Got any reds?
Taking any Shin Megami Tensei game at face value can prove more confusing than its worth. Demons, the interconnected lives we all lead, the encroachment of technology in our world—it's enough to make you yearn for a simpler time, probably like the one you find in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. There the king, the church, and the Samurai all work together to eliminate evil from the world and protect the simple citizens of the land.
The people in the Kingdom of Mikado can't be trusted with learned subjects like those you've known all your life. If they were to read literature or, God forbid, manga, their minds would collide with reality, and they'd turn into demons, and we can't have that now, can we? Shin Megami Tensei IV puts you at the center of that struggle, at the center of chaos and peace with all responsibility on your shoulders, so it's fitting that the game doesn't provide you with an exact compass either.
In the beginning, you'll have a finite list of places to go and people to see: the blacksmith, the apothecary, Castle Mikado and its neighboring settlements, even Lake Mikado. But soon you and your merry band of samurai will plunge into the depths of Naraku and discover what's on the other side.
As in past SMT games, you explore a massive overworld as well as numerous dungeons. Throughout your travels, you'll encounter countless demons with incredible powers, but ultimately it's how you use them that will define you as a warrior. As a samurai, you've undergone an ancient ritual and earned control of the Gauntlet, a mystic piece of technology that allows you not only to fight and contain demons, but also to converse with them, accept quests from them, and even combine them to form more powerful demons.
In order to coerce new demons to your cause, you'll need to be generous with items, money, and even your own hit points. They'll test your mental dexterity with personality-type quizzes, and even after you've handed over a small fortune, a demon might bite the hand that feeds and punish you with a devastating attack. Still, it's worth the risk if only to gather new allies and combine them with the Gauntlet's Mido app.
There, you'll fuse different monsters for the greater good. If you've leveled up your own character beyond that of the spirits waiting on your Gauntlet's proverbial bench, it's time to smash some lesser demons together for a brand new one in your fight against "evil." For more on Demon hunting and fusing, check out this Review Log.
Regardless, the true measure of a samurai's strength comes in battle, but your mental dexterity will prove as important as your physical strength thanks to the Press Turn system. Unlike other RPGs where speed or some other stat determines the order of enemy and party attacks, you and each of your demons will get one move before the enemy can strike. Choose the right attacks to exploit an enemy's weakness and you'll add further moves to your turn. Screw up, hit an enemy with an elemental attack they're strong against, and your turn will be over instantly.
While SMT IV's random encounters can grow grating over time, you can speed through battles with the right attacks. Clashing for the first time forces you to experiment with different moves, but soon you'll recognize openings and blow through battles without ever letting the enemy pounce. For more on combat, check out this Review Log.
All told, the steady progression of demons captured and fused, combined with Press Turns, makes for one of the most satisfying combat system in a JRPG ever. Enemies punish stupid, wasteful moves while huge rewards await players who master efficient, smart fighting. Creating a team that can exploit any type of weakness, while also covering each other's elemental deficiencies in the process can take hours, but establishing these core skills will go a long way in Shin Megami Tensei IV's lengthy story.
Once you've made it through Naraku and emerged on the other side, you'll find a city bathed in chaos. More importantly, you'll find a wide, open field waiting for you to define your motivations and goals, allies and enemies. Nothing in SMTIV is as black and white as it seems, and feeling out the ideals and reasoning of other characters through secondary dialogue and challenge quests feels satisfying and measured. Not every door is flung open to you at once, but the main storyline could certainly use a bit more direction.
As was the case with Persona 4 Golden, certain story beats get choked up and needlessly drawn out. Akin to running around Inaba searching for the right person to interrogate for clues, the Mikado samurai are pointed out the door with little to no direction on several occasions. You can wander around the city for hours, peaking into dead-ends and dark alleyways, and never find your next objective. While the 3DS touchscreen does display a map that can be manipulated to provide a wider or more detailed angle, it doesn't tell you enough about where your next objective really lies.
Other small annoyances reappear with some frequency throughout the campaign, but I was immediately hooked by the complex and narratively twisted tale spun hour after hour. One event in the game's opening compelled me through to the 20th hour before the unintuitive overworld had me save and walk away for a while.
The voice-acting stays on par with Persona 4 Golden, and the sheer volume of interesting and memorable characters you meet on your journey will affect the way you see SMTIV's world and its overarching struggle. Atlus has also packed in a memorable soundtrack with tons of great hooks and throwbacks for series veterans too, but you can read more about that in our Soundtrack Review Log.
It doesn't hurt that the game is damn gorgeous too. Combat is played from a first-person perspective which might rub some modern RPG gamers the wrong way, but even in battle you'll love the character designs and backgrounds. In dungeons, the world moves in 3D and your character can run around, open chests, leap off ledges, and initiate battles with a swift attack. Every single part of the game looks even better in 3D. Menus pop, dungeons expand away from you at great distances, and backgrounds twist and writhe with eye-popping fidelity. Without a doubt, SMTIV is one of the best-looking games on 3DS.
For anyone looking to whittle away dozens of hours in a fully realized war between light and dark, good and evil, Shin Megami Tensei IV will provide in spades. Dedicated players who are willing to learn complex systems and an even more complex overworld will find a lot to love here and will even be ethically challenged. SMTIV's narrative will challenge your moral sense but following your own compass will take you on an engaging and satisfying journey. While other games in the franchise might provide less intimidating entry points, 3DS gamers with a penchant for RPGs have no excuse to ignore the MegaTen universe now.
Code provided by publisher. 3DS exclusive.