• Shin Megami Tensei IV Review - Nintendo 3DS

    Whereas Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest have always sat comfortably atop Japan's RPG roost, Shin Megami Tensei has always been a more modest success story. Whilst it's not been around quite as long as the big two, since a debut on the Super Famicom it's managed to land titles on most any format you could care to mention - although more often than not under the banner of one of the sub-series. These, such as Devil Summoner, Digital Devil Saga, or the most popular of the bunch - Persona - each have their own personality and play style, whilst still sharing a number of common elements and themes. A return to the main franchise then, with no subtitle, suffix or additional branding is perhaps an indication that this is something to get quite excited about.

    The game begins with a series of bizarre and fleeting apocalyptic visions, before your character awakes in a more tranquil setting, and sets off, best pal in tow, for the capital city of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. Taking part in a coming of age ritual, you don a mystic gauntlet that has rejected countless others, but accepts you as its master - elevating you from the ranks of Casualry (the social class of Mikado's under-privelidged) to one of the nation's primo military force - a Samurai. It's not long before you realise though that many Luxurors - those from a more privelidged and wealthy background - still continue to look down their noses at you, despite being their protectors, and often brothers in arms. Still, politics aside, you soon learn of the Samurai's true job that is kept hidden away from the public - exterminating demons.

    Whilst the gauntlets themselves and the technology contained within them are highly modern, looking at Mikado itself gives quite the opposite impression, and despite its name, it also bears a closer resemblance to a western civilisation within the medieval era than to anything Japanese in design. Whilst the first portion of the game carries on in this setting, with your pursuing deeper into Naraku - the dubious origin of Mikado's demon problem - it's not too long before the game opens up and sees you exploring further afield, rifling through more troubled surroundings, and dabbling into a world more versed in cyberpunk than in ancient settings. To say much more would be to say too much, but the game's impact is strengthened tremendously by the dark, and yet weirdly beautiful places it takes you. Exploration of these is handled in a variety of ways, and whilst Mikado may be navigated by a rather overbearing and restrictive list of places you can visit and folk you can talk to, later on you'll find yourself on an almost polar opposite, with a sprawling map to explore and only a variety of arrows and basic markings to help you distinguish one area from the next. On the whole, navigation may be one of the game's more cumbersome points, but many of the game's cities and dungeons do see a move into a fully realised 3D environment for you to run around in, that's much simpler but also easier on the eye.

    When you are in more dangerous areas, the demon cleaning itself is not quite straightforwards either, as a common thread amongst the Shin Megami Tensei series on the whole is the art of enlisting demons, which in this case is done through the conversation system. Unsurprisingly, talking a hostile demon into joining forces with you is not always simple, and typically requires bartering with items, gold, your own life and magic points, and even the lives of your other demons - all on top of the pre-requisite chatter. It's not as simple as just saying yes to every request either - learning when to say no is important, both in terms of swaying favour but also in avoiding a demon robbing you blind only to then turn tail. Saying the wrong thing can prove deadly too, and learning which demons prefer dismissal over flattery, value humility over pride and so forth, does a great deal in offering depth to the game, and a greater personality to each of the demons.

    Once enlisted, demons fight and level up alongside your character - playing essential support roles, and also offering a mutual benefit by the manner in which they level up. Typically a demon can expect to learn around three or four additional abilities as they grow, and once these are all gained they will then proceed to offer these to your main character via a 'demon whisper', a sequence allowing you to arm yourself with new abilities and further strengthen those youíve already equipped. Having reached this point, demons are often best applied as fodder for fusion; another of the series' staple systems that allows multiple demons to be combined into one new demon, taking on key attributes and skills from its predecessors. On top of all this, when your main character levels, alongside the usual stat boosts comes 'app points' - a currency that allows you to buy new software from Burroughs, the navigational AI that lives inside your gauntlet. These apps can give you new approaches for conversation, new skill slots, stat boosts for fused demons, and so on. Thereís more at play that could be laboured here, but really whatís important to highlight is that whereas development in RPGs can often feel quite pre-determined and linear, this feels quite the opposite Ė offering up a delightful number of ways in which you can diversify your growth, and forcing you to take an interest in the possibilities it offers.

    Battles use the 'press turn' system, which due to its turn-based nature will feel plenty familiar to many on first inspection. To truly take advantage of this system though, one must learn and exploit weaknesses to an extreme degree. Missed, blocked, reflected or absorbed hits will typically sacrifice your own turns, whereas critical hits, or those that play to a foes weakness will grant extra turns *on top* of extra damage, and in some cases lead to a character gaining the 'smirk' status. This increases the power of their next attack even further, and makes them nigh-on impossible to hurt in the meantime. Whilst all of this seems rational enough, it does also mean that going in with the right spells and abilities can lead to your quantity of turns being doubled, and your damage output being raised to even higher factors. This all applies to your foes too, and whilst it's all fair per se, the magnitudes to which damage can be amplified is often severely punishing - one where a single unlucky turn or unexpected weakness can sway the favour of battle enormously.

    All of this amounts to a learning curve that's quite devilishly steep. It's entirely likely that the first few bosses will demolish your entire party within its first series of turns, and even when you are much stronger, it's not uncommon for even basic encounters to lead to ruin when a new enemy can abuse a spell that splits a crack in your armour wide open. Whilst yes, level grinding is still one universal solution to all such woes, the real beauty of the game is that surmounting these challenges can be sped up exponentially by playing smarter. If a boss comes imbued with fire, why wouldn't you go away and fuse some demons with ice spells, or even drop in your own fire-based demon to try and interrupt his attack? Whilst this serves only as the most basic of examples, the point remains that there's nearly always more than one way to approach a situation, and to develop yourself to better tackle a challenge.

    From a presentation standpoint, there's a fairly typical but quite sensible use of the 3DS' second screen, usually displaying a map, or in the case of battles, party portraits. Whilst the game doesn't require the kind of furious inputs that make it impossible to maintain the 3D 'sweet spot', the game's 3D is hardly essential either; more of a competent extra for those who are so inclined. Similarly, the game's visuals may not win over everyone - as despite some truly gorgeous and regularly inventive character and enemy art, the battle screen where you will spend a large portion of your time is decorated by simple sprites with only the most rudimentary of animation. Aurally there's a much more unanimously positive story, as the soundtrack has been designed wonderfully in tandem with the themes of the game and its locales - capably shifting between proud marches and foreboding ambience with plenty of stops in between. There are some truly standout pieces throughout too, with larger boss fights being scored against a particularly captivating theme which feels deserving of singling out.

    Wrapping it all up, there's a pretty common expectation that any RPG will tell some kind of grand story, and whilst this bears true here, it's likely that it may not be quite what one would expect. Instead of dramatic events that toil mainly upon your central cast of characters as they unfold, the heroes of the tale instead play much more of a backseat role. Whilst yes, your companions do quite conveniently personify the great class divide in the kingdom of Mikado, they're not such bold personalities that they cannot see past their own noses, nor will they let you be forgetful of the larger issues that they represent. There are often decisions to be made, and whilst the choices themselves are limited in their number, the moral knots they ask you to untangle often pick at your own ideological beliefs in quite a profound manner too. As you do so, the game makes an invisible distinction in your acts, slowly pulling you away from neutrality on a see-saw between law and chaos. Considering the gravitas of the themes explored - Darwinism, Messianism, Nihilism, and so on - there's a respectably equal representation on both sides of each argument it presents. Whilst it's often the case that RPG characters are unconvincing in their naivety and saccharine-sweet optimism, here the most unrealistic aspect is the rational and yet shrewd diplomacy that many characters employ.

    In closing, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a deep, mature game that will surprise and impress with its bold style and lack of pulled punches. Whilst graphically a lot of the focus is on function above all else, the design work is prevalent in conveying a luxuriously mysterious and dark world thatís a pleasure to sink into Ė one backed up tenfold by the great work in the audio department and the constant pressure of challenge. Whilst the battle system and the way characters develop are straightforward enough to offer anyone a smooth introduction, itís not long before itís evident just how excellently the formulas it borrows have been distilled and refined, leaving one of the most finely honed RPGs in years.

    Score: 9/10
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