I recently completed Shin Megami Tensei IV, the newest iteration of the series for the Nintendo 3DS and I have very mixed feelings about my experience with it. The premise of each Shin Megami Tensei game is giving the player a choice of philosophical alignment in a world gone to Hell. This installment is no different, with the player assuming the role of a samurai in an apocalyptic and dystopian Tokyo. The main character's allies represent the three alignment choices: Isabeau (neutral), Walter (chaos), and Jonathan (law.)
I initially bonded with Walter, as he is the character that represents the lower class masses and his ideas started out sounding rather reasonable since he comes from a similar background as Flynn, the main character. On the other hand, I hated Johnathan's prim and proper nature from the get-go. He was so uptight and seemed to be a puppet of the Church.Walter and Johnathan represented the extremes of humanity. Jonathan was the privileged and well-mannered elite that yearned for guidance from the heavens, and Walter was the free but poor vagabond that liked living on the wild side. As for the female samurai, Isabeau, I didn't feel anything in particular for her until she gushed over a manga and thus appealed to my geeky side. Aside from that, she mostly indecisive and dull.
After playing through about 70% of the game you get locked into the path associated with one of your allies and their destiny. My choices led me to the path of neutrality. This path is said to be the hardest path, but really it is only difficult because of the weird design choices of the development team. The neutral path requires the player to fulfill almost every side quest in Tokyo to return hope to humanity. The backtracking wouldn't be so bad if the map system was more useful, but for the most part the lower screen of your 3DS just makes you long for a more functional interface.
The map is labelled with the names of Tokyo's suburbs like Shinjuku and Ueno, which maybe very helpful if you are a citizen of Tokyo in real life, but for most of us, this is not the case. I have actually visited Tokyo, but I don't have a working knowledge of the city, which Shin Megami Tensei IV sort of requires, or just absolute memorization of every place you visited prior to the endgame of the neutral portion. This made me quickly hate fulfilling every side mission, because I lost 90% of the time (thank heavens for GameFaqs.)
As I stumbled through Tokyo's different districts with piss poor instructions of where to go and how to trigger each quest, I thought why couldn't the map be more intuitive? They could have allowed players to use the stylus to write down notes or tips for later. Another option could have been a mapping system like Etrian Odyssey, which could have been worst depending on your perspective of that rather hardcore series. Either way something needed to be added to give players a stronger notion of where they were headed and how to get back there. Another big problem lies in the constant encounters from low level enemies.
There is a spell called Estoma that allows players to evade fights with lower level enemies. Unfortunately, the spell wears off every minute, and requires digging into two different menus to recast. Why couldn't I map this spell to a hotkey on the 3DS? Another massive pain are the areas filled with poison, which cause more frustration as you are constantly needing to heal your team and cure poison. Why did they even have these poisoned areas on the map to begin with? There is a side quest to stop a group of demons from spreading poison across Tokyo, but even after completing this mission, the poison remains on the map.
I am aware there are terminals that allow players to easily go from city to city. This is one of the few conveniences in an otherwise convoluted navigation system. Also, a quest can be unlocked to receive an airship. I never found this quest, but according to other players, you can get an airship by taking a certain quest from high level demons in combat. I was never able to find this quest in my 50+ hours with the game. The airship didn't sound especially useful either as it only allows travel to four corners of the map. This was surely a letdown for those expecting an awesome airship such as the ones in the early Final Fantasy series.
Aside from these complaints, the neutral path left me pained that I didn't choose one of the more extreme alliances. The neutral path basically pits you against Heaven and Hell with the aide of a giant deity that guards Tokyo. Heaven is guarded by Jonathan and vice versa for Walter. However, little thought was given to the friendship shared among the samurai quartet before the battles with each respective side. Walter even says it makes him want to cry that he will have to kill Flynn for the sake of proving chaos is the new natural order of the world, but no further exploration of this idea is shown after the fight. He merely changes into Lucifer, and loses his mind. After his loss, Lucifer gives a speech about the weakness of humans, but the player is not granted any form of closure with arguably Flynn's closest human ally. It would have been so much better if Flynn was holding Walter's body in his arms after the battle to signify "hey, we may have been enemies, but we are still friends, even in death."
Sadly, the ending wasn't much better for me. The humans from the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado descend to Tokyo and have a few drinks to rejoice about hope for the future. Then Isabeau and the hero walk outside and see the sky begin to collapse, revealing sunlight for the first time in decades. That is it. The end. Wait, what? Do the humans rebuild the city or start a brave new world? Does Isabeau and the hero fall in love? Are Walter and Jonathan talked about even once after their defeat at Flynn's hands? Who the hell was Dr. Stephen? Why was the goddess of Tokyo shown for only twenty seconds during the ending? I was left with more questions than answers. While the ending wasn't Mass Effect 3 bad, it was pretty damn close.
I enjoyed my time with Shin Megami Tensei IV, but I can't help but feel like it was a big step back from Nocturne. The restrictions of the 3DS most likely fueled many of the strange design decisions in the game, but this seems inexcusable when I see games like Bravely Default push the hardware to the limits. Moreover, the Vita could have handled a beautiful fully 3D RPG probably more inline with the design team's initial vision. I considered replaying SMT IV to see the other endings, but due to my frustrating experiences with the map, I will be watching them on Youtube. Thanks for the sequel Atlus, but I hope you go back to the drawing board for the next game.