Parent Talk: The ESRB rates SMT IV M for mature because of blood, strong language, partial nudity, sexual themes, and violence. While all of those descriptions are indeed true, that’s not the real reason why the game is rated M. It’s rated M because of its incredibly mature storyline. Children being harvested, brains being sucked out via straws, all kinds of good stuff. Clearly this isn’t a game for anyone underage.
Plays Like: For anyone who’s used to the Shin Megami Tensei series, you know more or less what to expect. You play through the game’s story, while going around recruiting demons to your party, fusing them together to strengthen them and eliminate their inherent weaknesses. It’s as much a creature collection game as it is a hardcore RPG. This is the type of series you either really love, or aren’t into. There’s very little middle ground.
Review Basis: Atlus sent us a review code exactly one week before the game released and I played through the entire game, clocking in roughly 36 hours, and then started a New Game + which I played for another three or so hours.
Hands-down the very best aspect of SMT IV is the demon crafting system. In short, you scour the world battling hundreds of unique demons, when you stumble onto one you’d think would make a good addition to your party you can try and recruit them. Notice I said try and recruit them, because actually doing so is not as easy as you’d think. You begin by selecting the Scout option when it’s your turn (combat is turn-based). Recruiting is luck based, and level dependent. For example, I found when I was 20+ levels higher than demons, I could recruit them into my party without doing almost anything at all, heck some would join me just to save their own skin. Other times though the system acted far more randomly whereby the same demon would say “get lost” after you said hello, only to join the next turn when you tried again. Typically demons demand respect, and lots and lots of Macca (the game’s currency), Life Stones, and other items before they’ll jump ship and join you. The system can prove frustrating at times, particularly when a demon refuses to join you no matter how often you try and recruit them. So good luck!
Once a demon does join your party that’s where things get very interesting. Demons are something like Pokémon in the sense that not only can you collect them all, but that each demon has inherent abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. One demon might be immune to fire attacks, but be weak to frost attacks. Demons also gain levels as they earn experience, which is thankfully shared amongst the entire group so active demons aren’t the only one to gain precious exp. As demons level they can learn new abilities that can be used in combat, and shared with the protagonist. This is where the deep level of strategy comes into play. Players have to constantly weigh the pros and cons of which demons they want to keep, and which ones they should fuse together in order to make a much stronger demon.
Fusing is where the game truly shines. By taking two lesser demons and fusing them together you can make a much more powerful demon that often has far less weaknesses than the parent demons, and since you can select which abilities to pass over to the fused offspring, you can make truly diverse demons. It’s also possible to create special demons by combining three demons together, so you’ll want to make sure you try and collect every demon out there because you never know what the results will yield. The system is simplified by an extremely easy to use interface which highlights the best fusions available. One last important note to make is that you don’t need to keep every demon on you at all times, in fact doing so would be foolish. Instead you have access to a special book that allows use to trade in Macca in order to summon any demon that you’ve previously collected.
+ Fun combat system that makes you feel extremely powerful. Every demon has a weakness, and by exploiting said weakness you can gain up to eight different attacks per turn. That can quickly change the entire outcome of a battle. Let’s say you were losing to a boss, but just as you were about to be wiped out you discovered he was weak to ice attacks, just continue to pump out these attacks for increased damage on the boss, plus a free additional attack. On top of that it’s possible to earn a Smirk, which basically makes your evasion and tension super high, making you force to be reckoned with.
+ Even the Samurai love Apps. As you gain levels you earn App Points, which can be turned in for a wide assortment of useful goodies. These include being able to hold more demons on you at any given time, while others allow for ease of life abilities like making it so magical attacks cost 1 MP less to cast, and many, many others await the further you progress.
+ Allocating points to attributes as you level is not only useful, but important. It’s almost impossible to make a useless character, so don’t worry too much about where you put the points. That said, you can actually mold your character based around how you prefer to play. Since I’m a hardcore magic attacker, I put tons of points to that attribute. You’re free to do as you please, so have fun with it.
+ There are many other choices to make besides just where you allocate attribute points. Decisions also come into play within the main storyline itself. I’m currently making my way through my second play-through so I don’t know the exact ramifications these choices have on the story, but there are several key moments during the game where players have to make moral choices that are far more complex than they first appear.
+ SMT IV features one of the very best New Game + modes I’ve ever played through. You have the option of starting over with nothing, or with everything you finished the game with. Doing so allows you to continue at the same level you were at when you finished the game, retain all your Macca, and have access to all your App Points. It’s awesome because it allows you to blast through the game about ten times quicker than the first time through.
+ Deep console-like experience that’s perfect for a portable. How can that be, you might ask, simple, you can save anywhere you want. This is around a 25 hour game or so, depending on how much time you spend back-tracking doing the challenge quests, and thanks to the save anywhere feature, you can play for five minutes or six hours at a time like I did.
+ The graphics may not be up to par with modern-day consoles, but they look damn nice. We’re talking PS2-level graphics here. You character is fully rendered in 3D and animates really well. Combat harkens back to the classic Dragon Quest series in that you see static hand-drawn images of your enemies and fighting takes place in first-person. Demons are colorful, risqué, often featuring very little in the way of clothing, but that fits the theme perfectly. Whatever armor you purchase also shows while you’re in the third person view, which is an excellent touch. Exploration areas are far less diverse though, and after a while become rather monotonous with each area looking very similar to the last. Meanwhile the 3D effect looks nice, but I didn’t find it really added anything to the overall experience and was more of a take it or leave it sort of thing.
+ The soundtrack features a wide assortment of excellent tracks, and a few that will grind on your nerves after the twenty hour mark. About 80 percent of the game is voice acted, which was a welcome surprise, although the original Japanese voice-track isn’t included, which might disappoint a few. As for the sound effects, they’re more or less standard fair. If you’ve got yourself a good set of earphones, I’d recommend using them if only to experience the soundtrack, which at times can really be rocking.
+ Challenging without being annoying. When you do die, and believe me you will because just like you enemies can gain up to eight attacks per turn, you’re taken to a character who can revive you, for a steep cost. You can either use Macca or Play Coins, although he demands a ton of either. Die twice and you can select an easy mode, although you can still be one-shotted if you’re not careful. Finish the game and yet another difficulty unlocks which will truly test your skills.
+/- In some aspects I really enjoyed the storyline. It highlights a class system society, where certain people are born to become a laborer, and others are born into a life of education and luxury. By talking to all the different people in the starting area you get a feel for just how drastically different these two classes of society feel about the situation. Things dramatically change when you reach the next segment of the story. From here the story switches gears and becomes more of the typical save the world type of plot. That said the narrative becomes darker and darker as players progress, and the undertones of the class system are always present. I found the supporting cast to be a little wasted though, and I started to lose focus on the overall narrative the further I progressed. While I enjoyed the choices I was allowed to make, the plot started to lose my interest as I found it becoming too grandiose for its own good.
+/- Once you make it out of the Naraku (starting area) the game completely changes pace on you. You’re introduced to an overworld where your party takes the shape of a small circular object against a static backdrop. Enemies also appear on the overworld in a similar form. Exploration is hindered by the lack of a world map. While there is a map that shows on the bottom screen while you’re in the third-person exploration areas, there isn’t while on the overworld as you’re essentially moving a dot around a giant map. That’s not the problem, the problem is finding out exactly where you have to go. Often times the game will simply tell you go to location X, but they don’t always tell you how to get there. If you spend time talking to various NPCs you can find out more or less the area you have to go to, but the key here is you need to remember exactly where you went because should the game requires to back-track later on, you will get no such help. Other issues include having to go through a specific area in order to gain access to the next segment of the map in order to progress, without knowing ahead of time. A giant world map would have made things a hundred times easier as players would at least know in which direction they should be heading.
+/- Third-person exploration can feel cumbersome at times because there is no smooth camera control thanks to the limitations of the 3DS. You can move the camera left or right with the L and R buttons respectively, or snap the camera to your back, but I never found it to be quite as tight or responsive as I’d like. A second analog stick would have given players direct control over the camera and likely would have solved this.
+/- Some of the main quests are great, others not so much. The vast majority of quests you pick-up are simply go to this location and kill XYZ. Challenge quests are usually more of the same, except they demand you back-track to previously visited areas to take on more challenging demons or collect a certain number of item drops. Typically this wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for…
– Imagine this scenario, you’re level 45 and you just accepted a quest where you have to back-tack to an area filled with level 20 enemies to find and eradicate six special demons. Normally this would take maybe twenty minutes or so when you include the time it takes to find where you need to go, and locate these unique monsters. Not here, in SMT IV you can expect a task like this to last an hour or more because enemies do not have an aggro table, meaning they will race after you even if they’re severely under-leveled. At first you don’t notice it as much, but eventually it makes the challenge quests extremely tedious unless you do them the second they’re available. It also makes your second play-through longer than it should be. Why the game doesn’t follow what was done in the latest Persona is beyond me. Demons should move away from you while in the exploration field if they’re so much less powerful than you. What’s worse is they’ll often call in reinforcements, meaning battles feel like they’re taking an eternity to complete. At times you can’t move more than five feet without being literally held down to fight an enemy twenty levels lower than you. It got so bad towards the end of the game I stopped accepting all challenge quests just because I knew how tedious it would be to return to a previously explored areas. That’s not the way it should be.
Some of the story elements later on are just plain nasty, and the demons look the part too.
The Shin Megami Tensei series has been gaining popularity in North America and Europe over the past few years thanks mainly to the Persona series, and SMT IV is another in a great line of RPGs. A few odds design choices keep the game from reaching its true potential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best RPGs on the 3DS at the moment. While it might get a little tedious now and then, the incredible demon fusion and combat systems shouldn’t be missed.
Final Score: 8/10