Shin Megami Tensei IV – The Art of Long JRPGs

Let’s get something out of the way early. I’ve got some Shin Megami Tensei cred, if that’s a thing any reasonable human can have and be proud of.

Where do I get off claiming this cred, anyways? Well, do you remember when Persona 3 came out, and everybody fell in love with its charming mix of dungeon crawling RPG and high school life sim?

Persona 3 is a common starting point for the SMT fandom outside of Japan (and that's okay!)

Persona 3 is a common starting point for the SMT fandom outside of Japan (and that’s okay!)

I certainly do, but it wasn’t my first exposure of the Shin Megami Tensei series – I knew about the older Persona games, and I’d played both Super Famicom Shin Megami Tensei games via fan translations, tripping my way through their serious plots and difficult, old-school dungeon exploration.

None of this matters, by the way. What I wanted to talk about today is Shin Megami Tensei IV, a game that is one of the best to come out in years, no matter the genre. However, to me, the genre Shin Megami Tensei IV falls into is important to this whole story.

That’s because Shin Megami Tensei IV saved the RPG genre for me. I’ve been a Japanese role-playing fan for most of my gaming life, but I’d gotten to a point where my interest for the genre had slowed to the point of apathy.

I looked at these games and their overly complex systems, bloated length, and stories that I could hardly follow – and I sighed each time, surprised with myself over my lack of interest. However, when I saw the first trailer for Shin Megami Tensei IV, I knew I’d be getting it day one.

A little more than a year ago, it released on North American soil, and I had it in my hands that first day.

I wasn’t quite prepared to enjoy Shin Megami Tensei IV as much as I did. I’ll be frank with you – I was ready to continue in the depths of my JRPG slump, bored of the long quest which awaited me. Well, the hell with that – Shin Megami Tensei IV was ready from the get go to blow my mind.

In particular, I want to talk a bit about the size of JRPGs, how that had became a consistent turn off for me, and how Shin Megami Tensei IV manages to justify its length and scope.

Welcome to East Mikado, samurai.

Welcome to East Mikado, samurai.

Most JRPGs are designed to be large – they’re a time sink and they’re attempting to be – excuse the buzzword – epic. How better to accomplish both of these tasks than a quest through a sprawling world rife with cutscenes and enemy encounters? Excuse me for getting a bit bored at the thought of all that.

Yet the way Shin Megami Tensei IV sets up its large world and plot hooked me right away. I like when things take a turn for the surreal, with information only being given to the player sparingly, committing to an aura of mystery. How exactly does the game go from the old kingdom of East Mikado to a ravaged Tokyo, a Shin Megami Tensei staple.

The world building in Shin Megami Tensei IV is carefully crafted, mixing in the mythology behind many of the game’s demons to create smaller storylines occurring within Tokyo as you explore it.

For example, you may take on a sidequest from Isis that involves finding the coffin of her husband, Osiris, thrown into the cavernous Naraku by Seth, a demonic Egyptian deity who is thought to have killed and dismembered Osiris. Later, you’ll search for Osiris’s body parts, playing out this tale of Egyptian lore further.

Shin Megami Tensei has always been unique in how much it takes from the lore of the world’s numerous religions and folk stories, and how it intertwines into the plot which Atlus creates.

These demons are pulled from myth and legend all over the world - an SMT tradition.

These demons are pulled from myth and legend all over the world – an SMT tradition.

It’s this excellent sense of the world around me that helped Shin Megami Tensei IV compel me to continue exploring Tokyo and trying to find the truth. This game unfolds more for the player only when it needs to – rather than show the player its hand at all points, Shin Megami Tensei IV is all about keeping secrets.

That’s the kind of storytelling that lends itself well to a long game, particularly one with a dark world that engages the player to understand it more. It reminds me of Nier, the fantastic Cavia-developed title released by Square Enix in 2010. Much like Nier, this game has an often unsettling mood, and all I wanted to do was to cut through that mood and reach the other side of the fog.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is truly impressive in how it handles its length. It goes through several different arcs within the story, and these all change depending on the choices you make. While not to the level of Western RPGs, this game does feature three alignments common to the SMT series; Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. How you fit into this spectrum changes the story, particularly in its second half.

This kind of divergent storytelling is common to the Shin Megami Tensei series, and IV does it particularly well, due to the well-developed characters around the main character who define each path’s attributes. Without these characters, you wouldn’t be able to understand exactly where certain ideals fit into the world at large.

All of the elements of Shin Megami Tensei IV worked together to constantly keep my interest as the game continued, constantly putting a new layer onto the story and keeping it going while still finding ways to engage me as a player. Shin Megami Tensei IV is serious about itself, and it shows in how carefully it’s crafted.