My favourite character in Shin Megami Tensei IV didn't make the front cover of the North American release. She's not one of the samurai warriors tasked with keeping the world's demons in check. She's not technically even a real person, much less a she. Her name is Burroughs, and she's the keeper of the menus.
Burroughs, a sophisticated artificial intelligence, doesn't have much of a personality, but then neither do the characters that did make it onto the game's cover. The erstwhile companions of the game's protagonist (named Fahey in my run) aren't given much time to shine in the fourth instalment of one of Japan's most popular role-playing series. All-too-brief snippets of conversation hint as underlying personalities, but mostly they feel like characters created to fill (sometimes with a vigorous shoehorning) the roles of chaos, order and neutrality, as is common in the franchise's core titles.
But what Burroughs lacks in personality, she makes up for in utility. Bonded with the main character after he passes the "Ceremony of the Gauntlet", a test to see if one is worthy to join the samurai ranks of the feudal country of East Mikado, it's she who guides the player character through the learning process.
She teaches him to explore the game's drab 3D levels. She scans the playfield, materialising otherwise invisible enemies so the player can engage or avoid at will. She teaches him how to engage in battle against the demonic 2D sprites of the world, walking him through exploiting their elemental weaknesses to gain more chances to attack. She trains him to talk to the enemy, answering questions and offering gifts to enlist members of the game's expansive bestiary to his cause.
She teaches him to take on their powers as they level up, adding their strength to his own. She's a gateway to the Cathedral of Shadows, where those demons can be combined into stronger creatures, and she keeps track of his acquisitions so he can concentrate on maintaining a party of creatures flexible enough to take on any threat.
And she grows, oh how she grows. As the character levels he gains App Points, used to unlock new applications that run under Burroughs' operating system. From increasing the size of his demonic cache to increasing his rate of experiential growth, she dedicates herself to helping him become a better man.
Burroughs is teacher, mother, advisor, tour guide and Pokedex — she's the most important character in Shin Megami Tensei IV. She deserves a massive, review-interrupting image.
To be honest, Burroughs doesn't make much sense at first. In the feudal fantasy land in which the game begins, where the upper and lower castes are separated by a line so definitive it might-as-well be hanging in the air as if drawn by an enormous mystical Sharpie marker, an intelligent A.I. guiding the player character through side-quests certainly seems out of place, but then East Mikado isn't exactly your normal country. Buried deep within a dungeon beneath the country's capital city lies a forbidden portal to the village of "The Unclean Ones."
Otherwise known as post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Now's she starting to make more sense.
Burroughs, the player character and the tag-along trio venture into this strange world in order to find and capture the Black Samurai, a mysterious figure who's been tempting Mikado's lower class with "Literature" — books capable of transforming the reader into a demon. In classic Shin Megami style, the story escalates steadily, powerful supernatural forces rise, and an important choice must be made. It's a grand tale, surely, though one that might feel a little too familiar to fans of these series — less of an "Oh my gosh!" and more of an "Of course."
With a world-shaking conclusion inevitable, it's all about getting there, and the journey has some issues. There will be grinding, for instance, whether you like it or not. One cannot simply progress from story point to story point and hope to survive — enemies would quickly overpower the player character's party if not for side quests, equipment upgrades and a great deal of getting lost. That last bit becomes easier once the player hits Tokyo, which is splayed out in the most convoluted, hard-to-read overland map I've ever encountered. I spent hours lost in those streets, often confused as to where I was supposed to go next. The special edition of the game includes a strategy guide, and I have to admit I cracked that sucker open once or twice.
In admitting that, I also admit that Burroughs, as comforting as her precense may be, cannot solve problem. She can't guide me through the twisted streets of Tokyo. She can't make the game's demon roster, pieced together from a decade of art from various creators, feel like a cohesive thing. She can't make me care more about Walter, Jonathan or Isabeau, the three human characters accompanying me on this strange journey.
And she can't save me from regular meetings with this gentleman:
He's the guy who appears when the character's party falls, offering to bring them back to life through application of money or Play Coins (robbing Animal Crossing's Nook brothers of revenue in the process). One can expect to see him often in the game's early stages, the game's unforgiving difficulty violently driving home the need to grind.
Burroughs doesn't fix the problems with Shin Megami Tensei IV, but she makes them tolerable enough. Through 40-plus hours, she's kept me focused on the most important and enjoyable aspects of the game — the demon collecting and breeding, tweaking statistics, upgrading abilities and striving to build a party capable of taking on anything this dark and gloomy world can throw at them. When the less interesting elements of the title threaten to bring me down, she's the mechanical voice that guides me back to the rewarding path of demon domination.
Let Shin Megami Tensei IV's soothing electronic voice be your guide. She will not lead you astray.