There are few franchises that I would consider myself loyal to (at least until they come out on a system I don’t have) but Shin Megami Tensei (and its spinoff series, the Persona series) is one of the few exceptions. They have very interesting premises but many of the games haven’t been released in North America. Fortunately, with the popularity of the Persona games, more of the games are being released in the West.
In the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, people are divided between the wealthy Luxurors and lower class Casualries. The protagonist (default name: Flynn) and his friend Issachar are of age to undergo the trials to become Samurai, protectors of the kingdom who venture into the demon-infested ruins of Naraku to gather mystic relics for the monastery’s top brass. When a mysterious person starts causing unrest in the countryside, however, Flynn and friends journey into Naraku and beyond in search of answers. Who is the Black Samurai? And what is the strange city they find beneath the Kingdom?
The gameplay will probably familiar to you if you’ve played Devil Survivor or Persona 3 and 4 in particular. The Press Turn system from previous games makes a return. For those who aren’t familiar with this series, you basically get extra turns for hitting enemy weaknesses and scoring critical hits. Instead of fighting, however, you might want to recruit new demons (note: all recruitable monsters in this game are referred to as “demons” even though they are technically gods, goddesses, angels, etc.) to your side via Demon Negotiation, which is a somewhat random process of answering multiple choice questions and bribing them with money and items. Once they join your team, you can fuse them via the Cathedral of Shadows to obtain more powerful demons. Some demons are considered “Special” fusions, obtained by defeating them in battle during quests, or by fusing a specific combination of demons.
Unlike other games in the series, where skill inheritance is entirely or mostly random, you can select which skills you want the new demon to have from its parents’ skills. If you level up or manage to fuse an exceptionally strong demon, you can register that demon in the compendium, and then summon them as long as you have enough Macca. Sometimes demons that you speak to during battles will give you new challenge quests, which feels more organic than just checking in at the Hunter Association for new quests. When you level up, in addition to being able to increase your stats, you’ll be given app points, which can be used to expand your stock, unlock more slots for new abilities, and choose more options during demon negotiation, among other things. Another knew feature is demon whispers. In a nutshell, when a demon has learned all their skills, they can “whisper” their abilities to the protagonist, and Flynn can then use those skills in battle.
Other than the Press Turn feature I’ve outlined above, battles are standard turn-based affairs, with you and the enemy trading attacks. A first for this series is horde enemies, massive groups of enemies that all share a common weakness. In true SMT fashion, even lower level encounters can horribly murder you, especially if they get the drop on you. My level 90 party was very nearly destroyed by a group of level 25 demons who surprised us and quickly exploited my team’s weaknesses. Bosses pretty much require you to exploit their weaknesses in order to succeed, although, they aren’t quite as nasty as the boss encounters in SMT: Strange Journey.
Shin Megami Tensei IV has two types of quest: the main quest obviously advances the story, whereas Challenge Quests are the game’s sidequests. Challenge Quests are often standard fetch quests (delivery quests) or defeat this enemy quests, but they reward you with Macca, better weapons and armor, and the ability to fuse certain boss demons, some quests also have an impact on your alignment (more on alignment in a bit).
Regarding the story, it’s not as weird as, say, Nocturne’s post-apocalyptic demonic journey. In fact, I’d say it’s closer to the first Shin Megami Tensei game (with the initial setup of Shin Megami Tensei II) neither SMT I nor II were ever released in the West, I just know of them because I’ve done some reading. Besides Issachar, the protagonist has three fellow Samurai that play a role in the story: the Luxuror and law-abiding Jonathan, the rebellious fellow Casualry, Walter, and Isabeau, who is less inclined to extremes. Again, if you’re familiar with the series’ Law-Chaos-Neutral alignments (and you’ve seen the box art) it should be obvious which character acts as the mouthpiece for which alignment. I wouldn’t so much call the characters stereotypical anime characters, but they are definitely stereotypical SMT characters: with one fanatically devoted to serving God, the other committed to the social Darwinism of Chaos, and the characters who don’t embrace either extreme. Your choices can cause Flynn to favour Law or Chaos, or to walk the Neutral path. This choice doesn’t just affect the ending you can get, it affects which demons you can fuse, with some exclusive to one alignment, and even which bosses you face over the course of the story.
One major criticism I have of this game is that it’s ridiculously difficult to get the Neutral ending. It’s par for the course to make getting this sort of ending difficult in SMT, but getting the Neutral ending in SMT IV requires being between -8 and +8 on the morality scale, which is difficult to achieve if you’re just going through the game completing sidequests as you go. Speaking of sidequests, the Neutral ending also requires that you complete certain quests, though thankfully these are not time-sensitive. This was actually such an issue for me that I went for the worst ending in the game just so I could go for the Neutral ending in New Game Plus. I also found wandering the overworld map annoying due to the high frequency of demon encounters. This can be alleviated somewhat by obtaining an airship, but the quest to get it doesn’t pop up until late in the game.There’s also an unfortunate implication with the dark-skinned character from a lower class background representing Chaos, the alignment that allies itself with the demons where the strong survive and the weak perish (although, this is not exclusive to this game). I also felt like the story lacked nuance, with characters going from friends to opposite sides pretty quickly, which, although it makes sense for an SMT game, didn’t feel as natural to me as, say, the dynamics in Devil Survivor or SMT Nocturne. Some might (and have been) offended by the fact that the “monsters” in the game are actual deities and spirits from pantheons around the world, especially the way in which some of them are sexualized (although personally Incubus will never not be funny to me).
In terms of triggers, demons eat people and the game does remind you of that fact a few times, such as when one of the bosses devours an NPC and the reinforcements they’ve called. There’s also a secret underground compound where people are “harvested” for brain matter. In one scenario, human “neurishers” act as food sources for demonoids.Some of the sidequests have creepy implications, like the rampaging Wicker Men who are trapping people inside them and burning them to death. There’s also woman in Ikebukuro where it is heavily implied that she commits suicide no matter which dialogue option you choose. The game does have a tendency to flash red when someone is being killed, and finishing off someone by shooting them causes them to burst in a bloody mess.
Overall, Shin Megami Tensei IV is worth your time if you like JRPGs and a challenge. It’s a lengthy RPG–my total playtime, including my New Game+ run, is 85 hours–and it’s a great entry point to this difficult niche series.