Shin Megami Tensei IV
By Glenn Wilson
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne was one of those rare, soul-touching games for me. Packed with memorable characters, moments, and locations, I raved about its setting and philosophies to gamer friends, non-gamer friends, my mother, the dog, and if my grandmother weren't deaf, I'd have told her about it too. Although none of the later Shin Megami Tensei games had that impact, they provided the spot-on challenge, fascinating worlds, and excellent characters and writing that kept me an SMT fan. High expectations are dangerous in gaming, but I was hopeful that a new numbered entry in the series would capture me in the same way Nocturne did. Shin Megami Tensei IV had all the parts of a game I should have loved, and on paper it might have been perfect, but it was a huge letdown that played out like a juvenile starter version of a novel I'd already read.
The bungling of every aspect of the story was a constant disappointment. SMTIV went for an awkward party approach where Flynn and his fellow newbie samurai theoretically travel together, but the companions rarely speak. When they do, they primarily talk to Flynn as though no one else is around. Nocturne and Strange Journey put NPCs and companions in the world who were tormented and shaped by the game's events, alone, until they developed an extreme dogma and a way to make it reality. Persona 3 and 4 filled the story with chatty, entertaining companions who were with you every step of the way. SMTIV seemed to aim in the middle without executing either goal successfully. Companions who were critical to the plot were neither believable nor shaped by their surroundings, neither entertaining nor tortured, neither talkative nor three-dimensional. A core aspect of the setting and story should have been watching these dogmas develop through tough, human experiences, and it didn't happen here.
NPCs outside of the party had a different problem. More interesting, mysterious, and deep than Flynn's companions, the various faction leaders in the world, both heavenly and worldly, often showed promise as potential allies and cool characters to get to know better. Instead, they would be obstructive for a scene or two before dying or vanishing forever. Interactions with them felt like a cruel tease as I kept meeting intriguing people and organizations just to watch them stand in my way for a while before spouting a brief monologue and leaving the story. Ultimately, only the shallow leaders tied to the law path and the order path stayed around to the end, neither of whom provided as much interest as the NPCs who left along the way.
The final nail in the coffin was the inconsistencies in the setting. Shin Megami Tensei games are known for how they combine occult themes with science fiction and modern technology, leading to a global rebirth. SMTIV's story could have been written by manatees with idea balls, haphazardly dropping sci-fi and religious events into the setting. I know what resurrection is, but why does it work in this world? How are physical entities converted into computer data and then back into the physical world again? Why does gaining knowledge turn people into demons? Why does time move at different speeds in different locations? The protagonists grew up as village bumpkins but hardly seem surprised by any of this, and the game never explains it. It just assumes I've seen these concepts before and will blindly accept them.
The bulk of the gameplay was fine. I was happy to see the press turn system back, and although many small parts of the combat and interface weren't as polished as I expect from Atlus, I'd have quickly forgiven them if the story and setting were well-executed. What I got instead was a rehash of people and places I'd already seen, trimmed and dumbed down to a level that felt aimed at a Japanese gaming audience of children with handhelds instead of adults. It was worse than a disappointment. It was a constant punch to my gut and insult to my intelligence, a reminder of all the great things SMT has been and can be, and a torment that left me annoyed and disinterested in the plot by the end, which was good because the ending I wanted could only be obtained through extreme luck or a guide. I should have loved Shin Megami Tensei IV, but right about when I left Mikado it became a hostile relationship.
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