Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Shin Megami Tensei IV is the next main-line game in a series most players recognize more for its spin-off, Persona, than for the core games that started it all.
When we think of Japanese RPGs we think of effete protagonists and battling ancient dragons. Shin Megami Tensei IV has both, but in doses so small they almost feel like restraint. The Megami Tensei series, and its many spinoffs, have always cleaved closer to the bizarre. Instead of dragons, MegaTen culls its monsters and allies from a playbook of cartoon mascots, mythological figures, and, occasionally, anthropomorphic genitalia. Most JRPGs can be summed up as intrepid youth saves the world; in Shin Megami Tensei games "the world" is a sleepy Japanese suburb, or a dimensional rift in Antarctica, or Shin Megami Tensei IV's clearly post-apocalyptic, yet peacefully and prosperously feudal, Eastern Kingdom of Mikado.
It is so evidently a world reformed after some cataclysmic event that it's no surprise when the player-insert (but male only) main character, Flynn, dons a high tech gauntlet with speaking, thinking onboard AI during the first five minutes of the game. When the preamble is over, and you're effectively press-ganged into the Samurai class, they stick you into a dungeon crawler and say "good luck."
The life of a Samurai is sink or swim. One of the earliest tasks is collecting a full clutch of demons to act as party members, which involves wheedling and bartering your way through conversations with infuriatingly fickle monsters who will graciously accept your gifts of money, items, health, even the lives of your party members, and then, instead of joining, often decide to kill you anyway. In the early game the party must protect their sole healer above all else. Even with that, it's best to steel yourself for frequent, limping, trips back to town to resurrect the healer at the inn because revival items are so ludicrously expensive and death so infuriatingly frequent.
At least resting at the inn is free.
It continues like this for a few hours, the party being insanely, frustratingly fragile, before the difficulty curve starts to even out. This happens not because of balance -- indeed, the experience rewards of similarly difficult monsters differ by the thousands, so it appears as if there was no balance applied at all -- but because the player has accrued a range of elemental spells and can exploit enemy weaknesses more often than not. Given the mid-game preponderance of passive mana regen abilities that allow for guilt-free casts of multihit fire, and electric, and wind spells every battle (every turn, if desired) Shin Megami Tensei IV at twenty hours in is so generous and deferential to its player that it's hard to believe it's still the same game.
But the systems are still interesting, and the battles are filled with aesthetic touches that make every successful attack feel like a minor victory. "WEAK!" pops up over a bad guy's head, and the screen flashes to indicate you've gained another turn, and the "Smirk" status effect fades in over a character's portrait in the form of a grinning green smiley face. The battles become easy, for the most part, but they still require rigor. There will always be a boss with the perfect ice spell to stun-lock or outright murder your ice-weak healer. When the enemy exploits a player's weakness the Game Over screen tends to follow in short order, but even in death the game is fairly generous: there is an easy difficulty, you can save at any time, and the party can revive itself by spending a hefty chunk of either in-game cash or Play Coins.
The main character improves himself not only with magic and stat-increases, but also through "apps" that confer abilities like the aforementioned mana regen, more slots for party members or spells, bonus stats on level up, and bonus items and money when recruiting new demons. The apps are the most exciting part of character progression, especially when there's a 70 point skill to look forward to and you only gain 10 points per level. Demons don't level nearly as frequently: they exist to learn one or two abilities before the player harvests them for their skills and fuses them into some new variety of flying turtle, or paper-thin fox spirit, or Greco-Roman deity. Even the most exciting and aesthetically pleasing demon will only be in the party for two or three hours before something better comes along, so it's usually best not to get attached.
And it's easy to avoid becoming emotionally invested because none of the demons have any dialogue or personality, or anything other than character portraits, really; silent party members don't leave much of a mechanism for plot conveyance except by Flynn's three samurai companions who are not so much characters as they are bare allegories, modeling law, chaos, and neutrality. This leaves limited room for character development, because every moral quandary presented in the game just reinforces each character's stance on either maintaining or smashing the status quo.
Almost anything specific you could say about anything that occurs in the plot after the first hour would constitute a major spoiler. Suffice it to say that the plot twist in Shin Megami Tensei IV will come as no surprise to MegaTen enthusiasts, but it will seem really far out to someone who's only played Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, if any of those people still exist. You spend five or six hours wandering around the main dungeon of Naraku, which feels like a less-fun version of Persona 3's Tartarus, before the entire paradigm shifts almost without warning, the flow of exploration completely changes, and things get a lot more interesting. Twenty hours after that things get a lot more interesting again. Between the plot dumps and the combat, though, there are all these little niggles, like the game's poor directions for primary quests that sometimes has the player wandering the confusing and restrictive world map for upwards of an hour, or an excruciating late-game quest that boils down to “complete more sidequests” and sends the player running in circles with no guidance.
If handhelds are the future of Japanese RPGs, then this is one of several games that shows portable consoles are not a limiting factor. The main character equips armor that is represented on his person, and once you get out of the first area the dungeon environments stop being cave-brown and muck-filled and start showing some real character. It's a shame that the some of the 2D battle sprites seem low res enough to be on the DS, or even the Game Boy Advance, and really only wiggle to attack and shake to defend. With a cast of 500+ demons maybe wanting fully rendered 3D models is asking too much, but it's nice to dream.
It's not a game about slaying dragons or saving princesses, and that wins it some credit, it's just: no matter how many Megami Tenseis they've put out in the past five years, not a single one has had half of Persona 3's personality, let alone Persona 4's. There are no social links, or visits to the ramen shop, or any of the other things that give Persona so much character. Shin Megami Tensei IV is strictly old school, which means light on characterization and other niceties, although strong voice acting and overall good production values elevate it over other recent MegaTen games.
Shin Megami Tensei IV mostly coasts by being sufficiently different from its JRPG ilk. It still has its irritating moments, many revolving around battles that require the player to be psychic, lucky, or otherwise to have just died a time or two, to divine a boss's weakness, but for the most part this is a solid shake at a Megami Tensei for a new decade. Shin Megami Tensei IV's incrementally improved (and substantially kinder) mechanics may make it worth playing for lapsed fans who are burned out on the series and its various spinoffs, but anyone looking for the next Persona will come away disappointed.
Overall : B+
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B-
+ Intricate battle system, solid production values for a handheld console
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