**Special thank you to my friend Read for assisting me in capturing some images for the review!
There Is More To Shin Megami Tensei Than Just Persona
The Shin Megami Tensei series has humble beginnings, in the world of Japanese novels. The first title, Digital Devil Saga: Megami Tensei for the Famicom, was based around the novel of the same name by Aya Nishitani, taking place after the second book. This novel series from the 1980s would go on to spawn a wide range of role-playing games and offshoots that would be loved the world over. Shin Megami Tensei 4, the latest in the core SMT series, was released on Nintendo’s 3DS system back in May of 2013 for Japan, July of 2013 for the United States, and finally October of 2014 for Europe. Continuing on with the themes of gods, demons, and morality, SMT4 aspires to open the doors to the main series for brand new fans – those who may only know the moniker “Shin Megami Tensei” as random words that precede Persona. Is SMT4 a good starting point for newcomers? Is it worthwhile for longtime fans of the series? Does it bring Law or Chaos to the Nintendo 3DS player community? Put on your gauntlet, blessed samurai, and let’s find out!
Peace Be With You, Blessed Samurai.
You play as Flynn (though you can rename him), a samurai of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, accepted as the master of the sacred gauntlet artifact and its A.I., Burroughs. In the beginning, you are nothing more than a simple commoner journeying to the castle of Mikado to take part in the age-old Gauntlet Rite. Through this rite, along with five others, you are welcomed into the samurai brotherhood, an order that protects the citizens of the kingdom from all manner of monsters and demons from the depths of Naraku and beyond. Due to unforeseen and horrific events (you will never look at books the same way…), you and the rest of your new Samurai brethren will have to track down and apprehend the mysterious and dangerous “Black Samurai”, going so far as the forbidden world below Mikado… THE LAND OF TOKYO! Dun Dun Dunnnnn!!!! Each of your party members has their own unique view and personality, some of which will play a large role in the ending and outcome of the story. Isabeau is the strong-willed and veracious lone lady of the party. Walter is the passionate bad-boy/rebel of the group. Playing moderator and acting as the calming middle-man of the group is Jonathan. And if Jonathan is one side of a coin, Navarre is the other; he’s an elitist jerk that you hope dies and that looks down on everyone. He does a really good job at that!
Throughout the course of the story you will be encountering many of the SMT series’s staples, like demons and monsters, gods and beasts, and the imperfection of man – all as you attempt to stop a cataclysmic event from taking place and track down the Black Samurai, with plenty of shocking plot twists and interesting characters populating the worlds of Mikado and Tokyo.
Gotta Fuse ‘Em All!
For friends of mine that ask me about SMT, I find it easiest to explain that it plays like an adult version of Pokémon. It’s like Pokémon in the sense that you collect and use monsters to fight your battles against other monsters, but the adult part comes in with the incredible amount of added strategy and complexity that comes into play when battling. There’s also the fact that your monsters aren’t cuddly yellow mice with rosy cheeks, but can instead range from nearly naked angels to male genitalia on a chariot, or even the devil.
SMT4 is turn-based and adopts the “Press Turn” system that was first introduced back in the PlayStation 2 title Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (third in the main SMT series). With the Press Turn system, players are rewarded for exploiting enemies’ weaknesses, while being punished for acting too hastily and using a skill that the enemy is strong or immune to. By exploiting a weakness, you get to take another turn, but should you hit an enemy with an attack type or element that they are immune to, you and your entire party will lose all your remaining moves. These rules are also in place for the enemies you face, making battle planning and preparation not only rewarding, but incredibly important later in the game. Some of the boss encounters are downright hellish in difficulty! Unlike Pokémon, you won’t be letting your demons and creatures fight your battles alone, though; you are a samurai, after all! In any given battle, you’ll be fighting alongside at most three other demons that you can swap in and out from a reserve on the fly. Joining you in combat will be one other samurai from the main cast, randomly selected; they’ll provide support and attacks during combat, but you will have no control over them.
The monsters won’t just come with you willy-nilly, though. This title once again uses the Negotiation System to recruit demons and monsters to your side. Through correct responses, bribery, and coercion you can make a former foe a new ally! One important trap a lot of new SMT players fall into, I feel, is falling in love with a particular demon. While each demon does go up in levels, learn new attacks, and some even evolve, you do NOT want to have the same mentality with these demons as you would have with your yellow mouse. Demons in SMT games are only good for as long as they pull their weight. Fairly early on in the game, through Burroughs, you gain the ability to fuse demons in your party or reserve into much stronger demons. Through fusion you are able to also have a say in which skills and magic will be carried over to your new super demon, leading to a plethora of party specializations and makeups that you can play around with. Don’t fear that you will have to go negotiate with another sassy Pixie if you use yours up, either, as each demon you recruit is registered to a compendium that will let you summon a new one (for a price).
Your demons aren’t the only ones that receive the customization love! You have a large amount of choice in how you want your particular character to play as well; you’re tasked with distributing stat points as you level. Do you want to be a magic-slinging, gun-shooting samurai, or would you prefer to be a speedy melee character? Perhaps a well-rounded character that is good at everything but excels in nothing? The choice is up to you. You also have a direct hand in deciding the skills and magic you want your character to know as you are given the ability to learn the skills of your demons as they level up!
At the start of your adventure, the available skill and demon slots are small, and only able to hold a few. This is where your handy-dandy A.I. Burroughs comes into play. Each time your character levels up, he is awarded points that you can invest in all sorts of upgrades – added abilities that can add to the number of skills you know, expand the amount of monsters you can use, increase experience gain, and deliver an array of other bonuses!
Whole Lot of Game Here!
For such a little cartridge, you will be blown away by just how much game was crammed into this plastic. This game is perfect for people that don’t buy many games, but want a title that will give them a ton of content and game to play. The main story can easily last you 45-plus hours, and that is only for one playthrough. For completionists, SMT4 gives players three endings, all of them based on your interactions with your party and events throughout the story. On top of the main story, side quests and challenge quests are available that will reward you with rare gear and useful items (it is very much in your interests to do some of these!). For those of you who obsessed over making sure you collected each Pokémon, there are over 420 demons in SMT4 for you to recruit and fuse. Add all this up and you could easily get 300+ hours in one tiny 3DS cart. When this game was initially released it was $50 and it was worth its price then. Nowadays, the good folks over at Atlus love to put their games on the eShop on sale, and you can get this for between $10 and $15 fairly regularly. If you get 300 hours worth of playtime out of this, at 15 dollars you are paying a nickle, a single nickle, per hour for this. HOW CAN YOU PASS THAT UP?!
For a handheld experience, Atlus went all out with this game in terms of its sound, visuals, and voice acting. It easily ranks up there as one of the best looking and sounding 3DS titles, with many of its character-heavy scenes fully voiced by high-quality voice actors like Ali Hillis as Burroughs and Matt Mercer as Walter. The music is well done too, with regal and impressive tracks for the Kingdom of Mikado and incredibly creepy and nerve-wracking tracks that play during boss fights. You move your avatar around a fully 3-D overworld map, and the areas and dungeons you explore are also 3-D modeled. You can see your character’s current equipment outside of battle, from your hat to your shoes. Truth be told, I am a HUGE sucker for being able to see the gear I have equipped being reflected on my character.
Combat and dialog shift into the world of 2-D, where the demons are sprites with limited animation, and spells and attacks are flashy and powerful. Each demon has their own lines, and though they are few (and repeated frequently), it is still a welcome touch. During dialog, you’re presented with a window of character portraits and text – fairly normal in this setting – but as I stated earlier, it’s very well handled via voice acting and numerous, expressive character portraits. On the other hand, interacting with generic NPCs is a dull affair. They are sprite-based, like the demons during battle, standing in front of you with just text boxes. The presentation is very familiar for fans of other SMT titles, but the reuse of generic sprites throughout the game is certainly a low point for presentation. Luckily, it is overshadowed by the rest of the sound and visual presentation.
A Tough But Rewarding Road
Plain and simple: Don’t go into this game expecting Persona. If you have a 3DS, aren’t offended by the depiction of religious and demonic figures for entertainment, and like RPGs, you really owe it to yourself to get Shin Megami Tensei 4. It is a difficult, unforgiving, downright masochistic game at times, but you will love it. When you devise a brilliant plan to tackle the boss that has been giving you issues, and you are victorious, you will have such a feeling of accomplishment! With all the customization options, you can play the game many different ways. If you are feeling brave, you can do a challenge run, imposing your own unique restrictions on how you tackle the gauntlet within. Since the game is often on sale, it represents a low-cost entry into this great series. Shin Megami Tensei 4: FINAL, a new title in the SMT4 world, was recently announced for Japan, and hopefully the good folks at Atlus will release that over here in the states too. Now is the perfect time to get out and get your demon summoning on!
- Deep monster training, collection, and fusion system offers tons of party options
- Planning, preparation, and execution in combat is actually rewarded and important
- Interesting story with intriguing morality choices
- You get a pretty damn cool scarf and coat, for a samurai
- Steep difficulty curve for those new to the series
- Unimpressive presentation of generic NPCs
- My 3DS doesn't have an unlimited power supply