Behold, my demons!
I have a strange history with the Shin Megami Tensei series. I’ve always viewed it from afar, waiting patiently for a title in the hard-as-nails JRPG demon-hunting series that was forgiving enough that I could jump on board. Fortunately, it seems my ship has arrived with Shin Megami Tensei IV for the 3DS, and I can already tell that I’m going to be a fan for a long time to come.
In the opening act, you’re quickly given a demon-summoning gauntlet, a group of friends, and plenty of tasks to complete. They certainly waste no time getting you acquainted in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, where the opening takes place. Initially, I was a little disappointed with the game visually. Cutscenes were simply slightly animated slideshows, and, aside from delving into Naraku, the demon-infested dungeon, most of the game was just a big menu system. Of course, my disappointment was put to bed after the game truly began to open up and show its true colors as you journey into apocalyptic demon-filled Tokyo, where the bulk takes place.
The combat system is fun and intuitive, and regulars to the series will likely know what to expect. Your gauntlet allows you to befriend and summon demons from an ever-growing stock, and combat itself focuses on discovering and exploiting your enemy’s specific elemental weakness. This means that during the course of even the most trivial battles, many things can happen ranging from befriending or defeating demons to accepting quests or bargaining for goods. This keeps the combat from becoming tedious, since most combat situations have multiple outcomes.
This entry in the series also offers some more lenient options for less-skilled players, including the ability to pay for resurrection using Play Coins and an easy difficulty that can be selected at anytime after you die twice. The normal mode is most definitely meant for those looking for a more traditional Shin Megami Tensei challenge, but as a new player to the series, I found easy mode to be fun and still challenging. Veteran players will also be glad to know that after beating the game once, there are even expert and new game plus modes.
To stay on top of the difficulty, you’ll have to make near constant use of the demon fusion program available on your gauntlet. In another attempt to appeal to new players, it offers “recommended fusions” and a plethora of tutorials and detailed search options to make sure that you can fuse demons however you want. For the first several hours of the game, I simply used the recommendations, but by the end, I found myself knee-deep in the search function looking to fuse extremely specific demons with the exact skills I wanted. It’s deep enough to satisfy hardcore number crunchers, but still simple enough on the surface that you don’t need a degree in Demonology to put it to good use.
The conversations with the demons themselves are written well, and even after you learn the few conversation archetypes, they never cease to be entertaining. My only real complaint with the system is that when demons level up they’re able to learn new skills and impart some of them to the main character as well, although as your roster of demons grows the process can take become tedious.
My favorite feature is simply the massive scope. After the rather linear early sections, you are let loose to travel through Japan as you see fit. While there are always objectives to continue the main storyline, you’re constantly peppered with side missions, delivery quests, interesting dialogue, and, of course, compulsive demon collecting. The story is broken up into several acts, and full of enough twists and turns that by the end you’ll be rethinking your relationship with even your most trusted allies.
Of course, with such a massive game there are inevitably pacing issues. The world map is rather minimal, and I found myself wandering around it regularly trying to figure out exactly where my mission wanted me to go. The objectives themselves are often vague, leading to lots of accidental backtracking. Fortunately the moment-to-moment gameplay was kept afloat by the excellent combat system, and even at my most confused moments, I was still able to enjoy some demon collecting.
It’s hard to even mention the story without spoiling anything, but rest assured, it’s a doozy. As you settle into your role as a Samurai of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, you’ll quickly (or rather immediately) realize that there are bigger things going on. For a while, it’s all a standard storyline before taking a turn for the weird, then another, and then three more.
The plot and the combat both rely on the most prominent feature of the game: decision-making. The game is all about decisions, and very few of them are easy ones to make. You have to decide everything, from which skills your demons should keep or discard upon leveling up to the most grandiose plot points. With multiple endings and nary a clear choice in sight, you’ll probably have plenty of moments when you have to put the system down and think before making some of the decisions. While done well for the most part, some of the more technical decision-making also slows down the pace of the game a bit.
Small features like snappy menu navigation and the ability to save at any point keep the game well suited to a handheld. It’s just as easy to sit down, plow through a few missions, save, and be done for the day as it is to marathon a 10-hour gameplay session. Players can also dedicate a demon to use for StreetPass, granting extra levels and new demons when you pass other players. Unfortunately, the StreetPass options leave much to be desired unless you happen to live in an area densely populated with 3DS owners.
Overall, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a massive, sprawling RPG that features one of the most fun and deep combat systems I’ve seen on the 3DS. While it’s not immune from the pacing issues that generally affect games of this scope and the map is in dire need of an overhaul, I never found myself wanting to quit playing. The interesting story and Pokémon-esque demon fusion/collecting should keep you chomping at the bit to see what the game has in store around the next corner, though you’ll just probably want to keep a guide handy (and you get one if you pre-order it!). It’s truly a deceitfully deep game that will keep you busy for 40 hours on even the most speedy of playthroughs.