For those who feel they’ve legitimately outgrown Pokémon’s aesthetically jejune brand of monster-collecting, training, and battling, now seems to be the most opportune time to enter a more mature realm of creature warfare in the form of Shin Megami Tensei IV. Hopping on the Shin Megami Tensei bandwagon requires the same kind of steadfast dedication it takes to completely experience everything a seemingly endless RPG from the Pokémon or Dragon Quest series has to offer, but with a treacherously steep learning curve that rapidly separates novices from the hardcore, jumping into any Shin Megami Tensei foray should be met with a stern warning detailing the loss of all outside-world communication once a new save file is christened. Unlike Pokémon, which implements the somewhat inhumane maim-and-catch technique for acquiring partners, Shin Megami Tensei’s infamous negotiation cycle presents a decidedly more psychological approach to recruiting its beasts of burden. Satisfactorily answering the opposing demons’ rhetorical questions, allocating them funds, or presenting them with gifts, eventually appeasing their ill wills enough for them to want to join your crusade, is a regularly enjoyable game-within-a-game, one of many magnetizing distractions Shin Megami Tensei IV possesses by the barrelful.
The game’s primary drawback may be its central storyline, which, compared to the titanic depths of its demon-combat and fusion systems, feels a bit tacked on and underdeveloped. Set in East Mikado, a quasi-Middle Ages Japanese fantasy land, a mysterious samurai clad in black armor is running around handing out bedeviled books to unsuspecting townsfolk, who ultimately turn into demons when scanning the tomes’ cursed pages. Enter your player character and his band of emotionally compromised teenage sword-wielding accomplices, who seek to oust the peddler of voodooed texts and save the city from being overrun by waves of malignant spirits. The tonally uneven adventure involves Lucifer, Lilith, and the cult of Gaia, but the often stunning plot twists swiftly give way to incoherence during sketchy rebound explanations. Emerging on the heels of great 3DS-exclusive, richly scripted JRPGs like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan, Shin Megami Tensei IV’s narrative tends to phone it in, going through the motions, rarely fleshing out believable reasons as to why certain persnickety characters act as they do. Even Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, a remake of a 1997 entry into the Shin Megami Tensei canon released earlier this year, crafts well-rounded NPCs while still delivering the goods in the duel department.
Regardless, even as Shin Megami Tensei IV’s dialogue occasionally disappoints, the game is such a triumph in every other category subject to scrutiny that not caring which one of your acquaintances lives or dies can be written off as a minor tax. Fusing demons is the biggest pull, and will likely be the most satisfying aspect of progressing through Atlus’s tall tale for the majority of players. Entering unexplored areas means a variety of different species to persuade to join your ranks, followed by a quick trip to the combining menu with bit-mapped Mido, a hovering CPU head that guides you through the amalgamation process. Weighing the pros and cons of each monstrous melding is paramount, as sacrificing a demon you may have spent dozens of hours leveling up in order to create a rare one is an obstacle frequently encountered. Selecting the proper syntheses at the correct junctures is the key to getting through each progressively punishing dungeon crawl without ripping out your hair in frustration. Holding on to higher level but fundamentally weaker demons may result in the need to reboot and begin anew, because when that fiendish difficulty spike arrives, it hits hard, and is a herculean task to recover from if your team isn’t precisely where it needs to be.
Visually, the game deserves praise for its efficient blend of stylish anime-inspired artwork and a handsome third-person exploration layout that uses the 3DS’s power to its full extent. As with every Shin Megami Tensei title, the character designs, for humans and demons alike, are first-rate. Environments are effectively drenched in darker hues to highlight the hellish atmosphere of each underground chamber, and patrolling enemies glow so they can be seen straight away in order to be dealt an advantageous preemptive strike. The only slight defect is the overworld map, which is simplistic to a fault, coming off as pedestrian when displayed side by side with Atlus’s otherwise splendid presentation. Composers Ryota Koduka, Kenichi Tsuchiya, and Toshiki Konishi do an exemplary job with the winding musical score, seamlessly shifting between creeping investigative themes and fast-paced assault arias.
It’s a testament to the uniform excellence of Shin Megami Tensei IV’s core gameplay that it can still be appraised as a successful RPG when its story is lacking in necessary profundity. Ascribing the label of “nearly impossible to put down” isn’t something that should be done lightly, but the game earns that classification in spades, and is yet another estimable chapter in a series with an unconditionally outstanding track record.