I wish I could stay mad at Shin Megami Tensei IV.
The opening hours tend to drag. The characters too often resemble polarities that act a certain way just for the sake of it. The overworld map is confusing, meandering, and generally challenging to navigate. Some late-game design decisions are questionable at best. The whole thing is tonally rigid, filled with jarring transitions and harsh cuts between viewpoints.
As I continued to play, though, over an almost surreally draining 2-week period, pieces started to fall into place. Call it Stockholm syndrome if you’d like, but the game’s qualities: where it chose to excel, and where it chose to fail, started to congeal into something… interesting. More interesting than even I, a fan of the genre, was anticipating.
In short, I’d posit that SMT IV is one of the first truly post-modern JRPGs, bound to certain rules, either purposeful or accidental, that serve to say something, even if that something isn’t always the kindest to the player. This vision of what the game wanted to be, either on paper or in my head, began to explain some of its more puzzling deficiencies. Suddenly, the dull opening hours, binary characters, and confusing map weren’t just excusable. They were necessary.
The main character (name customizable, if you so choose), Flynn, lives in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a medieval society with sweeping landscapes and bustling cities. Through a pretty rote trial process, he becomes a legendary Samurai, and is fitted with an uncharacteristically high-tech device called a Gauntlet. Attached to his wrist and loaded with a friendly AI named Burroughs, he embarks on a lengthy dungeon-crawling adventure. When I say lengthy, I mean it: my 3DS activity log claims it took me around 82 hours to beat. That’s counting all my deaths and restarts. The in-game timer reads 55 hours.
The game starts narrowly focused and extremely linear. All world map navigation is menu-based. There’s a single dungeon you return to time and time again. The objectives range from thrilling options like “collect 3 batches of moss” to “eat breakfast.” This tedium becomes a routine, and a couple hours in, it starts to fall apart.
How does it fall apart? I’d rather not say. If you don’t know anything about SMT IV (hell, even if you know a couple things about it), then these developments will be enhanced.
Suffice it to say, these choices do seem deliberate, which raises an interesting question: should the player put up with intentionally stale design? Your mileage will almost certainly vary, but in the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. SMT IV is trying to say something especially poignant about its genre, and namely the distinctions between classical and modern JRPGs. Whichever era you prefer is smartly reflected in the game’s Law/Chaos morality system, and the hard-to-acquire Neutral ending (which I stumbled into) seems to be the game’s final word on the matter. If the other endings feel as complete as the one I got, then I’d be extremely impressed.
That disparity between old and new is thematically resonant no matter how you interpret the story. There’s no need to make it as metatextual as I’ve suggested; I just think it plays best that way. Playing the game with that idea in mind made most of it seem incredibly subtle and clever. Did I mention your mileage may vary? Because, really, it will.
The smartest decision SMT IV makes is to support its incredibly divisive story through flawless mechanics. It’s an iteration on the demon fusion of the earlier games in the series, and more recently, the Persona games. The wrinkle that wasn’t featured in those games is negotiation; by talking to your enemies rather than fighting them, you can curry their favor and have them join your squad.
The conversation system is less predictable than ever, and often seems to hinge on pure randomness. It’s a risky design decision, but I loved it. Having a conversation with a demon be easily exploitable or telegraphed would seem kind of like a cop-out. By the end of these encounters, whether they took my money and ran or became my ally, I felt passionately about the effort. That takes some doing.
That one system interlocks with so many others that it’s challenging to describe, but in that complexity lies the game’s genius. Collecting demons allows for new fusion options, and fusion grants you extra experience. By leveling up, you can fuse newer, better demons, and so forth. This is all grounded by the perfection of the fusion interface, refined to a staggering degree after so many attempts. The demon compendium from previous entries remains, and searching for new demons has never been easier. You can narrow your results by demon name, race, skill type or affinities. The most exciting part for SMT aficionados will no doubt be the ability to include your demon compendium in the search. Gone are the days of tedious withdrawals from that dusty tome. Now, with the press of a button, you can fuse demons within the compendium together, and pay the withdrawal fee at the same screen. It may sound insignificant to the uninitiated, but it’s remarkable how much red tape they’ve cut through.
SMT IV is often brutally difficult, but never unfair. It’s remarkably skill-driven, rather than stats. By the end of the game, I’d maxed my level, but some late-game bosses still wrecked me. There’s an increased focus on affinities thanks to the smart “Press Turn” system. Basically, each member of your party (Flynn, and up to three demons) gets one icon in the top right of the screen. If you attack normally, heal, or use an item, one icon is removed, and you’ve basically spent your action for that turn. If, however, you exploit an enemy’s weakness, or pass your turn to the next combatant, the corresponding icon remains, and starts to flash, thereby granting another action. An ideal turn can be two in effect. If everyone hits an enemy with their weakness, you’ll be granted 8 actions instead of 4 before the enemy can take theirs.
That same system also has incredibly satisfying strategic ramifications in terms of defense. If an enemy drains or repels your attack, you’ll lose all your actions; if they block it, you’ll lose a couple. The wealth of challenging bosses follow the same rules, though. This resulted in possibly my favorite gameplay loop this year: I’d test out a boss, see what it would cast, go fuse three demons that repelled/drained those attacks, and stick them in my party. If a boss was casting Mazio (an all-party electric attack) and Mamudo (an all-party instant kill attack), then as long as I had one demon with the right affinity, I could cut their turns short every time, without fail. It’s just so goddamned rewarding, and misusing the system is where most of the difficulty comes from. If you’re an expert at using affinities and the Press Turn system, I’d guess you could be under-leveled for a lot of those really tough fights.
Believe me when I say I haven’t covered everything on offer here. There are a variety of intricacies that are simply beyond the scope of a review, but they’ll all be appreciated by those who dig deep enough to find them. I should at least carve out some time to praise the UI design, which is as responsive and snappy as any JRPG I’ve played. And since I’ve tread lightly around the specifics of the story thus far, I will say the Neutral path fully earns its share of sentimentality, and that I found the simplicity of the last spoken dialogue extremely touching.
I think one of the reasons I fell so hard for SMT IV has to do with ambition. It would be easy to view this game as slight. It’s the first of the main series that’s been relegated to handheld consoles, after all. But in a lot of ways, that handicap secretly makes it one of the best and most ambitious games of the year. It plays with your expectations relentlessly, both in what this game should be and what all games should be. It understands, in a broad sense, what it’s required to be, and how it needs to behave, and then subverts that as subtly and brilliantly as it can while retaining shape. Or, depending on your point of view, it may not do that at all.
That is, for me, the true mark of something post-modern. Interpretations don’t just enhance or devalue the experience. They change it, like an organism that acts differently when it knows it’s being watched. Solidifying Atlus’ place as the more mature, thoughtful Square Enix, Shin Megami Tensei IV is something not unlike a masterpiece, or, quite possibly, very unlike it indeed. I think that may be part of the point. Or none of it.