20 April 2014

'Shin Megami Tensei IV' Part I

It feels great having beaten a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game. This may not be the hardest game in the entire franchise - spin-offs included - but the fourth installment is still pretty difficult. It's a fact by this point that Atlus likes torturing gamers as frequently as possible. Beating it means I feel less like casual filth and demon chow and feel more... mediocre. Or a masochist. Or both.


I'll accept this registered quest.


Before I begin, just as a very brief note, I will refer to the protagonist as Flynn. You can create a name for him, but I want to simplify this and minimize confusion.

And uh, I hinted at if not outright discussed spoilers in this part. I tried keeping it to a minimum. I apologize in advance.


The developers planned to make this game more accessible to new gamers who wish to test out the waters of the ginormous Megami Tensei franchise. It's a nice sentiment. Atlus wants to bring in a larger audience as their games become increasingly more known and widely available. I think this game succeeds well, especially if the most vocal members of the Persona 3 and 4 fan bases just turn you away from their insanity. Review sites and petty complaints that are not very constructive don't make this any easier.

Do Samurai Even Dungeon Crawling?

One advantage Shin Megami Tensei IV has for first time players is the use of the turn press system, featured in several other games. The objective is to use attacks and skills to exploit an enemy's weakness in order to gain extra turns. This works in the favor of both the player and the enemy AI. You may have a team of four - you and three of your recruited demons - and thus have four moves at a minimum, but an enemy with one minimum turn can still find a way to decimate your entire party. That's why having a variety of affinities, skills, and items in your disposal are extremely important. The last thing you want is Flynn and his group of demons to all be weak to gun attacks and the enemy casts Heaven's Bow. Enemy encounters are visible on the map and you can avoid them, but always exercise with caution. Don't ever get cocky.

You and the enemy by extension may lose turns under certain circumstances. Dodging or missing an attack - hama and mudo are exceptions - will waste one turn. A blocked affinity steals a total of two turns. If someone can absorb an affinity, you have no more turns until the opponent finishes making mincemeat out of you. Even worse is the likelihood of you or an enemy smirking. Exposing a weakness or absorbing a power can increase the chances of gaining boosts to critical rate, attack, and evasion. It's awesome when it happens, so always double-check you, your demons', and your enemy's affinities if you're having trouble.

A variety of ability types exist to make strategizing more interesting. In terms of physicals you have a standard attack and gun-based skills. Flynn will always have a sword and a firearm for melee weapons, though the later appears about seven hours into the game. There's still the four elements - fire (agi), ice (bufu), wind/force (zan), and electric (zio) - and the instant-death day-ruiners - light (hama) and darkness (mudo). Once you recognize the terms, playing a majority of the MegaTen games will be much more rewarding.

Knowing the basics will still get you in trouble with some bosses. (Looking at you, Medusa, Beelzebub, Omoikane, and Kenji just to name a few.) Be it instant death, almighty nukes, or diarahan - heal all HP - at the last second, some bosses just want to ruin your day even after you worked so hard.

During some parts of the game, you may have a fifth guest party member to help out in battle. Usually your three fellow samurai and their demons will remain with you on your journey. Jonathan helps out with some bufu spells, Walter uses agi and physicals, and Isabeau sticks with zio and status boosts. This luxury can help in main quests... most times. Their AI tends to be competent overall, but Walter stands out as being... problematic. Critical Wave is hit-or-miss, and sometimes he uses skills that make boss fights a lot harder than they need to be. That being said, Jonathan can be annoying too by making odd choices in battle.

When building your character's skill set as you level up and recruit demons, it's best to conservatively stick to one kind of build. Either excel in using magic skills or invest in physical combat. You gain points to add to five attributes whenever you level up, so plan ahead based on what build Flynn should have. Obtaining actual skills come from the demons you recruit. Once they learn all of their abilities, an opportunity called Demon's Whisper allows you to pick what skills the demon can teach Flynn. Passive skills, such as nullifying magic or increasing the rate of gaining experience, cannot pass over. This allows frequent chances to add, remove, or replace skills depending on their practicality at certain points in the game. Other than focusing solely on magic or physicals, you are free to customize Flynn as you see fit.

There's a very important reason why a balance of magic and physicals will not help you. The goal of many MegaTen games is to defeat the enemy as hard as you can in a short period of time. Given how SMT4 is programmed, this is more paramount than I can stress. Unlike most games I have played, there are no stats that account for defense. At all. Strength boosts general physical attacks, Dexterity helps with pierce/guns attacks, Magic is self-explanatory, Agility boosts evasion rate, and Luck increases critical rate odds. That's it. Sure, you can buy new equipment to change your strengths and weaknesses, but that it can only do so much. A level 38 Flynn might be able to resist zan, but a level 5 demon casting bufu can still knock a good chip of health in the double digits. This is a game almost entirely composed of glass cannons.

This is what makes the first ten hours of Shin Megami Tensei IV a nightmare. You're desperately trying to survive, to gain experience, and to complete side quests, but random encounter after random encounter can kill you in two seconds on one floor alone. Demon negotiation and recruitment is absolutely necessary and can help during tricky spots, but the "right choices" in dialogue are bullshit. Rather than letting demons have their own personalities and preferences based on their race or alignment, everything is purely random. It's a pain in the ass in the beginning, especially if the chat fails. If pissed off, demons can murder you in cold blood. You may be at level 12 and want a level 6 demon so you can make use of their zio skill, but they'll kill you due to their obscenely high attack and your extremely non-existant defense stats.

Unfortunately this disparity will continue to be a problem throughout. If you die too many times, you will be given the option to switch from normal difficulty to easy. You may feel ashamed of this, but it's alright. These games pull unfair tricks out of their butts every day. Seeking a guide for some help or switching to an easier difficulty is more acceptable in this fanbase than most others I've been in. It won't stop the mocking, teasing, and joking, but it happens to all of us at some point.

That being said, the game in general, especially negotiating becomes less of a gamble over time. Flynn's COMP Gauntlet provides applications to invest in to enhance gameplay experience. You get a map, bonus experience boosts, slots for your abilities and demons, extra healing, etc. Most important of all is the Cathedral of Shadows, where you fuse your demons to create bigger and better demons to help you down the line. Some demons are useful for a time, others are just ingredients to dump in the soup bowl to cook the next best demon. A Compendium keeps track of what you've obtained and you can update it frequently or re-summon previously found or made demons. It can be expensive and money is very scarce, however. Stick to negotiating until you obtain the apps that lower the price for summoning demons via the Demon Summoning Program.

Obligatory ad placement for the OTHER
Cathedral of Shadows. I hope you're
happy, Raisin-bran.
Not to spit in anyone's faces but SMT4 takes a similar approach to fusing like Persona 4 Golden did, only slightly better by accident. I am slightly conflicted with the approach of choosing what skills your new demon should inherit. It's better and less time-consuming than playing a guessing game or undoing and redoing the selection until the result you want is perfect. Still, picking any merry skill you want in a limited pool can be an issue too. Playing a physical-based Flynn, I often earned the bad habit of giving every demon I created magic skills, whether they were qualified stat-wise, MP-wise or not. Chalk it up to me playing the game wrong, but I still planned out carefully and often opened my last save file to try again. Other gamers might plan very well in advance how to make all-powerful demons with insane skill sets to decimate their foes just by looking at them.

That being said, Persona 4 Golden gave me no motivation to fuse at all. You and your teammates were often overpowered due to reduced difficulty overall; Shuffle Time gave you every Persona you'd need for that dungeon and the next month's of Social Links. Shin Megami Tensei IV gives you no choice but to fuse to get the cream of the crop. Choosing what skills a demon can inherit can be game-breaking at points, but perhaps it works out better here due to the increased challenge in the overall gameplay.

Another minor convenience for this installment is the save anywhere feature. It's a mixed feature to be frank. With proper and frequent saving, it can take a short time to return to where you last left off before you met Charon in the afterlife. Yet this breeds a bad habit of relying on the feature. The other games don't have a save function readily available 24/7. Usually in dungeons there are save points near the entrance and near a boss encounter, which is what should be recommended when playing SMT4.

"What should we do, master?"

Ever since I was a child, I have a sturdy sense of direction. It's a shame I can't remember street names, interstate and route numbers, or exit names, but I can pinpoint buildings, foliage, and landmarks to determine how far away I am from something. Usually when I question where I'm going, I spot a familiar landscape once every ten minutes or so and assure myself I'm doing just fine. My parents remember getting lost while driving and a three-year-old me helped them find their way just by pointing out where to turn thanks to an object, building, or tree I spotted. It's thanks to my attention to detail that I often get lost in video games in terms of what to do next and not where I am on the map.

Like how Naga shot me to the game over screen even when I had a demon who could block his attacks and exploit his weakness, Shin Megami Tensei IV challenged my ability to navigate a goddamn world map.

Tokyo is a migrane and a half on an alcohol and cocaine trip. There are landmarks everywhere and I still don't know where I'm going half the time. It doesn't help that I cannot find anything on a map of the real life Tokyo. I don't know the avenues, landmarks, and neighborhoods. If Americans made a game where foreigners are expected to pinpoint and find multiple locations in Washington DC or Boston, I'd expect they'd get frustrated. It doesn't help when there are blocked roads, underground tunnels, and Ashura-kai ferrymen demanding half of your wallet to cross over to another neighborhood.

And to make things better, there is no "overall view" of Tokyo with labels pointing out where each district lies in relation to each other. You'll only know where you are at that moment when you read a friendly bit of text right on the edge of the screen. Add in the fact you can control the camera angles and things get tangled up and lopsided kinda fast.

There are two blessings to this unfortunate feature of SMT4. First are the presences of terminals. Once you enter a neighborhood in Tokyo and fight off some demons in the underground district's domain, a terminal opens up. Thanks to this you can teleport from district to district with ease to reduce your time in completing challenge quests and advancing the story. The second is the music that plays in the majority of locations on the overworld map. Most of my anxiety fades away when I hear that beautiful, beautiful piece of musical genius.

Despite the odd setting of Mikado in the beginning, you will spend a majority of the game in Tokyo. Once you get there after crawling through Naraku and beating two of the worst first bosses in gaming history, Shin Megami Tensei IV becomes much easier to manage. It's only a shame the map can get frustrating at times. It's even worse when challenge quests don't provide detailed enough descriptions to complete the objective in the right location.

The World

Anyone walking in and expecting a typical Japanese role-playing game may dislike what I have to say, but I think I have to say it. This isn't a game about how the main characters bond together, create a powerful friendship, stop the big bad evil from annihilating the universe, retire back home with a happily ever after, and roll the credits. This game is the polar opposite of all of that.

"It looks like the quest is going well."

It's hard to describe the story of this game because it's more minimalistic and subtle. The main characters feel "flat" not because there is no character development to speak of, but because they observe, ponder, and then embody one of the main themes presented in this game. Shin Megami Tensei IV - like its siblings in the mainline series - tells a story of legions of ideologies fighting to bring a resolution to an apocalyptic, demon-infested world. Order, equity, and civility clashes with autonomy, self-reliance, and strength. Other factions wish for the revival of the human world, free from direct demon meddling. Each side has their own players and leaders, each having their own methodologies often coinciding with Law, Chaos, or Neutrality.

As you complete various quests from multiple districts you meet so many people and demons and learn of their hopes - or lack thereof - for the future. You see how they coexist. You see how wrecked Tokyo has become after the invasion, how Mikado is soon to be threatened as demons crawl up through Naraku to taint the once peaceful kingdom. You compare and contrast the quality of life for the people of Tokyo and the people of Mikado.

Major gods, demons, and figureheads of both alignments disguise themselves to spread their influence and give what they believe is hope to the people who agree with them. Flynn's samurai companions - very much like you the player - see the state of the world and must come to a decision of which side of power can bring the best for humanity. Tragedy ensues when Jonathan, Walter, and Isabeau go their separate ways because of that one seemingly simple choice. And you have to stick with one of them, or none of them.

The best part of this game is that every solution provided in the end has its own glaring, grave flaws. One route ensures selective genocide; another instills social darwinism. Even the middle ground may not work. The root of the problem has not been solved. Demons will still exist so long we believe in them and the concepts they represent. They will always return to reshape the world when corruption, despair, and human error breeds the clash of ideologies and the resulting destruction all over again.

To some people Shin Megami Tensei IV is very bleak - if not borderline nihilistic if one thinks too much into it. With demons and people always dying and corrupt figureheads making unforgivable choices for the sake of stability, you might end up not caring about anything anymore. You might clamor for a happy ending for the "good guys". Or want everything destroyed because there is no absolute black or white morality in this setting. You might wish for the main characters to be proactive and have explicit development like in most JRPGs. You might get tired of doing nothing but side quests for people who ultimately contribute nothing to the ultimate climax of any one of the routes. You might wonder why Walter is being a jerk for no reason, or why Isabeau and Jonathan are so bland and dull. You might ask why Tayama is such a despicable person despite the fact that the awesome Travis Willingham voices him.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is not for everyone, I won't deny that. For a while it took me time to immerse myself in this bizarre gameplay-focused RPG. This game has the guts to present us something different. Unlike many modern games, your hand will not be held and getting lost is guaranteed every once in a while. Exploration is paramount and the story subtle. Games today like to brag about having morality systems and free choice, but often creators will resort to the same "nice guy" or "asshole" system with no reward for "indecisive cowards". Shin Megami Tensei 4 - like some of its brethren with multiple ending features - provide the hints needed to understand the ideas it presents and how every side has someone who gets screwed over. For one side of good guys to win another side of different nice people will be sacrificed.

This game is also aware that there are still silver linings. Late in the game you see how even in the pits of despair, there is still hope.

Plot Devices with a Face

Something similar can be said for the characters. Your companions still have some quirks that make them human enough that some humor and lightheartedness can be found.

Isabeau is a competent and strong samurai with a stoic mask. Inside she is indecisive because she desires to cooperate and resolve problems rationally. She also loves to read manga so much that an enemy tries to upset her by announcing spoilers in the middle of a battle. Jonathan is far friendlier than his first-class upbringing would suggest, but he can lose himself emotionally when he meets someone who disagrees with his ideals. If Flynn joins him when the group begins to break, he is in tears and laments how he only wishes for the good of those he cares about. Walter is a blunt deadpan snarker with humorous lines every once in a while, but has a strong sense of respect and fairness for those he admires. His capacity for empathy is more limited than the others, yet he is still sociable and laid back with his comrades.

These aren't characters worthy of Shakespearian analysis, but this is enough to make the alignment decisions very difficult. You might like one side, but you dread the moment you'll face a former companion you spent over fifty hours with. They have changed into something else entirely. Furthermore, if one can describe a character with more than three simple adjectives, he or she is not as flat as a sheet of paper. How interesting you find them depends on your preferences.

Okay... not a good example...
It's also nice to note that a variety of demons inhabit Tokyo. Some are slaves of power hungry humans you're forced to fight. A handful serve the demons and gods above them and others work for themselves. Yet there are other demons who'll happily start up a chat if you run into some during quests or hanging out in abandoned shops. Though characterization is limited in Shin Megami Tensei IV, it is present if you have the heart of an explorer and care enough.

This game wants to show how a war of ideas can attempt to bring hope to the future at the expense of those you came to know in the present. Things will get better someday in every alignment ending, but the road to getting there may not settle well with everyone. Shin Megami Tensei IV gives you a whole world to explore and examine so by the time you must decide what to do for the future, you are informed and qualified enough to act. In a way this is almost exactly like politics in the real world, except with demons, angels, and gods roaming around.

Due to the emphasis on world-building and themes, there are still problems with the execution of this tale. This is not a game to rush through. Exploration is essential to this game, and some details regarding characters and plot points can easily be overlooked or missed completely. The frustrating and confusing overworld map helps little. Playing a second run is encouraged, but some characters - aside from Isabeau, Jonathan, and Walter - remain anemic. Other than Nozomi, who appears in many side quests and is a welcome enthusiastic side character, only Tayama and Yuriko have prominent, memorable roles. It doesn't help that their presence tends to be short and their departure from the narrative is unceremonious at best. Part of this issue can contribute to you needing to play the game more than once, but it still feels that one of the main reasons I can remember anyone besides your samurai companions is because the voice acting is phenomenal.

This scene beats pop concerts any day. Just sayin'.
Other characters appear so rarely you forget they even exist. This lets you know they can be found in certain alignment routes and endings, which helps make a second run interesting. At the same time a less forgiving player may call this wasted potential.

Even someone as present and invaluable to the game as Burroughs sometimes comes off as a cold tool for the "plot" and setting rather than a character. Mechanically, characters are in fact the gears that keep things moving within a setting. How many traits attached to them that make them likable in spite of this helps give the illusion of characters being people. Shin Megami Tensei IV may not create realistic people, but it creates believable cards in an unpredictable game of chance.

Another problem lies with the mechanics behind the alignment system. There are taverns across Tokyo with cynical men who will inform you of your "reputation", which helps if you are aiming for a specific ending. Too bad the chances of you earning the Neutral ending are ridiculously low when going in blind. This game encourages you to favor Law or Chaos for so much of the game, it's sometimes easy to forget that a third option is possible. What makes it most apparent is how minuscule those who prefer the Neutral path are shoved in the background. It unfortunately happens when a binary system of extremes end up overshadowing everything else. In spite of that it can be grating for those planning to get that middle ground of an ending.

Overall, the world is vast, the war of power and influence is fascinating, but the characters don't conform to JRPG standards. It might not work for everybody, but I appreciate something different and subtle so long as it can be thought-provoking. More along the lines of Silent Hill 2 rather than Resident Evil 4. Both use different approaches to one genre, but the games are still compelling.

... Or my comparison makes no sense and I should shut up.

This may be a good place to take a quick break. I'll wrap things up next time. It won't take a month, I promise.



Burroughs, please insert something humorous from this game I'm reviewing here.



"The most Trustworthy Angel, Mastema."



Strange Journey is gonna suck.


Chalgyr Vokel said...

You sure you don't want to take a month with this one? :)

I enjoyed this game quite a bit. Like you mentioned a couple of times, it does just have a different 'feel' much of the time, which is sort of impressive when you consider just how much of this has been done before in other RPG/JRPG games.

Melanie~Light said...

The thing is I don't want to dive head-first into spoilers like I did in my past reviews. Plus, I don't want to go too much in depth, not because the world and characters are shallow, but I'll misinterpret things.

I can still say that I did really enjoy SMT4 at least.

Though I have been tempted to go on a rant about the stupidity behind the Persona vs SMT war that goes on like crazy. I avoided it for now since I wanted to bring Persona into this review as little as possible. FAR TOO MANY reviewers have done this, often to point out how "shallow" the characters and story of this game is.

So a month of material? it's possible.

Voltech said...

So my takeaway from this post is that it's pretty much just Devil Survivor, and that if you enjoyed this game, you'll enjoy that one as well.

It's remarkable how many similarities there are. Emphasis on a struggle between order and chaos. Similar combat systems (sans grid-based strategy, it sounds like). Stat builds suggesting you either go strength-based or magic-based. Cheap-ass tricks. Demon fusion. Okay, in all fairness those are elements that show up in other SMT games, but if we're talking strictly about handheld titles...yeah, you've effectively played Devil Survivor 3.

Minus the pain-in-the-ass escort missions of DeSu1, I hope. So consider that a none-too-subtle suggestion to give Devil Survivor: Overclocked a look.

I'm actually more than a little interested in hearing about the story, though. I've heard varying opinions on it, but based on what you've said here (and what I've heard elsewhere) it doesn't sound anything close to awful. Just different, I suppose. More thoughtful, more mature, and probably darker than the usual fare..."dark" in this case being more than just superficial grit, but that should go without saying. Failing that, the game automatically deserves a TENOUTTATEN for having gunslinger samurai action. Or something like it.

So yeah, looking forward to the next post. Go on ahead and crack that sucker open.

Oh, as long as I'm here -- there was some news recently about Persona 4 Arena 2. Apparently, some new characters are coming to it. One of them (according to rumors) is Ken Amada. The other? Well...I'm happy to announce that your absolute FAVORITE character is making a debut in the ring.



...Not gonna lie, I'd give her a whirl. Though I'm probably not the best judge of quality or standards, given that I started playing this character in BlazBlue:



Melanie~Light said...

The list of MegaTen games to pick up keeps getting longer and longer. Too bad my local video game stores (aka the Gamestop empire) stopped selling DeSu Overclocked and Soul Hackers. Then I need Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2. And Raidou Kuzunoha off PSN. I'm a busy chick with no money to spare. :'(


SMT4 is a mature and dark story done right, I think. It's not all doom and gloom; there's still comedy in the small places and bits of dialogue. I didn't want to say too much and spoil the good parts, but maybe I'll go in deeper in a later series of rants or something. I feel like I need more mainline SMT under my belt before I'm qualified to nitpick excessively.

Persona 3 and 4 gave me more material to comment on, perhaps in part to their linearity. Even then, I felt little need to hold back on ruining the "good stuff". Perhaps for the sake of future points, I may have to spoil some scenes and events. There aren't many images and videos of Shin Megami Tensei IV floating on the internet.

If anything, I do think this or Nocturne are good places to start in the mainline side of the franchise. If you like the DeSu games a ton, mainline games should be much easier than if you've started with P3 or P4.

As for those updates on P4AU, I'm the only one happy for the possibility of Ken. I like the kid more than most. As for Rise? To hell with her. No offense to her fans, but she's one of the worst ideas for a playable character in a fighter ever. Next you're telling me Fuuka and Juno will be a hamster wheel team. And if she's high tier -

… I think I need my medication. Can't let my disgust for Rise ruin my excitement for Persona Q and Arena Ultimax.

Oscar Valenzuela said...

I went just honest with my decisions through the game, sometimes I had to put my 3ds in sleep mode while I thought what I should do next or what was the better option. I usually play this kind of games seriously. I think that way I got my neutral route (without knowing it was "that neutral route" late in the game) without difficult. My playthrough was just... neutral. So I don´t understand so much why people claim that isn´t easy to get it. Or do you simply mean that it´s not that clear in the game?

By the way, SMT IV turned into my favorite game of all time, so I´m more into the series now, and I´m so excited with the Strange Journey remake, and the new SMT HD title xd I can´t wait.

Melanie~Light said...

@Oscar Valenzuela

How easy it is to get the neutral ending depends on the person I guess. I didn't play the game consistently over a long period of time so sometimes I would forget how I answered previous questions and thus where I sat on the alignment scale. Also, the game is not always clear about where you sit on the alignment scale. I guess I also arguing that quantitively, the neutral "window" is very thin (iirc it was a 20-point window), so some people - like me - would sit on the low end of law or chaos and be dancing on thread, unable to be neutral without having to get out of character or micromanaging choices.

Of course, it's not a good way to play a video game, but I did want to address this concern that I and several others had back when the game came out.

And I'm glad SMTIV got you into MegaTen! It's definitely a game I still enjoy to this day.

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