In the eastern kingdom of Mikado, there exists two classes of people: the Luxurors and the Casualries. The former is the upper class who struggle for nothing, while the other toils endlessly in labor forced to accept their poor lot in life. Regardless of class, when young people turn 18 they must participate in a rite of passage called the Gauntlet Rite. The Gauntlet Rite requires a pilgrimage to Mikado Castle, for the Luxurors that journey is not arduous at all, but for some of the Casualries, the pilgrimage can be difficult, long and trying. What the Gauntlet Rite decides is who will be the newest Prentices to become part of the Samurais that protect the entire kingdom of Mikdao from the demons dwelling in the depths of Naraku. While the Gauntlet does not choose based on class giving young people of all classes an equal opportunity to become a Samurai, the numbers chosen fluctuates, so some year many may become a Samurai and some years none. Not becoming a Samurai is unfortunate for the Luxurors, but for the Casualries it is devastating. The only way to pull themselves out of their miserably class is to become a Samurai because that will make them part of the Luxurors, so for the Casualries, not becoming a Samurai means not only do they have a life full of struggle to look forward to, but they endured a harrowing journey to Mikado Castle for nothing. This is the dilemma that Flynn (the player character) and his best friend, Issachar face as they arrive in Mikado Castle after a tough journey from Kiccigiorgi.
The story of SMT4 is complicated in many ways. Essentially, the main complication for the protagonist and the new Prentice Samurais becomes the growing presence of demons outside of Naraku (the dungeons within Mikado Castle where demons are trapped) and the sudden and mysterious appearance of the Black Samurai (who is spreading dangerous “Literature” to the Casualries that causes the readers to turn into demons). This problem causes the Abbots to task the new Prentice Samurais to explore forbidden depths of Naraku and venture into the world of the “unclean” ones to track down and deal with the Black Samurai. Where the story goes once the protagonist and his friends start to go deep into the bowels of Naraku is surprising, intensely fascinating and raises more questions than answers. SMT4 deals with some complicated issues of class and power/faith in a complex manner. The story does a great job at revealing details at a good clip while alluding to some of the deeper truths that keep the player always questioning exactly what the truth is. Then there is the utterly weird and insane meta story, but that is another story.
The main gameplay style for SMT4 is turn-based combat built around the protagonist, his party and whatever companion is accompanying him. Fans familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei gameplay system will recognize how to take advantage of the weakness/strength system. Essentially, any enemy/party member has any number of weaknesses or stregnths that the player can exploit. Exploiting a weakness or strength will either yield an extra turn or end a turn immediately. For example, using Zio on an enemy weak against electricity will give the player an extra turn, continually exploiting that weakness can give the player up to 8 moves before the enemy can attack. On the other hand, if an enemy is strong against fire and the player attacks with Agi, the enemy will either absorb/block the attack and the player turn will end immediately. When an attack misses, the player or enemy loses two moves. While the system is familiar to those who have enjoyed entries in the series, there has always been something hugely fascinating about the Shin Megami Tensei take on the turn-based battle system that makes it addicting, strategic and oddly deep.
As part of the main Shin Megami Tensei series, SMT4 allows players to keep up to three demons in their party to battle other demons as they make their way through Naraku. To aid in demon fusion, players can recruit demons they meet in battle through the talk option. This allows players to negotiate with demons to join their side, this process often involves a give and take of giving up items, money, HP or MP, or lying to trick demons, and will not always end in a demon joining the player. To upgrade the protagonist’s skills, the player needs to level up demons until they have learned all their learnable skills. Then they can choose which skills to give to the protagonist allowing them to change the skills to suit their play style (if a demon has a skill that the player already is using then that skill will be upgraded and strengthen in the menu).
The cornerstone of the SMT series has been its use of demon recruiting and fusion. To that end, demon fusion is back in SMT4! What contributes to the strong vertebrate of SMT4’s gameplay systems is the signature demon fusion system, which will be familiar to anyone has played any of the Shin Megami Tensei series or its spin-offs. Unlike Persona 4 Golden, the system is a bit more static. The fusion system will generally suggest the best two demon fusions based on current demons in the players party, and give special fusion options to fuse multiple demons to make rarer demons. The complexity to the system comes in the search function that allows players to choose different options to find new fusion options.
Graphics and Sound
While Shin Megami Tensei IV is not pushing the boundaries of graphically fidelity on the 3DS, what makes it successful is that the team understands the limitation of the hardware and optimizes the game giving it a solid visual acuity. SMT4 features a mix between several elements from recent Shin Megami Tensei entries with a first-person view while in battle, a menu based town in Mikado, third-person dungeon exploration in Naraku, and a stylized overmap when exploring the “unclean” ones country. This mix allows for a strong visual presence throughout the game the ugliness that comes with 3DS games that try to push the system too far. One of the biggest strengths visually for the game are the gorgeous anime portraits for the characters in the game. Another great feature for SMT4 is that it features excellent voice acting for the characters. While it does not have full lip syncing because it uses the beautiful portraits to convey dialogue, that does not become a big issue like in other 3DS games. The soundtrack has some good tunes that give the game a good aural variety.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is a sterling new entry in the main SMT series, and another exemplary title to grace the 3DS in 2013. The game features excellent graphics optimized for the system and stellar voice acting. SMT4’s story is compelling, dense and constantly keeps the player guessing at what the elements are building toward. Its gameplay is not revolutionizing the series by any means, but the hugely satisfying mechanics and systems in play are as addicting and satisfying as ever. Ultimately, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a pure dose of JRPG heroin straight to the veins of hardcore fans because it is every bit as unforgivably difficult as a mainstay entry in a long running series should be.