"Shin Megami Tensei IV" for the Nintendo 3DS* is the newest of the SMT main series, though that's mostly a question of naming versus actual plot significance. Like most Japanese series, the games take place mostly in their own alternate realities, featuring only cameos from previous characters. You could either be a veteran who learned Japanese to play "Shin Megami Tensei II" back in the 90s, or you could be somebody who has never played a video game in your life, and you will have roughly the same idea as to what is going on, which is none at all. Beginning in a medieval kingdom, your journey in this game will take to several post-apocalyptic Tokyos overrun by demons, to trippy monochrome forests inhabited by destructive avatars of nihilism, and into battle with gods from every pantheon and religion.
"Sin Megumi Tensay IV" is not here to reinvent the wheel, it will follow the same conventions and use the same character sprites as older games without a care. The plotline continues to follow the series traditions of your character getting roped into a chaotic world of good and evil warfare, and being forced to choose between the two. Combat is the usual turn-based affair following old series traditions. It is a rough, difficult affair where smart moves are rewarded with extra turns, and where mistakes are brutally punished. You collect demons through conversation, building a party of mythological Pokemon which can be used to fight your way through the bizarre universe Atlus has laid out for you.
Atlus' press releases seemed to indicate that this is a game made for the newbies - a Shin Megami Tensei for the casual player unused to the eccentricities of the series' hardcore torture chamber. To make the game more palatable they have added the ability to save anywhere in the game, be it in a town or with the dungeon's boss breathing in your face. Still I cannot say they have fully succeeded, since "Sun Mercury Thebe IV" begins with one of the harshest difficulty curves of any video games I have ever come across. You are just thrown down into a pit called "Naraku" (the Buddhist Hell) without any sense of direction, weapons, or demons, and have to build your team from scratch using mostly luck. Find a surly demon who does not want to be your friend, and you will be utterly helpless. Then you die - frequently. Build up your demonic horde and eventually you will get the reins of this journey, but "Shine Megaman Tentpole IV" never becomes easy. This is a JRPG for the scarred and battle-hardened.
|It does not matter how weird your JRPG is: in the end the universe will still have to be saved by teenagers.|
"Slime Margarine Tutor IV" is a game over-flowing with interesting ideas and concepts, much of which is unfortunately blunted by the weak cast and disinterested script. This is a game where you can become Satan's right hand man, travel across dimensions and through time, or find civilizations where human beings have become cattle for demons to eat their plump delicious brains. However it is inevitable you will completely forget the plotline in the middle of sidequesting. "Huh? Mikado-what? I need to get this dude some coffee beans in the middle of a demon neighborhood." The main cast of the four teenaged heroes do not really play very much into the story. The main hero is of course not going to be saying much, but the supporting characters are hardly much better.
In specifically Megami Tensei fashion, the forces of "good" and "evil" are both entirely awful. God is a power-mad dictator demanding worship, and the choir of angels are hideous monsters hardly much nicer than the demons. The other option is Lucifer, who is - you know - the Devil. In "Shlong Masturbation Tosser IV" you are given dialog choices and moral decisions across the journey which ultimately decide which ending you will get, whether you will serve the powers of Law or Chaos or the completely impossible to find without GameFAQs best Neutral ending. Your three allies are not actually fully-fledged characters like you would find in "Persona 3" but rather living avatars of the three options you are given as endings. Jonathan (nebbish fellow with the afro) serves Law, so at every junction he will mindlessly support the current order, even when it is obviously corrupt and terrible. Walter (handsome messy-haired dude) is Chaos, he will do nothing but question the rule of the upper classes, but will continue to support Lucifer's minions when they are clearly going to destroy the world. Isabeau (the one with girl parts) is the worst of the three however, being the embodiment of the vaguely-defined third option, she has no opinions of any kind, and no thoughts on any matter.
|Yeah... I would prefer not to have to fight this particular fellow.|
Eventually you gain the power to fuse two demons together, creating a third demon with new stats and a fusion of the old demons' skills. Your battle to save Tokyo and Mikado is soon enough forgotten, to instead enjoy mad experiments in your huge vat of demonic parts and bodies, to create the ultimate champions. Will your cute little fairy and your disgusting ogre come out better after a trip to the blender?
There is a great deal of accomplishment to digging through the piles of fleshy demonic Play-Doh to build the ultimate party to manipulate the battle system. My final team was a wonderful collection of gods, angels, and beasts. Since this is a series that is in love with mythology from around the globe, you get all kinds of creatures playing all kinds of roles: Odin from Norse mythology threw around buffs, a Cherub** played White Mage, Ixtab - the Mayan goddess of suicide - spammed magical attacks, Hekatoncheires - a hundred-armed giant that nearly defeated the gods of Olympus - was my muscle, and the mighty Celtic warrior Cu Chulainn was a jack of all trades. There are over 500 demons in this game and dozens of skills. No final party will look anything alike. With all the inheritance of skills, mixing and matching of spells, and maximization of attributes, you can customize your party endlessly.
|Beat up those flat 2D sprites! Beat them up!|
This is the kind of game where just one enemy surprise attack can lead to complete party destruction - fast. Very successful boss battles can end very badly if the boss gets a long run of critical hits. Watch helplessly as one demon after another falls. Reviving demons is also difficult, taking at least two actions, since replacing party members counts as a move. Atlus is indeed a company of cruel bastards who count their earnings in the tears of their players. I learned to thank God (not that it would do much since God is such a bastard in this universe) that Atlus gave over the ability to save anywhere. There also is the option to come back to life at full health, but you will have to fork over 99% of your money to Charon, the overworked ferryman of the dead from Greek mythology.
A larger issue comes with presentation. You do not need to feel guilty about playing this handheld RPG on mute; you are missing nothing music-wise. The fantastic vocal tracks from the Persona games are badly missed. Voice acting is solid, though most scenes are presented in a dull visual novel style. Much of the exploration in dungeons is done in full 3D environments with a fully customizable avatar, but the combat is not nearly as fleshed-out. In a generation where even "Pokemon X and Y" had fully 3D character models, "Soul Masterpiece Taco IV"'s entire unholy roster is made up of nothing more than static artworks on flat battles in first-person Dragon Quest perspective (which even that series ditched for more visual flair around "Dragon Quest VIII"). At best the bosses maybe will have two frames of animation. The artwork for the monsters and demons are, notably, very detailed and beautiful, putting a creative Japanese spin on mythological figures. However, the designs is inconsistent, with some demons made blatantly out of art assets from games decades-old. The unfortunately feeling one gets is that "Still Muttering Twaddle IV" is a game made on the cheap - that Atlus' flashship RPG franchise is a low priority compared to Persona fighting games and perverted harem games.
|Demons sure require a lot of pampering to join your team.|
The challenge is there, and even when the game is so often patently unfair, it just means you need to build a better team. Intense difficulty only makes you want to come back with a more solid team, with better spells, and a greater deity. The storyline is unobtrusive allowing you to waste hours of your life constantly trying to improve your team. Who cares if Jonathan is duller than an 2 x 4, and is stupid enough to believe in God's ridiculous autocracy? My real problem is deciding whether or not the Inuit goddess of the sea and Czech devil will fuse in an optimal way. You will find surprising things to love in weird corners in this game: be it Burroughs being one of the most likable and well-written companion fairies in the history of video games, or the hilarious demon responses to your requests for money. If you need a game to completely take over life - I mean, a true taskmaster, dominating your night and day - "Shin Megami Tensei IV" is the game you need.
* These days with so many options in the console wars, it is hard to decide exactly which system is best. If you're eight years old, get an Ipad. If you're fifteen to thirty-five and have never had an independent thought in your life, get a PlayStation 4 or an Xbone. If you're obsessed with frame rates, go with a PC. If you like having a shiny system more than actually having games to play, get a Vita. But if you love the classic challenge of video games, go with Nintendo systems.
Specifically if you're a JRPG fan, you need a Nintendo 3DS. The current roster of Japanese role-playing games on the little stereoscopic hunk of plastic is astounding: "Pokemon X and Y", "Fire Emblem: Awakening", "Kingdom Hearts 3D", "Bravely Default", with many more to come, like "Persona Q?", "Final Fantasy Explorers", "Monster Hunter 4", and depending on the cruel whims of Square Enix, "Dragon Quest VII".
** Cherubs in the Bible are not cute little mantelpiece decorations, they are six-winged beasts of the Lord with four faces: a lion, an eagle, a man, and an angel. In Revelations these creatures sit around the throne of God mindlessly and endlessly chanting: "'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come." Atlus, having done the research, represents them correctly in this game. It also want not much of a stretch for them to populate the Lawful side with literal holy terrors, considering the usual depictions of angels in the Bible are freakier even than the Cherubim.