Active Time Battle: Shin Megami Tensei IV

Active Time Battle is a chronicle of one man’s spirit journey to play damn near every Japanese Role Playing Game ever made. It is a life’s work. It is, literally, an ongoing battle against time. I sincerely doubt I can finish what I’ve started without succumbing to madness. Viewer discretion is advised.

The other Shin Megami Tensei titles covered so far on this site all have such long, unwieldy titles. I understand what they all mean, but is anybody else out there as crazy as I am? Did you know that Shin Megami Tensei games are sometimes numbered? There have been four of them! Shin Megami Tensei IV is not the fourth Shin Megami Tensei game, but it sure is the fourth numbered one.

That’s a bigger deal than I let on, really. Shin Megami Tensei IV was, at the time of its release in 2013, the first numbered SMT in just over a decade. The third game, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (which had a “III” in the title in Japan) was the first numbered game in the series in nearly a decade at the time of its release in 2003. These things are events. As 2023 approaches we’ll be having fevered debates about whether Shin Megami Tensei V or Persona 5 will be coming out first.

In any case, IV came out for the Nintendo 3DS at that strange period of time when the Nintendo 3DS was just drowning in great games. It was one of many boots on the ground in an extensive, brutal military campaign to convince the world that handhelds weren’t dead and that you can never truly count Nintendo out. In 2013, a new 2D Zelda game came out, a new Fire Emblem came out, a new Animal Crossing came out, a new Pokemon came out, a new Luigi’s Mansion came out, a new mainline Ace Attorney came out—these were all series (or styles of game within a series) that had been in some state of dormancy for a varying number of years (or, in Pokemon’s case, a huge engine overhaul that had been long overdue, bringing the series out of a different sort of dormancy). If there was ever a time or place to bring back a golden oldie series with its freshest-ever coat of paint, it was on the Nintendo 3DS in 2013.

Not that this was readily apparent—remember how I mentioned that Nocturne only had a “III” in its title in Japan? Well, that’s because Shin Megami Tensei and Shin Megami Tensei II hadn’t come out in the west (and, for reference, we’re still waiting on an official release of SMT2!) There had to have been a fairly significant number of casual fans of the franchise who didn’t realize there’d been four of these things that had warranted a number. One need only dig through some of Shin Megami Tensei IV’s reviews to find all the strange references and unwarranted comparisons to Persona 4 to realize that this series’ naming conventions are somewhat arcane from the outside looking in. A strange co-marketing deal with Fire Emblem Awakening, the general hype around the 3DS’ release calendar at the time, bleed-over from the success of Persona and a stack of mostly-positive reviews likely coalesced to give Shin Megami Tensei IV what I am declaring to be the series’ best non-Persona launch in its western history, with absolutely no facts or figures to back up. It’s just a gut feeling. But between brand confusion and niche status, Shin Megami Tensei IV was, for most, a total stealth event amidst a crowd of noisy, attention-grabbing events.

This preamble is to establish two things: I didn’t play Shin Megami Tensei IV until 2015 because the Nintendo 3DS just kept getting games (a backlog for that system alone remains to this day) but it was always very visible on my radar, as one of the many Big 3DS Events that shouldn’t be missed. In addition to other games hogging my 3DS, I felt an obligation to establish for myself why a numbered Shin Megami Tensei title was a Big Deal, which led to me playing a bunch of those games for the first time so I could fully understand the gravity of IV. Some of those adventures can be read about here, while others remain locked in my heart (because they pre-date this site, really). In the process, I discovered that Shin Megami Tensei IV could be a digital approximation of bad people killing all of my loved ones and setting my house on fire and I’d still be a better man for having tried to prepare for it, because I love these games.

Shin Megami Tensei IV, as it turns out, wasn’t the best-received title in the franchise by long-time fans. They took issue with elements of the battle system, with the game’s messed-up difficulty curve, the relative simplicity of its dungeons, its characterization, its art, the degree to which certain quality-of-life features impacted tried-tested-and-true designs—these are all valid complaints, and ones I wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate without a prior education into what this series is, has been, and will be. Thankfully, I can report that in spite of these issues, Shin Megami Tensei IV is not the digital approximation of bad people killing all of my loved ones and setting my house on fire. In fact, it’s a pretty darn good video game!

But I guess I should quickly fess up about those problems the game has: Shin Megami Tensei IV utilizes the Press Turn battle system debuted in Nocturne, with a bunch of the sorts of tiny differences you’d expect in a pair of games made a decade apart. One of these is a mechanic called “Smirk.” Smirk is super dumb. Any time a battle participant hits a weakness or nullifies/reflects/absorbs an enemy attack, not only do they add an extra turn to the party’s Press Turn counter as per usual, they also have a (random) chance of activating a state called “Smirk,” in which the participant, well, smirks. Smirk does everything. It boosts damage, hit rate, crit rate, evasion rate, critical evasion rate, the interest rate on your financial investments, chances that cute girl will go on a date with you, 3DS battery life, you name it. It makes you (or your enemy) immune to further weakness exploitation for its duration, and lasts for an entire turn (including the opposite side’s turn) and there’s no way to remove it other than waiting it out. It’s taking the core tenet of the battle system—huge, nearly game-ending swings in battle potential based on proper exploitation of enemy weaknesses—and gives a random chance to kick it into such an absurd state of overdrive that the fight may as well just end immediately. It’s obnoxious to go up against and feels like cheating to receive. There’s also a very strange situation going on with how the game handles statistics—it has a Strength stat and a Dexterity stat, but for whatever reason the damage coefficient for Dexterity is significantly higher on every physical attack skill (i.e. anything that isn’t your basic physical attack) in the game. Since regular attacks aren’t even a little bit viable as meat-and-potatoes attack moves, this makes Strength a junk stat. It’s a very strange design decision.

The game’s difficulty curve is absurd. The first boss is the hardest boss you will face until the absolute endgame, and everything in the middle may as well be a random encounter. A brief-but-not-painless trial by fire gives way to tens of hours of completely smooth sailing (unless, say, a tough random encounter gets enemy advantage, hits a weakness, smirks, etc.—then you might be in for some more pain) before the game remembers in its last few boss fights that this series prides itself on its challenging encounters and punishing mechanics.

The game’s main characters are flat in a way that puts the rest of the series, which often falls back on thin characters who are meant to serve as proxies for more grandiose ideologies, to shame, and don’t even do a great job of standing in for those aforementioned ideologies. Their turns towards their predestined philosophical bents are loudly-telegraphed, sudden and without subtlety. The series’ classic Law/Chaos dichotomy is drilled down to its bare essentials, more extreme and unappealing than ever—which works in the sense that the typically-tough decision is tougher than ever, but doesn’t work in that you’re going to feel even more off-put by whichever route you do end up on. Let’s not even get started on the game’s Neutral route, which has such a strict alignment point window that you practically need a guide to end up on it—if you don’t want to side with either of your asshole friends and don’t want the internet to play the game for you– you’re outta luck, buddy.

Series stalwart Kazuma Kaneko is MIA in the artist’s chair, instead merely credited with the game’s original story, and though Masayuki Doi does great work as the character designer in Shin Megami Tensei IV, the game’s (non-recycled) demon designs are more often than not terrible compared to Kaneko’s classic work. That a majority of Kaneko’s designs are still in use just makes you all the more likely to see a new demon beside an old demon and wonder where it all went wrong. Like, just look at this loser. At least Minotaur looks cool.

Shin Megami Tensei IV has the most forgiving demon fusion in the series thus far, letting you pick and choose which abilities from the component demons will end up flooding the ability list of your newly-fused demon. This is insanely convenient compared to some of the older alternatives (Soul Hackers’ not letting you have any control whatsoever over ability inheritance, and the maddening Circle-X-Circle-X-Circle-X random ability refreshing from the PS2 titles), but perhaps too much so. It gets to the point where you’re literally transferring an entire moveset from one demon to another, your demons essentially serving as interchangeable stat-sticks for a permanent moveset, with no compromise required and no unique considerations necessary. It trivializes the process to a point where one can’t help but wonder why it’s still a mechanic in the first place.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is a big game, however, and though these complaints surely bog it down, the ship is just too big to be sunk by a few tiny rocks at sea. It’s a clear example of a game being more than the sum of its parts, and having the things it does well shine so brightly that the things it does poorly are often obscured.

The game’s set-up is a concept both novel and well-executed. Where most Shin Megami Tensei games cast you as a regular member of contemporary society as subjected to an apocalyptic demonic invasion, Shin Megami Tensei IV instead puts you in the shoes of a commoner from a feudal/medieval fantasy society called The Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. After being “chosen” by a techno-gauntlet clearly at odds with the rest of the world’s rustic, pre-electricity non-technology, your player character becomes a Samurai, a caste devoted to maintaining law and order in society, as well as making demon-slaying expeditions into a large cavern beneath the capital city of Mikado. This large cavern, Naraku, serves as the game’s first dungeon, and when you’ve descended to its darkest depths… you find yourself standing in the derelict, demon-infested ruins of Tokyo, having entered from atop the giant rock dome surrounding the Japanese capital upon which sits your idyllic little castle town.

From here, the game undergoes an enormous tonal shift. The warmly instrumented music of your home kingdom gives way to aggressive, sludgy 80s synths. Omnipresent bright and natural colors give way to a series of blacks, grays, browns and blood reds, illuminated dimly by the bold primary tones of dilapidated billboards and signs. You can forget about ever seeing sunlight again. After Strange Journey’s bizarre Antarctic adventure, you’d be forgiven but surprised for thinking maybe Shin Megami Tensei IV was taking the series’ setting in a different direction with Mikado, and a second surprise is to follow with Tokyo’s sudden return to center stage for the overwhelming majority of the game’s duration. The dichotomy between the settings is striking, bold, surprising, and carried out with enduring commitment, and the existence of these two disparate locations becomes the central concern of the game’s narrative in its final act.

Tokyo itself is quite fun to explore, not just for its striking aesthetics and excellent atmosphere, but because of a number of well-hidden chests and the scattered distribution of resource nodes in each map. These nodes grant “Artifacts,” which is just the Mikado way of saying “random everyday junk that you’ve dug out of a bunch of rubble,” which can then be sold for some sweet, sweet Macca. It encourages you to avoid beelining from Point A to Point B, and spend some time poking around each map and taking it all in.

That said, it’s interesting how Shin Megami Tensei IV is far less reliant on dungeons as a means of progression than previous games in the series. Dungeons still exist, but are all very short and simple affairs. The meat of the game’s area traversal has gone from delving into clever dungeons to a broader, simpler sense of overworld navigation. It’s a far more common mode that most other JRPGs operate in, but an interesting concession for a series that’s generally referred to as one of “dungeon crawlers.” This is neither a positive nor a negative observation, just something that I found interesting. Slumming around a nightmarish vision of Tokyo is a far more involved process here than it’s historically been, so the trade-off is a fair one.

Where I think Shin Megami Tensei IV fares best in comparison to its forebears is in its pacing, on both a macro and micro level. The game’s core gameplay loop is remarkably snappy thanks to the lightning pace of its battles and no-fuss menus, but more importantly it’s very easy to play the game for just an hour or two and feel you’ve made at least some small amount of meaningful progress. There’s almost never a lull between story events, new locations or major boss battles from the minute you set foot in Tokyo, and even if there was, there’s a bounty of sidequests to check off your list at just about any point.

Did I mention sidequests? Shin Megami Tensei IV is drowning in them. There’s nothing quite as intricate as Nocturne’s Fiend Hunt/Labyrinth of Amala/True Demon Ending mega-sidequest (which is hardly a condemnation considering that’s got to be one of the best sidequests ever) but instead a sprawling list of simple tasks and actual quests. Within the game’s handy sidequest tracking log, there’ll be a small laundry list of “simple busywork that you’d probably end up doing by accident and now you’re getting rewarded for it” types of sidequests in most new areas you reach, and then a bunch of meatier quests that’ll have you tracking down NPCs, meeting new characters, making big decisions (for alignment points no less!), fighting unique bosses, and just getting up to the sorts of stuff you won’t run into in the main quest progression, sometimes spanning across multiple areas and stages of progression. It’s a great tool to help manage the aforementioned excellent pace the game maintains, by stuffing a lot of stuff off to the side for the completionists to hunt down without bogging the main narrative down with added content.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is the first major game in the series to not have the illustrious Shoji Meguro in the composer’s chair since his main composer debut in Nocturne, and one would be forgiven for thinking this an ill portent for the game’s music. I’m happy to report that with or without their ace, Atlus’ sound team is still the best in the biz. Ryota Koduka, Kenichi Tsuchiya and Toshiki Konishi deliver a soundtrack which is in equal measures bumping, grooving, banging, noisy, menacing and ominous. There really isn’t much to which it can be compared, but if weird, sludgy, grungy synthesizer music is a thing you enjoy, I hope you’re ready for several hours of it. Headphones are highly recommended for this one.

SMT titles have always encouraged repeat playthroughs due to their diverging routes and character builds, but between the snappy pace, abundance of side content and general quality of life features in Shin Megami Tensei IV, I suspect it’s among the most replayable games in the series thus far. Since it’s been a few months, I might even be considering starting up another file right about now if the game didn’t have a direct sequel (Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse) coming out very soon. I know that one day I’m gonna go back and get that pesky Neutral ending, and I’m more eager to replay IV than I am pretty much any other SMT game I’ve played yet. That’s gotta say something about the game’s enduring quality in light of its strange quirks and flaws.

So, Shin Megami Tensei IV, all I have to say to you, in closing, is that I’m sorry I took so long to get around to you. You were worth the wait, and I’m excited for your sequel. As for you, reader, all I have to say to you, in closing, is that if you haven’t gotten around to this one yet, you should stop sleeping on it.

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