I love the Persona series, and I love that it shares a universe with the Shin Megami Tensei series. I enjoy playing games in both franchises and running into shared elements; it’s almost like greeting an old friend repeatedly. With that being said, since I can only play Persona 4 so many more times, and I still have a while to wait until Persona 5, I turned my attention to Shin Megami Tensei IV.
I used to think my Vita was the ultimate RPG machine, but between SMT IV, Kingdom Hearts 3D, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, and Fire Emblem Awakening, my 3DS is actually getting more attention from me than my “RPG machine.” It’s a good time for RPG fans to invest in a 3DS, and the arrival of SMT IV more than cements this system as a potent RPG console.
For those that are unfamiliar, the SMT series focuses on battling and collecting demons. It functions almost like a “grown up” version of Pokémon, for lack of a better explanation. Throughout the course of the game, you battle demons. Sure you can just blow through them and always kill them, but why not collect as many as you can and get them to fight alongside you? You can do so during battle by using up one of your turns to answer a series of questions and meet a series of demands by these demons in order to get them to turn and join you. It’s extremely addictive, and if you’re someone who’s OCD about obtaining every little thing, then good luck! We’ll see you in 5 years.
Most of the previous SMT games have taken place in either modern day Japan, or a futuristic, post-apocolayptic version. SMT IV mixes up the formula a bit by setting the game in a fictional universe that resembles medieval Japan and mixing it with modern elements. If it’s one thing I like, it’s a “man out of time” story, and SMT IV delivers that in droves.
You take on the role of Flynn, a young boy who is chosen to become a samurai. After meeting up with his samurai cohorts Walter, Jonathan, Navarre, and Isabeau, the five friends are thrust immediately into a number of missions in Naraku, which is something of a demon underworld (translation: your first dungeon). Along the way you are given your AI companion, Burroughs, who functions something like a mix of Cortana from Halo, and Rise from Persona 4. Burroughs is your go-to for everything menu related, like equipping weapons to saving your game, and she also gives useful information about the area you are in, or are about to approach.
The gameplay of SMT IV plays exactly like you would expect if you have played any of the SMT games of the past. You have your endless text bubbles to scroll through, a staple of any JRPG. You have your third person dungeon crawling and battling. And you also have an overworld element, reminiscent of the overworld from the first Persona game, but I would argue that this is the game’s weakest element. I did not enjoy moving a Google Maps cursor around a bunch of streets. It all blends together to give you a lot to do, and I rarely found myself growing bored of one element, wishing for more variety.
Since one of the core concepts of the game is to build up an army of demons to fight by your side, combat plays out a little differently than most turn-based RPGs. Sure, you can run in and attack with your spells (with familiar names like Agi, Mazio, Bufu, etc.), but you’d be missing out on arguably what makes the SMT series stand apart from the rest of the JRPG world: convincing demons to join your side, and fusing them together to create even bigger and more badass demons. It’s a concept that pretty defines the SMT series, and even its spinoffs like Persona. I would argue that this is more what defines the SMT universe than any other gameplay element.
So here’s how it works: when combat is initiated, you can choose the “Talk” option. When you do that, you have to answer a number of questions posed by the demon. Unfortunately, these questions are super random, and the correct answer is random as well. There’s no rhyme or reason behind the questions being asked. You simply guess. If you guess wrong, it switches immediately to the enemy’s turn, and you get screwed out off your turns. If you choose the correct answer, you are faced with usually a few more questions, and requests for items (Life Stones, some Macca, health, Spirit, etc). Only after jumping through a bunch of these hoops will a demon be satisfied enough to join your party.
Once you’ve collect a number of demons, you can either fight alongside them in a party of four, or you can start fusing demons together. The mechanic is simple to use; you are presented with a number of fusion options, or you can go into your demon compendium and start experimenting. The purpose here is to always be fusing the demons you collected into bigger and more powerful demons. It’s REALLY addictive and it gave me a reason to always try to collect more demons as opposed to always jumping in and fighting them.
The problem with this system lies in something I mentioned earlier; there is no rhyme or reason in the questioning. There’s no pattern to learn, no personality quirks to pay attention to. You randomly guess every single time, even if it’s the same demon from an earlier attempt. At any given moment, you risk saying the wrong thing and losing your turns. Even worse is when you comply with everything, and the demon just takes your stuff and runs off. However, I suppose this is a way to make demon-wrangling harder and not allow the player to amass 200 demons within the first hour. I guess they had to do something to make the process difficult, which forces the player to really think about whether or not they want to risk a turn wooing a demon.
Oh, and you can save anywhere. I love that. I’m a dad to a toddler (with a son on the way) and I don’t have the time to go scouring for save points. Thank you, SMT IV, for allowing me to play when I can and save anywhere.
Graphically, I know not to expect too much from a handheld title, but damned if this game didn’t impress me with its visuals. The cutscenes (which are comprised of not much more than some moving panels) are gorgeously hand drawn and look like they jumped straight out of the pages of a manga. The same art style is used for the dialogue scenes, which makes scrolling through text bubbles a bit more bearable since you have something nice to look at. In-game, the graphics are nice and sharp, and even though there are some noticeable jaggies here and there, as long as you remember you’re on a 3DS and not a PS3, you should be fine. Overall, the game look gorgeous, and runs very smoothly.
Since this is a 3DS title, you also have the added benefit of the 3D effect, which I’m happy to say was used very well here. I say time and time again that the 3DS’ 3D is more painful than it is interesting, and other than a handful of games, I generally keep it off. Luckily, it works beautifully in SMT IV, adding a wonderful sense of depth to the game that adds a bit of drama. It’s one of four games where I kept the 3D on the whole time (Fire Emblem: Awakening, Urban Trial Freestyle, and Super Mario 3D Land).
Considering how much I love the soundtrack of the Persona games and how much of its own character the music is, I was surprised at how little the soundtrack of SMT IV impressed me. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t stand out. It’s filled with a few battle themes and what I saw as generic background music, but there wasn’t any one thing that stood out. I love soundtracks to pretty much anything, and have been collecting them since I was a kid. I love scores with an instantly recognizable theme, and SMT IV does not have one. However, consider that a personal issue, and not one that affects the game to any drastic degree.
The voice acting, as with most games of the SMT metaverse, is top notch. I’m no stranger to the JRPG, which means I am also no stranger to the very poorly dubbed English vocal track. Thankfully, that’s not an issue here. The performances come off as very natural, and other than a few over-the-top demon performances (which is to be expected), I was quite pleased the voice acting. Bravo to Atlus for not shoving the English dub into the backburner and half-assing it.
Other than Fire Emblem: Awakening, Shin Megami Tensei IV is the best RPG you can get on the 3DS, and that’s saying something considering the recent flood of excellent RPG titles. I would go so far as to say it’s one of the best games for the 3DS entirely. It has a fantastic story (though somewhat head-scratching at times), wonderful visuals, a deep and engaging demon collection/fusing mechanic, a near flawless combat mechanic, and wonderful voice acting to round out one off the meatiest titles you can get your hands on.