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?
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.
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.
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.