It’s been damn near a decade since the planet was last graced with a proper Shin Megami Tensei title. Granted, I admit to never having picked up any of the previous titles, something that I wore as a badge of shame around some of my friends and coworkers. They would tell me things like, “Chaz, you love RPGs, how is it possible you’ve never played one of the best ones ever created?” and, “How did you get back in my apartment? I changed the locks!”, but I never quite took them seriously. Now that I’ve finally sat down with Shin Megami Tensei IV, I have to admit that I was wrong in my reservations to play this series. This is one of the best RPGs that I’ve played in years.
Shin Megami Tensei IV starts you off in the fictional kingdom of Mikado during the year’s most important ceremony. Everyone who turns eighteen years old must make the long trek up to Mikado Castle to see if they’ll have the honor to serve the kingdom as a Samurai. While there haven’t been any new recruits in quite a while it seems, you and three others from the realm’s upper and lower classes are selected to carry the Samurai traditions and secrets. Luckily, those traditions aren’t based in farming or in quilting. No, in Mikado, Samurai fight demons.
You’re immediately thrust into a world of demon slaying and recruiting, and with perfect timing too as it seems that shit hits the fan no more than a few days into your training. You’ll quickly be tasked with tracking down and capturing an elusive figure known as the Black Samurai, and will have to follow him to the very edges of the kingdom. It’s difficult to really speak about the plot in Shin Megami Tensei IV without spoiling anything, so I’m going to err on the side of caution and not get into details. I will, however, say that it does fall in line with grand JRPG plots that have come before it, and that’s a great thing.
The presentation of Shin Megami Tensei IV is top notch. The main characters all have very extensive voice acting, and while the cut scenes aren’t rendered in full motion, they look absolutely stellar. I was honestly flabbergasted to see how much they could pour into a portable game. The entire game is rendered in a really excellent type of 3D, giving the field a fantastic sense of depth. I did ultimately turn that off simply because I can never find that sweet spot when I’m holding it, but I highly suggest turning it on at first to see how this effect is supposed to be used properly.
To those of you who are like me and have never experienced a game in this series, Shin Megami Tensei IV plays out as a cross between your standard JRPGs and Pokémon, except, you know, with demons. You’ll quickly earn the ability to recruit demons during battle through conversation and good old fashioned bribery. Once you’ve recruited them over to your side, they’ll fight alongside you as members of your party, levelling up and learning skills along the way.
As you progress, you’ll need to keep recruiting more powerful demons or make your own via the “fusion” system. With fusion, you’ll combine two of your current demons in order to create a brand new one who may very well be more powerful than your current roster. The new demon can be customized by choosing its skill-set from the two parent demons, giving you an incentive to level up your demons before throwing them in the grinder.
The game will recommend a few fusions for you based on demons you haven’t made yet, and it does offer a robust search engine to help you find exactly you’re looking for. Need a dragon with force affinity that won’t require you to sacrifice your favorite demon in your party? You can narrow down those options to see if anything fits.
In addition to the standard two demon fusions, there are certain demons that can only be recruited through special fusions. These demons include the more powerful “boss” types that you’ve beaten along the way, which have very specific requirements for their fusion. Instead of needing a beast type demon, you may need one specific type, giving you further incentive to recruit and fuse your lower demons as often as possible.
The amount of customization that comes with this is outstanding and really becomes a meta game of its own. My approach was to fuse early and often, giving me access to demons that I wouldn’t encounter until I reached the next area and a nice little advantage in certain fights. I can’t really say enough about how much fun I had with this mechanic alone. I spent hours thinking about which demons would best compliment my party, and if it was worth it to sacrifice my more powerful battle-buddies that I had come to rely on in hopes of unlocking something even better down the road.
The battles themselves play out in familiar JRPG fashion, but that is in no way a bad thing. If you’re the type to get bored with the simple act of picking which attacks you want to use, Shin Megami Tensei IV throws a nice little wrench into those gears with a very well developed elemental system. In addition to the standard extra damage you’re accustomed to with most RPGs, you’ll actually be gifted with an additional attack during that turn.
Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like a huge thing on paper, but it becomes a requirement to stay on top of this for the more difficult battles, especially when you start getting enemies that are immune to your basic attacks. You need to be ready to adjust on the fly and switch out party members in order to have a fighting chance at getting out alive.
Getting out alive isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, though. Shin Megami Tensei IV is a hard game, one that counts on you understanding the concepts it’s presenting to you, which does leave a bit of a learning curve. While I in no way felt it was unfair, I died laughably early, mostly because I wasn’t adapting to what they were showing me. I had already resigned myself to having to backtrack a good portion of the game since I hadn’t saved recently, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Atlus had already prepared for my mediocrity.
Once you inevitably die, you’ll find yourself at the river Styx talking to a very overworked boatman. In exchange for not adding to his workload, he’ll let you return to the land of the living moments before you died, but for a price. For either a sizeable purse of Macca or a few of your 3DS Play Coins, you’ll be put back in the moment before you died with full health and MP. If you can’t afford the cost, you’ll start a tab in which he’ll automatically call on your debt the moment you have enough Macca. It may bother a few hardcore JRPG fans to see death doesn’t carry the same weight it normally does, but it’s a nice feeling knowing that I’ll earn enough Play Coins simply by walking my dog a few times during the day.
Not everything is amazing here, though. While there are a wealth of NPCs in the game, I’d say the vast majority of them are throwaways. When the main cast all has full voice acting, it’s jarring to talk to a character named “Old Samurai” who grunts before you read two lines of text. I was actively searching them out at the start of my game, but by the midway point I realized they weren’t usually worth talking to.
The overhead map system is also a bit of a mess. With its being controlled only via the touchscreen when you’re moving around dungeons, it’s hard to really get a bead on where you are and almost impossible to pick out much of anything. There are a few times where you’ll have to find something on the map in red and I admit that I probably spent more time scrolling and searching than I did actually traveling to my destination.
Finally, this is a minor issue, but the fact that the circle pad pro isn’t supported is a crime. The camera isn’t too hard to control on its own, but to be able to swing it around with another stick would have made things a hell of a lot easier. And with a few dungeons having ladders or holes you have to look up or down at in order to use, it would have been a lot more intuitive to simply flick the stick and be on your way.
We have a rule here at We Got This Covered about reviewing games in a vacuum. We don’t like to debate games on price or against each other unless it’s absolutely necessary, and at the risk of dating this review I’m going to break that rule. Atlas is offering a $30 dollar credit on the eShop for players that have registered Fire Emblem Awakening and Shin Megami Tensei IV by August 31st, making this an easy decision for gamers who have already picked up the former by now.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is one of the best RPGs I’ve played in a while, never mind the fact that it’s a fantastic offering for the handheld console. It could have been a bit more polished in some areas, but it offers a complete experience that I think would have sold just as well on the standard home consoles. This is a deep and enriching games, and firmly stands as one of the 3DS’s best offerings to date.
This review is based on a version of the game given to us for review purposes.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is officially the best RPG on the 3DS, and stands up as one of the best to come out during this console generation. It's an amazing testament to how far mobile gaming has come, and is something that any fan of the JRPG genre needs to play immediately.