Review: Shin Megami Tensei IV *Minor SPOILERS*

IMG_20130805_214624I got the Neutral ending after playing through Shin Megami Tensei IV on the Nintendo 3DS. There are apparently four endings: Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic, and Nothingness. Perhaps if the state of JRPGaming was like it was in the 90’s, I would try to play the game and get the other endings. However, when I look at my backlog of games in addition to the new games that have come out in the last month or so, I can’t justify spending another 100 total hours or so in order to experience those endings first hand. I spent 57 hours on this game and I enjoyed almost every minute of it, so I certainly feel that I got my money’s worth out of it.

Moral Choices: The Story (*SPOILERS*)

In SMT IV, you take on the role of a Samurai of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a large, floating mass of land hovering over an extremely desolate Tokyo. In the beginning of the game, you become a Samurai by being “chosen” by a high tech, futuristic gauntlet. Within this gauntlet is an AI called “Burroughs,” who has a rather sexy voice and refers to you as “Master.” Burroughs keeps track of quests, demon data, and acts as the game menu. When you level up or if you’re lucky enough to find a certain item, you receive App Points, which can be spent on buying Apps to enhance your gauntlet. These apps can do things like increase the number of demons you can have on reserve, increase stats, or replenish HP and MP by walking.

As a Samurai, you receive quests that send you into a cave that ultimately connects to the Tokyo Sky Tree and allows for travel between Mikado and Tokyo. When you are sent to Tokyo, it is for the benefit of Mikado, but you end up in the middle of a morality power struggle between three groups: the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, the Ashura-Kai, and the Ring of Gaea. In my opinion, the game does a good job and ensuring that none of these groups can easily be called the good guys or the bad guys. All three of them clearly have their own agenda in furthering their cause for their ideal for a future and all three of them are utilizing morally questionable means to get there.

Throughout the game, the player is presented with choices and options that add to an alignment score. This score determines the ending. I did my best to answer questions and make choices based on how I think I would really react if I was in that situation. In other words, I did my best not to sway the ending. This allowed me to feel connected to the story because it was MY moral compass that was used to set the direction of the game. It’s important to note here that you can choose the Nothingness ending without worrying about this alignment. Near the end of the game, you’re given this option.

IMG_20130805_190539There was one thing that really irked me, however, with regard to story. It wasn’t the story itself, but how a certain play mechanic affected my perception of the story. Whenever you complete a quest, whether it’s part of the main story or a side quest, Burroughs will say, “Congratulations on completing the quest.” There were two or three occasions where an intense or story-heavy scene would play out and all of a sudden, in the middle of whatever was going on, Burroughs would say, “Congratulations on completing the quest.” This totally jarred me and pulled me out of the immersive experience I was having.

Getting Megaten’d: The Battle System

Enemies are visible on screen and by swinging your sword at the right time, you can initiate a preemptive strike, which allows your team to go first and will also do a small amount of damage to all the enemies in the group. Of all the SMT games I’ve ever played, IV’s battle system was probably the most accessible. Once I killed a demon, its weaknesses were available to me during combat without using up a turn casting some kind of scan ability. Since SMT IV is a turn based game, if I couldn’t remember an enemy’s elemental weakness, I could simply choose a spell, select and enemy, and look for the weakness or repel icon. This made normal enemy encounters a lot easier than previous games.

That said, I still got Megaten’d a LOT. SMT games are notoriously difficult. Some would argue that their difficulty level is on par with games like Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls. Non-boss enemies can get a critical strike on you, you become unable to defend yourself, and it’s game over. Or you’ll get to the boss after doing reasonably well against the other enemies in the area only to have the boss strike your entire party down in a single turn. Players will construct the perfect team of demons with all the right spells and resistances and STILL get their asses handed to them. This is known as being “Megaten’d” and after only an hour or two of playing the game, I was getting Megaten’d HARD.

IMG_20130805_200416When you die in SMT IV, you are transported to Charon at the River Styx. For a fee of Macca (the currency of the game) or Nintendo Play Coins (the ones you get from walking around with your 3DS like a pedometer), he will resurrect you to the spot you were at right before you got into the fight that killed you. As you can save anywhere in the game and I knew that I was going to die a lot, I rarely took Charon up on the offer. Particularly at the beginning of the game, Macca is rather hard to come by so I was feeling cheap. As for my Play Coins, I use those for buying Fortune Cookies in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, so I didn’t want to spend too many of them. But it’s in your best interest to die and resurrect twice. After the second time, you’ll unlock an easier difficulty level called “Fellow.” The description reads, “Lowers the difficulty of the game. The story and quest rewards are unchanged.” (Emphasis added.) I wasted no time in changing the game difficulty. I knew that I was only going to play through this game once. Why torture myself? And even on this easier difficulty, I STILL got Megaten’d on a regular basis.

The demon recruitment system seemed easier than previous incarnations of SMT, which made me very happy. You can talk to the demons during battle and possibly convince them to join you. I can’t remember which  SMT game I was playing earlier this summer that it was COMPLETELY RANDOM if a demon you were fighting would start talking to you. You had no control over that, which made it worse than trying to catch all the Pokemon in a Pokemon game.

Bad Game Design Decisions (Gameplay *SPOILERS*)

1. I spent between three and four hours attempting to defeat one of the last bosses in the game. Not only did I have to retry the fight over FIFTEEN TIMES, but I had to summon and fuse new demons and then level them up at least 20 levels in order to get the right spells and abilities to defeat the final boss. Up until this point, which is near the very end of the game, certain strategies are effective for boss encounters. These strategies had very little variation throughout the game. UNTIL THIS BOSS. When a game essentially TRAINS you to fight a certain way and then throws something that doesn’t fit into that mold at the very end of the game, it makes me angry. It’s cheap and it’s bullshit. Had there been other bosses interspersed throughout the game that required the use of these abilities, I would have understood their importance and utility and I would have KEPT THEM. Instead, since the game only allows you to have so many skills, if you want new ones, you have to discard old ones. So I chose to keep the skills that I was using ALL THE DAMNED TIME and discarded the ones that I wasn’t using AT ALL. Hardcore fans of the SMT series will undoubtedly argue that this is a “feature” of the difficulty of SMT games. That may be true, but if it is, it just leads me to believe that the developers of the SMT series were bullied as children at school and are now taking it out on their players. So just so you know, the last White boss for the Neutral ending has no elemental weaknesses, starts with three turns per round, and he WILL crit and smirk so that he essentially gets SIX turns per round. You’d better have your defense as high as you can get it. Or it’s game over. Or better yet, make sure you have Tetrakarn.

2. While I almost never get lost in real life, I don’t have the greatest sense of direction in video games. My theory is that when I’m playing games, I’m more relaxed, so I don’t consciously pay attention to landmarks or whether I turned left or right. Thankfully, SMT IV has a GREAT map system. There are a few places and situations where the map doesn’t function, but those are fairly few and far between. However, it doesn’t really matter how awesome those maps are if you don’t have any information on where you’re trying to go.  Throughout both the main quest and the challenge/side quests, there are several instances where it tells you to go somewhere, but it doesn’t give you any information at all about where that somewhere IS based on already known locations. It’s not EVERY quest, but it’s enough to make me angrily wander around, wondering where the hell I’m supposed to go. The other issue is when you have to turn in a quest to a specific person. Most of the time, quests either auto-complete or you turn them into a bartender in any city. However, once in awhile you have to turn it in to a random NPC somewhere in the game.  There is nothing in the quest description OR on the map, showing you where to turn in these quests, so unless you do each quest as soon as you get it, either write it down or be willing to look it up on the internet.

3. If you get the neutral ending, you’re required to complete all the challenge/side quests that are still open and unfinished in your game. On top of that, as you complete them, some new ones will open up and then you have to complete those, too. While I did complete quite a number of quests before I got to the point of no return where my alignment was determined, I still had quite a few unfinished ones. So I spent a LOT of time just running around, completing side quests and feeling annoyed that I couldn’t just FINISH THE DAMNED GAME. As I was running around, trying to find some random item or fight a mini-boss, I was forced into battles with groups of demons that were some 40-60 levels LOWER than me. I could run away from battle, of course, but the load times for that were about the same as just taking a single turn to demolish them. All told, once my alignment path was determined, I spent THIRTEEN HOURS on completing these challenge quests! Once I finished those up, the remainder of the game took approximately four hours.

Other Stuff

Making Macca (money) in this game is almost its own little mini-game. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, they say, and that is how you make money. Throughout the game, on the overworld as well as in dungeons and towns, are points where you can harvest Relics. Generally speaking, these are random items ranging from yen bills to saxophones to desks. Basically, it’s all discarded trash. I vaguely remember reading another review for this game that referred to this method of money-making as dumpster diving. That’s a pretty accurate description.

I’m not a fan of English dubs for video games or anime, but SMT IV’s English voices were decent. I never felt compelled to turn off the sound because of bad voice acting. There are some random NPC voices that could use a little work, but you hardly ever have to listen to them speak more than a sentence or two tops.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was an enjoyable entry in the series. If you’re a fan of Shin Megami Tensei, this game doesn’t disappoint. There are a myriad of side quests and even more demons to recruit. If you’re a completionist, this game will occupy you for far longer than the 57 hours it took me to complete. If you’re new to the franchise, this is a fun game to start with. If you have a 3DS, I recommend it.

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