There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Shin Megami Tensei, and if those three words mean nothing to you, you could easily have ignored the addition of Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT4) to the 3DS eShop at the end of last month without giving it a second glance. But in doing so, you’d be missing out on a great, though admittedly rough around the edges, game.
For the uninitiated, SMT4 is the latest in a series of Japanese role-playing games that’s been around as long as Final Fantasy. The first game in the series, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, came out in 1987, bucking RPG trends of the time with a dark sci-fi story and introducing innovative gameplay mechanics to do with recruiting, summoning, and fusing demons to fight alongside you.
In the years that followed, the Megami Tensei series grew with numerous spin-offs, like the popular Persona games, all built around common elements of demon summoning and dark, complex, psychological storylines. Despite the wide reaches of what is now a metaseries, there have been relatively few main-series Megami Tensei games - Shin Megami Tensei IV is just the sixth in the 27 years since Digital Devil Story’s launch.
The new game does an excellent job of clinging to the things that Megami Tensei is known and loved for, while also making it feel fresh and modern. Perhaps the biggest change is the setting. Every game since Megami Tensei II has taken place in a post-apocalyptic world, usually in Tokyo, but SMT4 is set in a fictional land called the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a somewhat anachronistic take on feudal Japan. In Mikado, peace and order is maintained by Samurai, soldiers capable of summoning demons using a hi-tech gauntlet that resembles a smartphone.
Fans of the series might be concerned by this, but don’t worry. This is, unequivocally, a Shin Megami Tensei game, with the same bizarre storyline you’d expect from the series. Your journey begins with you as a new Samurai recruit going about his day-to-day peacekeeping duties, but it evolves into much, much more.
Combat in SMT4 is the tried-and-true Megami Tensei style - turn-based, with a first-person perspective and a heavy emphasis on hitting weak points. There are some welcome tweaks to the formula this time around, though, like the ability to switch demons on the fly, mid-battle. No longer are you spreading your limited ability slots thin trying to cover every eventuality with a four-person (well, one-person, three-demon) party. Being able to change your party in combat means you can develop each demon to focus on their strengths, subbing them out as the situation demands. Of course, switching party members uses a turn that you could otherwise use to attack, so you’ll need to be smart with it.
The Megami Tensei series is known for its high difficulty, and that’s still the case in SMT4. Characters and demons will still get killed in one or two hits if they’re unlucky, and a single bad move is still enough to completely turn the battle against you. A welcome change, however, is with what’s at stake. In earlier games in the series, death - as easy as it was to come by - would send you to the Game Over screen, and back to last save point. This time around, as well as being able to save anywhere, getting wiped out isn’t the end of the world. You can spend a chunk of your Macca (in-game currency) or a few Play Coins (those things you earn by walking around with your 3DS, that aren’t utilised nearly enough by games) to revive yourself at the place you died.
As always, conversing with demons is a big part of SMT4. Compared to other monster-collecting RPGs, getting demons on-side is a bit more complex - you have to talk to them (in combat) to try and negotiate an alliance. They’ll demand items, ask you questions, and sometimes even give you sidequests; how you react, coupled with a heavy random factor, determines if they join you, lash out, or run away from talks with your items in tow. Despite the random factor, these conversations are a load of fun. The demons ooze personality, so even if you find yourself short a few thousand Macca with no new recruit to show for it, chances are you’ll get a good laugh, at least.
Where SMT4 falls short is in presentation. Visuals are very inconsistent, ranging from passable environmental design (which are pleasantly varied, at least) and fairly detailed 3D to loosely animated sprites that are almost painful to look at. The still images for the game characters and 400-odd demons look good, but with a number of different artists on board, styles often clash. The English translation is fine, but the old-fashioned manner of speech among Mikado residents feels, at times, forced and unnatural - though perhaps this is the point?
The exception is sound design, which is always on point. True to the Megami Tensei series, the music is fantastic, a mixture of heavy rock and techno tracks and more subdued, peaceful tunes, depending on the situation. Demons voices are as varied as the demons themselves are, sound effects in battle are weighty and impactful, and even the English voice acting - something that doesn’t have the best of records in games brought over from Japan - is good.
Questionable presentation aside, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a solid game. Even with advancements in accessibility, it won’t be for everyone, but fans of JRPGs should definitely check it out.