Shin Megami Tensei figured out something back in the SNES era which the Final Fantasy franchise seems to be struggling with for almost ten years, how to number sequels. As a rule of thumb, numbered SMT games are those which are set in post apocalypse Tokyo and the nameless hero is a blank slate who goes forth to battle it out between the warring factions struggling to determine the fate of Tokyo, humanity, and eventually all of existence.
The game which was subtitled Strange Journey was originally intended to be Shin Megami Tensei IV, but since it was set in the Antarctic there was no roman numeral for it. It’s actually a pretty good system where most of the franchise consist of “spinoffs” which have the freedom be their own thing while the core of the series remains consistent but can benefit from lessons learned in spinoffs.
Your adventure begins with a sense that the weight of destiny is on you and become familiar with your home country the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. First question that pops up is what the kingdom is to the east of, but a lot of obvious questions about the society seems to be pushed to the side. Mikado is a nation comprised of two classes, and a mishmash of West and East which seems to be an elaborate prank pulled on the people.
Our blank slate protagonist is summoned to the capitol for a certain rite and is among several of his peers who are chosen to be Samurai, warriors who enter a secret cavern to do battle with demons (catchall term for any supernatural being, even beings like angels and unicorns are demons in the SMT universe) and use a piece of out of place technology to even recruit them to the cause.
Among your peers are Jonathan the dapper and polite Law Hero, Walter the brash and direct Chaos Hero, and Isabeau the indecisive and manga loving Neutral Heroine. Previous titles had characters who would represent the different lines of thinking, but unlike earlier games we get to spend more time with these heroes. This is a significant improvement from previous games as we get to see how their thinking evolves as the plot unfolds, at least for the Chaos Hero.
Alignments have been a core feature of the SMT series, specifically with the core series, with varying degrees of importance. Law represents the aspiration of a utopian society where the citizens want for nothing and diligently serve their god and fellow man, or die. Chaos uses the sales pitch of freedom and striving to excel on one’s own strength, but this generally manifests as a return to the state of nature where the biggest brute has the most slaves.
Neutrals vary from indifferent, indecisive, and humanists who want to push for a balance of order and freedom. Some are inclined to see Neutral as the optimal path, but it still requires a lot of killing. As of late I’ve been having apprehensions about moral choice systems where one choice is arbitrarily labeled one thing or another, but SMT deserves leeway because they have been doing this in the Super Nintendo era and many many years before mainstream games ran the concept into the ground.
Most games with moral choice systems often do so in order to make the player go through a game twice to see the inconsequential differences for a rather samey experience. What makes Shin Megami Tensei different is that they aim to have each side represented fairly and allow them to make reasonable points, and then leave the player to make up their own minds about the best way to proceed.
For a significant chunk of the game you have a uniform experience, but after a certain point the plot will take on distinct paths based on the player’s affinity between the three lines of thought. This can be frustrating at time when characters who seem to be really important show up then vanish to be never seen again, but it makes some sense that if you are taking distinct paths that there are insights that will be specific to each path. I’m reminded of what many of the good visual novels do in making the choices matter.
Fortunately there are no bonuses associated with how deep you are into an alignment, so you don’t have to game the system to make one path or another especially worthwhile. However, it does create moments where you can be on one path but have made decisions which sabotage the people you are aligned with.
In my own case I ended up on the Law path but did a very unlawful thing with Walter and even when I was “locked in” the Law path I was still able to due sidequests which meant me thumbing my nose at the individuals I had thrown in with. Still this is preferable to games which sell hard the “choice” element and constantly shape the universe to bend to your whim (but not really).
Combat first and foremost takes it cues from Nocturne with the Press Turn system. By striking weaknesses or critical hits a party can perform extra actions, but loses actions by using an attack that misses or which the target is immune to and loses their turn entirely with the target absorbs or deflects the attack.
This requires strategic thinking that is far more complex than your typical RPG but is easy enough to grasp that it’s not an obtuse mess like many JRPGs which pass off their crappy design as “hardcore.” Adding on to the exploitation of elements is the Smirk, which occurs periodically when a character strikes a weakness or renders an attack on themself useless.
The Smirk has two effects: First, it will negate weaknesses and physical attacks often wiff against the smirking character. Second, an attack from a smirking character will deal extra damage and melee attacks are almost always critical hits.
The Smirk effect can take place even when they benefit from a Tetrakarn or Makarakarn they did not cast themselves. This can be especially useful for getting the whole combat party to Smirk, which results in the party completely recovering and this can turn the tables or ensure the player’s dominance.
One way which SMT IV mixes up the formula is by removing the Vitality stat so there’s no real way to pad your defenses other than raising HP through leveling and better armor. This means that if you are not careful demons of much lower levels can completely mess you up, but it also means that you can totally dominate a boss with a much higher level if you can exploit weaknesses and protect yourself against whatever they dish out.
Further, the player can now save anywhere so when dealing with bosses you can just save beforehand and use the first attempt to poke and prod enemy elemental alignments then take another go at it fresh. Also, there’s now the option to bribe Charon for a resurrection with either in-game Macca or through Play Coins on your 3DS. Battle is a high risk affair, but the system is such that it doesn’t completely punish the player.
That said, the very beginning of the game can be the most strenuous part of the game as the player has the most paltry of supplies, no allies, no skills, and no apps. Save scrubbing and running back to the barracks to heal is the only way to grind sufficiently to get demons to your side and learn their skills. This makes a nice segway to the contact system, and the most basic skill you learn in dealing with demons is Scout.
Through a combination of bribes and mind games, the player is able to convince just about any monster they encounter on the field to join their cause. At first this will prove tricky as demons are jerks, but as you listen to how they talk you will begin to recognize patterns in the personalities of various demons and will be able to apply lessons from previous negotiations to successfully get a demon to join your side.
One of the main perks of recruiting demons is that it gives the enemy something else to smack around. The other big appeal of enlisting the aid of demons is that when they level up you might be able to learn some or all of their skills and if you already have a matching skill it can be augmented. As long as you don’t give up in the early part of the game it won’t be long before you have a decent array of skills and become a powerhouse in your own right.
When your character levels up they get refilled health and magic points as well as something called App Points. The first time I saw Apps were in Strange Journey and they consisted mostly of programs you would use to navigate the hellish black hole of Yergunadie and a mixed bag of secondary programs which varied between sorta useful, highly situational, and never use. In SMT IV the Apps you can use vary from awesome to nice if you have the points to spare.
Among the unlockable Apps are additional demon conversation skills which let you negotiate a ceasefire, trade for an item, or even convince them to heal you. All of these are nice, but most of these perks you can enjoy if you attempt to recruit a demon species which you already have in your stock (Very useful in the beginning when you are trying hard to simply not die). However, you can upgrade the Scout skill to include perks like recruited demons trying to get other demons to join the party, give you money or items, or my personal favorites where they get bonus points to their stats and learn an extra skill.
One aspect in which SMT seems to have taken cues from modern gaming is the formalizing of sidequests and organizing the main plot into a series of quests. I had first seen this in Strange Journey, though Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon also had a formal structure for sidequests. SMT IV appears to be borrowing from MMOs as you most reliably get money and experience points as rewards for the completion of quests and you get a lot of sidequests thrown at you over the course of the game.
Some are very MMO in nature such as “Kill X creatures” or “Kill certain creatures until you get Y items,” but you do get a few which flesh out details in the main plot, offer a subplot for you to indulge in, or get a cameo from a well known mythological figure who may or may not have been important in previous SMT stories. Overall it’s not a bad system for organizing quests in contrast to just stumbling onto some side thing out of the blue, but it can be a little jarring at times, “You just discovered a horrifying secret! Congratulations! You have just finished the quest!”
I won’t lie; I’ve been pining for a direct sequel to Nocturne. Specifically, I really wanted to follow up on the True Demon ending where the main character leads an army of demons for war against the heavens. Shin Megami Tensei IV is still a worthy successor to the franchise and a nice addition to the core series.
Still not too jazzed about it being on the 3DS, especially since the 3D doesn’t do jack to enhance the game, but it’s a way of keeping the production costs down. That kind of restraint is welcome in an industry which likes to explode production and marketing budgets while praying for impossible sales in order to break even. Definitely a must play for someone who wants a legitimately challenging JRPG which isn’t user hostile.