Atlus' key franchise goes portable
It has been nine long years since we've enjoyed Atlus' role-playing masterwork, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. Yep, it's been nine long years since we've seen a numbered title in Atlus' core franchise (though Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey was a really nice tie-over). That's a long time to wait for the follow-up to one of my favorite games of all time.
Even so, fans were surprised to learn that the next numbered SMT game would be a portable title. The change from console to portable was certainly welcome, but even this portable game fan had some reservations. But now that I've reveled in Atlus' strange world once more I can tell you that all the dungeons, demons, and darkness you could ever want are here, fully intact.
Shin Megami Tensei IV (Nintendo 3DS)
In the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, those that turn eighteen years of age have to go through a mandatory ritual at Mikado Castle to see if they're one of the chosen that are to become Samurai. Being chosen in this "Gauntlet Rite" can be seen as an honor, but it's also an obligation, as Samurai are tasked with defending the kingdom from unknown danger.
You play as one of the newest recruits to the Samurai, and alongside other recruits from both Mikado's upper and lower class (the Luxurors and Casualries, respectively) you finally learn what you're up against as a Samurai. As anyone that has played a Shin Megami Tensei game would guess, Samurais fight demons.
But don't think you know everything about this game, Mr./Miss Shin Megami Tensei Fan. Atlus had a field day with Shin Megami Tensei IV's story and setting, and it feels like they went out of their way to bring us something completely new and unexpected this time around. Jumping in, you'll see that SMT IV is quite a bit different from the modern day, world's end setting of Nocturne. Despite its Japanese-sounding name and its Samurai, Mikado seems like medieval Europe with its castles and cobblestone streets. And things seem pretty peaceful as they usually do in games that kick off in middle-age, fantasy-style countries.
But recruits privy to the secrets of the Samurai will find that all is not as it seems on the outside. Going up against demons that seem to come from below, Samurai fight as medeval knights would, with sword and shield. But they also rely on strange relics that look like future technology, though they have no understanding of how they work. Getting into what these relics do and where they came from would spoil some SMT IV's story, so we'll let you find out yourself. But I will say that the scope for this story is massive, going far beyond what you'd expect for a portable RPG.
Shin Megami Tensei IV does look and feel a bit different at first, but it's still held up by the same tentpoles you'd expect as a series fan. As with its predecessor, you'll explore worlds in a third-person view and battle monsters in Atlus' twist on the turn-based battle system. They call this system of enemy weakness exploitation the "Press Turn" system, and while it's mostly the same as in other SMT games, it has a few upgrades in IV. The biggest change, called the Smirk system, will have both allies and enemies flashing a grin after landing an especially effective attack. With this grin, you or your enemies will be able to do even more damage in battle. The balance of the battle can turn on just one of these Smirks.
All of the expected SMT demon gameplay aspects are here, including demon battling, negotiation, fusing, and customizing. This demon collection/customization gameplay linchpin has been honed down over the years to the point where not many changes have been made to the system this time around. Aside from the addition of new demons (now over 400 to collect) and powers, only a few tweaks have been made to the demon system, with most of them relating to streamlining its processes. For example, in demon fusion, the top three best fusion results are suggested from your current demon inventory, taking the guesswork out. Otherwise, it's still the same engrossing make-your-own-party system that we've enjoyed in other franchise titles.
And while I wouldn't quite call difficulty one of Atlus' tentpoles for SMT, this game does provide a stiff challenge, and they make no apologies for it. Even in my first hours I found myself restarting from single attacks that wiped out my entire party. You won't be able to mindlessly romp through SMT IV's worlds as there's always an uphill climb as far as dificulty goes. Atlus does provide a reduced difficulty setting that is freely switchable at any point, but for the few hours I tried it out I learned that you can still die from single shots. While death comes easy, revival can too. Wheeling and dealing even takes place on the banks of the River Styx. You can pay up in Macca (the game's currency) to come back to life, or if you've been banking 3DS Game Coins, those will also work.
Speaking of the 3DS, I'm glad to say that Shin Megami Tensei IV does not suffer for being a portable title. In fact, it's a stunner at times, with near console quality visuals in cutscenes. There's a slick, futuristic theme that runs throughout the user interface, and that ties in with the game's menu systems in a neat way. The character art for dialogue and cutscenes is mostly static, but it's vivd and colorful, and Atlus worked in some neat storyboard effects to keep things exciting. Oh, and it's all fully voiced! Demon conversations play out similarly, with full busts of demons taking up the entire top screen, making negotiation feel like a one-on-one talk. Despite being dark in both theme and color, Shin Megami Tensei IV still manages to be bold and stylish. Atlus did not hold back.
While I was initially disappointed to see that battles are first-person affairs where your party attacks mostly static sprites, the feel and presentation of the battles more than makes up for the tradeoff. While I would have preferred fully 3D, animated fights like those of Nocturne, this upgraded version of what we saw in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey works well with the dual screen setup of the 3DS, and they did manage to work in fully 3D backgrounds for battles, with some dynamic camera changes for battle position. There are also flashy spell/attack animations and some minor enemy movement to keep things lively. Now that I've spent a fair bit of time enjoying them, I'd like to think the first-person battles were more of a design choice, and that it had less to do with hardware limitations.
If anything, the 3DS shows that it has plenty enough graphical muscle in SMT IV's world exploration segments. Gone are the boxy, flat, low resolution dungeons of Strange Journey, replaced by expansive and nicely detailed cityscapes. These areas are open and freely explorable in a third-person view, just as you'd expect from a console JRPG. We're talking PS2-era 3D graphics here, complete with shadows and lighting effects. I don't think that Atlus was trying to squeeze a console game onto a portable, but they did manage to give players some console RPG conveniences and features.
The presentation of SMT IV really benefits from the 3DS dual screens. With menus, stats, and maps on the bottom screen (all of which support both touch input and buttons), the top screen is free to display world exploration and battles without any kind of user interface overlay. This makes for a clean, distraction-free presentation.
There's a nifty technical tie-in that relates to the story (we won't spoil it) that plays on both the UI presentation as well as the use of the bottom touch screen. And it's all attractive and beautifully streamlined to boot. All of Shin Megami Tensei IV looks great with the 3D slider turned on. 3D gives world exploration depth, and it makes battles flashy and fun. This is one of the very few 3DS games I was happy to play in 3D.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is also a treat for the ears, though those expecting Shoji Meguro's poppy vocal themes may be disappointed. Composer Ryota Kozuka steps up to bring some very dark and creepy themes to SMT IV. There are more than a few pieces that would have worked perfectly in a survival horror game, and they're a perfect fit for exploration in the darkest parts of the game's world. Not all of the battle themes managed to float my boat, and some of the middle ages-type tunes are a bit bland, but the mood and ambient music later in the game hit the mark exactly. And in true Atlus style, there are some really weird selections that pop up during your exploration. They're so strange that I find myself looking forward to visting the locales that feature them.
Atlus is known for their strong characters, fantastic settings, and deep stories, and with SMT IV they do not disappoint. There's a varied cast of characters spread over two worlds (you'll see) to meet, judge, and then later change your mind about as the story strings you through several surprises, some tough choices, and some pretty big plot twists. Atlus brings loud, handsome, and eye-catching character designs in a big way, from the main cast to the new demons. Series fans will be thrilled to see a few references to past Shin Megami Tensei games thrown in. I won't ruin the surprises.
You'll start out fighting to hold back the demon invasion with your fellow Samurai recruits, Walter, Jonathan and Isabeau. But things take a strange turn when you start to realize that there are deeper motives behind your superiors' mission assignments. Again, we won't spoil all that this game has in store for you, but know that this is a full-on, deep, mature drama -- no kiddie stuff here. This game revels in its own darkness and that makes it delightful.
Between its mission-based structure and Burroughs, your sexy voiced computerized tour guide, you'll always know where you're going and what you're doing, though you're free to explore on your own, take side missions, or grind. Don't get discouraged by the early town navigation, which relies on menus. Trust me -- it really opens up in a big way. It would take about 35 to 40 hours to march through all that Atlus has laid out for the story, but with a world this interesting and bizarre, you'll get much more mileage out of SMT IV through exploring and experimenting.
Shin Megami Tensei IV feels much more open than any of their previous portable titles thanks to the fully 3D third-person exploration. Instead of dungeons, expect maps. You'll walk an overworld-style map to enter locations that you'll explore on foot, not unlike Nocturne. In both the overworld and in these areas you'll find that enemies are free-roaming, represented as floating static blobs.
In most cases you'll be able to juke about to avoid encounters, though it's easier to do in the third-person view than it is in the overworld view. There are a few times where battles are forced on you, and in them you'll find the encounter rate to be fairly high. This is just one more aspect of the stiff difficulty that SMT IV puts forth. If you're a fellow glutton for punishment you'll love these bits. If not, soldier on through, as they don't last for long.
Shin Megami Tensei IV may have been developed for two little screens, but it's a massive, uncompromising game that feels just as big as any console RPG release. It's as deep and gratifying as you'd expect from Atlus' original key franchise, and now it's fully portable (with a save anywhere function). In fact, the only real problem you're going to have with Shin Megami Tensei IV is keeping your 3DS battery charged up, because it's the best RPG for 3DS to date.
THE VERDICT - Shin Megami Tensei IV
Reviewed by Dale North