If modern Japan is being invaded by demonic creatures and only angsty teens can save the day, then you’re probably playing one of the many Shin Megami Tensei games. The franchise is known for its hardcore JRPG gameplay and mature storytelling, and the fourth core Shin Megami Tensei adventure brings all those facets to the 3DS while streamlining many of the franchise’s pricklier features. The only downside to all the welcome advancements is that the few remaining flaws are made more glaring in the process.
The game begins in a (seemingly) medieval town as the teen hero joins an order of demon-slaying samurai in what appears to be a typical fantasy RPG. But you soon travel to the an underground twilight world that used to be modern day Tokyo. Dropping players into a post-apocalyptic Japan starts a massive plot that’s easy to follow (even when played in brief sessions), and its connections to previous SMT entries won’t be distracting to series neophytes. The cast of characters is small, but each is well-written and plausibly portrayed in the copious voice-acting. SMTIV has some of the strongest writing found on 3DS; it's a game that earns an M-rating for grown-up subject matter instead of bloody corpses.
Navigating a ruined Tokyo pushes players to make choices that will alter the ending of the game, but the impact of your decisions is clear to see long before it’s over. With each level gained through rock-solid turn-based combat, you not only assign attribute points as you see fit, but you also purchase special skills and buffs that subtly mold your character into your own unique version of the protagonist. It quickly makes you very invested in your hero’s growth.
"SMTIV has some of the strongest writing found on 3DS..."
The customization gets even more satisfyingly deep when it comes to your squad of monsters. Like a satanic Pokemon, you’re constantly collecting the beasts that occupy the hellish world, and these monsters are strengthened through a process called demon fusion. Two or more monsters can be melded together to form a new creature, passing on skills and traits to the next generation. Breeding the perfect creature takes time, but fusion is a surprisingly simple process, and one that gets more addictive with each fused demon you add to your team.
Outside of demon fusion and collection, many of the franchise’s key features are similarly improved via simplification. An enemy’s known weaknesses are clearly communicated with color-coded symbols, buying and selling happens in bulk, and your quest log makes the many objectives and side missions easy to follow. SMTIV effectively simplifies so many tropes without forsaking what makes the franchise popular.
Your choices are further empowered by the game’s smart handling of its economy. You can still grind experience points from constant battles, but you rarely get money, which is mainly reserved for completing quests. If you want to expand your demon roster or buy a new piece of armor, you’ll have to do some serious budgeting and make hard choices with your cash. Just like SMTIV’s other systems, the cleverly tight design brings out what’s most fun about the traditional gameplay.
"SMTIV effectively simplifies so many tropes without forsaking what makes the franchise popular."
The majority of SMTIV is so helpfully modernized that it makes it all the more frustrating when the game occasionally regresses. Most annoying is the overworld. It’s a dim map with an obtuse layout and a pronounced lack of detail, hardly all that different than the SMT maps players settled for on the PSOne. It’s far too easy to get lost for 20 minutes before finally stumbling upon your destination. The dungeons and indoor sections fare better than the map of Tokyo, but are still a little too drab, even though it fits the doomsday setting. SMTIV embraces its aesthetic with creative art design, it just gets a little oppressive after a few dozen hours.
Ultimately, those limited failings will either be seen as quaint by longtime RPG addicts or tolerable by newcomers that will appreciate everything else Shin Megami Tensei IV gets right. It advances the genre in subtle ways, exhibiting once more that JRPGs are alive and well on handhelds. Numbered Shin Megami Tensei entries are few and far between. Thankfully, SMTIV makes the most of it.