The name Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t exactly give you much information does it? Other that it clearly implying that the game is of Japanese origins, the only other thing it gives away is that it’s probably a JRPG. If you assumed those two things, then you are in fact correct, but what you cannot assume at all, is that this is just another generic whimsical JRPG. Oh no, you’re in for a Hell of a mature game with a morality system that goes beyond good and evil.
It’s very clear from the start of the game that morality will have a large role to play in the grand scheme of things. But before any choices can be made, a journey needs to start. You play Hero – or Flynn if you choose to change his name – an apprentice Samurai and protector of The Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. It’s your job, along with the other apprentices, to protect and uphold the law of your Kingdom. However, things begin to change when your peaceful country is tainted by the sudden appearance of demons. As a Samurai, it’s your job to defeat the demons and find a way to stop the menace.
That is not even a lick off the tip of the iceberg that is Shin Megami Tensei IV. There are at least three totally unexpected plot twists that will leave you gasping and raising your eyebrows. Without mentioning too much, the plot heavily revolves around religion, specifically Christianity, but it integrates many other cultures and mythologies. The one thing the game manages to put across is that there is no black and white. Everything has a consequence, and it’s up to you to decide what’s truly good and truly evil.
Having never played the other Tensei games before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. A large part of the game revolves around three settings, traversing the world map, traversing the battle ground and taking part in the battle. All three are presented differently. In the world map, you move a little cone (which represents you) around a maze-like map. In the battle ground, you move in 3rd-person, attacking any demons to win a surprise attack (very similar to Lighting’s attack in Lightning Returns). In battle mode, you’re changed to an idle screen with images of your party members with the enemies in the background.
The battles alone make this game deeply interesting. Unlike most RPGs with party members, this game uses demons as party members. It sounds weird using demons – the creatures you’re meant to destroy – as allies, but as the story progress it actually makes more sense. Also, the term “demon” is very relative as there are LAW-abiding demons and even angels for you to command. Obtaining demon party members is also very interesting as it’s a mixture of a gamble and negotiation. During a battle, you can speak to any demon and attempt to recruit them. During this “talk” phase, the demon will often ask you a trick question. Depending on how you answer, they will either start negotiations, run away or attack you. If you manage to get to the negotiation bit, there’s the chance they’ll steal your stuff and run away, or worse, steal your stuff and still attack you. At first I thought this was frustrating, then I realized I was making deals with demons and that’s something that’s not fair to begin with.
Now for the actual fighting. It’s an old school turn-based RPG with standard physical and magical attacks. Most enemies have a weakness, and finding out what that weakness is takes some guess work. Some are weak to gun damage while others are weak to fire damage. On the flip side, some demons are resistant to certain damage, repel damage or can be healed by certain attacks. What’s interesting is that your hero develops skills by unlocking skills in demons. When you level up your demons, they unlock 1 -3 different skills. Once all the moves are unlocked, they can give you any of their moves, and if you already have a specific move, it will be upgraded. You can only keep a certain amount of moves, but it can be upgraded with your Samurai’s Gauntlet.
At the very start of the game you’re given a Gauntlet, a type of wristband that allows you to summon and control demons. It’s also your map, guide and info hub. It even has an onboard AI called Burroughs. In the Gauntlet, you can purchase various apps, like mapping, demonlingual (speak to certain demons), upgrade certain abilities and unlock demon fusion. Demon fusion is another fantastic part of the game. Using two or more demons, you can create more powerful demons, even some of the bosses you defeat along the way. While not many of these features are new to the Shin Megami Tensei games, it’s very different from standard RPGs and might completely different for newcomers.
The main complaint I have with the game is the inconsistent difficulty. In some areas, you’ll come across an enemy that’s easily beaten, then you’ll fight someone that swipes the floor. It’s fairly common in RPGs, but in this case it’s a little extreme. If you do die, you can be resurrected at the cost of some macca (the currency) or play coins. However, if you select play coins, but wish to use macca instead, you don’t have the option to switch. While the story of the game is great, the pacing can be heavily affected if you don’t know where to go. The bigger world map is a pain to navigate. You move from area to area, hopping into one battle ground and leaving it the other end, to come out in a different portion of the world map. If you’re in the right place, you have to backtrack, etc, until you find the right place. It’s very easy to get lost and this does have an impact on the pacing of the game, not to mention your frustration levels. At one point I was lost for an hour before I caved and used a walkthrough to find the next objective.
Although it’s not perfect and not a genre that’s particularly popular in the Western World, Shin Megami Tensei IV blew me away with its unique story. As someone who’s never played the previous games before, I found the demon collecting and combat quite different from other mainstream games. But more importantly, the choices and moral dilemma’s mentioned in the game are what really hit home. The game needs to be played multiple times to experience what will happen with each choice you make.