A running theme this year on the Nintendo 3DS has been the amazing number of Japanese RPGs that have graced the portable. A staggering amount of quality software has arrived over the past twelve months, and there’s no sign of letting up. When Atlus announced Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, I thought to myself, “Oh, another one of those games” and kind of put it out of mind. I had never before played a Shin Megami game so I didn’t really know what to expect when Atlus offered up a review code. I will admit that I paused for a moment to decide whether or not I should take the time to review the game. But, then it dawned on me that a review from someone who has no experience with the series would be a fresh viewpoint. Plus, I’m always eager to try something new. Because I haven’t played any prior games in the series, this review will not be the best place to find out what’s been changed or added from the original Shin Megami Tensei IV. If, however, you’re like me and are new to the franchise, well, I hope this review answers some questions.
The game starts off at a fast clip right out of the gate with a unique and intriguing story. It turns out in the distant future that demons have invaded Earth. At some point missiles were launched, and a huge rock dome was magically erected to protect Tokyo from the nuclear blast. Unfortunately, this also served to trap mankind inside the city, which quickly took its toll on civilization. Without diving too heavily into the minutia of the story, an epic battle has broken out between angels and demons and humanity is caught in the crossfire. Hunters roam the dangerous streets to look for vital supplies and relics that can be used to keep the demons at bay. Much like Pokémon, there are hundreds of different demons floating about the environment to be battled. Your main character can scout them out and try to convince them to join his side. Only by successfully navigating a dialog tree will the demon in question party up. This can be trickier than expected as some demons ask you for items in exchange for their loyalty. Some will appreciate your token of kindness, whereas others will milk you dry and attack anyway.
The battle system is a true turn-based affair. Your main character will fight alongside his assembled team of demons. It’s at this point that I started recognizing some of the skills and spells. As it turns out, I sort of had played a Shin Megami game this summer when I put some major time into Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE on the Wii U. Some of the same items as well as the elemental attribute system are the same. It’s a somewhat backward way of being introduced to the series, but it was cool to finally make the connections. Even some of the demons are variations of the enemies found in Tokyo Mirage. If you’ve played a prior Shin Megami game, I believe the battle system will be a familiar sight. Each of your teammates gets to attack every round. If you find the enemy’s weakness, you will often earn an extra turn in battle. This can sometimes lead to you earning a Smirk, which will result in a critical hit on your next turn.
As you gain experience, all of your demons and your character will level up and learn new spells and skills. One of the really awesome features is the ability to fully customize your character as the game progresses with the skillset you want. At certain points your demons will impart their skills to your character and you can decide which ones to learn. This becomes very helpful as I found myself quite regularly swapping out older demons for newer ones to try them out in battle. You can then cull the best skills from them and transfer them to your character. Of course there’s a limit to the number of attacks he can have at any given time (more slots can be unlocked by spending points), but I like the idea that my character could have a totally different skillset than someone else’s.
Another similarity to Pokémon is that the demons can evolve. In this case, you can fuse two demons together to create a new one. This can be done via StreetPass or over Wi-Fi with SpotPass. This can result in a more powerful asset for your team and is an addicting part of the gameplay loop. Some gamers could easily spend hours upon hours just acquiring new demons.
One interesting facet of battling is that your partner character can offer assistance. At the beginning of the game this role falls to Asahi, a girl who you’ve grown up with and an eager Hunter in training. She isn’t controllable, but can unleash an attack or heal someone at the end of the battle turn. This is similar to the mechanic in Tokyo Mirage where a member of your support cast can actually come in and attack even though they’re not an active member. These backup partners can be attacked by enemies, however, and might end up getting knocked out for the battle just like a normal participant.
Exploring the world is a matter of going from one zone to another via hubs and maps. The in-game mapping system is a bit lacking and doesn’t do a fantastic job of helping you navigate. While there is a button that can highlight your goal, it would be nice for the game to draw a line or perhaps lay down some markers to make it easier to locate. Many times the next area is on a different floor or another zone, and the flag doesn’t really show up unless you’re in the vicinity of it. It’s not a game breaking issue, but I did get lost on more than one occasion. Luckily there aren’t random battles and you can see the demons roaming around the area. Swiping them with your weapon will give a greater chance of you landing a preemptive attack.
Graphically the game holds up pretty well. One of my main gripes with 7th Dragon earlier this year was that the game didn’t utilize the 3D on the system. Thankfully it’s present here and it really does add to the visuals. The game does use a lot of dark tones and unique color combinations like green and orange and purple, giving it a very distinct aesthetic. Character models are fairly basic and some demons look more detailed than others. Overall it looks pretty good on the 3DS screen, but some of the textures do come across a bit muddy. The bottom screen is mainly used for your map.
Apocalypse sounds great as well. Many of the game’s characters are voice acted and some of the dialog is quite entertaining. I really enjoyed the banter between the demon bosses and the main character. Many times the voice is processed through a synthesizer and it really adds to the demonic flair. Some, like an early boss, are hilarious and really bring life to the world. Put on a good set of headphones to truly appreciate the audio.
I had a fun time playing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. If you’re a first timer to the series, don’t let that hold you back from trying it out. It has a host of difficulty options for you to choose right at the beginning of the game. You can even adjust this up or down on the fly as you play. The world and story might seem daunting at first, but after you’ve spent five or so hours with the game I think you’ll love it. Don’t get too hung up on the sheer number of demons that can be collected and don’t be discouraged if they seem hard to catch at times. Trial and error is half the fun. If you’re looking for a darker JRPG, this one should definitely fit the bill. I’m slowly getting sucked into the Shin Megami universe and loving every minute of it.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
Having never played any of the prior Shin Megami games, I really didn’t know what to expect going in. I was pleasantly surprised with the intriguing story, amazing audio, and the addictive gameplay. Give the game five hours and it’ll suck away fifty.