These days have been great for Atlus role-playing fans. In the west, the colorful and idol-themed Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE released this June, followed by this new entry into its classic Shin Megami Tensei line in September… and the long awaited fifth Persona game will release in February of next year. Of the three, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse promises the most focused role-playing experience, freed from the Social Links or support conversations of this world… Or so the series’ history would lead you to believe. Turns out this entry features a lot more of the character interaction other Atlus series are known for, on top of numerous gameplay improvement over SMT IV. The end result feels like a fantastic culmination of the developpers’ efforts, despite a few questionable narrative decisions.
A tale of swords and souls eternally retold
For those who haven’t played the Shin Megami Tensei series before, the concept is fairly consistent across every game (we’re not talking about Nocturne today folks). There is a war between the heavens, representing order, and the demons, representing chaos. Humanity, stuck in the middle, is tasked to either ally with one side or reject both, forging their own path. In the previous entry, simply titled Shin Megami Tensei IV, the choices you make in the game influenced a hidden alignment value between chaos and order. Depending on your alignment at a critical moment in the game, you would then end up fighting two of your three friends with different ideals. While I was lucky enough to reach the neutral ending with my decisions, which meant I didn’t have to feel guilty fighting local cutie-pie Isabeau, a common complaint of that game was that this ending was too difficult to reach, with a Neutral ending window too narrow compared to the influence of your decisions on that hidden value.
As you can probably tell from the use of a subtitle instead of calling the game “SMT V” or “SMT Apocalypse”, this game’s story is directly tied to SMT IV. Indeed, it serves as an alternative version of SMT IV’s neutral ending. When Flynn, the protagonist of the previous game, is doing his thing getting ready to battle both angels and demons at once, your unnamed character is busy being dead at the hand of demons. But that’s nothing Dadga, an Irish divinity, cannot fix… At the price of him owning your existence. He later forces you to take actions which directly prevent Flynn from reaching his goal. This story concept was kind of puzzling to me for a good chunk of the game. Indeed, I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be treated as a side-story or as a definitive ending to Shin Megami Tensei IV… But as long as you don’t concern yourself too much about it there’s an enjoyable tale being told here. If you haven’t played SMT IV or the series in general, feel free to start with this entry as it explains the previous game’s plot. Plus, you won’t have to feel betrayed that your ending of choice wasn’t represented!
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse doesn’t suffer from the issue of endings being difficult to reach. For starters, the allies that join you during the game don’t strictly follow the three ideologies. Endings in this game are reached by simple choices at critical moments instead of being built up during the entire game. While that does mean anyone can reach the ending of their choice easily, it also takes away some of the weight of the previous ending system since you could act one way through the entire game then follow a completely different path. There are also now two neutral endings on top of chaos and order, a “side with your friends” route that brings in gratuitous amounts of cheese to the narrative and a “side with the god that brought you back to life” route that just doesn’t quite feel right. Friendship is an important mechanic in the game, you see. Your allies send you emails during the course of the game, which are fun reads in their own right. They also help you during battles, a mechanic which we’ll discuss later on. While darker endings are appreciated, I feel like that sort of betrayal would be a lot more interesting if you were locked into it earlier in the story. Its implementation in this game feels rushed and out of place as it is.
Impressive gameplay improvements
Like other installments in the Shin Megami Tensei Franchise, SMT IV: Apocalypse is a turn-based role-playing game with a collecting aspect not unlike Pokémon (though SMT came first). You can recruit demons in battle, then use them to fight at your side. When they have outlived their usefulness, they can then be fused with other demons to create more powerful demons. When a demon learns the last move it can by leveling up, it will give you an opportunity to transfer some of its skills to the main character, so there’s a reason to cling to a demon for a little while. Still, unlike Pokémon sticking to a demon for too long isn’t a good idea in this series, as it will quickly get outmatched by demons with better resistances or moves. The amount of experience you gain for completing a quest is variable depending on your main character’s level, so there is a valid reason for completing low-level quests even late in the game or in New Game +.
The Press Turn system, in which passing a turn, hitting a weak point or scoring a critical hit counts as half an action, is back from Nocturne and SMT IV. The latter also introduced the smirk system, which rewards you for critical hits or hitting weaknesses by buffing a character until its next attack. Unfortunately, SMT IV’s balance was thrown off by this addition. Before you could get a good team in the early game, you could easily be snowballed to death by an enemy like Minotaur and its smirks on top of additional turns. As soon as you got a good team, your main character learned good skills, and the snowball effect then turned in your favor. As such, SMT IV was a game where the start of the game was the most difficult, the opposite of most difficulty curves.
Thankfully, SMT IV: Apocalypse fixes a lot of the issues of the previous entry. For starters, AI partners in battle are much smarter and more predictable, avoiding frustration. Bosses at the start of the game are either easier than in SMT IV or are designed to be unbeatable, and bosses later on can use status effects to remove smirks on your side for example. Light and Dark attack types, usually insta-kill attacks which could lead to frustrating game overs, are instead turned into damage moves with a chance of insta-killing being granted if the attacker is smirking. The world map, another often criticized element of SMT IV, has been improved by showing quest markers and additional information. As a whole, the game now feels like it’s balanced just right at any moment in the game, which is an impressive achievement considering the mechanics at play. I never felt frustrated from start to finish.
A wonderful apocalypse
I really enjoyed the 70 hours or so I put into SMT IV: Apocalypse. From its improved gameplay to its nice art by Doi, it was an addictive treat all the way through. To newcomers, it’s should be a great way to jump into the Shin Megami Tensei series. Series veterans won’t be disappointed with the game’s challenging War difficulty either. As such, Atlus managed to make a game that found the middle path between difficulty and accessibility, between new and old, in a way that’s very similar to Flynn’s quest for the middle path. And all that, despite working on so many JRPGs at the same time.