Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse is going to occupy a special place in my mind for a long time. It represents one of the most bizarre and fascinating experiences I’ve had with a game in recent memory; oscillating wildly between thoughts of pure admiration and disgruntled loathing. At its heart, however, SMTIVA is a mercurial game that manages to expand and develop the best parts of the original Shin Megami Tensei IV and then, somehow, completely forgets all of these amazing things and fall into an utterly rote and exhausting gameplay loop of self-flagellation.
SMTIVA is technically a continuation of SMTIV, a game released three years ago, with a new set of characters and stories that crisscross with the original game’s narrative. Think of it as an alternate ending of sorts, and one that is far more interesting in both scope and characterization. SMTIV’s story was often criticized as the weakest part of the package, with a focus on The (uninspired) Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and a set of friends who were a little dry and restrained in their actions and dialogue. The game lacked the subtlety and nuance of Nocturne, the last proper series entry, or the colorfulness of its (probably) more popular offshoot, Persona. Apocalypse clearly heard these complaints and gets things started quickly by giving you a devastated Tokyo, dead and reincarnated protagonist, and probably one of my favorite characters in recent memory with the enigmatic Dagda. Seriously, Dagda is absolutely perfect as the demon pulling the strings, as he plays a massive chess game with other divine beings for the right to control humanity. Apocalypse hits the ground running with a story that at once feels far more personal and engaging than anything I experienced in IV, and it’s all the better for it.
Apocalypse also shows its Persona influences with an outstanding cast that I immediately connected with. Sure, they’re mostly a group of teenagers with slightly tropey personalities and goals, but they mature in awesome ways and even hold some heartwarming surprises. You’ll immediately fall in love with Asahi, chuckle at Navarre’s bumbling antics, and wonder just what exactly is going on with Hallelujah. Oh, and there’s a Queen of the Fairies who blasts demons with a shotgun! Flynn and the rest of the gang from IV are here too, and now their “straight man” approach to everything plays off really well with the cast of misfits you get to control. I wasn’t expecting Apocalypse to wow and remind me of all of those amazing Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger feels from my childhood, but it’s a welcome addition that helps to engage the player with all of the awesome apocalyptic action on screen.
I absolutely adored the gameplay in SMTIV (Derek’s Review will give you all the basic details on how the original game plays), and Apocalypse manages to improve an already stellar system with some slight adjustments. Those instant kill attacks only work when the caster is in the “Smirk” state, which you gain through exploiting weaknesses and landing critical hits. It incentivizes the player to think smart and plan ahead in nearly every combat encounter. This is a game where you can die quickly in a random encounter, and few modern JRPGs similarly manage to keep the player on their toes the whole way through. Bosses are typically epic back-and-forth battles where you try to mitigate damage, protect your demons who may be in trouble, and hit the boss like a dump truck with your strongest attacks. Things can go south in a hurry, but Dagda is more than happy to revive his precious Godslayer and give him another try (well, except in one area where the game just turns this feature off because reasons).
Post-apocalyptic Tokyo was a joy to view in IV, but it was a giant pain to navigate. Thankfully, Apocalypse brings along a new map interface to the overworld and a quest marker to keep you on the right track. I only managed to beat IV by referring to an FAQ (Which guy in what building am I supposed to talk to in order to keep things moving?), but I was able to enjoy Apocalypse’s wonderful sense of exploration without outside assistance. There are tons of rewards for completing sidequests, too, so be sure to venture off the path and push yourself to find new demons and treasure.
Regrettably, Apocalypse reuses a ton of assets from SMTIV. Don’t get me wrong, the look of Tokyo and music all kick marvelous ass, but we’ve seen most of this stuff years ago and it can make the whole thing come across like an advanced expansion pack when it’s supposed to be a full new game. The new music and maps look great, but the vast majority of your fighting will be against the same demons in the same settings from IV. I personally liked the sense of continuity, but Apocalypse would have benefited from a bit more to call its own.
Thankfully, demon fusion features all of the advancements from the previous game. You’re still provided with the top three suggested fusions and a host of filtering systems to make sure you make the best possible team. I’m still torn on recruiting demons, however: The responses are still just as random as ever, though you’ll often get lots of opportunities should your attempts at diplomacy fail. It can be time consuming, but you don’t have to spend hours carefully analyzing proper demon combinations until late in the game.
I was ready to declare SMTIVA my favorite game of the year, but things took a decidedly dark turn as I moved past the first “ending” players are presented with. Unfortunately, all of the great things Apocalypse does to enhance the SMT experience go straight out the window as you near the final confrontation. The awesome sense of character development and narrative pace almost completely vanish, replaced with two long, tedious dungeons that feature very little in the realm of actual player agency or plot. We’re talking the worst kind of old school puzzle design, rife with random teleporters, long hallways that lead to dead ends, and a completely dull and repetitive landscape. The game’s final dungeon seems more like a cruel joke designed to punish you for wanting to see the true endings, and it took me nearly three days of soul crushing monotony before I stood before the final boss.
But things don’t stop there in terms of this downward spiral. I found myself entranced by the harsh, but fair challenge of the normal difficulty, but things go completely bonkers in these final hours. Nearly every boss gets the ability to pierce through your defenses, so you can’t rely on proper strategy when it comes to your demon’s weaknesses and strengths. The toughest fights also randomly cheat, as certain enemies will unleash devastating attacks if you try to use certain skills and abilities. Apocalypse forces you to play these encounters in a certain way and then rips out your throat should you try to be clever. Some players will probably never encounter these punishing difficulty spikes provided their demon fusions work in the “correct” fashion, but others will face nearly impossible odds that clash with the cleverness of the various systems at play. This stretch of exhausting, banal, and tiresome gameplay was further compounded by the fact my main character reached the level cap, so grinding wasn’t even an option (Note: there will be free DLC in October that can remove the level cap, but Apocalypse desperately needs this feature sooner rather than later). My last ten hours with SMTIVA were some of the most aggravating I’ve had in years, and the whole extended epilogue feels like padding to make sure there’s enough “content” to satisfy consumers.
Apocalypse is an incredibly tough game to talk about. Its fantastic cast, intriguing story, and solid gameplay make it an easy recommendation for fans and newcomers alike, but the final hours feel like they were designed by another team and focus on all of the bad things the series left behind ages ago. At times, Apocalypse feels like the bearer of the modern standard for the JRPG genre, but it can’t help but stumble backwards a bit into some antiquated design. My final score would have been considerably higher had the game ended when it was first given the opportunity. My recommendation; make sure to side with one of the two big bads and save yourself quite the headache. You’ll thank me later.