"Atlus' E3 build was quite extensive, and for all the time I put into it, I could have spent so much more."
It's been nine years since the last main Shin Megami Tensei title, Nocturne, was released in North America. Since then, the demonic RPG series and its many spinoffs, Persona and Devil Survivor included, have been nothing short of a huge hit for Atlus on both sides of the Pacific. Yet for some, few SMT games are as satisfying as the core series, and the wait is just about over for the latest installment.
In contrast to its PlayStation 2 predecessor, Shin Megami Tensei IV's storytelling methods take a less minimalistic route, though if you were hoping for social links, you might prefer to play Persona 4: Golden again. Despite some cameos from throughout the series, SMTIV is itself a new, original story. Set in 1492 in the fictional Eastern Kingdom of Mikado (which, despite the name, is both eastern and western themed), SMTIV starts off with the protagonist and his best friend attempting the nation's annual Gauntlet Rite held for all 18-year-olds. The gauntlet, a mysterious device worn on the arm later used to summon demons in battle, chooses the next samurai recruits, but appears to be rather picky, and... well, you can see where this is going.
Along with four others, the protagonist is suddenly thrust into this new lifestyle. The way of the samurai is, however, less glamorous than it may seem. Upon initiation, they also become luxorors — they now reside on castle grounds as they are severed cleanly from their previous home life. Immediately begins the secret training in Naraku Tower against demons (of which the public remain unaware — for now) whose numbers are steadily climbing. Will they eventually overrun Mikado? Are our heroes preparing for an imminent apocalypse?
One of the series' most popular battle mechanics, the press turn system, returns with a minor twist: upon invoking press turn (where extra turns are gained by hitting an enemy's weakness) the successful character or enemy will 'smirk' at random, temporarily boosting their own stats. As for the protagonist, his skills also increase based on the demons in his roster who have the same or similar. This makes it tempting to fill out your roster with lots of similar demons, but you'll want to balance out your skillset too. Outside of battle, Atlus made demon fusion simpler by allowing for players to search for potential combinations by desired race types, skills wanted, and so on. As these demons evolve, they learn new skills, conveniently passing some along to the main character. And there's no shortage of demons to discover and fuse with over 400 available including many new ones designed by several popular Japanese artists.
Atlus' E3 build was quite extensive, and for all the time I put into it, I could have spent so much more. Most of the demo consisted of area/dungeon exploration, combat and poking through menus. 3D visuals were far more useful in dungeons than in battle, as camera angle were key in finding items, relics and paths otherwise hidden. Despite the key characters introduced, story scenes were minimal during my play time, and it was difficult to gauge personality, writing, or even the choices the player is able to make that affect the story. Thankfully, the full voicing is on par with other Atlus titles — familiar actors or no, the quality is so far top notch.
While some seem disappointed at the lack of Kazuma Kaneko as character designer, Masayuki Doi's own creations suit the title well, and what few of the new demon designs I found blended in with the pre-existing ones perfectly. Visually, SMTIV is as dark as you might imagine, and even though the two early areas I wandered lacked the detail of, say, an SMTIII: Nocturne dungeon, I'm still anxious to see what else is in store. I myself worried about the composer change (from Shoji Meguro to Ryoto Koduka), but my concerns were put to rest easily after just a few dungeon and battle themes — the latter still tends to make you feel pretty awesome during combat.
It comes as no surprise that Shin Megami Tensei IV looks to live up to the series' reputation. Although there appears to be few risks taken in the latest installment, who knows what possible twist Atlus has in store, what with modern technology employed in a medieval period here. Whatever happens, SMTIV has many a fan eager for its release next month on Nintendo 3DS. Bring on the apocalypse (again)!