Game on the Train – Shin Megami Tensei IV

At the moment I have a pleasant 40 minute commute to work on the train four days a week, and I like to use that time to do something relaxing, helping set me up for the day in the morning, and then helping me unwind in the evening. So along with my train ticket and face mask, my trusty 2DS XL is the other essential that I always check I have before I leave home. I’ve decided that each week I will play a different game from the 120 loaded on the 2DS, and then give my impressions about it. It’s a good way for me to explore my back catalogue and try and pick out the games I really want to continue playing.

First up is Shin Megami Tensei IV from Atlus. For those not aware of this series of games, they are basically dungeon crawling RPGs with turn based combat where you have a team of ‘demons’ who fight alongside you. As the game progresses you acquire more powerful demons either by persuading them to join you in combat, or by fusing two or more of your existing demons together to make a new one. Demons have physical and elemental skills, and the main tactic you will be using is exploiting the weaknesses of your enemies. Doing this will net you an extra turn in combat, and can also give you a temporary stat boost.

The main Shin Megami Tensei series has given birth to a number of spin-offs, most notably the Persona series, which has become a huge franchise in it’s own right. The fifth instalment is due to arrive at some point on the Nintendo Switch, while the third game, Shin Megami Tensei Notcturne gets a western release as a remaster in 2021. In the meantime, we have SMT IV and it’s sequel Apocalypse available on the 3DS. SMT IV is well suited to the portable console, the graphics won’t astonish anyone but the visuals are not the main draw here, it’s the strategy and story that take centre stage.

You are also given the ability to save at any point, even in the middle of a dungeon, so it’s great for short bursts of play. The game begins in a fictional country based roughly on feudal Japan, where an order of samurai protect the kingdom from the constant threat of demons, where you take on the role of an apprentice samurai who is chosen for this life by a mysterious gauntlet. Early on though it’s very clear that the action will be moving to modern day Japan, though with where I got to in a week with the game I can’t yet see how that is going to happen.

Straight from your first journey into a dungeon, SMT IV makes it very clear that this will not be an easy ride for you. It’s is very likely that you will die in your first couple of encounters, and the game pulls no punches in piling on the difficulty. However no death feels unfair, once you revisit a fight against a specific demon you realise that you need to think carefully about tactics, and use all of the game mechanics available to gain an advantage. It can make those early levels feel too difficult and unwelcoming, but once the mechanics start to click, the journey through the dungeons becomes immensely satisfying, each battle won feels like you have earned it and each defeat is an opportunity to learn how to do better.

The story itself is also an interesting one. The world you start in has a very strict class system, with the upper class Luxors seemingly mostly looking down on the working class Casualry, and there is very strong feeling that the tensions between the two groups are reaching a boiling point. Your fellow apprentices are also an interesting group, with three main characters who seem to be aligned to Chaos/Neutral/Order when there is any discussion of tactics or a decision to be made. Early on you are asked to side with one person for each decision that needs to be made, and I am certain that this will have a bearing on future events.

There is a huge caveat coming now though as to why this game may not be for everyone. I played this for just under 6 hours, completing as many quests as I could, and building the best squad of demons that I could, knowing that when the first real boss battle came, it would be tough. And the first boss in SMT IV, the Minotaur is an absolute brick wall if you are not up to speed with how the game works. I have seen a lot of complaints about how tough this boss is, but I can see why Atlus have chosen to challenge the player in this way. In effect, this boss fight is an exam checking that you understand how the mechanics.

Do you understand how landing a hit that exploits an enemy’s elemental weakness gives you an extra turn? Do you understand the importance of buffs and debuffs and how and when to use them? Have you put together a team of demons that can provide all of the above? Then you have a chance to win. If not, you need to go away and learn. It’s a hard lesson, but it sets you up for the rest of the game and makes you think tactically about every encounter. There is no easy way around it either, at this point in the game regular enemies give you very little XP, you can’t simply grind to overpower the boss.

I will definitely be continuing my SMT IV journey, in the week I spent playing the game, it more than earned it’s place on my 2DS. It’s hard but fair, the array of demons are a whole set of characters on their own, and the story is already pulling me in, so much so I nearly missed my stop on the train home one evening, and that’s got to be a sign of an engaging experience.

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