Thursday, April 28, 2022

Shin Megami Tensei IV

 Stylized illustration of Flynn and his fellow samurai Walter and Jonathan

The Mikado, Minus Gilbert and Sullivan

On Nintendo’s Famicom system (known as the Nintendo Entertainment System outside Japan), the Megami Tensei series started the monster/demon-collecting roleplaying game craze, influencing games such as Dragon Quest (the second series to feature the mechanic) and Pokémon, although foreign gamers would have their first taste of “catching ‘em all” with the latter franchise, early MegaTen games remaining in Japan due to Nintendo America’s draconian videogame content policies, given that the Atlus (initially Namco with the Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei games) series was heavy when it came to religious content.

It wasn’t until several console generations later that Megami Tensei would receive exposure outside Japan with entries such as Revelations: Persona, although Atlus’ North American branch at the time was very unrefined with the art of videogame localization. The third mainline Shin Megami Tensei game, subtitled Nocturne on the PlayStation 2 proved a turning point in the franchise’s foreign popularity, and the series would become popular enough to warrant the localization of most future titles. Interestingly, the fourth numbered game in the Shin Megami Tensei series, Shin Megami Tensei IV, released on the Nintendo 3DS, providing an experience largely on par with its precursors.

The game’s story begins in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, with the protagonist, default name Flynn, being a fledgling samurai, going on a few missions to prove his worth and having friendship in the form of fellow trainees such as Jonathan and Walter. Several twists abound a few hours into the game, and throughout the player’s experience, so do a number of philosophical choices that account for different narrative events, similar to Nocturne. Aside from weak direction and similarity to prior Shin Megami Tenseis, the story is generally enjoyable, given especially the interesting turns.

The localization helps the narrative, with legible dialogue and that it doesn’t mask the oriental atmosphere, with decent naming conventions that somewhat give said Asian influence a few nonstandard twists, particularly those of Mikado’s residents. Some may find the names of recruitable demons a bit exotic for their tastes, although luckily there are in-game explanations as to the particular origins of said potential allies for Flynn. Aside from a fair bit of awkward battle dialogue (such as “I shall take Life Stone” during the attempted recruitment of many demons), the translation is definitely a positive for the game.

Solid gameplay backs the narrative experience, the fourth mainline Shin Megami Tensei building on its numerical precursor’s Press Turn System. Enemies within dungeons and on the overworld moving bluish pixels represent, and will charge Flynn after spawning and noticing him, although within enemy-infested areas, he can slash them to give his party the first turn in the subsequent battle. On the overworld, however, the ability to slash enemies is unavailable, although one skill, Estoma Sword, can give players the potential for instant victory against lower-leveled enemies, similar to EarthBound’s system.

Mercifully, however, battles themselves largely shine, with Flynn or one of his three active demons starting the player’s turn session, all able to attack normally (although the protagonist can fire his equipped gun to deal “shoot” damage), use MP-consuming skills (with physical skills also costing Magic Points unlike their consumption of HP in prior mainline games), swap places with a demon in the player’s stock, attempt escape (with players luckily able to see the success rate of doing so), pass their turn to the next demon or the hero, or, if they have the Attack Knowhow or Healing Knowhow skill, use an attack or recovery item (Flynn able to use both by default).

As in Nocturne, the player receives a number of turn icons depending upon how many active frontline characters there are (up to four), with the exploitation of enemy weaknesses only consuming half an icon, although using a command the opponent demons nullify takes two, drained and reflected abilities instantly ending the player’s turn, these rules also applying to the antagonists. Flynn’s current equipment dictates which elements he’s strong or weak against, and players need to consider the overall strengths and weaknesses of the hero and his demons before setting up their party, setups such as offsetting monsters weak against specific elements with those strong against the same type ideal.

Apps play a major role in Shin Megami Tensei IV’s gameplay mechanics, with the chief among these being the demon fusion application, where the player can combine two demons to create a more powerful one (or weaker, should they desire, but likely not). Not becoming too attached to a particular party setup and constant fusion of demons for want of higher-leveled allies is definitely ideal to keep up with stronger antagonists throughout the game, and a good strategy I adopted was fusing demons when the app indicated I could discover new ones. However, fusion accidents may rarely occur, although most of the time, luckily, they resulted in undiscovered demons.

When leveling, the player gets points to invest into Flynn’s stats, consumable essences also increasing one of his status numbers by three, and demons may level too from gaining experience for winning battles. Upon leveling, demons may obtain new abilities, active or passive, a default of four skills each for Flynn and his allies, but App Points can increase the maximum each can hold up to eight. Whenever a demon levels, the player sometimes gets the opportunity to teach Flynn some of their abilities, and a strategy I would suggest is not to overfill his slots with multiple status-increasing or decreasing skills since Luster Candy and Debilitate later on can perform these respective roles for all stats.

Which brings me to the actual means of acquiring demons, involving parleying with adversaries and the need to answer philosophical questions and bribe them with money, items, and/or health or magic points. The chief issue with this system is that the “correct” answers to questions aren’t always consistent even with the same demons, and they may bail on the player in the middle of negotiation, making off with whatever resources Flynn provided them. Several apps can really enhance this system, performing functions such as reducing the resources necessary to recruit them, having them bring one other demon into the player’s party, giving the player money for successful negotiation, and so forth.

Before the player decides to fuse their demons, they may wish to register them in the Demon Compendium to preserve their current levels and abilities for later resummoning at a price, with money also necessary to perform special fusions involving more than two demons. Furthermore, unless the player faces a “mob” of human adversaries in battle, or liberally uses the Fundraise app and its enhancements, the only other primary means of acquiring money comes from items that spawn from fixed resource points in dungeons and selling them to shops. Generally, money isn’t too great of an issue throughout the game, and I had little trouble in the endgame portion even without the best equipment.

Another area that’s somewhat crucial to me when it comes to RPGs such as Shin Megami Tensei IV is how they handle death, although it really isn’t too big an issue given the player’s ability to record their progress anywhere outside battle. Death takes players to the River Styx, where they can pay Charon to revive them at their point of death. If players want to unlock a more merciful difficulty setting, they’ll have to pay him once and die again, after which the easier challenge level unlocks. Players can start a tab with Charon if they don’t have enough money, but again, given the liberal save system, this feature is largely pointless, yet far from breaks the experience.

In the end, the game mechanics really shine, with battles being largely enjoyable, given that they build upon the gameplay introduced in Nocturne, alongside the ability to unlock the mentioned easier difficulty setting and adjust it anytime, consequentially making the fourth entry of the Shin Megami Tensei more accessible to those having limited experience with the franchise. There are a few minor issues with the randomization of demon negotiation, given the flakiness of many demons at times, not to mention the potential repetition associated with the constant deliberation with enemies for the regular fusion into more powerful demons, but these flaws far from mar the experience.

Lamentably, Shin Megami Tensei IV is another one of those RPGs whose control aspect is superficially tight, given easy menus, nonproblematic shopping, in-game maps and the ability to switch between floors on the 3DS’s lower screen to see how dungeon chambers connect, and the like. Unfortunately, there are many issues such as the mentioned poor direction of how to advance the storyline, not to mention multiple sidequests, and I found myself constantly referencing the internet to find out where to go next. The ability to instantly exit the demon fusion interface would have been nice as well, given the slight unwieldiness of its menus, and generally, the fourth entry could have certainly interfaced better with players.

However, the game mostly has solid audiovisual presentation, with the music mostly being enjoyable, different standard battle themes preventing the battle audio from becoming too repetitive, along with many voice clips for demons and fully-voiced cutscenes at points, although there are a few points that largely depend on ambience. The graphics are nice as well, with superb character and enemy designs without reskins, good environments with realistic colors, and the rarity of different equipment affecting the protagonist’s appearance, although some may find the combat visuals lazy, given the strict first-person perspective and foes not changing their animations when attacking the player’s party. Regardless, the fourth numerical Shin Megami Tensei is easy on both the ears and eyes.

Finally, the gameplay experience is certainly a lengthy one, somewhere between forty-eight and seventy-two hours necessary for a straightforward playthrough and completion, maybe a little longer (at least in my time with the game), with the different ideological choices that genuinely affect the narrative, a New Game Plus where players can carry over elements from their initial playthrough and access a higher difficulty setting, and the abundance of sidequests, adding plentiful lasting appeal, although the ease of getting stuck would certainly be a deterrent that would possibly prevent certain gamers from going through it again.

On the whole, Shin Megami Tensei IV is undoubtedly an amazing experience, and one of the far-better entries of a storied franchise that has its share of good, bad, and average installments. The game mechanics successfully build upon those established by its numerical predecessor Nocturne, the narrative is enjoyable with the potential for many variations in different playthroughs, the audiovisual aspect shines, and there is plentiful lasting appeal. However, there are issues of which players need to be aware before purchase and play such as the weak storyline and sidequest direction, and some may find the battle graphics lazy. Regardless, the fourth entry very much warrants a playthrough by those that enjoy monster-collectors such as the Pokémon series.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally downloaded to the reviewer’s Nintendo 3DS.

The Good:
+Refined battle and demon-recruiting mechanics.
+Great story with potential variations.
+Nice audiovisual aspect.

The Bad:
-Some may find the gameplay repetitive.
-Poor story and sidequest direction.
-A few might find the combat graphics lazy.

The Bottom Line:
A must-play game for fans of monster-collectors.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 8.5/10
Localization: 9.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 48-72+ Hours

Overall: 9.0/10

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