It’s a little surprising how well Nintendo’s handheld consoles have done with regards to RPGs. We’ve got Bravely Default and its sequel, for instance, essentially modern takes on the Final Fantasy formula; we’ve got Pokémon, of course; and we’ve got several iterations of the Shin Megami Tensei series, including Soul Hackers and Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Today we’re talking about Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, a direct sequel to the latter that proudly continues that series’ legacy of brutal but enjoyable demonic adventure.
Apocalypse is a direct sequel to the original SMTIV, following that game’s Neutral ending. We follow Nanashi, a newbie member of the Hunter faction of survivalists that help keep humanity going in the grim, dark future. Like many people in the grim, dark future, Nanashi doesn’t last long; he’s slaughtered by a demon within the first hour or so of gameplay. Unlike many people, he gets a second chance thanks to Dagda, the God of Knowledge, a powerful demon with mysterious designs who needs a servant. In exchange for doing Dagda’s bidding, Nanashi is reborn; we proceed to follow his adventures through post-apocalyptic Tokyo.
If you haven’t played SMTIV you might want to skip this one until you do; while the game does a decent job of explaining that game’s events, this also means it completely spoils many of that game’s bigger surprises very early on. The fact that SMTIV’s hero Flynn plays a central, speaking role in Apocalypse is interesting, since he was a silent protagonist in his own game and might have behaved entirely differently depending on how you played it. While initially you serve as a sort of sidekick or tag-along compared to Flynn, the plot does come into its own if you stick with it.
Apocalypse’s gameplay is standard SMT fare: explore dungeons, collect and fuse demons, and die a whole bunch. Battle is turn-based with a heavy focus on learning enemies’ elemental weaknesses and exploiting them – doing so does more damage, offers additional turns and can even put attacking characters into a powerful supercharged state. The same goes for your own party, naturally, so managing the demons you take with you is vital to success. You can customize Nanashi’s stats and elemental affinities to a much greater degree than his demonic counterparts; as in SMTIV, I found that a mix of gunplay and magic was ideal, offering a solid amount of coverage for hitting enemies’ weaknesses.
Like SMTIV, you’ll often find yourself working with partner characters, though they’re given a little more legitimacy in Apocalypse as a sort of fifth party member. Partners can now take damage and be knocked out of battle, though they’ll revive on their own, and you can choose who you want to accompany you based on the skills they have to offer. In particular, your first partner offers a range of healing skills and proves to be invaluable for keeping your team alive early on.
Staying alive, of course, is no joke. This is a Shin Megami Tensei game, after all, and after the first few hours of gameplay even random encounters will stop playing around. You can easily get destroyed if you don’t tailor your party composition to the enemies you’re fighting, since they’ll get a string of hits on your demons’ weaknesses and use the resulting additional turns to wipe you out. While some concessions are made for the sake of sanity – in particular, Light and Dark attacks are no longer necessarily instant death – that doesn’t keep the game from being incredibly punishing. Bosses in particular are nasty and will almost inevitably require multiple attempts before you can form a usable strategy, and that goes double if you’re playing on one of the harder difficulty settings.
When you aren’t fighting, you’re dungeon-crawling for the most part. This is a pretty great time, since as in SMTIV, Apocalypse’s environments are almost uniformly intriguing and well-designed. Searching for ancient relics (read: everyday items from the present) to sell for cash is addictive, as is recruiting the local demons via negotiation and fusing them into new party members. The fact that the plot is likely to hook you early on certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Also like SMTIV, Apocalypse looks and sounds great. In fact, it looks and sounds better much of the time, particularly since some of the goofier-looking demons have been redesigned a bit. I’d look at Medusa in particular, but then I’d probably turn to stone, so I’d just mention that she’s one of the better-looking demons this time around as opposed to her goofy facial expression from the original game. Likewise, the game’s voice acting is solid as well; I was particularly fond of Dagda and his Irish accent.
All of this and some much appreciated quality-of-life improvements, such as drastically improved navigation, help make Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse a must-play if you were a fan of Shin Megami Tensei IV. If you haven’t played that one yet…what’s stopping you? Get through that, move onto Apocalypse, and enjoy a solid hundred hours of so of excellent RPG gameplay between the two of them.