Shin Megami Tensei IV Review
Review by Shawn Denney
Shin Megami Tensei is one of my favorite series around. It has been consistently one of the more challenging RPG franchises with dark and mature stories. It came into its heyday in the 2000’s particularly on the PS2 where every game from the franchise was a knockout; Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, Shin Megami Tensei: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army & vs The Abbadon King, as well as the amazing Shin Megami Tensei: Person 3 and 4. In recent years, the Shin Megami Tensei series has shifted to handhelds with remakes of past games, new spinoffs of the franchise like Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, and a main entry in the franchise Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is best described as a mix of elements from Nocturne and Strange Journey. It uses 3D models for exploration a la Nocturne but all of the in-game conversations, towns, and battles utilize 2D images. Let’s explore some of the details of each aspect of the game though. Shin Megami Tensei IV is a RPG for the Nintendo 3DS. It involves a hub based town where you can interact with people and have dialogue trees, shop for equipment, or seek out and turn in quests.
Outside of town you will explore 3D environments searching for objectives, finding items, and battling demons. Their are no random encounters in Shin Megami Tensei IV instead letting you see the enemies on the map before hand. A battle starts when you come in contact with the enemy image. If you strike an enemy with your sword then you will gain an advantage in combat. IF the enemy strikes you from behind then they get the advantage. This encounter system works well as it puts players in control of when to engage and how to engage.
Once in battle the crux of the game takes place. You control your main hero (more on that later) and can recruit demons to fill out your party. As with past Shin Megami Tensei games, you recruit demons by speaking to them and answering their questions properly. Each demon has a unique personality and will respond differently to your choices. Convincing a demon to join your party increases your combat strength as each has a set of abilities along with strengths and weaknesses. Demons level up with experience or they can be fused together to create different demons.
Abilities, strengths, and weaknesses play a huge role in battle. If you hit an enemies weakness then you get another turn. If an enemy hits your weakness then they get another turn. Having the right party composition is crucial to winning some of the more challenging encounters in the game. If you have a party that is immune to a certain element or type of attack and the enemy uses it on you then it ends their turn. The same applies to if you use something they are immune to. What this system does when mixed with the massive variety of demons is force you to cycle through, adapt, and swap out demons frequently. You can’t just get attached to something and expect to use it the whole game.
Visually the game is a disappointment. The 3D models being used only for exploration look decent but leave me feeling like the whole game should have been done in the style. The sprite work for demons, monsters, enemies, etc. doesn’t look like much of a notable improvement of Strange Journey which was a DS game. One thing that I found most peculiar is the way new equipment changes your character. It makes sense that a new armor would visually look different on your character, but you can get equipment that changes your characters hair color too. So apparently dye is now a form of armor?
I want to also talk about the new art style of the game. Shin Megami Tensei games (outside of the persona series) have had this unique style that is somewhere between Gothic and anime and has everyone wearing eyeliner for no particular reason. With the dismal settings that involve post-end of the world and visiting hell it made sense. Shin Megami Tensei IV throws that style out the window and instead says “I want to have fully anime styled characters!” which while they don’t look bad don’t fit the series as well. Like how Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow went full anime style characters rather than the hand painted Gothic art of Castlevaina: Aria of Sorrow was a shift for the worse, so too is the style change here.
The story has some interesting moments and themes but never hits the same level of mature or engrossing narrative that past entries in the franchise have. Part of this has to do with the main plot itself, but more has to do with the supporting cast. The characters you interact with for the most part just aren’t that interesting. They have a very clear “side with me because ….” built into their dialogue over and over which feels like i’m being hit over the head with their ideals rather than deciding for myself how I feel about the character. Frankly its shocking since the series generally has engaging albeit offbeat characters.
Shin Megami Tensei IV can be looked at in two ways: first is based off its own merits as someone experiencing the series for the first time. Second as the latest entry in the venerable franchise. Trying to look at it from someone new to the franchise their is a lot to like here. The Demon system is engaging and the battle system is immensely rewarding to those who invest and punishing to those who slack off. From the perspective of someone invested in the series before this entry I can’t help but feel disappointed by the game. The shift in visual design is to its detriment, the story and characters fall a bit flat, and overall it just isn’t as good of a game as either Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey or Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.