A human being with unshakable resolve is capable of performing incredible feats. His potential is limitless, and his impact on the world directly correlates with his ambition. Regardless of whether he is “chosen” for some grand purpose or if he acts according to his free will, his decisions can affect the lives of everyone around him. The Shin Megami Tensei games routinely put the player in control of such courageous protagonists, and in the fourth entry of this venerable series, the taciturn Samurai Flynn is ultimately charged with establishing a new world order. On his journey of self-discovery, Flynn crosses swords with demons, angels, and humans that resemble both, until he arrives at the decision that changes everything.
Dramatic introduction aside, Shin Megami Tensei IV does an incredible job of melding a complex and mature narrative with intelligent, addictive gameplay. Atlus has crafted one of the finest games on the 3DS, one that remains a story-driven experience while allowing the player equal freedom in developing an approach to combat and guiding the plot. A modern interface, increased accessibility, interesting characters, and strategic gameplay make this a sublime “adult RPG.” Despite having a slightly dated graphical presentation, Shin Megami Tensei IV is dazzlingly compelling, and it more than lives up to the legacy left by Nocturne those ten long years ago.
As a low-born “Casualry” in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, Flynn finds his life irrevocably altered when he participates in a coming-of-age ceremony that ends with him appointed as a demon-summoning Samurai. Also chosen are the passionate Walter, staid Jonathan, and solitary Isabeau, all of whom have roles to play in Flynn’s life. His Samurai duties take him from the idyllic Mikado countryside and thrust him into the depths of Naraku, a dungeon populated with devilish fiends that has an unexpected connection to the foreign land of Tokyo. It is here that he learns the truth of his world and, with (or without) the help of his Samurai fellows, begins to pursue a radical change in its structure.
The decisions the player makes send Flynn down one of four wildly different paths, following characters with philosophies akin to Darwinism, nihilism, submission to a higher power, or perhaps something in between. There are no easy choices. There is no path of least resistance. This is a game that truly deserves its rating of “Mature,” as the repercussions of many dialogue options are potentially calamitous. As I played, there were instances in which I hovered nervously over my selections for several agonizing minutes before sorting out my feelings, and even that amount of deliberation couldn’t prevent doubt from creeping into my mind. Likewise, the characters are presented as morally ambiguous through believable dialogue, so even when I found myself at odds with their actions, I still found their words compelling. Despite their obvious alignments as seen on the game’s cover, the main characters develop naturally. Walter desires freedom more than chaos, while Jonathan acts to uphold justice; both men act according to the values they develop on their journey with Flynn, rather than devolve into boring caricatures of good and evil. I applaud the game’s writers for weaving such an engaging tale. Stories of this caliber do not come around often.
At its heart, Shin Megami Tensei IV is much like its predecessor. Field environments are in full 3D and feature a nice level of detail, from the dank corridors of Naraku to the dilapidated buildings of demon-infested Tokyo. There’s little beauty to be found in this world, but rightfully so; Tokyo is an ugly place is more ways than one. Monsters can be seen on the field, and once Flynn touches one, a first-person battle begins. Strangely, Shin Megami Tensei IV takes a step back and returns to using lightly-animated 2D sprites for its demons. The demon models are high-resolution and sport imaginative designs (there are nearly 500 demons this time around, many of which are new), but the relatively low level of technical fidelity makes the game feel a bit low-budget.
Enemies have a variety of death animations to match the manner in which they’re executed: ice skills cause them to shatter and fall apart, while gun attacks fill them with bloody holes. It’s a definite visual improvement from past titles Strange Journey and Soul Hackers, but way behind last year’s Persona 4 Golden. An exception is the game’s extremely sharp menu system. Modeled to look like the interface on Flynn’s Samurai gauntlet, it uses a monochrome color scheme in conjunction with stylish icons. The Cathedral of Shadows, a separate interface for fusing demons with a huge number of convenient parameters, also looks great with its “master,” the blocky old man Mido. I hope this design trend continues, because I can’t get enough of snazzy menus.
Combat will feel familiar to series veterans, as it uses the “Press Turn” system, wherein extra turns are granted for striking enemy weaknesses. The game is brutally difficult, but fair; turning an overwhelming defeat into a triumphant victory is as straightforward as reorganizing Flynn’s demons and re-evaluating tactics. A lower difficulty setting is unlocked after two deaths, so easily-stressed players can rest easy. Fighting is not the only option, however. Flynn can also attempt to sway demons to join him or give away items, often with hilarious results. When a demon roars, “KNEEL BEFORE ME, HUMAN!” and your choices are “submit,” “submit,” and “submit,” it’s hard not to burst out laughing. This balance of gravity and levity in the game’s writing is one of its greatest strengths.
When not engaging the hostile denizens of Tokyo in battle, Flynn can make life easier by spending “App Points” to customize his gauntlet. These boosts range from increasing the number of skill slots he has to unlocking new demon conversation options. Challenge quests supplement the main story by providing valuable rewards, and a Streetpass feature (cleverly named the Digital Devil Service) even exists to help players swap demons.
I already reviewed the Music Collection disc, an eight-track primer to the game, and my thoughts on the full soundtrack are similarly positive. Full of dark, sinister melodies and outrageously rocking battle themes, the game’s music is perfectly suited to its visual aesthetic. Similarly, the voice acting is uniformly excellent, and the script flows naturally. My only nitpick is that a small pool of actors provided voices for the game’s demons, and even though they did a good job, I couldn’t help but notice the repetition.
At this point, my feelings on the game should be clear. Shin Megami Tensei IV is not only one of the best RPGs to come out this year, it’s also proof that Atlus has not lost its touch with the main Shin Megami Tensei series. Despite how radically different it is from the Persona series, this post-apocalyptic adventure is no less engrossing. Strap on your gauntlet and hop to it, Samurai.