Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Shin Megami Tensei IV

Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT IV) is an incredibly difficult JRPG following the vein of traditional, Atlus published RPGs. SMT IV isn’t going to be like the Persona games you’ve likely seen or played on PS2 or Vita. SMT IV is a jarringly difficult game that combines aspects of traditional RPGs and Pokemon-esque monster capture into a fluid RPG with a unique combat system and the demons fans of the series know and love. With an engrossing storyline that ranges from a feudal Japanese village to modern day Tokyo, SMT IV forces two starkly different cultures and themes together as the characters attempt to support their feudal lord’s wishes.

You follow the typically silent protagonist (yourself) as he ascends to the upper ranks of society—the samurai. Here, the samurai are meant to protect the castle, their lord, and the surrounding village from the usual fare: demons, angels, creatures, and monsters. Each samurai gets a personal guide in the form of a power gauntlet worn on the wrist—complete with an artificial intelligence. The gauntlet and AI serve as your menu in game, allowing you to save at a moment’s notice, adjust your party, use items, and the other usual features of a mainstream RPG. However, SMT IV is far from traditional or mainstream. The storyline, as is true of most SMT games, often pits you and your party against gangsters, demons, and even gods from various cultures and myths. At one point I was using Loki to destroy angels, while trying not to get demolished by ancient Chinese demons. Weird, but awesome.

The mixing of culture is my favorite aspect of SMT games. Since their inception in the late 1980’s Atlus has mixed cultures, myths, and creatures to create interactions that transcend cultural borders. Though, that still won’t help you navigate the mess that is modern-day Tokyo about 5 hours into the game. Despite having any number of legendary gods or demons on your team, you will find the game incredibly difficult. I mean tough. The absolutely insane learning curve forced me to put the game down more than once. Once you actually get to Tokyo, the game starts to scale back and you can actually start to grind, farm, and earn new equipment safely. Up until that point, though, you’re forced to constantly save and retry the more difficult mini-bosses, plot bosses, and even just some levels of the first dungeon. Part of the difficulty comes from SMT IV’s unique battle system, which has evolved since its first iteration in the “Press-Turn” system from SMT: Nocturne.

Generally, each party (you and your opponent's) gets one “turn” per party member. Your party is composed of yourself and your demons; each party member gets one turn which is consumed when that party member uses an ability. But it gets complicated once we get into type advantage and disadvantage. Similar to Pokemon, there are weaknesses and strengths that are intrinsic to each demon. The main types are: light, dark, fire, ice, wind, physical, projectile, and electricity. Each demon can have different strengths and weaknesses—for instance, your demon might take reduced damage from fire and double damage from ice and physical attacks. When you press that advantage or disadvantage you gain or lose turns. You gain an extra half-turn for hitting an enemy weakness and lose a full turn for having your own weakness hit. The Press-turn system makes combat incredibly dynamic and insanely difficult. Because you lose turns to disadvantageous attacks, you can end up in a situation where the enemy party gets the first move and gets the equivalent of three turns of damage before you even get your first turn. Did I mention that damage doesn’t scale until you reach Tokyo, five hours into the game? Yeah, if you misclick an attack or get the type advantage wrong you could be forced back to your most recent save. It’ll happen constantly in the beginning of the game.

Despite the mind-numbingly difficult early-game and learning curve (for non-SMT veterans), I found the game to be incredibly rewarding. The 3D dungeons are beautifully designed, the combat is difficult, but fast-paced and engaging, and the storyline gives the player the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to guide the game to a Chaotic, Neutral, or Good/Lawful end. Each ending offers different bosses, stories, and experiences—even including a “New Game +” function so that you can replay the game, while discovering new endings without giving up your favorite demons, weapons, or armor. Further, for fans of traditional RPGs or monster-capture games, SMT IV gives players the opportunity to assemble their favorite demons or deities and fuse them together to maintain a relevant, powerful party—in all of the SMT games I’ve played, I have never used the same party twice. If you’ve never played a Shin Megami Tensei game before, Shin Megami Tensei IV offers a fantastic entry into the series (genre, almost) with a crisp storyline and gameplay that rewards practice, understanding, and trial-by-fire. For $40 dollars, I would recommend buying a physical copy of the game or even shelling out the extra $10 for the collector’s edition which includes an art book/walkthrough and the OST.

Find Shin Megami Tensei IV on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2013-07-16
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus

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