Review – Shin Megami Tensei IV – I Love the Smell of Morality Systems in the Morning

To the bulk of people, Shin Megami Tensei (“SMT”) is just that weird title that accompanies the word Persona on their favourite games. It’s not hard to see why there’s this disconnect. After all, the SMT series is a little strange. Basically, there is a larger SMT metaseries that includes games such as Persona, Digital Devil Saga and Devil Summoner, and there is also a main series called Shin Megami Tensei. Of this main series, only two games have been released in the west: SMT Nocturne (SMT III), and SMT Strange Journey, which isn’t a numbered entry, but is considered part of the main series. It goes without saying that SMT IV is the biggest release the main series has ever had. It has gained a lot of notoriety based on Nocturne’s staggering reputation, and the fact that Nintendo is giving you $30 for buying it and Fire Emblem Awakening (Which you should already have). This makes SMT something of a gamble. The main SMT series is much darker than most RPGs, and considerably harder. There is a market for that, of course, but Nintendo is betting a lot on this $30 give away.

If the cover didn’t blatantly give away who’s the chaos and law hero, their generic personalities will.
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The premise of SMT IV is that your character, Flynn (You can rename him, but he gets a default name, so I’m sticking with that), is a member of the lower class (Casulry because Atlus ran out of money for writers) in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, which is a fantasy kingdom based on a mix of Medieval European and Japanese culture. Flynn gets inducted into the order of Samurai who are sworn to defend the kingdom from demons. The premise is a little weak and strange to SMT veterans, but it does pick up considerably as you explore your first dungeon, and get introduced to the much more interesting world below. The story and characters have been called the weakest part of this game by numerous review sites, and that’s true to an extent. The story meanders around early on, and again in the middle, however, when it does pick up around 60% through the game it provides an incredibly and engaging thorough look into human nature the way that only SMT games can. The characters aren’t bad per se, but we’ve seen them before. There is one character that is supposed to represent law and another who represents chaos. These characters are incredibly predictable, and those who played Strange Journey might just suspect that Zelenin and Jimenez have been shoved into the game in different bodies. However, the supporting cast is considerably more interesting especially after you leave Mikado. In short, the story is actually really good, but the main cast is a little cookie cutter.

Here are three more interesting faces. And yes, Strange Journey fans, that Demonica is wearable.
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SMT IV is a dungeon crawler RPG at heart. You’ll be running through a variety of dungeons as you explore the world and complete quests. There are no random battles; however, enemies will materialize randomly from the ground. When they do so, you can choose to avoid them or strike them for a preemptive attack. As you explore the world, you’ll encounter relics, which are items that can be scavenged to sell at shops. This is vital as enemies do not drop Macca (The game’s currency), and if there’s one thing you’ll never have enough of, it’s Macca as it’s used for buying incredibly expensive equipment and resummoning old demons from your compendium. Due to the limitations of the hardware, the bulk of character models are in 2D, meaning that you’ll only really encounter NPC’s in solitary rooms, or in towns. This means that many dungeons seem a little empty. This is generally not a problem because the bleakness fits extremely well with the theme of the game.

Are you looking at the bleak world, or the complete lack of fashion sense of this player?
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Battles follow the same basic press turn concept as introduced in Nocturne. You will form a party of four, with up to three demons being able to join your main character. Every demon in the game has a unique set of weaknesses and resistances, and, by playing your cards right, you can wipe out all enemies before they get a chance to act. You will begin with as many turns as there are members in your team (3 for 3, 4 for 4, etc). By hitting any enemy’s weakness, you’ll gain another turn to use with a maximum of eight turns if all four of your demons hit an enemies weakness. Conversely, if your attack is nulled you will lose two turns, and you’ll lose all of your turns if your attack is absorbed or reflected. This system means that you want to study your enemies closely and build a very balanced team. You must make sure that you can cover the various weaknesses: physical, gun, fire, electric, ice, force, light and dark. It is also vital to not expose your team to enemy attacks, as enemies work with the same rules you do when it comes to turns, and there’s nothing worse that having your weaknesses exploited and finding yourself at knocked out.

New horde battles are especially dangerous.
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The entire SMT metaseries relies heavily on fusing demons and this game is no exception in this regard.  Throughout the game, you will be negotiating with demons and fusing them together to create stronger ones. The negotiation system is a little random, which makes each encounter a little tense, or frustrating, or rewarding depending on your luck. SMT IV gives us perhaps the best fusing system of the entire series. Gone are Nocturne’s random system of inheritance. Now you can choose every skill your demon inherits from its fusion parents. Newcomers are given a bit of help in that the fusion guide will give you fusion recommendations which change depending on your level and demons you have available. For the more experienced, you have a huge variety of options, such as including demons available to be purchased in your compendium in the search function. It’s all fairly straight forward and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. Also a first, is the ability to get a brief explanation of the historical background of each demon. Since demons are drawn from mythologies throughout the world and history, this is a very interesting feature.

This is Mara and she, yes she, actually has historical roots – wiki
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Leveling in SMT IV is a mix of traditional in inventive. As you gain levels you will get five stat points to distribute between strength, dexterity, magic, agility, and luck. Not all stats are created equal, however. Strength is utterly useless as it only increases your basic attack’s strength and physical skills a tiny bit. Since dexterity increases physical damage far more, there is little point to strength. It is a shame that this minor issue wasn’t ironed out, as the rest of the stats are very useful. When leveling, you will also obtain app points, which you can use to buy perks from your summoning gauntlet. This is always fun, and it’s great to feel that power when you upgrade the amount of demons you can carry, or gain the ability to heal mp with each step. You can only summon or recruit demons at your own level baring an app upgrade, so getting a higher numerical level also gives you more options for fusion. Demons will also level up and get stat points, but you will be unable to assign them. They also learn new skills upon leveling up, usually being able to learn between one and three depending on the demon. When a demon has learned all of their skills, they will whisper then to your main character, which means you can select which non-passive skills you want to inherit, which means you can craft your main character as a magic nuker by giving them all of the elemental attacks for coverage, a physical bruiser by giving them gun and physical attacks, or really anything you want. If your main character is a little weak, demons can pick up the slack.

I was going to find a relevant image; however, BUUUUUUTTTTS!
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There are weaknesses in the combat, however. There is no more vitality stat, or actually any defensive stat. When you buy new armour, they will give you a boost in stats, hp, and each chest piece has a different set of weaknesses and resistances. This lack of a defence stat means that there is no way to really mitigate damage from demons that should be beneath you, and there’s nothing worse than getting surprise attacked by a horde of weak demons and getting completely wiped out because they kept hitting your weaknesses. This is why the game is difficult. Fortunately, strategy can overcome this problem, and dying isn’t a game over. Actually, for the first time ever, your main character dying isn’t the end of the game, and you can get revived, for a price, if your party gets wiped out. If you die twice, you’ll unlock the easy difficulty, which is a boon to beginners who may get lost.  Physical skills also now use mp instead of hp to use. This seemed like a good thing at first because it made them less dangerous, but it was a mistake. Physical demons tend to have really high hp and low mp, meaning they can’t use their skills very often, and regular attacks aren’t worth the time. It is an unnecessary burden on physical demons, who don’t quite match up to their magical counterparts until much later in the game when mp issues become non-existant. One minor issue which is personal to me, is the fact that armour changes your appearance. I don’t know about you, internet, but I’m a vain person, so I can’t stand using ugly armour even if it’s better. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, armours don’t really drastically obsolete one another, and that really expensive mid game biker jacket is only a little better than that cheap slab of chain mail you bought earlier.

This is Charon, ferryman of the dead. You’ll probably see him a bunch.
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The world map has taken some flack by reviewers and fans alike. Through much of the early game, you’ll be progressing to dungeons based on a series of menus, however, after the first major dungeon, you’ll unlock the overworld. In this, your character is represented by a blue arrow and you can meander around to various locals. All SMT games have had the same kind of set up, and it’s supposed to be a reference to them, however, it is a little dated. The bigger problem is the fact that early on, the world map is so big, it can be hard to know where to go, and going to the wrong place can get you stomped by impossibly difficult enemies. This lack of direction is also present in challenge quests, which are optional. You are often told the name of the place you need to go, but not the directions for how to get there. As you become more comfortable with the world, these issues disappear, but they make the early portions of the game a little dicey.

Not the prettiest map ever.
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Overall, SMT IV is fantastic. It is everything an SMT fan would want, especially for fans of the earlier games. Nocturne was a little smarter in its character design, forgoing the use of a cookie cutter law and chaos hero, and it had a more cohesive theme from beginning to end; however, SMT IV manages to refine gameplay to such an extent that these issues are rarely an issue, especially when the story really takes off. What you have here is probably the best fusion system in the metaseries, excellent combat that often requires thought and strategy more than time and leveling, and a wonderfully crafted world and setting, particularly when you leave Mikado. SMT IV is a triumph; although, it is one that is more designed for the hardcore than the casual, and I fervently recommend it to fans of RPGs. Along with Fire Emblem Awakening, it is one of the finest games on the 3DS, so buy both and put that $30 towards Pokemon X/Y, or Earthbound on the Wii U.

Score 9.5

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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2 thoughts on “Review – Shin Megami Tensei IV – I Love the Smell of Morality Systems in the Morning

  1. I also love how when a demon levels up, and a spell can be replaced, they tell you what it will change to. In persona and Nocturne they wouldn't and so it was always a gamble I would never take.

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