Despite the "4" in the title, Shin Megami Tensei IV isn't a direct sequel to any of the previous games in the series. There are cameos and a few small references, but the plot is entirely self-contained. SMT 4 puts players in control of Flynn, a samurai from the kingdom of Mikado, which is built atop a dungeon called Naraku. The samurai defend the kingdom from demons through the use of computers called gauntlets. The peace is shattered when the Black Samurai appears and turns people into demons. Flynn and his apprentices chase him into the dungeon, where they discover that it's a passage to the modern-day city of Tokyo, Japan, which is overrun with demons.
As the game progresses, you'll come across characters who either lean toward maintaining the status quo to prevent anarchy, or tearing down the status quo to create a free world. As with most SMT games, there's also the option for you to disagree with both and try to find your own path. SMT4 does a good job of not demonizing law or chaos. You spend most of the game with likeable and sympathetic party members who lean toward one of the philosophies. They make reasonable points for their beliefs, even if you don't agree with them. The plot has some interesting twists, although SMT fans can probably identify many of them in advance. It's not a groundbreaking story, but it's a well-told one, and the multiple endings provide a good amount of replay value.
SMT4 is a dungeon crawler that's more in the vein of SMT: Nocturne than SMT: Strange Journey. Each area takes place in a 3-D dungeon, and you control the player as he explores. As in the Persona series, enemies appear as indistinct shapes on the field and change when they see you. If you strike them with a sword before they hit you, you'll gain bonuses. If you miss, they'll have advantages over you. The dungeons are very by-the-book and don't have a lot of distinctive features, but they're still interesting. Longtime fans will be happy to hear that there are very few "unfair" dungeons. There are a handful of teleport mazes, but they're straightforward and clearly marked.
You unlock the world map after about four hours of gameplay, and once you do, you'll find a ridiculous amount to explore. All of Tokyo is at your disposal, although you're gated from certain areas until you progress the plot. The world map is done via an overhead view, which may be disappointing compared to the detailed 3-D dungeons, but it works well. The biggest problem is that the game asks for a passing familiarity with Tokyo. Several of the quests, both optional and required, reference Tokyo locations as if they were places that people visited regularly. It's easy to figure out by exploring, but it'd be nice if there were a more clearly marked map.
SMT4 is structured around quests. Every part of the main game is provided as a main quest, and you're given a reward when you progress. There are also a staggering number of challenge quests, which can entail delivering items, defeating rare demons, completing a dungeon, finding a person, or various other miniquests. The challenge quests make up a good chunk of the gameplay and are only somewhat optional, since they unlock important clues and can influence the ending of the game. Several challenges ask you to traverse a dungeon that you've already completed, and most of the time, you're just powerful enough that it isn't fun. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that several challenges are extremely vague. Sometimes, the clues are hidden in the quest message, and other times, they're something that Japanese players would easily recognize but are less obvious to those from other countries. There are relatively few of these quests, but they're still annoying.
By default, the main character is a blank slate, and you can customize his abilities and outward appearance by giving him different kinds of equipment. You have a sword, a gun, and four types of body equipment that influence basic stats and abilities. Your armor influences elemental strengths and weaknesses to provide small passive boosts to your basic stats. Each time you level up, you're given five stat points that you can distribute among your stats. It's better to focus on one stat rather than trying to level up everything at once. There's no reason to invest in Dex if you're not going to concentrate on guns, and there's no reason to invest in Str if you don't plan to hit things. There aren't any defensive stats. Your HP and magic power are determined by your level, although each piece of equipment provides a small bonus. I went for a magic-user build on my playthrough but saw enough to know that a physical build or a gunfighter build would be just as viable, if not more so.
One of the defining characteristics of the main SMT titles is that you don't have many human party members. Unlike Persona and its ilk, SMT is all about the demons. Aside from your main character and an occasional AI-controlled guest, your party consists of demons. Each has a set of moves, elemental strengths and weaknesses, and various attributes. You can recruit new demons by talking to them, fusing them, or allowing certain demons to level up enough to evolve into a new form. Unlike your protagonist, you can't customize them too much. Given the way that demon stats scale, it's best if you constantly switch out your demons for newer and better models. It's uncommon for you to hold on to demons for more than five levels, and it's even more uncommon to keep one longer than that.
One of the core things that has changed about demons from previous SMT titles is that using and recruiting them is far more user-friendly. The negotiation mechanic is weighted a lot more in your favor, and you have more options. You can attempt to cheat the demons, which makes them think you gave into their request when you didn't. Demons now gain EXP passively, so you can keep a demon in your inventory and let it level up even if you don't use it in combat. It's ridiculously easy to fuse demons now, and you can also select the skills that your demon learns.
It can be tempting to keep a single demon for a long time, but the game rewards you for not doing so. Your character's special skills are governed by the recruited demons. Each demon has a set number of skills that it can learn by leveling, and once it hits that point, you can transfer active spells from the demon to your protagonist. Similarly, you can only hold a certain number of spells, but you can learn the same spell multiple times to gain bonuses that reduce the cost of casting it or increase its attack power. As such, there's little reason to hold on to a demon for too long unless it's particularly good or is going to evolve later.
Another way to customize your character and demons is with apps. Your gauntlet is effectively a Smartphone, so you can install apps on it. These apps are permanent upgrades, and every time you level up, you earn 10 app points, which can be spent to unlock features or bonuses. Increase the number of demons you can carry, gain passive HP or MP regen, make it easier to recruit demons, unlock the ability to trade with demons to get rare items, increase the number of skill slots, or allow your character to fuse demons far above their level.
Your early game depends heavily on your app choices. Depending on what you invest in, your play style can change. If you want to invest in raising the fusion ceiling, you're going to depend on your higher-level demons because you'll have less room for extra skill slots or special items. If you invest heavily in scout and trade upgrades, you'll be overwhelmed with demons and mana, but you might regret the lack of extra skill slots. As the game progresses, you'll start to get all of the apps you'd wanted.
SMT4 features the return of the Press Turn Combat System from SMT: Nocturne, but with a few changes. Combat is turn-based, with both sides taking entire turns to do their attacks. At the start of each turn, you're given one icon for each party member. Taking any action uses up an icon, but if you hit an enemy's elemental weakness or get a critical hit, you only use up half an icon, effectively earning an extra turn. With proper elemental juggling, this means you can get eight actions per turn instead of four. In addition, there is a random chance that you'll temporarily gain the "smirk" status when you hit a weakness, giving you a round of increased damage and near-immunity to most attacks. However, if you use a spell that an enemy blocks or repels, you'll lose turns. With one wrong spell, you can lose your entire party's allotment of turns. The trick to combat is remembering that the rules also apply to the enemy.
Because of this, it's tough to sum up SMT4's difficulty as merely "easy" or "hard." It's more like "feast or famine." When you're winning in SMT4, you're getting eight turns for every one the enemy gets or taking minimal to no damage from their attacks. When you're losing, it's just as one-sided. A single mistake or bad demon choice can lead to your entire party being wiped out in one round of combat. This is largely because the game doesn't really have defensive stats, beyond the elemental resistance/immunity on certain armor or demon abilities. This gives SMT4 a different sense of balance, and it eliminates much of the grinding from the game. If you're losing, it's usually not because you're underleveled but because you're underprepared or poorly equipped.
SMT4 differs heavily from its predecessors in that it feels a lot more "fair." I loved the previous SMT games, but there were times when you died through little to no fault of your own. SMT4 does away with a lot of those unfair deaths. The biggest change is that you no longer get an instant "game over" if your protagonist dies. If you die in SMT4, it's likely your own fault, and even then, the game gives you a chance to spend macca or play coins to be revived. In addition, you can save at any time.
Visually, SMT4 is a mixed bag. The 3-D graphics are excellent, and a lot of care and detail was invested in the environments. The 3-D effect is among the best I've seen from a game on the Nintendo 3DS system. However, the combat visuals are a little weak when compared to everything else. All the enemies are represented by static artwork that moves very slightly. Most of the artwork is nice, but there are a few stinkers. The Medusa boss looks like bad fan art was accidentally placed in the finished product. There are several "animated" cut scenes, but these are also still artwork that occasionally "moves" in a low-budget way, and it looks a little cheesy. As for the voice acting, there are a few bad voices, but all of the main characters sound quite good and fill their roles well. The soundtrack is top-notch, although it contains a few recycled songs.
From beginning to end, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a well-crafted game. It doesn't reinvent the franchise, but it streamlines it. Most of the big changes are interface improvements, mechanical adjustments, or the removal of cheap deaths and unfair encounters. The result is a game that's been polished to a sheen. If you're a fan of the franchise or a fan of JRPGs, you need to run out and buy SMT4.
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