Shin Megami Tensei 4 Review: Devils in the details

The Shin Megami Tensei series of Japanese role-playing games has typically featured deep, thought provoking storylines and richly dense game mechanics that provide immensely satisfying experiences while also scaring off a lot of would-be players. The games are so cram-packed with lore and quirky gameplay that they've proven more than a little overwhelming for newcomers. The most recent installment in the series, Shin Megami Tensei 4, is easily the most accessible of the bunch, easing new players into SMT's idiosyncrasies without making the game too basic for long-time fans. The story and visuals aren't quite up to the series' typically high standards, but there's more than enough going on to hook you early and keep you playing for a long, long time.

You play as a newly-christened "Samurai" – chosen guardian of the realm against demons. Along with your companions, you've been fitted with a mystical gauntlet that allows you to perform mighty feats, like using magic and summoning captured demons to fight alongside you in turn-based battle. Your training for these new responsibilities has been exactly nothing, but fortunately your gauntlet comes equipped with a helpful AI named Burroughs who's more than happy to bring you up to speed on how to perform your Samurai duties.%Gallery-193433% Chief among those duties is slaying demons. You can do this by yourself, but the much smarter strategy is to collect a crew of powerful demonic pals to fight by your side. Combat is the major emphasis of SMT4, with exploration playing a relatively minor part – so minor, in fact, that much of it takes place in menus and on maps. During a battle, you can opt to talk to a demon instead of attacking it. With the right amount of charm, threats, or straight-up bribes, you can persuade the demon to join your ranks. Different demons have different physical and magical abilities, which makes recruiting a team that complements your own skills and play style a big part of SMT4's addictive nature.

An even deeper layer of demon collecting lies in fusion, the ability to combine two or more demons into a new creature that inherits abilities from its parents. Why have one demon tossing ice spells and another throwing fire when you can have one that does both? Fusion is helpful not only because it produces more powerful demons, but also because you can only cart so many demons around at once, making it important to condense your collection to the most valuable players. Given the huge number of demons at your disposal, the possibilities for fusion are nearly endless, but the game does an excellent job of teaching you the basics, even providing suggestions as to what demons you might want to fuse next. Messing around with your demon roster is where the major strategy of SMT4 lies, and you'll lose countless hours tinkering with your lineup, fusing and leveling until your gruesome posse has exactly the skill set you want.

If only your human companions were as interesting or as helpful. Your fellow newbie Samurai accompany you on your adventure, but they're a pretty forgettable bunch. One Samurai party member will fight alongside you during encounters, but you have no control over which party member is chosen or what actions they take, and they don't have a wide variety of skills. Their out-of-battle discussion provides the exposition that pushes the plot forward, but you have pretty much the same experience reading placards or signs as you do listening to Isabeau, Jonathan and Walter natter on about demons or honor. Anyone looking to experience the sort of character interactions you'd see in Persona, for example, will be sorely disappointed; the conversations you'll have during demon recruitment sessions are far more satisfying than anything your human comrades have to say.

In addition to their sparkling repartee, demons also offer the best imagery in an otherwise visually lackluster game. Their designs pull from myths and legends from all over the world; you'll encounter Naga, Jack the Ripper, Pixies, Kelpie, Dwarves, Zombies, and even a Wicker Man or two. You'll find yourself looking forward to random encounters just to see what new creatures you might fight. Their designs are colorful and bizarre, a welcome contrast to the dreary, repetitious environments that you must explore on your quest to take down the Black Samurai, a mysterious figure who seems to know far more about what's really going on than any of the authority figures of the realm.

If you've come to Shin Megami Tensei 4 expecting a rich and engaging plot, you'll probably find yourself a bit disappointed. Though it brushes up against some questions about social castes and has a killer twist in it, the story is so sparse that you might actually forget why you're running around these caves and streets in the first place. If, however, you're an RPG stat junkie, SMT4 is your jam. It can be a little exhausting, but the strategic combat is the real star of the show. But fair warning: This game is hard. You will only succeed by deeply investing in nurturing your demon team. (Well, and saving a lot. Seriously, save, like, every five minutes.) You'll receive money sparingly, usually only as a reward for completing a quest, so you can't buy your way through the game by constantly equipping better gear or loading up on healing potions.

Getting through dungeons stuffed to the walls with powerful enemies requires careful planning and smart use of everything at your disposal. Attacking an enemy's weakness can sometimes earn you a "Smirk," which grants you an extra attack, but foes can earn their own Smirk by taking advantage of one of your weaknesses. Experimenting in battle to learn those weakness, then forming a team that can exploit them fully, is key to success and SMT4's biggest time-sink. It requires a lot of trial and error (and by "error," I mean "total party wipe") but becoming increasingly adept at the intricacies of combat will make you feel godlike. Right up until the next Big Bad one-shots you, of course.

If you've ever wondered what all the Shin Megami Tensei fuss was about, Shin Megami Tensei 4 is a great entry point. It eases you into the gameplay without babying you, giving you the tools you need to succeed and enjoy your adventure while still providing a hefty challenge. It's not the prettiest thing you'll ever pop into your 3DS, and the story isn't the series' strongest, but SMT4 will demand your full attention every step of the way.

This review is based on a retail copy of Shin Megami Tensei 4 for 3DS, provided by Atlus.

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