Nintendo has done a bang up job promoting Shin Megami Tensei IV. With numerous bundle options and an excellent Club Nintendo bonus for registering the game, it’s clear that they believe in the product Atlus has created. And it seems it was for good reason: Shin Megami may perhaps be the biggest beast to grace Nintendo’s 3D handheld. It’s incredibly long for a handheld title, it features an impressive level of content and an intriguing story. However, the heart of the game lies in the demon capturing system so addicting and rewarding that it rivals Pokémon. Tensei’s monsters are just a tad more frightening than Game Freak’s little critters though. This world is a twisted, often perverse one, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun to explore… even if it takes a while to reach that point.
Set in the ancient land of Mikado, Shin Megami Tensei IV follows the exploits of four-gifted Samurai’s — you included —who are chosen to protect the land and rid it of demons. As it turns out, however, they must fight fire with fire by recruiting demons for the very same cause. Like most RPG’s, the game has a slow start, but the exposition is delivered intelligently. Instead of having to be spoon-fed the backstory, players can explore the world of Mikado, reading signs and talking to villagers in order to grasp the history and lore of the world. At first glance, the land of Tensei doesn’t seem that interesting, and it often feels empty and somber, but the dark and dreary atmosphere matches the tone of the game quite well, and it ends up improving the experience. This is a game about death and demons and the world reflects that wonderfully.
You will look forward to battles moreso than in most RPGs.
Thankfully there’s still a nice bit of eccentricity to be found as well. The lead characters, Jonathan, Isabeu and Walter, are each unique, and offer different perspective to the main voiceless protagonist, Flynn. And in a world that often seems lonely there is the charming A.I. of Burroughs (the game’s navigator) and Mido (demon fusion master) to keep you company. Between the witty dialogue and impressive voice work, the game ends up striking the right balance between drama and charm.
It’s unfortunate, however, that the story takes so long to become interesting. The opening tutorial is one of the longest I’ve experienced and, after that, it still boils down to a simple quest of good and evil for quite a while. Even the characters themselves aren’t enough to aid the seemingly boring world at first. To add further insult, the first five or so hours are spent only exploring one dungeon. It’s never quite clear that everything is destined to lead to more interesting territory.
But then the player will reach a point about a quarter of the way in which everything is turned upside down. It’s at this point that Tensei IV stops dabbling in cliché RPG tropes and offers its own unique interpretation of the struggle between demons and angels. After a significant plot point in the game, players are forced to make heavy decisions that bear grave repercussions in the long run. Despite its seemingly dry tone in the first half of the game, the story becomes much more exciting – and certainly darker – in later portions.
Don’t expect a simple RPG with a solidified narrative. Tensei is more complicated than that. Each of the choices you make, after a certain point in the game align you with one of multiple pathways toward the few different endings. But the less said about that, the better. I was very pleased to find an interesting story in Shin Megami. The real star of the show is the capturing and training of Demons, but it’s also very fortunate that the story is still engaging, especially given its incredible length. If players are able to trudge past the slow opening then they’ll find something truly of worth here.
Once players have finished the nearly 50 hour-long quest, however, it’s the gameplay of Shin Megami Tensei that they’ll look back most fondly on. Unlike most RPG’s I’ve played, the story came second to the incredibly addictive battle and customization systems. Its no wonder the series is beloved by many. For starters, the equipment the player dons actually makes an aesthetic change to their overall appearance. It’s not merely stat boosts. Those kind of subtle touches are what help Tensei stand out from other RPG’s. There are no random encounters either. Enemies are placed on screen and pursue you when seen. Considering how big the world of Shin Megami is this is quite a positive. Dungeons range from tiny to massive and players will encounter hundreds and hundreds of battles before reaching the end. Fortunately, the battle system is quick, rewarding and surprisingly simple, so it never feels like a chore.
Tensei revolves around weakness and nullification. It is the center at which all battles in the game circle around and a system that is absolutely necessary to understand if one wishes to complete the game. Every monster has their own element to which they are weaker, and one they are null to, and exploiting these weaknesses is the very difference between having a difficult, or a manageable game. Yes, Shin Megami Tensei IV will give you trouble. Even after grinding for hours, don’t be surprised if a monster is still able to carve out a significant portion of your health in one blow. That is what makes finding a monster’s weakness so satisfying. When a player begins to abuse the element that does extra damage to a tough boss, the tables are suddenly turned. It’s this feeling of empowerment that make the game so incredibly gratifying to play. It’s also surprising that the game never feels repetitive despite the fact that nearly every battle revolves around finding an enemies’ weakness and capitalizing on it. The boss battles end up feeling like more of a formality, so that the player can advance the interesting story and get to the real bread and butter of the game: the demon capturing.
Finding demons, capturing them and training them is the reason anyone would want to purchase this game. In order to do battle with the demons of Mikado and Tokyo, Flynn and the others must capture demons of their own to aid them. The recruitment system is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Players don’t capture the demons per se, but rather commune with them and attempt to convince them to join their cause.
It’s a deep system. The conversations between demon and player leave a lot of room for mess-ups, and players have to be careful with how they attempt to persuade them. There’s no other feeling in the game quite like recruiting a new demon and immediately checking their stats. The system, however, goes far deeper than that. Players can fuse two demons together to create new ones, and also pass on abilities their demons have learned to their Samurai.
The bond between the monster and the player is strong, but the real charm of the game comes from exploring the options of your new demon, and then watching them kick butt on the battlefield. Every demon comes with its own weakness and strength, and it’s highly important to manage your team in a way that makes your three demons adaptable to any situation. Once a player finds that right balance between healing, offensive spells and other attributes, boss battles become nothing more than a game of strategy, rather than of “who has the superior stat” contest. This is what sets Shin Megami IV apart from other RPG’s and make it an exceptional game.
Expect to see this guy a lot on the normal difficulty.
Even the toughest battles are managed with a touch of strategy. It’s not a complex system to understand, making the game accessible to all players. This is very fortunate considering how tough the game can be. At the default difficulty, players will meet their death many times. But because the game is so well designed it never feels frustrating. Every time I died, I knew it wasn’t because the game cheated me. It was because I didn’t manage to exploit the weaknesses of my enemy correctly. And despite all of the deaths you may receive, Tensei is not a punishing game. With the ability to save at any point, and resurrect your character using play coins, death never comes with significant consequences.
These were the moments when I was enjoying Shin Megami the most: Training my demons, fusing them and doing battle with them. It’s the rest of the game I found to be poorly designed at times. The game often has trouble helping the player navigate its huge world. The objectives are not always made very clear, and sometimes I found myself wandering for hours without any idea of where to go. While there’s nothing wrong with encouraging exploration, the world is far too large and intricate for the objectives to be so vague. It would have been nicer had each quest given me slightly more of an idea of where to go at times. There was even a moment in an earlier portion of the game when the only way to proceed with the main quest is to complete a challenge quest, which are established early in the game as completely filler. It’s a shame that the world map could have used some more fine-tuning considering how well designed the rest of the game was. Still, this fault wasn’t detrimental to the overall experience and the prospect of acquiring and training demons was too much fun to let a few navigational issues frustrate me.
The 3DS has no shortage of excellent RPGs at its disposal, and Shin Megami Tensei may be the beefiest yet. There are dozens of hours of content here, and fortunately for the player, the story is engaging enough to see through to the end. The game may have a slow start, and have trouble telling the player where to go, but the satisfaction of finding a new demon, and battling alongside it is enough to make Shin Megami an exceptional game that is well worth a purchase. It’s not the best 3DS game available, but it may be the biggest bang for your buck.
Low Score: 7 / 10
- The story takes a while to get interesting, and despite its unique nature the world of Shin Megami is never as fascinating as it could be. The real issue, however, lies with its inability to help the player navigate certain portions of the story. Objectives are often very vague, forcing the player to search for hours to find their destination.
High Score: 9 / 10
- The bread and butter of the game lies in the demon capturing and battles. Shin Megami offers a unique sensation among other RPGs with its sense of strategy and very well-designed battle system. Its when the player manages to exploit a demon's weakness or fuse a brand spanking new demon that they will fall in love with Tensei.