Review

Shin Megami Tensei IV

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

In Shin Megami Tensei IV, negotiation is as important as fighting.

By Samantha Nelson • July 24, 2013

Critics of video game violence often fail to look at the motivation behind it. They have the biggest problem with shooters, the idea being that players who pretend to mow people down with guns might be more inclined to actually shoot someone. Meanwhile, violence in role-playing games is typically ignored. (It’s a lot harder to go on a sword-and-sorcery rampage in real life.)

A lot of shooters at least offer reasons for why you have to shoot everything in sight. But the random encounters in role-playing games—those moments when you’ll be walking through a forest and the world suddenly melts away, leaving you on a tiny battlefield facing off against some monsters that were invisible until that very second—often feels like senseless slaughter to me. I’m supposed to be a hero, but I spend most of my time just killing things to gather more power and stuff. If I have a quest to kill some lizardmen that keep on pillaging villages or to cull rabid wolves that are attacking travelers, then I’m satisfied. But I’m often left wondering why I’m even fighting the things that randomly attack me. Is every bear in the forest driven into a mad territorial rage when it sees me walking through? Are the local bandits so insane or desperate that they’ll jump my armed-to-the-teeth party and fight to the last man, even when it’s clear they’re not going to win?

Shin Megami Tensei IV

Atlus’s signature series, Shin Megami Tensei, has a lot going for it, but the most refreshing thing about the games are that they actually explore the motivations of just about everything you fight and give you a chance to talk your way out of random battles. The latest iteration, Shin Megami Tensei IV, puts you in the role of a newly recruited samurai protecting the kingdom of Mikado. You’ll need allies, and you get those by cutting deals with demons who might otherwise fight you to the death.

Negotiations are tricky. Tell a demon something it doesn’t want to hear, and it will go back to attacking you. You can shower it with gifts only to have it run off with your stuff. But successful negotiation is satisfying. I felt like I really earned that stable of weird followers. They might be creepy-looking and say off-putting things, but it’s easy to get attached when your demons offer gifts and teach you their powers.

Shin Megami Tensei IV

Like its predecessors, Tensei IV is a long and sometimes brutally hard game, but here you can even negotiate your way out of a game over, bribing your way back to the land of the living. There are hints early on that this isn’t some normal fantasy realm. The mystical gauntlet that all samurai wear, for instance, is possessed by a helpful sprite and bears a striking resemblance to a portable computer with an artificial intelligence and a list of handy apps. It takes about 10 hours for the game and its story to start to open up. The characters never do, though. Talking to your artificial-intelligence demons is always more fun than talking to the boring friends you make along the way.

You’ll be spending most of your time forming parties of demons and experimenting with/on them to create more powerful monsters, a system that is carried over from prior Shin Megami Tensei games. This time around, Mido, your fusion AI, will offer optimized suggestions, taking some guesswork out of the fusion process. It’s still delightfully unpredictable, though. In one instance, I was promised one sort of demon from a fusion, but after a random “error,” I wound up with a demon far more powerful than I should have been able to control at that point.

Shin Megami Tensei IV

Your samurai gauntlet’s apps are also a strong addition. As your character levels up, you’ll be able to customize and improve them, reaping their benefits and tailoring them to your playstyle. If you’re a demon hoarder, for example, you can buy more empty slots for housing converted nasties. Many of the apps are devoted to sweetening those times when you’re able to negotiate your way out of a fight, forcing demons you recruit to give you gifts or money and adding the option to persuade demons you don’t want hanging around to bribe you into not killing them. Even without those perks, talking to demons can earn you healing, side quests, and just plain save you time. The dialogue gives a sense of their strange motivations. One demon just wants to touch your face to see what a human is like up close. One wants to teach you how to give a proper massage. You can’t talk your way out of boss fights, but even here, the things you say can demoralize your enemy and make the fight easier.

At one point in Tensei IV, I discovered that all the demons lurking in a forest I’d been exploring had once been people from my hero’s village. They were transformed because they wanted to learn how to read. It made me happy that I’d talked my way out of so many fights, but I felt guilty about all the battles I fought just for the spoils. Maybe that’s why so few games give you details about the creatures you encounter and kill. It can be pretty hard to justify that kind of violence when you realize every creature has its own motivation.

Shin Megami Tensei IV
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Price: $50
Rating: M

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  • https://www.thegamecrafter.com/designers/xyvir-games Xyvir

    I’ve heard a lot of talk of this series on Gameological. Should I pick up IV for my 3DS? Overall I’m not a fan of most RPGs (Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, bleh) but I find a few appealing (every Mario one ever, Shining Force, FFTA, the Mother [Earthbound] Series, Ni No Kuni [but even Ni No Kuni is starting to grate on me a bit.] )

    • PaganPoet

      Hmmm, it’s a hard call. The Shin Megami Tensei games are a bit punishing in difficulty. The settings are modern or futuristic or post-apocalyptic, and the plots and themes tend to be rather dark and serious.

      I would pick this up in a heartbeat if I had a 3DS, but since you say you’re generally not a fan of RPGs, I hesitate to recommend it to you. The ones you mention that you did enjoy seem to be bright, colorful, and somewhat lighter in tone, which SMTIV is most likely not.

      • https://www.thegamecrafter.com/designers/xyvir-games Xyvir

        It’s not the tone so much, it’s the gameplay. ( Earthbound explores some pretty dark themes even with it’s colorful exterior, which highlights them I think.) Most RPGs (especially JRPGs) just get rote for me to an extent. I guess my more specific question would be: does the diplomacy options add enough intrigue to the game to make it interesting to me through the course of the game? Something as simple and fun as the timing-based combat the Mario RPGs can keep me interested. Does the diplomacy aspect of the game differentiate it enough from other vanilla RPGS? Is it a good enough hook to keep me hooked?

        But yeah, brutal difficulty is probably also a turn-off for me.

        • Enkidum

          I just finished an hour more slogging through SMT III, and it sounds like this version deals with a lot of the annoyances I have with that game – in particular, I’d love some part of the game that gives me some advice about which demons (sorry, Personae) to fuse. The gameplay in III is very sloggy and extraordinarily repetitive, although it’s somewhat made up for by this weirdly entertaining high school / dating sim which takes up about 1/3 of the time. 

          So… yeah, I have no idea about IV, but I suspect you wouldn’t like III much.

        • PaganPoet

          @Enkidum:disqus I think you’re confusing Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 with Shin Megami Tensei III, heh. Persona is a sub-series of the mainline Megami Tensei games. The mainline games don’t have any of the dating/high school sim gameplay. Shin Megami Tensei III was actually released as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne in the USA.

        • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

          A note about the difficulty: after you die for the second time, you’re given the option to reduce the difficulty.  I did that!  No shame!

          This game is excellent, and I would say that the series hallmarks of negotiation and fusion, coupled with the always intriguing settings and stories, are definitely prevalent enough to differentiate this from a ‘vanilla’ JRPG.

        • PaganPoet

          I dunno, @Xyvir:disqus . The games are different and unique enough from generic JRPGs that you might potentially like or even love it. But I still hesitate to outright recommend it to you based on what you’ve said. I’d say, watch a youtube video or two of somebody playing the game and see if it looks like your thing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pWR7rK1FkI

        • neodocT

          I haven’t played SMTIV yet, but from what I know of the series and given your preferences, this might not be the game for you, at least not for the full $50 price.

          They tend to be grindy, old-school-style games with a few more innovative touches and darker, weirder stories that take place in the modern world. I need to make sure with this one, but the bulk of the battle gameplay is usually more reminiscent of Dragon Quest than something more interactive, like the Mario RPGs and Earthbound.

          But there’s a new Mario & Luigi game coming out in, like, two weeks, that seems right up your alley!

    • vinnybushes

       I see you like a lot of tactics rpgs I’d reccomend the Shin megami tensei devil survivor series since that seems a little more up your alley. Fair warning: they’re tough as nails.

  • PaganPoet

    *sigh* I wish Atlus would make up their mind if they wanna have a love affair with Sony or with Nintendo. I’m missing out on all of the non-Persona SMT titles since I went with a Vita for Persona 4 Golden. Not that I regret my purchase, mind you, P4G was well worth it.

    • Matt Gerardi

      My worst nightmare? Persona 5: Vita exclusive. 

      • TenaciousJP

        Honestly, I’m expecting Atlus to unveil Persona 5 for release on the PS3 for sometime in 2016. God knows they love supporting dead systems. 

        • PaganPoet

          As long as they reveal SOMETHING about that game soon. Ever since I finished the story mode of Persona 4 Arena, I’ve been tearing at myself at what happens next. Will P5 carry on that storyline, or be something completely different? Any cameos from old characters (my secret wish is that they bring back Lisa Silverman, or somebody else from Persona 2)? Will it be similar to P3 and P4, or will it completely shake things up?

    • rvb1023

       With Atlus being sold and all, I keep gettin worried they will be bought by Nintendo. And I never get a console SMT again.

  • DrFlimFlam

    If this was $40, I’d be in and claim my $30 in eShop moneys. But $50 is just too steep. I’ll be watching price drops like a hawk to see if I can sneak it in.

  • rvb1023

    Put an hour or two into it so far, loving a lot of the changes they have made (I just flat out pick skills demon’s inherit? Hooray!) and as lame as they are like the occasional environmental thing they throw at you.

    And coming as someone who beat Nocturne, you die a lot easier in this game. My only grumbling so far is I wish it were on a console but I was going to buy that 3DS anyways.

    • http://www.facebook.com/denny.suyidno Denny Suyidno

      yeah… being able to pick the inherited demon skills (which came from Devil Survivor, methinks. love those games!!!) is such a time-saver.

  • neodocT

    I don’t have a 3DS, but I’d definitely pick this up if I did. SMT: Strange Journey was one of my favorite RPGs in the DS, even if it was hard as balls and the plot was only okay. The old school type gameplay with modern, innovative touches, such as the negotiations, monster fusions and conversation options, really appeal to me. Glad to know this game doesn’t drop the ball on that.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      I’m looking at this and reaaaally wanting a 3DS right about now. Strange Journey was a lot of fun, and the weirdo demon dialogue oddly pulled me into the game. And the music was pretty awesome. 

      • botoru_bandit

        is Strange Journey really good? i played a few hours into it but dropped it without ever coming back. i’m liking SMT IV a lot and loved the Devil Survivor games and completed Persona 4 (and that’s the extent of my Atlus games history)

  • vinnybushes

    I think this game definitely hits that compulsive Pokemon-esque sweet spot for me. The main part where it differs from Pokemon is the multiple variables you have to take into account when improving your party. Demons have a set level where they learn all the skills they’re going to learn, which generally means it’s time to fuse them and make stronger demons that inherit the best skills of their parents (which you choose). The thing is, some demons evolve into better demons if you don’t fuse them, and some are just plain useful in the short term, so you have to have to balance having a high level party with good stats versus playing the long game of fusion and evolution while keeping a few utility players around who are too useful to get rid of. Add to this the fact that you can spend app points to greatly expand the amount of demons you can keep with you at any given time and the fact that all party members gain at least some xp even when you don’t use them, and you end up with a grind that doesn’t feel like a grind, because something new is constantly happening. There’s also about 1000% more story than Pokemon. It’s the smoothest most non-grind-y grind I’ve ever played.

    • NakedSnake

      “It’s the smoothest most non-grind-y grind I’ve ever played.” – that should be a review blurb on the retail box. It actually makes we want to check it out a bit.

      • vinnybushes

         I’m no fan of meaningless grinding but there always seems to be a new compelling reason to do it. Rather than simply have a seemingly arbitrary level you have to achieve to advance the story it feels more like you constantly have a lot of short term goals that you can accomplish in not too much time.

        • NakedSnake

          That’s so important. I was just playing Rogue Legacy, which does a good job of that too. Pretty much every run results in you being able to unlock something new.

  • NakedSnake

    So if I’m RPG shy (I enjoy them, but avoid them due to their time commitment), should I check this series/game out, or should I try out the Persona games? Probably only going to do one of the two. 

    • Citric

      Persona 3 and 4 are probably the friendliest in the series overall.

      I haven’t played this specific game though.

    • Destroy Him My Robots

      I’m no SMT expert, but as far as I know they’re all in the 50+ hours range. If you want a quick RPG fix on 3DS, Crimson Shroud would be the ticket. A single walkthrough is roughly 10 hours, it’s well written, combat is satisfying, and it has a pretty great gimmick (miniatures and dice).

      • NakedSnake

        I should specify that I’m ready to take the plunge into a 50 hr RPG, but only one per year or so, so I need to choose carefully. Hadn’t heard of Crimson Shroud, though – might be nice to check out a bite-sized rpg. Particularly one with some self-confidence.

    • thestage

      well, if your biggest problem regarding RPGs is time, then the Persona games are not the way to go.  SMT games are generally long, but P3 and P4 are long.  I just beat P3 Portable, actually.  A little over 100 hours.  P4 was 90.  you can make them somewhat shorter if you’d like, but they are certainly time sinks.  fantastic games, though.

      on the other hand, the Persona games are far easier than the mainline SMT experience.

      • NakedSnake

        Daaaaamn. See, I can play these long games from time to time, but it’s hard to strike a balance between playing the game moderately (i.e. not binging), and keeping playing the game over a long period of time. I’ve heard so much about the SMT games, though, that I feel like I should give them a try.

    • huge_jacked_man

      Play Persona 4. It’s better than Persona 3 in every conceivable way and trust me after 50-70 hours of it you’ll be burnt out of SMT games for a couple years – just in time for Persona 5…

      • NakedSnake

        P4 would be tricky for me, since I don’t have a Vita and can’t commit to all that time on a fixed console. Would P3 be a waste of time?

        • huge_jacked_man

          Definitely not, if P3 is the only one you can realistically play then go for it. Plus the PSP version features a bunch of P4′s improvements.

  • DrZaloski

    Goddammit, I’m going to have to buy a 3DS some point soon. There’s just too many good games coming out, and at such a fast rate. Hopefully Nintendo pulls that off for the Wii U, so I can play something besides Monster Hunter on it.

    • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

       Next year has me excited for the Wii U, with a good mix of first-party standards and third-party weirdness I want to check out.  My shopping list!

      Wario, Lego City Undercover, Mario 3D World, Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Pikmin 3, Bayonetta 2, Wonderful 101, X… this fulfills my personal rule of thumb of “at least 6 things on a console I really want to play before investing”.

      Plus, by the time most of those start coming out, the console’s price will probably have dropped (fingers crossed).

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