Do you know what I think it is I love about video games? What I find myself most enthralled by, that no other medium could give me? I think it’s the difficulty, or more accurately, the ways in which a game can challenge a player. I absolutely adore a game that can find ways to continuously challenge you to think and do better. But on the flipside, I am not a fan of games wherein the only challenge is the sheer level grind. What’s interesting about Shin Megami Tensei IV is how it holds a hefty serving of both of these things. But what comes out on top, the light of clever design or the shadow of mediocre overpowered enemies? Let’s jump into the devil’s den.
Shin Megami Tensei IV opens with your avatar as a new recruit into the ranks of the samurai inhabiting an eastern kingdom called Mikado. At first, you might think this game takes place in feudal Japan, but all is not as it seems. The special gauntlet you receive as a mark of the samurai is said to hold a spirit inside it. Upon activating the gauntlet, it becomes apparent to the player that this “spirit” is, in fact, an A.I, and the gauntlet is a small computer that behaves like a smartphone. This is the first hint into the truth of Shin Megami Tensei IV’s unusual world. A huge tunnel called Naraku leads down from the top of Mikado castle, reaching deep underground and yet somehow leading you into the middle of modern-day Tokyo. That’s right, it’s one of those kinds of games. Things will only get more unusual from here, I assure you. After a mysterious black samurai begins spreading information that sparks an uprising among the people of Mikado, it’s up to you and your fellow samurai to pursue and capture her.
You descend into Tokyo in a state of panic. The entire city is encased in an enormous dome created by the sudden appearance of Naraku, manifesting itself as a large black tower in the center of the city. I think it goes without saying that the general community of Tokyo hasn’t exactly reacted kindly to its newfound isolation, and the addition of thousands of hostile, territorial demons in their midst has driven most of them underground. Modern-day Tokyo would be strange enough to a medieval samurai under normal circumstances, but the characters handle it shockingly well.
Writing in Shin Megami Tensei games has always been extremely hit-or-miss. Characters are usually well-written, but sometimes at the cost of the overarching plot, or sometimes the opposite. In this case, both character writing and story writing are good, but not exceptional. Your fellow samurai fall into predictable, but not overly stereotypical, archetypes. Johnathan is the do-gooder who tries to hold out hope for his fellow man, while Walter is a bit less trustful. The two act as pretty good foils to each other, and create various divides throughout the game where you must side with one or the other. This escalates and affects things later in the game, creating what essentially becomes the predictable good and evil paths we’ve seen in many games. It doesn’t feel all that out of place here, though, as it is well-veiled by the legitimacy of both characters’ opinions and standpoints. There’s also Issabeau, who acts as the group’s cool-headed neutral party most of the time. If you need a non-biased opinion to help you decide who to side with, chances are Issabeau will have something to say to give you some direction.
One important aspect of the Shin Megami Tensei series’ legacy is it’s difficulty. JRPGs have something of a two-sided reputation, and often get viewed as either punishingly hard breakers of brains, or cushy, boring, drawn-out fan-service. I’m happy to tell you that Shin Megami Tensei IV, like it’s predecessors, fits snugly into the former. The game pulls no punches, giving you a daunting but not unfair challenge from the get-go. Staying on your toes is a must, as mashing the attack button will get you nowhere fast. The game rewards you for being smart with your attacks, as each successful super-effective hit on an enemy gains you an extra attack for your turn, stacking up to four total extra moves. You can coax demons to your side, a skill which takes practice but is very necessary. Persuasion tactics differ with each demon you attempt to talk to, and can be kind of annoying when you’ve just given a demon 300 coins as incentive only to have it turn around and start attacking you. But don’t you think it’s worth it when you eventually amass a dream team of superpowered Yokai and Eldritch abominations? I sure do. The ability to fuse your demons also allows for more expansion, creating even stronger creatures with uniquely tailored movesets.
Fighting demons is hard. Different types of attacks affect different foes in various ways, and can really change the tide of battle. If you encounter a new demon, you want to try every element in your arsenal to find what will land a super-effective attack. You’ll find yourself having to change your roster up depending on what kind of demons you’re facing, and doing so is gracefully easy, and necessary given the difficulty. Some bosses are quite honestly unfairly overpowered given the areas you find them in, but finding a way around insatiable rage isn’t too hard once you know what to look for. Don’t get too attached to any of your demons, because you might have to sacrifice them for the greater good at any time.
The one true downside of the gameplay is that it just isn’t particularly innovative. The Shin Megami Tensei series has always had very solid RPG gameplay, and this game is certainly no exception, but there’s really no new twist to be found. Does there need to be? Not really. But the fact remains that if I thought about it, I could name a bunch of other RPGs that play a lot like Shin Megami Tensei IV. Again, not a bad thing, but some more new ideas into a long-existing franchise are never a bad thing, right? You can customize your stats and armor, get new “apps” through Burroughs that give you bonuses and open up more slots for powers and demons, and fuse your creatures to get stronger ones. All good things, but not new things. But this doesn’t distract from what is, at its heart, some of the most solid and enjoyable gameplay in any modern RPGs. The difficulty wall seems high at first, but can be scaled, and once it is you might find yourself thirsty for more. Once you’ve risen to meet the challenge of the game, finding more of the challenge becomes it’s driving force. One could call it video game Stockholm syndrome.
The game’s presentation is a real mixed bag, ranging from the music, full of atmosphere and energy, to the voice acting, which goes from decent at best to unintentionally hilarious at worst. The story is interesting but somewhat silly, and dialogue often follows suit. I was quite surprised by the lack of any cinematics in the game, instead getting 2D cutouts of the characters speaking. This is fine when we’re dealing with normal dialogue, but when what’s intended as an extremely dramatic reveal is presented as a single image scrolling slowly from left to right, some of the intensity is lost.
However, the minimalism in terms of presentation is outweighed by what’s actually being presented. The art is gorgeous, bringing to life both the verdant plains surrounding Mikado and the dark city of Tokyo in equal measure. The design of each demon is unique and inspired, though some suffer from re-used art from previous games in the series, bearing somewhat different art styles. But really, this is a nitpick that I only bring up because everything else about the game’s creatures is so perfect. Chimera-esque abominations, transylvanian winged beasts, and monsters straight out of Japanese Yokai folklore are just a few of the things you will see in the treasure chest of horrors the game has in store.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a lesson in perserverance and diligence. It’s early hours can be frankly brutal, but with time, you and the game will reach an understanding. Once you climb over the frustration wall, you’ll find that the rest of the game comes not as frustration, but as a fierce, intense, enjoyable challenge the whole way through. The game is not without its faults, such as questionable presentation and voice acting, but the meat of the game is a great example of RPG gameplay done right in an age where it feels like not a lot of games get that anymore. The enormous world, interesting story and creative demon designs will suck you in and make you love them. Exploring Tokyo and meeting new creatures is an absolute joy, once you finally get to it. Overall, Shin Megami Tensei IV surpasses it’s unfair moments and is demonically fun, getting 4 demon-hunting samurai out of 5.