I don’t really have a good excuse for avoiding the Megami Tensei games for so long, but there you have it: I’m a horrible, undeserving noob with absolutely no business reviewing the latest game in the series. Well, not entirely; there was that one time I rented Jack Bros. for the Virtual Boy. Okay, okay: I also sunk more than 100 hours into 2012′s Persona 4 Golden, and continue to adore it like few games I’ve played in recent years. But Shin Megami Tensei IV, the first mainline MegaTen since 2004′s Nocturne, is my trial by fire into the series proper…and I’ll be damned if it’s going to be my last.
SMTIV’s opening hours are about as typical as they come, with players assuming the role of a silent protagonist who’s been inducted into an ancient and honorable order of knights in the medieval Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. Through a spartan presentation consisting mostly of text-based menus, static backdrops and minimally animated talking heads, you’ll be directed to Naraku, an earthy dungeon that sits directly beneath the castle, where the game shifts to a three-dimensional, real time representation of your character and surrounding environments and the nature of its central conflict begins to crystallize: a mysterious villain known only as the Black Samurai is turning Mikado’s people into demons, and you’ve got to figure out why. Of course, series veterans (and those who pay attention to the game’s introduction) will know Mikado’s troubles are only the tip of the iceberg, but I won’t spoil any surprises here.
It’s in Naraku that you’ll learn the basics of SMTIV’s unique combat system and party-forming mechanic–and also discover how punishingly difficult it is. Combat in SMTIV, like most JRPGs, is based on basic rock/paper/scissors mechanics, with fire-based enemies being weak to ice, flying types weak to gunshots or electricity, and so on. The twist lies in the series’ Press Turn mechanic, where if you can discover an enemy’s weakness before it gets a chance to attack, you can basically spam it with its own personal Kryptonite until the battle is over. Successfully exploiting an enemy’s weakness typically results in extra actions for your party, and the more times you hit that weakness, the more actions you’ll get to take. If your party is set up properly, most enemies don’t even get a chance to protest before they’re knocked out of commission.
Of course, it works both ways, so if one of your attacks misses or you fail to land a preemptive strike and a particularly lucky group of demons gets the drop on you by targeting your own weaknesses, you’re screwed before the battle even begins. The whole thing can seem a little unfair, especially with boss fights where you’re randomly assigned a guest party member whom you have no control over, but in most cases a well-rounded roster of demons with a variety of strengths and shortcomings is the key to victory.
Which brings us to the game’s other most notable aspect: the party-forming mechanic. You’ll always have a revolving cast of human characters surrounding you to pinch-hit during boss battles, but to survive for even a few minutes in Naraku or the Unclean Lands beyond, you’ll have to convince the very demons that are trying to kill you to join your cause. In theory, it’s a lot like Pokémon, but then, Pikachu never tried to eat you, scratch your eyes out, or defecate in front of you just because he didn’t like something you said. Just as every human being is a unique and beautiful flower, each filthy, foul-mouthed demon you’ll encounter in SMTIV has something particular it wants from you, and if it smells even a hint of dishonesty on your breath, you’ll have to begin negotiations anew, often with huge chunks of health or valuable items and money already lost.
Negotiating with demons can be frustrating, but it’s always rewarding to capture that one elusive creature you’ve been working on…especially because demons pass their abilities on to you when they level up, giving you ample opportunities to customize your own character. However, as fun as it can be, capturing wild demons will only get you so far; to stand any chance at success, you’ll have to experiment with demon fusion in the Cathedral of Shadows to get access to the most powerful ghosts, ghouls and goddesses. By fusing two or more demons already in your collection, you’ll be able to create extremely powerful new ones you might not otherwise come across, which in turn can be fused together to create even stronger ones. A note for you PETA types: demons absolutely were harmed in the creation of this game.
The Cathedral of Shadows, despite what its name suggests, isn’t actually a dark church on the outskirts of Mikado that you’ll have to trudge to every time you want to fuse a new demon; it’s an app built into your wrist-mounted AI assistant, Burroughs. Once you’ve plumbed the depths of Naraku and opened up the game’s sizable world map, you’ll have so many locations to travel to, relics to chase, and demons to hunt that you’ll need some way to organize the almost overwhelming amount of information coming at you; Burroughs handles it all, from quest management to fast travel, analyzing demon weaknesses, saving/loading and more. As you gain levels, you’ll earn app points to install new functions in Burroughs, so she’ll become more and more useful the deeper you fall into Shin Megami Tensei IV’s mystery.
The world map can be frustrating to navigate, with roads being especially difficult to differentiate from areas you can’t walk through, and a mini-map that doesn’t label individual locations; it’s a shame Burroughs doesn’t have Google Maps. Still, you can forgive how easy it is to get lost on the map when you’re losing yourself in the seemingly endless variety of side quests the game offers. Like most entries in the series, SMTIV eventually presents you with fuzzy moral decisions that will determine what kind of a world you want your characters to end up in, and the temptation to pursue the multiple moral paths and endings is just as high as in Persona 4.
In many ways, Shin Megami Tensei IV feels like an odd duck on the 3DS: a dark, moody tale of a world engulfing itself, married with a monster-catching RPG that puts Pokémon to shame. It’s also in stark contrast to most other adventure games on the system in that it eschews any opportunity to ease you into its complicated mechanics and punishing battles. In other words, it’s a welcome addition to the system’s library, and one that will keep you busy for a long time to come. There are some who’ve expressed concern over the game’s price–especially on the eShop, where its commands the same $10 premium as the physical release but offers none of the included bonuses–but there’s no doubt the premium price equates to a premium experience. Shin Megami Tensei IV is among the very best of this summer’s releases; if you’re looking for a dark, old-school RPG that’s unlike anything else you’ll find on a Nintendo platform, this is the game for you. Just don’t be surprised if it kicks your ass from the very beginning.