a very good game and one that begs to be played for hours, especially if you’re an RPG fan (JRPGs, more specifically). But where other, flashier, more “modern” JRPGs hold the player’s hand and offer a shallow learning curve, Tensei – as it always has – invites the player to participate, but on its own, more complicated terms. Shin Megami Tensei IV is, to put it bluntly, hard as hell. And that’s not a bad thing. Not in the slightest.
Like most other games in the MegaTen franchise – including popular offshoots like the Persona series – Tensei IV focuses on a small band of young warriors thrust into an apocalyptic scenario, tasked with fending off evil with the help of demonic allies. This time around, players step into the shoes of Flynn (at least, that’s his default name), a young man conscripted into a band of samurai warriors in a medieval-style fantasy world. With the occasional help of four other new recruits – the usual JRPG cast of Smart Guy, Pompous Jerk, The Witty One and The Love Interest – Flynn will battle an evil samurai transforming people into demons and decide the fate of the universe in the process.
In most other JRPGs, those characters would comprise your party; characters with whom you adventure, learn and grow over the course of the game. Not so in Shin Megami Tensei IV – as with previous games in the series, your party is instead made up of demons you convince to align themselves with you. This system ends up being one of the most interesting and, at times, unpredictable parts of the game; when you find yourself in a random encounter, more often than not you’ll have the ability to talk with any of your enemies to try and recruit them. Demons will demand you answer questions, offer up cash or sacrificing some of your HP/MP as tribute. If they find your offering worthy, they may deign to join you in your quest, thus becoming an ally to be used in battle. Sometimes the negotiations go south and you find yourself in a battle short a third of your life and half your coin – battles which are generally challenging enough without those handicaps. This is easily one of the most interesting and unique parts of the game, especially once you factor in demon fusions.
Fusions are an extension of the demon recruitment system; you can take any demons you’ve recruited to your side and fuse them together to create new allies. Fused demons are, naturally, more powerful than regular demons and less likely to be devastated by a single attack. Constantly tweaking your demons and concocting new fusions is absolutely integral to success in Tensei IV – especially in some of the more challenging boss fights (read: most of them), where one move can devastate your entire party in one fell swoop if you’re not careful. The fusion system has been made a bit more user-friendly in Shin Megami Tensei IV; your in-game computer will help you determine which demons will fuse well together, what they might become and what kind of statistical and elemental benefits you’ll reap from said fusion – a great help when generating your party for that big boss battle. That change might frustrate or annoy hardcore MegaTen fans, but this reviewer – a relative newcomer to the main franchise – found it extremely helpful.
Without a doubt, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a deep, engrossing game, but it sure as hell isn’t an easy one. No, the game takes a decidedly old-school approach in this regard – even on the default difficulty setting, players shouldn’t expect to breeze through battles on standby. Even run-of-the-mill enemy encounters can be a struggle if you aren’t careful, especially if you’re rocking a demon party that doesn’t match up with your enemies’ weaknesses (and gods help you if their attacks match up with yours). Slow, deliberate level grinding is a must at times, and even the easier difficulty setting – unlocked after dying enough times and a fair amount of mocking at the hands of the gatekeeper of the afterlife – can sometimes get a little hairy.
Shin Megami Tensei IV isn’t without some flaws, however, minor though they may be. As with many MegaTen franchise games, Shin Megami Tensei IV asks questions about the nature of reality and humanity, the purpose and validity of religion and the role technology plays in the world today – much heavier fare than your average Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Tensei IV doesn’t shy away from these themes and the story it weaves around them is deep and engrossing, but there are some barriers to fully engaging with the narrative. For example, with the exception of dungeon areas, most locations exist as little more than sets of menus to navigate. Areas like East Mikado – the medieval location where much of the non-combat action takes place – seem interesting enough to become characters in their own right, but the fact that the only way the player explores these areas are via menu throw up that extra barrier to engaging with the world and thus the narrative as a whole. Also adding to this is the fact that characters are little more than static illustrations paired with broad, generic personalities, which keeps them from evolving from stock sidekicks into full-on characters. The gameplay and the depth of the themes explored are strong enough to overcome these weaknesses, but you’ll rarely find yourself as fully engaged with the world and characters as you are with deeper mechanics like combat and demon fusion.
Ultimately, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a solid JRPG with deep roots in classic gameplay styles, but with a number of modern flourishes. And despite a couple of hiccups keeping this reviewer from becoming as fully engaged with the narrative as some other games, Shin Megami Tensei IV, as with other MegaTen franchise titles, is unparalleled in the head-on way it considers questions about human nature, religion and the role of technology. Shin Megami Tensei IV is challenging and at times frustrating, but it’s also extremely accessible to newcomers; you won’t have an easy time of it, but the game plays fair. If you’re any kind of JRPG fan, this is worth a look.
Shin Megami Tensei IV was developed and published by Atlus. The game releases on 3DS in North America on July 16. A download code was provided for review purposes.