Sunday, September 7, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei IV

The Shin Megami Tensei series has been for decades one of the most idiosyncratic and interesting Japanese franchises.   While most JRPGs were still aping Dungeons & Dragons with medieval settings, "Shin Megami Tensei 1" exploded on the SNES with a surreal cyberpunk plot.  In the first game, Tokyo is destroyed by an American nuclear attack, setting the stage for a sequel where the entire party is made up of cyborg messiahs in the wasteland.  This is the series that infamously featured such final bosses as Hitler and God (the God).  The ranks of monsters you control in these games are made up of exhaustively researched mythological figures and demons.  There is definitely more thought and originality in an SMT game than most gaming settings.  You will not find many Jungian archetypes or comparative religion in a Final Fantasy game, will you?

"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.
You play as the typical Shin Megami Tensei voiceless nameless hero (the ponytail guy in the center).  You are a commoner visiting the capital of what appears to be a typical medieval European country.  However, things are clearly off:  the kingdom is clearly Japanese, being named "the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado".  You take part in a ceremony where it is determined that you have the makings of a knight, but the warrior classes are known as "Samurai".  Even stranger, you are assigned a magical fairy guide, Burroughs, who is obviously just a Siri-esque artificial intelligence living inside your cybernetic gauntlet.  The contraband illicit literature being smuggled into the kingdom by demons is actually nothing more than a modern manga.  As your travels into Naraku continue, you eventually reach the bottom, only to discover that below Mikado is actually a geofront within which is the modern city of Tokyo, trapped in endless darkness and overrun with demons.

"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.
"Min Tagami Shensei IV"'s strengths lie in its combat and its deep demonic husbandry mechanics.  Your human allies are nothing more than AI fifth attacks; you have no control over their moves.  The real power you have comes from the demons you recruit, which will fill up the other three places in your four-man team.  Demons teach you magical spells, give items, give money, and defend you from enemies.  So those opening minutes without demons is like diving into a Mario game without the ability to jump.  As you progress to the next stage of the game you will want to recruit as many new demons as possible, both because they are usually far more powerful than your old stock, but also because they will come with new spells and attacks.

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!
The combat system is heavily offense-biased.  Unique for an RPG, there is no defense stat of any kind, but instead two different attack stats (the difference remains unclear to me).  The only way to increase defense is through buffs or armor, though elemental resistance is your only true protection.  Series mainstay the Press Turn System returns, meaning smart moves that target enemy weaknesses or critical hits give you extra attacks in your turn.  A successful turn can have up to eight attacks, all targeting the enemy weakness.  Occasionally lucky dodges or crits will make your characters "Smirk", meaning their evasions is hugely increased, and they can execute risky attacks much easier.  This sounds great, except for the fact that demons can also get extra turns, can also Smirk, and can completely mow your team into the dust in a single unlucky turn.  "Sauce Mignonette Tarter IV" has no tolerance for mistakes - accidentally use an electric Zio spell on an enemy that blocks the thunder element, and your entire turn will be wiped, the enemy will Smirk, and next turn your ass is spread wide for deep pounding.

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.
However, even though "Ship Minehunter TP-boat IV" never found a corner it could not cut, is even more cheap with its deaths, and not even that terribly well-written despite many creative ideas, it is as addicting of a video game as I have played in months.  You'd think with everything I've gone over - along with several complaints I could not even fit - I would be telling the world to find the best furnace into which to fit this game.  "Soup Minestrone Tomato IV" is simply impossible to actually put down.  Even when the game plays clear bullshit, such as the occasional demon who will refuse every goddamn gift you give and decide to steal your turns and attack once again, I could not stop.  Even the nearly impossible task that is trying to gain the Neutral ending could not keep me away from my 3DS.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Arghhhhhhh, I so want a 3DS badly.
    This on top of all the other RPGS,kid Icarus uprising, the new smash bros, Azure striker Gunvolt and eventually the xenoblade remake.
    Sighhhh, well I guess when I do finally get in there will be a ton of games waiting.
    Sword Of Primus