It wasn't long ago that I had little familiarity with the Shin Megami Tensei series or any of its spin-offs. While I had known about the series for quite some time, I never had the opportunity to jump into the franchise first-hand until relatively recently.
Back in 2011, I decided to start with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, after hearing a great deal of praise for the game from a wide array of RPG fans. Nocturne turned out to be stylish, fascinating, and it hit all the right notes for me. The mood was tense and the narrative was intriguing.
With a rock solid battle system, addicting demon fusion and collecting, tricky dungeons, and tough bosses, there wasn't much I didn't enjoy about the game. It excels in just about every facet, and it stands out from the crowd. I knew I had to play more of this series, and so when Shin Megami Tensei IV was announced shortly afterwards, it easily became a highly anticipated title.
Coming off of Nocturne, I had a very high ceiling of anticipation and expectation for its sequel, and truthfully, SMT IV probably never had a chance to reach it. In many ways, as you might expect, the game is very similar to its predecessor, mostly stemming from the basic fusion mechanics, battle system, and world exploration.
Just like Nocturne, you get a main playable character that you can build pretty much however you'd like, along with a team of demons to support him. Most any creature you encounter in the game can be called to fight for you, whether through recruiting them or fusing them from other creatures.
Having total control of party make-up and being able to build your team the way you want is one of the defining elements of Shin Megami Tensei, and is easily the most enjoyable part of the series, personally. Unlike other turn-based RPGs, where most of the gameplay is centered around the specific actions you take in combat, SMT builds on top of that with many aspects to consider in how you approach battle. You converse with demons, learn their personalities, and attempt to persuade them to join you. Then, you can fuse any number of demons in a large variety of ways.
Your party balance is one of the main things that you have to keep track of at all times during the course of the game. You have to pay attention to elemental weaknesses & abilities, status attacks, and various damaging moves to be certain your team complements each other and so you can counter whatever is thrown your way. You constantly have to consider fusion options, and make choices in how you want your party to grow and progress.
A new addition to SMT IV is 'smirking', which benefits the player in getting element effective hits that dramatically increase damage output. If you go into battle unprepared, opposing demons will exploit this system against you and soon enough you'll find yourself at the game over screen.
Just like with most menu based battle systems, planning your moves - attacks, heals, and buffs - and learning your enemies and how to counter them is key to success.
A couple of changes were made to the formula set in Nocturne to make this game a little more 'friendly', such as saving anywhere, picking abilities to retain after fusion, and allowing the main character to fall in battle. Some more passionate fans of the series may not appreciate these tweaks, but I found them mostly harmless in attempt to widen the appeal of the series.
The narrative tone is quite different as well, as SMT IV features a more prominent set of characters who converse more regularly than the sparser dialogue exchanges in Nocturne. Some of the intrigue and style I mentioned of the previous game simply wasn't as strong this time around, which is the main area SMT IV does fall a bit short to its predecessor.
All in all, the battle system is rock solid and the fusing is as addicting as ever. Getting new powerful demons and watching your team get stronger and stronger through the game is exceptionally enjoyable, and taking down tough bosses is satisfying. A couple of disappointing changes to the narrative and characters aside, I had a blast with Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Versions tested: Nintendo 3DS