In recent years, the Shin Megami Tensei series has found new life in the West thanks to the popularity of spinoff titles Persona 3 and Persona 4. But now, after a decade since the release of the third game in the core series, comes Shin Megami Tensei IV.
And while it is a game that is both deep and interesting, it's also a game that is very, very hard.
Good — Interesting Story with Twists and Turns
The first two core games in Shin Megami Tensei have a common framework. Based on your actions in the game and the devils you use in battle, you can turn the world into a heaven, hell, or neutral world built by the hands of man. You always have a love interest and a good ally and an evil one -- one of which will become your enemy based on your choices.
Shin Megami Tensei IV keeps with this general framework and delivers an interesting story within it. What starts as the story of a group of devil-fighting knights in a medieval world soon proves to be far different from what is initially purported. And with an interesting cast of characters -- including a Stephen Hawking knockoff -- to keep you emotionally invested, the story is an enjoyable ride.
Good — A Great Back End
Back when I was playing Persona 3, I remember making pages of notes and using numerous guides to know how to fuse so as to get the monsters I wanted with the skills I wanted. I wish I had had a system as user friendly as Shin Megami Tensei IV's to work with back then. Not only does it recommend fusions for you, but it also lets you search for fusions based on which devil you want to use and/or skills you want to pass on. On top of that, it shows you all the information you could ever want to know about the fused devil before you go through with the fusion so you won't have to spend countless hours of trial and error to create the devil you want.
Mixed — The Hardest RPG in Recent Memory?
I've already spoken at length about how hard Shin Megami Tensei IV is and how it humbled me. Right from the first battle it is brutally unforgiving and even the monsters you meet in random encounters will have no trouble wiping you out. Moreover, every boss is nigh on unbeatable unless you build a party specifically designed to exploit its weaknesses.
On easy mode, the difficulty becomes more manageable; but even then managing your devils is key. If you bring a devil that is weak to any of the boss’ attacks, you are doomed from the start. This is all due to the battle system which rewards you with an extra turn if you exploit the enemy devil's weakness. Of course, it works the other way around too; and if the enemies hit your elemental weakness, even normal battle can easily transform into a game over.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a game that requires you to be on your toes at all times, constantly changing and upgrading your party. Few are the battles in this game where you can just mash the normal attack button and tune out. This is of course great if you love a challenge, but if you are looking to just flow through the game and experience the plot, you won't be able to do that -- even on easy. Of course, if you download the DLC...
Bad — The Same Five Static Shots
In the conversations as well as cutscenes, all the cast is portrayed by the same two or three character portraits each. These are not animated in anyway -- not even lip movement, rather the camera zooms in and out or pans across them. So while at first glance, the character art style of Shin Megami Tensei IV is attractive enough, it quickly grows stale. And since the characters are so painfully static, it makes the action seem stilted and anything but dynamic.
The devils are hardly better. When you encounter them in the wild, they are generally cool-looking 3D models with a scant few frames of animation. If you make them members of your party, however, they are reduced to nothing but static status menu-like icons.
Bad — Menu-based world
While dungeons and the world map function like most classic RPGs, the main town to which you return constantly throughout the game is nothing but a sea of menus plastered across more static paintings. There's no walking your character around the city -- rather you just select where you want to go and the background changes. Given the amount of time you spend in the city, it could easily become a character in its own right -- a place you care about and are emotionally invested in. But without being able to explore it or even walk down one of its streets, it feels like nothing more than an overly complex options menu.
In the end, while Shin Megami Tensei IV is not the game for me, it is far from a bad game. It has an enjoyable plot, a great back end, and a well thought out combat system. However, it is crushingly difficult and the visuals leave something to be desired. If you are a fan of the series or are the type of gamer who thrives on challenge, this is the RPG for you. If however, you, like me, would rather experience the story without hour upon hour of grinding, this might be one to avoid -- unless you feel like buying the game-breaking DLC to go with it.
Shin Megami Tensei IV was released on May 23, 2013, for the Nintendo 3DS in Japan. It will be released in North America on July 16, 2013.