Shin Megami Tensei 4 Review
The best way I can describe Shin Megami Tensei 4 (SMT 4) is like a grown up version of Pokemon. But rather than trying to catch every demon and sticking with them throughout the game these demons come and go, get fused, and have to be changed to keep up. SMT 4 is more or less like every Megaten game. The emphasis here is on exploiting enemy weaknesses, fusing together demons to get stronger demons, and exploring dungeons. For newcomers to the Shin Megami series, don’t worry, the story isn’t exactly tied to previous games in the series – so you should be fine. In fact, I would argue that Shin Megami Tensei IV is a perfect place to start.
The two main mechanics in any Shin Megami game are acquiring demons and fusing them. How does one acquire demons? Well, you have to negotiate with them. As you enter into a random battle, you have the option of selecting a demon to negotiate with. Demons are clever and will often trick you into giving them items, HP, MP, or even other demon’s lives and it is your job to persuade them in some way to join you. Certain demons respond to strength and being forceful while others will only join you if you’ve given them a lot of things. Some demons are clearly not very intelligent while others will ask you personal questions that will inform them of your attitude. While at first it may seem infuriating that the demons will ask and ask for more things and then quickly leave you high and dry, the trick to negotiating with the demons is being just as cunning as they are and not necessarily quickly giving in to their demands.
The other key to any Megaten game is fusion. Fusing demons now is much easier because “Mido”, the fusion demon app, now offers recommendations based on your current party and has a rather robust search feature allowing you to filter out particular demons or even search for that one demon you really really want. It’s a great enhancement to the gameplay and allows for quick and easy demon fusing if you are not interested in going through long lists and just want the highest level demons you can get at that particular point in the game.
In terms of the battle system, it is turn-based. You and the enemy demons take turns attacking each other but the game rewards players who effectively take advantage of the enemy’s weakness. By getting a critical hit or “weak” hit, therefore indicating you have attacked with something that the enemy is weak against, you get an extra turn to attack. This allows you and your team of demons to take out huge swaths of enemies or bosses without them even touching you if you are good enough at combo-ing your attacks. These same rules apply to the demons as well. They too can attack your weaknesses and receive extra turns. This means you want to keep a set of demons with you that have various weaknesses (so you can’t be obliterated by one particular weakness) or no weak points at all. Luckily, the weakness and strengths of each demon can be seen in the status menu and in battle, if you select a skill that exploits a weakness of the enemy, it gets highlighted with an exclamation point making battling that much easier and very clear.
Although, not everything in SMT 4 is so clearly spelled out. Some “challenge quests” (read: optional quests) can be very obscure in their details and because of the way that the map and levels are structured it is easy to get lost and frustrated not knowing where to go. In fact, my biggest complaint with SMT 4 is the over world map outside of the starting area. While there are many places to go to, a lot of the locations will be blocked off. However, you wouldn’t know that from the over world map unless you attempt to cross it and then find yourself stuck and having to backtrack. And because there are no labels on the map unless you are on a particular location, the first time you’re thrown into the over world, confusion sets in. It doesn’t help that demons will continue to enter into random battles with you as you try to grasp your bearings which whittles away at your health and MP
Also it is worth mentioning that along with your up to 3 demons in the battle and yourself, you get a support character who is part of your team. They are not directly controllable and they always go at the end of your turn but they can help in a pinch. Yet, I do wish that the player could choose their actions because often the AI will do silly things like attacking a demon who is resistant or neutralizes a spell with that spell than giving them a “block”, which does no damage. But since they always go at the end, they luckily don’t affect how many attacks you get per turn. However, those who can deal with the often confusing map, layout and odd design choices, the game rewards with a deep and difficult RPG that offers a worthy story and addictive gameplay.
Graphically, the game looks quite good. The city environment is well detailed with multiple types of structures and buildings. The demons are well designed and are done in hand-drawn 2D style which gives the player a great look at their party. The game also offers DLC armor and with multiple types of armor that are purchasable within the game’s shops, you can tailor the look of your character which reflects nicely in-game.
There are over 400 demons in SMT 4, the largest in any SMT game. Yet, some of the newer demon designs seem almost out-of-place amongst the older demons from previous Shin Megami games. Also, while you spend most of the game in a city environment, the levels only vary a bit between each other which makes the game feel repetitive and a little too much the same as areas blend together. On a positive note, SMT 4 is voice acted, a first for the series, quite well which helps bring the entire game to life.
The soundtrack for the game is included with the limited edition version along with a game guide/art book. The soundtrack ranges from serviceable to great but is certainly worth a listen. The guide-book sadly only covers about half of the game and not the whole game as I had thought. But it does offer a great reference for early on where most gamers will need the help getting acclimated to the world. A guide is especially helpful because it can assist you in navigating the otherwise confusing map and locations.
Normally, I don’t offer tips for a game within a review but this may help a lot of people getting into Shin Megami Tensei for the first time. For one, the first trip to Naraku will likely be hard – basically the tutorial level for the game, I ended up dying 5 times. Remember that you can leave Naraku and heal as many times as you want. Also, don’t be afraid to lower the difficulty via the “Burroughs” Menu which becomes available after the 2nd time you die. The game becomes much more accessible when you do.
SMT 4 offers two save slots and you would be wise to use both. I personally use the first save slot whenever I am in a safe location and fully healed up, generally when I make progress in the story. I use the second save slot as a temporary one so that I can save before I battle a boss, which Burroughs kindly warns you of as you approach. If I do die, I can simply reset.
Your character gains skills via the demons that you raise. I would suggest that you level up a demon long enough for them to “demon whisper” their abilities to you, which lets you take whatever moves they have that you like. After their demon whisper, unless they say they might evolve, its best just to fuse them with something else. Also, skills can stack, so if you have the fire spell Agi and a demon whispers Agi to you, it becomes Agi + 1.
In terms of character builds, you can spread your points towards Strength, Dx (Dexterity), Magic, Agility, and Luck. But in all honesty, if you are looking for a more strength based build, you’d be better off-putting your stats towards Dx as that factors into physical based attacks and Gun attacks. If you put most of your points towards magic like I did, then make sure to give your character all of the elemental magic attacks (Bufu, Agi, Zan, Zio) and a healing spell (Dia or Media) so that he can heal other party members and himself. And if you are a magic user, make sure to invest your app points on the Magic Replenishing apps in the Burroughs menu. These apps will regenerate your MP as you walk around allowing you essentially unlimited healing and unlimited magic attacks as long as you can dodge enemy encounters.
SMT4 has been a long time coming and it is a great game. It is difficult but also ridiculously engrossing and rewarding. Finally finding the right combination of demons and skills to kill off that tough boss is a level of satisfaction that’s hard to find in video games. Despite the flaws in the map and over world, and some slightly odd design choices, the game is worth your purchase if you are interested in turn-based RPGs or a more adult Pokemon. SMT4 is a game for the hardcore RPG fan, the kind of fan Atlus caters to, but by turning down the difficulty a bit and a little patience, even a more casual RPG fan can enjoy this delightful series.