The fight for Tokyo continues…
Since 2013, players have been helping prentice Samurai Flynn of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado travel to the mysterious and deadly underground nation known as Tokyo in Shin Megami Tensei IV. Throughout these three years, many choices have been made and many paths have been taken. Some fought for the glory of God. Some fought in the name of the mighty Lucifer. Some fought to free humans from the tyranny of gods and demons. Some destroyed the world altogether. Regardless of choice, many people had seen Flynn’s adventure to its end… or so they thought. Apparently, our knowledge of SMT IV was incomplete. We thought we knew what happened, but really we didn’t. It turns out that there was quite a bit going on that none of us knew about. Don’t worry though, ATLUS didn’t leave us in the dark; Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is here to set the record straight.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse‘s story begins at an interesting point within the timeline of the SMT IV universe. Although a sequel, it doesn’t start after the events of the first SMT IV but rather during what can be assumed to be the climax of SMT IV‘s Neutral Route (the canonical route for the game). By this point Flynn has gotten through most of his own story, having already become a Samurai, dismantled both the Ashura-kai and Ring of Gaea, and decided to fight for humans rather than on behalf of Lucifer or Merkabah. Players assume the role of Nanashi, a 15-year-old citizen of Tokyo (also known as an “Unclean One”) and Hunter-in-training. With forces rallying behind Flynn to take Tokyo back for humanity, Nanashi and his childhood friend Asahi are just as fired up as anyone else to do the best that they can and hopefully become fully-fledged Hunters in the process. While their intentions are entirely benevolent, things don’t always go as well as planned; especially not within the Shin Megami Tensei universe. Thanks to an unexpected attack from one of Lucifer’s more decorated minions, Nanashi finds himself dead pretty much right off the bat. Thanks to a mysterious god known as Dagda however, Nanashi soon returns to the world of the living albeit with certain restrictions in place.
Carrying on the tradition of nearly every Shin Megami Tensei game, Apocalypse doesn’t follow a set path in terms of story. As players struggle to survive the hellhole that Tokyo has become, they are presented with numerous influences from the large cast of Apocalypse‘s characters. Merkabah, the leader of the game’s Law faction, desires a world of everlasting peace, but insists that Tokyo, and all peoples and demons residing within it, are to be destroyed. Lucifer, the leader of the game’s Chaos faction, desires a world where the strong can shape things as they see fit. He claims that he has the people’s interest at heart and insists that it is chaos that breeds human evolution. Finally there is Flynn, head of the Neutral faction. He desires a world free of influence from gods and demons. While there is perhaps a canonical route, it is ultimately up to the player to decide the fate of both themselves, Tokyo, and ultimately the world; that’s always been part of the fun of the Shin Megami Tensei Series, after all.
Though much of the faction-based progression occurs normally, I have noticed that the Neutral route seems to be emphasized within Apocalypse quite heavily. I actually found this to be quite interesting. In my experiences, the Neutral route within SMT games has been a bit more hard to obtain. With Law and Order constantly being pushed on the player, regardless of game, it’s easy to fall into one or the other without much thought. The Neutral route usually requires a bit more finesse to obtain, and isn’t generally spoken of so outwardly. While a unique development for a SMT game, I found it to be incredibly fitting in Apocalypse due to the fact that the story begins in the thick of things.
If you’ve played SMT IV to any extent (which you should have if you’re going to be playing this one), then you’ll certainly have no troubles jumping into the skirmishes that Apocalypse throws at you. The mechanics of Apocalypse‘s turn-based battles have been carried over from its predecessor with very few changes, and are once again a prime example of the term “easy to learn, hard to master”. While you shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out just how things work on the battlefield, I can guarantee that if you don’t learn the inner workings of battles such as weaknesses and resistances, buffing and de-buffing and, of course, negotiation, you probably won’t get too far. Even if things may be going your way it is, as it has always been, incredibly important to pay attention to your enemies at all times. It’s all fun and games until you slip up and have a 1000+ damage Zandyne reflected back at you because you weren’t paying attention to what was going on. That isn’t to say that things are impossible; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Battles are meant to be played intelligently, and are honestly quite thrilling once you get into the swing of things.
While most of the battle mechanics varied little during the transition into Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, there is one thing that has gotten a pretty noticeable makeover; partners. Much like with most everything else, partners originally appeared in SMT IV. Serving as guest party members as opposed to permanent ones, partners were AI-controlled characters that would aid players by adding in an extra attack or providing support at the end of the Player Turn. While partners were always nice they always felt as though they were an afterthought, being “okay” to have around at best and a literal hindrance at worst. Partners also never grew, meaning that, while the player controlled-Flynn would be slinging around skills such as Hades Blast or Antichthon, the turn would always end with something along the lines of Walter proudly yelling “behold, my demon!” and casting Agi. This was a problem that remained pretty consistent throughout the entirety of SMT IV, with even partners such as Merkabah, Lucifer, and endgame Isabeau sorely lacking in firepower; a bit ironic considering how all-powerful the first two are supposed to be. Fortunately, none of these issues exist within Apocalypse.
On the surface, partners still play the exact same role within Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse that they did during Shin Megami Tensei IV. They are AI-controlled allies that fill up a special “partner slot” on the battlefield (as opposed the the four main slots reserved for the protagonist and his accompanying demons), that add in an extra attack or support skill at the end of the Player Turn. This, however, is where the similarities end. Partners have been given a major overhaul within Apocalypse. Rather than remaining stagnant, they are capable of gaining experience, leveling up, and even learning new moves, meaning that they really end up losing their value. The partner AI has also been greatly improved upon, meaning that your partner is almost always aware of both your current situation as well as enemy weaknesses, resistances, and abilities. On top of this, partners even have a special attack that they can unleash every eight turns. While it takes a bit to charge up, it can really provide a way to change the tide of battle. Players are granted the ability to freely choose their own partner in Apocalypse (called the Main Partner) from a rather impressive roster; from support specialist Navarre to the quick-hitting Toki, partners are definitely a great, and sometimes necessary, asset to have around that allows for greater flexibility when designing strategies to take down Apocalypse‘s frighteningly powerful lineup of bosses. You’ll find that most partners change in some way or another throughout the course of the game too (in more ways than one). Even when the changes are merely superficial, such as a change in lines your partner throws out before he or she attacks, shows just how dedicated ATLUS was to the growth and development of the game’s characters and story.
Partners are all well and good your primary source of support comes from the demons that you recruit and fuse throughout your journey to save (or destroy, I mean it’s really your choice) Tokyo. As always, demons must initially be gained through the process known as recruitment. While in-battle, Nanashi has the ability to talk to demons in an attempt to recruit them. While nearly every demon within a normal encounter can be recruited, it generally isn’t as easy as it sounds. Demon recruitment is generally comprised of several steps, and has the capability to go a number of ways. Conversations generally begin with the demon asking Nanashi a question, which can range anywhere from wanting to know an opinion on a certain topic to asking Nanashi if they can hit him as hard as they can. If the player is successful on this front, a negotiation will begin. Negotiations consist of the demon asking Nanashi for things such as money, items, and sometimes even permission to outright kill one of the demons in the player’s roster. If players shower the demon with enough gifts, they’ll join up… usually.
Every demon falls into a certain personality group, meaning that the questions will differ based upon to whom (or what, I guess) you are speaking. Even further still is the fact that, though demons with the same personality types may ask the same questions, like-minded demons may not necessarily want the same answers. Not answering correctly will generally end the conversation and, more often then not, end your turn entirely. Sometimes, even when everything is done correctly, you still may end up without a new demon pal; there is often a lot of it is trial-and-error involved. Of course, the surprises that occur while negotiation aren’t always bad. Sometimes, demons may surprise you by giving you items or fully recovering your party. Demons with which negotiations have previously failed to negotiate with also now seem to remember the player. If the player has treated that demon nicely in previous battles, they’re likely to just join up without question. While these changes may have made things a bit easier, they have been done so in order to make things a bit less nonensical; a positive change in my opinion.
Fusion, the other side of the demonic coin, also makes its incredibly necessary return to Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, and once again occurs through the use of the handy-dandy Cathedral of Shadows App. Fusion remains as it has always been; take two demons, fuse them together, and get stronger demon as a result. Special Fusion, a type of fusion that requires anywhere from 2 – 4 very specific demons, also makes its return. While literally nothing has changed in the way that demon fusion works, the new “Skill Affinity” mechanic added onto the demons themselves may very well change just how exactly players fuse. Skill Affinities take skill usage beyond mere stat layout by making each and every demon have skill types that they are either good or bad with. Let us use the demon Balor as an example. Balor’s skill proficiency set includes +3 Fire, +1 Physical, -2 Ailment, and -5 Ice. Although Balor’s stats prioritize Strength over Dexterity and Magic, Balor’s Skill Affinities give him an edge with Fire Magic meaning that a previously all-physical demon can now be used with a bit more versatility. While it seems to be a small change, Skill Affinities ended up changing how I went about fusing demons, and even how I went about allocating skills. Thanks to this new inclusion, I feel as though it actually makes sense to be able to carry up to 24 demons with you. While I never swapped demons around much during SMT IV, I have found myself using upwards of 5 or 6 demons to deal with a single boss. I not only found myself being able to strategize better, but I honestly had more fun setting up my party too.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse falls in line as SMT IV‘s direct sequel in nearly every way, including graphically! In terms of graphical change nothing has really happened, although I’m not really sure that there needed to be. SMT IV‘s 3D graphics were pretty fantastic back in 2013 and, although they may not necessarily be on the cutting edge, still hold up really well in Apocalypse. Apocalypse carries on SMT IV‘s tradition of heavily playing with lighting effects to help shape the world around it, covering both the world and its inhabitants in an ethereal glow that is almost as inviting as it is intimidating. New areas such as the Fairy Forest breathe life into Apocalypse in a way that wasn’t necessarily present within SMT IV by adding a nature-heavy area that, despite being blocked from the sun for 25 years, still seems to be doing well (although I’m sure the fact that it’s magical helps too). The 2D artwork carries on the tradition of mashing both old and new demon designs together that, despite the very apparent age of certain designs, still manages to work out well. Perhaps because of ATLUS’ decision to keep some of the traditional artwork alive the design process for Apocalypse‘s new characters, as well as a few returning demons such as Napaea and Centaur, had no expense spared and features some of the 3DS’s most impressive character profile artwork in incredible high definition.
The soundtrack to the first SMT IV has been one of my favorite video game OSTs for quite some time now, but I’m pretty sure that Apocalypse‘s soundtrack has managed to beat it out. This is mainly due to the fact that the original soundtrack wasn’t discarded, but expanded upon. Nearly every song within SMT IV is featured within Apocalypse and if it isn’t featured then it is has either been remixed or integrated into a different song in some form of another. Apocalypse features several lietmotifs sprinkled throughout the entirety of its soundtrack. While these lietmotifs certainly don’t compromise the entirety of Apocalypse‘s musical score, they are definitely present enough to be noticed. Apocalypse also does an absolutely fantastic job of knowing just when and where to bring back old music. While a sizable chunk of the game’s music is new, certain themes such as those played within Tokyo’s underground districts, and songs that play during select battles (I don’t want to spoil anything) are consistently present throughout key parts of the game. None of Apocalypse‘s nostalgic tunes are there just for the nostalgia factor; they all make sense when applied. The most impressive feature of Apocalypse‘s OST, however, may be the fact that every piece within the game blends together so well. Including an even mix of tracks both new and old within a game means potentially running the risk of songs not meshing as well as they should. Apocalypse most certainly avoids this problem; so much so in fact, that those who haven’t played SMT IV in a while (or at all, I guess) might have a hard deciphering which songs originally belonged to which game!
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse marks not only the latest entry within the Shin Megami Tensei series, but also one of its greatest. Blending a breathtaking story that greatly extends the SMT IV universe with combat mechanics that require as much skill on the player’s behalf as it does character strength, Apocalypse offers the full package not only in terms of 3DS games, but when it terms of JRPGs in their entirety. Armageddon may be something that you would normally want to avoid, but I can guarantee that this is the one end-of-the-world event that you’ll want to be in the very center of.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: 3DS (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Atlus ; Developer: Atlus ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 20, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $49.99
“Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.”