Shin Megami Tensei is a long-running franchise with a colorful, varied past. Where games like Final Fantasy are hopeful, fantastical, and chock-full of Western fantasy tropes, MegaTen is generally more “modern” and comfortable as the dark horse of Japanese RPGs, combining dark, matter-of-fact storytelling with a mixture of mythological monsters and fearsome demons. It’s also off the charts on the quirk scale, with plenty of strangeness to go around. The fourth entry in the core Shin Megami Tensei mythos was a long time coming, but it’s finally arrived – on the Nintendo 3DS, to boot. The newest entry is an excellent starting point for newcomers, and a tour through the elements that made the MegaTen games great in the first place.
Shin Megami Tensei IV follows a fledgling Samurai living in the kingdom of Mikado. On his eighteenth birthday, he takes place in an annual ritual to see which citizen has the potential to become a great and revered Samurai. The role of a Samurai, like in our own real-world history, is a respected one in this community, and of course the player character is chosen for this prestigious role. It is then we become better acquainted with two companion NPCs, Jonathan and Walter, and the strange world of Mikado. You see, a Samurai’s duty is to defeat demons, and there’s extensive training that must be completed in order to become a fully-fledged Samurai. Your journey begins after meeting with fellow hopefuls and your instructor. It’s only when you begin flirting with the demon world where things start getting a little (delightfully) weird.
However, the narrative and its many twists and turns aren’t even the strongest suit here. The many choices you’ll be faced with across your journey are engaging, and there’s a fine line to walk between your decisions plotted on the line connecting factions like Chaos and Order. But in this situation, you’re going to be hooked because of the actual means to an end. Like Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers, there is a heavy focus on demon summoning, monster collecting, and nearly roguelike explorations.
During your stay throughout countless dungeons, you’ll recruit and discover a menageries of ornate, powerful, and downright nightmarish demons. Happening upon new monsters is half the fun, though the other half is convincing them to join your cause. Gathering demons is extremely rewarding, especially when you consider the trouble you must go to in many cases to acquire them. One demon may ask for a foot rub or specific item, while another can simply be sweet talked into joining you. It’s a gamble sometimes, and some demons will rob you blind before giggling and running off with their loot. It can be frustrating, but it’s also extremely fascinating. Once you get started, it’s tough to stop. This is where you can begin to understand how you can pour hours and hours into the game without a second thought. Collected demons may be combined for even stronger combinations, which allow for many more hours’ worth of experimentation – and that’s not even accounting for the battles themselves.
The “Press Turn” system rewards players who craftily exploit enemy weaknesses in SMTIV’s excellent turn-based battles, but the Smirk system is an even more interesting mechanic. After you successfully hit an enemy with a crushing blow related to their weakness, the Smirk status is invoked, which can be used to deliver another blow to your opponent, possibly finishing them off with a bang. It’s another layer of strategy that contributes to the austere difficulty of the game, but on the same side of the coin, it also helps.
It’s a good thing, since SMTIV is insanely challenging. Though it’s easy for a new player to become acquainted with the controls and mechanics, the difficulty is another thing entirely. You will die, and you will die often. Not only are the monsters sometimes ridiculously tough to best, but finding your way can be a pain as well. There’s very little coddling and even less in the way of helping players discern the correct path to take next. This can lead to some obviously frustrating scenarios, but it’s also fun in ways you wouldn’t expect. Rather than being put off, you simply dust yourself off and get back to conquer a new area.
Aside from its obvious proficiencies and cavalcade of content, it’s important to note this iteration of MegaTen feels completely at home on the 3DS. Shin Megami Tensei IV feels great, is optimized for the handheld, and it’s perfect for on the go play. The ever-changing world, morality system, and droves of demons are enough to lure you in and keep you engaged to fight through the difficult sections. It was an entry well worth the wait, and players looking for their next RPG fix should look no further. The MegaTen cult will be happy to have you.