I bought Shin Megami Tensei IV on a whim. Pre-ordered on a whim, actually, the same day I was purchasing Fire Emblem: Awakening. At the time, if you bought Fire Emblem: Awakening and SMTIV, you got a $30 credit on the Nintendo eShop. I knew I wanted FE:A, I knew I wanted a few eShop games. So, I justified buying the fourth entry in a series I knew almost nothing about based on the fact that it was ďonlyĒ costing me $20.
Actually, all things considered, I probably shouldnít have expected to like the game very much at all. My only previous exposure to the Shin Megami Tensei series is my copy of the original Persona for PSP. A game I couldnít get into. I found the dungeon crawling a bit bland, and the depth in the game was overwhelming to me. Plus I wasnít specifically fond of the Japanese high school setting. Basically, at least from what I played of it at the time, it just wasnít for me.
So then, why did I even bother with SMTIV? Iím still not sure. I think it was partially the eShop promotion, partially the fact that the initial shipment were all collectorís editions, partially the fact that I assumed it was a $40 game and shrugged off the fact that it was actually a $50 game. There were also rave reviews, and a SMT-loving friend beside me pre-ordering the same game.
So, I gave the game a shot. Somewhere between Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Pokemon Y and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I put a few hours into Shin Megami Tensei IV. I had read and listened to all the cut scenes so far, explored the opening dungeon, spent some time grinding, spent some time recruiting demons. The base mechanics were a bit foreign to me (I kept wondering when the other human characters were going to join my party), but the presentation was what I found the hardest to swallow.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a game where a picture of your protagonist and a bunch of pictures of demons fight other pictures of demons. Cut scenes are pictures of characters with voices. Dialog with NPCs is usually unvoiced text boxes in front of tiny, blurry pictures in front of a blurry background. There are times when story events occur with nothing more than a paragraph of explanation in a dialog box. This is not what Iím used to getting from a JRPG. Not at all.
The first town you visit is essentially a series of menus. I found it all pretty underwhelming. Even the story and dialogue, while interesting, felt a little bit hokey to me. I think itís mostly the way the characters talk, trying to sound all formal and ďmedievalĒ (even though Iím pretty sure nobody ever talked like that). Meanwhile, I was trying to wrap my head around which demons are worth keeping, how I can recruit them and when and why I should be fusing them. The music was fantastic, and sometimes had me coming back just so I could hear the Aquila Statue Plaza theme. The game was starting to grab me, despite the way it looked.
Somewhere along the way, SMTIV got lost in the shuffle. I have too many games to play in general, but the 3DS specifically had a stellar 2013. Still, I put in 8 hours or so. I figured out that I liked the mechanics of the game, and decided I could probably live with the graphics. The story did manage to interest me, despite my eyes rolling every time anyone spoke, and the fact that the story was a slideshow of the same few pictures (fully voice acted, though). But it never felt like a priority to go back to it, and in all honesty the graphics were part of that.
Bravely Default came out. I played the demo, liked it a lot, and got a JRPG itch I knew the full version would probably be able to scratch. But I only have so much time, and only so much money. It didnít make sense to run out and buy Bravely Default when I have a perfectly good copy of SMTIV to scratch that itch. They may be very different games, but they both still let me visit a world filled with turn based encounters and dungeons to explore.
So I went back to Shin Megami Tensei IV. I was in the forest area near the start of the game, and couldnít remember which way to go. After a few minutes, and a few fights, I got my bearings and trudged on. I played through the story event in the forest, and things got interesting. It was an easy fight, I had been grinding a bit before I stopped playing months earlier and didnít really have any trouble at all. The game was just how I remembered and fairly seamless to jump back in to.
There was one difference though: the look of the game didnít bother me anymore. I donít know what it is, maybe just having time away from it then returning? Thatís the only thing I can think of. I no longer saw the single-image-demons as a single image. I saw it as a tool for your imagination. Like a picture from a Dungeons and Dragons book. It was starting to click.
The whole game, really, has a lot in common with a D&D campaign. Mechanically they donít share much, but you do have to use your imagination in SMTIV. It does some of the work for you, but there arenít many moments where you witness cinematic action or even any sort of animation that isnít just overlayed effects. You essentially need to use your imagination to picture what these battles may actually look like, what it might be like to actually walk through Mikado. Still, I was hoping for the game to eventually let me move around and explore in 3D.
ďDon't get discouraged by the early town navigation, which relies on menus.Ē Dale North wrote in his review for Destructoid. ďTrust me -- it really opens up in a big way.Ē With this in mind I continued on, coming across what is considered the first real boss battle in SMTIV. I died. I spent 2 hours leveling up my character and main demons. I still died. I figured out an element the boss was weak against, though, and that was what I needed. I needed to breed a demon at a high level (high for that point in the game) that had an elemental spell of the correct type. So I did, and the fight became easier. This was another ďclickĒ for me, learning where SMTIV differed from other RPGs. RPGs where weaknesses do matter, but theyíre rarely this make-or-break. Itís rare in other RPGs that you get completely annihilated if you donít make sure youíre doing the most efficient things. And the buffs! They matter this much in this game? He makes my accuracy drop and now I canít hit him at all? What?
So I learned. And Iím keeping on learning, even with 30 hours under my belt. The game requires some serious strategic thinking, and punishes you when you make mistakes. But with save-anywhere and the ability to buy your progress back (with in-game currency or Play CoinsÖ which I always have a lot of), it never feels like it wastes your time. Honestly, itís brilliant. I love it. Dale North may have overestimated how long it would take someone like me to look past the simple presentation, at least in this case, but his promise of a more open experience kept me motivated to push forward. Now I love the game mechanics so much, I donít think Iíd even care if it was all just menus. Maybe after I finish this game Iíll go back to that copy of Persona.