Saturday, November 22, 2014

Impressions #20: Shin Megami Tensei IV

And now, we have reached the end of a long, long “Season of ATLUS”. After investing untold hundreds of hours playing ATLUS games and subsequently writing about them, we have reached the end of my queue. The last game in my list also happens to be one of the first I purchased for my 3DS: Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT IV). Released in May of 2013, SMT IV attempted to bridge the gap between the classic feel of Shin Megami Tensei and the burgeoning market growing as a result of the success of the third and fourth entries of the Persona franchise. The end result is something that intriguingly shows how ATLUS has grown as a development house over the years.

As a Shin Megami Tensei game, many of the franchise staples have been brought back in full force. Players recruit demons into their party and use them to fight against other demons. The Press Turn System, which I have discussed several times before, makes a return as well. In order to make sure that the player party is as strong as possible, it is also necessary to regularly fuse demons together to create new ones. None of this will be surprising to anybody who has played an SMT game or read about them. These are classic elements one fans have grown to expect.
However, a lot of these elements have been retooled in order to improve the overall accessibility of the game. In particular, the fusion system received a huge update. Previous SMT games had the player go to a specific location in order to fuse demons together. They could also register demons in a compendium to be re-summoned later for a fee. When fusing, old games had a menu displaying all the demons possessed by the player, and it would display the expected result of the fusion. Skills inherited by the result would be semi-random, determined by a compatibility algorithm. Though serviceable, a lot of more casual players bemoaned how difficult is was to learn and master this mechanic. Since it was necessary to do this in order to remain stronger than the enemies, it was a valid complaint.
SMT IV greatly improves the usability of demon fusion, with the intention of giving players a greater degree of control. First off, instead of needing to go to a specific location, players can perform fusion at any time by accessing the main menu. The other major improvements is that the resulting demons skillset is determined by the player. Given the list of the demon's initial skills, and the list of every skill the parents know, players can select the skillset of the result.
Such changes are already a massive upgrade over the old methods, but the improvements extend further. Rather than having to laboriously go through every possible combination to figure out what players want to fuse together, SMT IV utilizes a search function. When the player enters the fusion menu, a list of options appears on screen. These choices all represent all the possible filters that can be used in the search. They range from the inclusion/exclusion of specific demons in the fusion, to specific races, elemental affinities, or skills. It is even possible to include demons from the Demonic Compendium in the list of fusion fodder. The results will be listed in the form of what demons can be made, given the current criteria, and the list of all combinations that will lead to each possible result. Once the fusion combination, and the result's initial skill set, have been determined, then the fusion will commence. As a result of all of these changes, players have a large degree of freedom in how their party develops, more so than in any SMT game before SMT IV. This turning away from random number generators in fusion grants great leeway in how the system works, and even unskilled players will quickly be able to make useful demons in this manner.

Other anti-frustration features include the ability to save anywhere, without needing to find a dedicated save point. At the same time, the game only gives the player two save slots, so some discretion must be advised on how often and where one saves their game. And even should players die in battle, that may not necessarily mean game over. For a small fee, the ferryman Charon will return the protagonist to the world of the living, just before they died. Should the fee be too high, it can be placed on a tab. Upon another death, if the player does not have enough money to pay off the current death, along with the tab, it will be a Game Over. The game is willing to give players leeway, when this is taken into consideration along with changes to demon fusion. However, because of that, it demands more from them in the middle of a fight.

While this is a very accessible SMT game, it is still an SMT game. Battles will often be decided quickly and decisively, thanks to the Press Turn System. Like in previous entries in the franchise, this system rewards smart play and punishes mistakes by giving or removing turns to both the player and the enemy. In order to further this reward/punishment dynamic, a mechanic was added called “Smirk”. If the protagonist or one of his demons exploits an enemy weakness (or blocks/dodges an attack), there is a chance they will smirk. When that happens, their attack power, accuracy, critical chance, and dodge rate are all greatly increased, and any attacks against their weakness are an automatic miss until their next turn. While this bonus is powerful, enemies and bosses can (and will) also gain smirk when they exploit the player's weaknesses. In this way, it becomes even more crucial for players to both discover and exploit enemy vulnerabilities while covering their own.
In any case, most battles, even boss battles, do not take very long. It is relatively easy to see whether or not the player is likely to win a battle by just looking at the state of the battlefield. It is interesting how the convenience features both have the potential to attract many new fans to SMT from the likes of Persona, while also having a chance to alienate them if they come unprepared. Likewise, classic SMT fans may pridefully scorn the convenience features, but enjoy how battles play out.

The story also has the potential to be equally divisive. While the actual story is not worth talking about too much, one of the important factors is that the player is regularly forced to make choices during dialog. Each of these choices shifts their alignment more towards Law, representing a desire to maintain the status quo, or Chaos, representing a desire to impose great change. The three companions that join the protagonist for most of the adventure each represent a viewpoint along this scale: One of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. Whatever the player's alignment is at the start of the endgame will determine which ending is attained.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, as archaic as it is. However, the execution has a major flaw. Said flaw is that there are many events in the game, required to complete the story, that affect the alignment of the protagonist. For example, accepting one quest as a part of the main plot moves the player closer to Law. However, if the quest is refused, the quest giver will simply tell the player that they will be here if they change their mind. No progress can be made until the quest, and resulting alignment change, is accepted. On the whole, the sum of these events skews heavily towards Law, which means one practically needs a walkthrough in order to be Neutal. For Chaos, it is necessary to heavily commit to Chaos at the start of the game. Since, like most SMT games, Law and Chaos are both different forms of suck, Neutral is clearly the only good ending. This leads to a lot of needless frustration.
On top of that, the characters themselves rarely ever feel like nuanced, dynamic people. Even in the case of the protagonist's friends, most NPCs in the game act more along the lines of caricatures, designed to embody and spout their given life philosophies. For players used to the type of characterization seen in Persona 3 and Persona 4, this can be very disappointing. However, classic SMT fans will probably come in expecting this. Combined with the impact on alignment, the story is very hit-or-miss. I did not mind it, but nor can I say that I thought it was particularly good.

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei represents an intriguing and enjoyable compromise between the notoriously difficult SMT games, and the more approachable Persona games. As someone who enjoyed both, this was a game that entertained me thoroughly. The fusion system is, hands down, the best fusion system that has ever been in an ATLUS game, with a great combat system to boot. Having said that, it is not for everyone. Fans of one franchise looking to break into the other franchise, or those simply looking for an alternative to more slower-paced RPGs, will find themselves welcome. If you consider yourself in any one of these categories, I would strongly recommend giving this game a try. Who knows? It might hook you as much as it did me.  

No comments: