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Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) artwork

Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) review

"Shin Megami Tensei IV is in many ways exactly the game I didn’t dare hope it would be, a genuine triumph that belongs in your library if you love the series or even if you just like a challenging and mostly unique JRPG, portable or otherwise. With all of that high praise appropriately heaped, though, I must add that the game is most certainly not without its flaws."

Shin Megami Tensei IV is the most ambitious handheld title I have ever played, a particularly impressive feat given the hardware limitations presented by the 3DS. The game features amazing graphics and the wonderfully grim art design that you would expect if you played Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for PlayStation 2, and to my eye actually looks even better than that beloved predecessor did. Additionally, the story--though not typically as unsettling as some of the stuff we’ve seen from the franchise in the past--offers more depth and executes in a more satisfying manner than I’m used to seeing, all without ever becoming overbearing or serving as a needless distraction.

Combat is every bit as engaging as I remember it being, proof that there’s still life in the turn-based battle system when a capable developer chooses to go that route. Enemies can exploit your weaknesses to extend the time that they are permitted to wail on your party of one hero and several demons, but you can also take things in the opposite direction by smartly forming a crew with elemental strengths that let you turn otherwise lethal attacks into a welcome respite.

In short, Shin Megami Tensei IV is in many ways exactly the game I didn’t dare hope it would be, a genuine triumph that belongs in your library if you love the series or even if you just like a challenging and mostly unique JRPG, portable or otherwise. With all of that high praise appropriately heaped, though, I must add that the game is most certainly not without its flaws. I don’t believe those flaws will prevent you from mostly enjoying the game if you choose to buy it, but they do warrant some discussion if you’re on the fence. The problem is that this review is forced to dip its toes in spoiler-filled waters if I’m going to discuss those flaws, so consider this the point where you should stop reading if you are already inclined to buy the game and you want to avoid all potential spoilers.

Are you still with me?

If you watched any trailers ahead of the game’s release, the first thing you likely noticed is that the game apparently takes place in the year 1492. That’s quite an interesting change of pace if you’re used to the post-apocalyptic setting from previous titles, but as you play the game, you’ll almost immediately be greeted by imagery--burned out cars, city skyscrapers, sprawling overpasses, and foreboding visions--that suggest not all is as it initially appears.

Your character is introduced as one of several youths who will be tested at Castle Mikado. It’s sort of like the moment in the “Harry Potter” fiction where the sorting hat decides who goes to what house, only in this case you’re seeing if you were born with the innate abilities that make you a candidate to live out the rest of your days as a samurai. That is a calling that transcends the caste system that is in place in this 1492 society, and it’s no big narrative surprise when you find that you are indeed the heroic sort who will battle to keep the kingdom safe as a noble samurai. That discovery leads you to meet up with a number of other characters who will indirectly serve as your allies over the course of the game. They are a somewhat interesting lot with differing views--due to their varied upbringing--of how society should function. Questions about an ideal society are a recurring theme here.

Working as a samurai, you will soon venture into a central dungeon known as Naraku. You can accept quests from the monastery and from the local bar. Some of those will quests advance the plot and some will simply offer you experience and small rewards as slowly you delve deeper and deeper into the mysterious dungeon that only the samurai are allowed to enter. Each floor becomes more dangerous than the one before it, and you will occasionally face traps such as poisonous mist, plus you’ll grow accustomed to the general flow of the game. You learn that at certain points, you can look up to climb along ledges or to drop to lower ground, for instance, and you’ll get used to pressing the shoulder buttons to pan the camera around the three-dimensional environments.

Exploring the dungeon is risky business because you’re not offered much breathing room. Naraku feels much like Tartarus did in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, only here the floors aren’t randomly generated. Maps fill out as you explore and you’ll grow familiar with the locations where enemies spawn. Those enemies will chase after you if you come within range, but you can often run around them (particularly once you’re familiar with the layouts). When you’re navigating new territory and you’d like to consult your map, though, there’s no break. You can kill an enemy and it will vanish, but a new one will reappear to replace it within a few seconds. This leads to a situation where you can stand in one place and get attacked several times before you think better of it, and it can also mean that running back through familiar ground grows tiresome when you’re just in a hurry to get to the new corridors. Fortunately, you can eventually access side chambers that serve as shortcuts so that it becomes easier to quickly descend through the tower.

Then everything changes, and you realize that most of what you thought you knew about the game was really just a sample of things to come. For me, that happened around ten hours into the experience. I played that far thinking that I was playing a mostly great RPG that wasn’t particularly grand in scale--but which was still awesome--and then I found that I had seen precious little of what the developers had in store for me. Essentially I had been playing through ten hours of the best tutorial ever crafted, and now I would be allowed to put everything I had learned to proper use. I was delighted by that realization, naturally, but most of the things that irritated me made their appearance shortly thereafter.

Perhaps the game’s biggest flaw is that some of the maps are just plain inadequate. After the 10-hour mark, as the space you have to explore increases, it becomes incredibly easy to get lost. You’ll likely have to play for hours before you’re familiar enough with everything to push deeper into the world with any confidence. That issue is exacerbated by the respawning enemies I mentioned. I would find myself clearing a battle and then turning my attention back to the map. Just as I would get my bearings so that I could start planning where to go next, BOOM! I was back in a battle. I ended up having to blindly run around a lot, though eventually I did come to know my way around quite well. I still would have preferred purely random encounters, though, I must say.

Another issue is that sometimes important objectives can be unclear. Sometimes, that means you just have to talk to a lot of people. Sometimes, you’ll find a vague clue but you are expected to remember the name of a destination on your map that you have no way to check. At the 60-hour mark, I would sometimes still run into names I didn’t recognize, even though I had probably walked by the location in question 10 or 20 times.

The fusing process is also a bit of a pain. You can search an in-game compendium using specific restrictions that limit results to only new demons that you might be able to fuse, or you can search by elemental attributes and so forth, but there are so many demons available that sometimes you have no idea you’ve missed an important one until much later in the game when you’re not able to fuse anything useful and it’s clear something has gone wrong. Then you start experimenting more and creating new combinations, and they’re awesome… only that costs a lot of macca (this game’s currency) and macca is exceedingly rare unless you’re actively looking for it. You don’t find it automatically when you defeat monsters. Instead, you must get it by selling loot to merchants, or by robbing demons or whatever else. For most of the game, I was short of cash and that meant I had to spend time grinding.

A final issue I’d like to mention is the difficulty. I was playing on the default setting for quite some time, and I was doing okay even though I got plenty of “Game Over” screens. Before long, the game offered to let me lower the difficulty. This is actually handled well, because you can bump the setting down or up any time you like after that, just by visiting a convenient menu. However, once I lowered the setting, I saw no reason to raise it again later. I remember I was fighting a boss at the time, and my demons were leveled up about as high as they could be given the enemies in the area. I also had them armed with perfect affinity, so that they could all take actions twice per round by exploiting the enemy’s weakness. Then he would take his turn and kill everyone in my party in a single round, even when they all had full health and no weaknesses. I lowered the difficulty setting and demolished him immediately. His attacks barely scratched me. To me, that’s not the difference between a challenging game and an easy one. That’s the difference between cheap and fair. Thankfully, the easier setting offers a more comfortable challenge without turning into a cakewalk. Going that route stings the pride a little bit is all.

I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that I don’t like Shin Megami Tensei IV. I love it, in fact, and enjoyed many of the 80 hours I finally spent playing it. There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t even mentioned here, content enough to fill another few reviews of this same unwieldy length, but I’d rather you experience it for yourself. If you’re willing to look past some very real and persistent flaws, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a fantastic experience that is not to be missed. Make sure that you do experience it, and soon…


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 20, 2013)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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