I have to admit that when I sat down to write my review of Shin Megami Tense IV: Apocalypse, I had no idea what I was going to say. SMTIVA is probably the best RPG to land on the system all year — and this is a year that also included Bravely Second: End Layer, a new Mario & Luigi, Dragon Quest VII, and a trio of new Fire Emblem games! — but the fact is, it’s so similar to 2013’s Shin Megami Tensei IV that it’s hard to shrug the feeling that I already wrote most of this review three years ago.
Not that Apocalypse is merely a retread of its predecessor. SMTIVA is… well, it’s sort of a sequel to SMTIV, taking place about three quarters of the way through the earlier game’s neutral path. Flynn, SMTIV’s larger-than-life hero hailing from a mythical city in the clouds, has taken out the leaders of the Ashura-Kai and the Ring of Gaea, and is well on his way to liberating the tired, huddled masses of post-apocalyptic Tokyo from the demonic horde that’s made their lives literally a living hell. Apocalypse, rather than casting players back in the role of Flynn, puts the lens on a new character: Nanashi, a 15-year-old kid who’s seemingly as different from Flynn as he could possibly be. Nanashi’s not the Messianic figure that Flynn is, and he’s never known a life outside of Tokyo’s current state of affairs. He’s just a regular kid, trying to do good in a world that’s lost its moral center.
This setup grants players a different viewpoint on the events of Shin Megami Tensei IV, and in putting them in the role of someone who’s been directly affected by the disaster that sets the game up, it instills a sense of immediacy and intimacy into the story that’s missing from the earlier game. That Nanashi spends most of the game chasing after Flynn takes nothing away from Nanashi’s own significance within the game’s world; rather, it gives players a chance to see just how overblown Flynn’s reputation has become, and how important it is for “regular” people like Nanashi to take fate into their own hands, rather than relying on the actions of others.
Of course, this being a video game, it only takes about an hour for Nanashi to evolve into a so-called “Godslayer” whose job is to save the world from a villain that maybe not even Flynn can handle. If you relish the challenge this series is so well-known for, worry not: Nanashi’s transformation into the demon-wielding Godslayer is only a narrative device, so you’re still going to get your ass handed to you by the game’s unforgiving combat system. Battles are largely the same as you remember them: the Press Turn system is back, wherein discovering an enemy’s weakness means you can basically spam it into oblivion… and vice versa.
Apocalypse’s similarities to its predecessor aren’t limited to its nearly identical combat system: recruitable demons, quest structure, and even locations are almost entirely repeated from the earlier game. But there are refinements, both large and small, that make this a far more playable game overall. One of my favorites is actually during combat: you’re no longer ever saddled with a random partner character who’ll completely screw you over by casting the wrong spell during a boss battle, because you get to choose your partner before any battle. Just as good: the map system now has waypoints for main story quests, so even when you can’t quite work out how to get somewhere, you at least have a general idea where you need to be to move the story forward. As someone who’s never been to Tokyo and thus isn’t intimately familiar with its various regions and landmarks, this was a major point of contention for me in the earlier game—in fact, it almost kept me from finishing it—so I’m glad to see Atlus has addressed it for this followup. Demon negotiation—the means by which you recruit new characters to your party—is as unpredictable as ever, but that’s a good thing in my eyes as it reinforces the chaotic nature of the whole “dancing with the devil” thing this series is known for. Demon fusion has seen subtle tweaks as well: like farming, you’ll need to really focus on the individual traits of each of the demons you join together if you want to create a truly effective fusion. This means you’ll spend as much time thinking about the consequences of each potential fusion as you will actually fusing, which will hopefully lead to a more effective party.
Yes, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse feels a lot like its predecessor from 2013. There’s no escaping that. But in a lot of ways, it’s the game Shin Megami Tensei IV always should have been—and Shin Megami Tensei IV was already a hell of a game. But on a system that’s now flooded with great RPGs, is it worth revisiting this world? That depends. Do you like a challenge? Apocalypse will kick your ass as hard as anything out there. Did you love the previous game so much that you played it through multiple times to get exactly the ending you wanted? If so, Apocalypse gives you even more narrative threads to follow. And what if you’ve never played a MegaTen game before? Well, you don’t really need to have done so, but starting with Shin Megami Tensei IV will provide more context—and meaning—to Nanashi’s adventures. If you’re looking for a completely original RPG, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse might not be the right game for you; for everyone else, it’s one of the most essential role-playing games on a system that’s chock full of them. This one’s not to be missed.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is based on final review code provided to us by Atlus. The game launches on Tuesday, September 20th, 2016.