Between Akira, Godzilla, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the Shin Megami Tensei games, Tokyo can’t quite seem to catch a break in Japanese media. Like seeing the broken Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, the ruins of post-apocalypse Tokyo are a symbol that the world can never be the same. It’s also inevitable. If it’s Japanese and the world is being destroyed, Tokyo is going to be destroyed; gruesomely, and often with a strong message about nuclear weapons.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is the fouth (or fifth, depending who you ask) in a series of games that delight in destroying Tokyo, only to rebuild it and destroy it again for the next instalment in the franchise. But this time, the game doesn’t being in Tokyo pre or post-apocalypse. Instead it begins in the pastoral Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a feudal nation divided into castes that has no ties to Tokyo, Japan, or any nation on earth, really. People speak in a dialect that can only be described as Shakespearean, the knights are called Samurai (pronounced SAW-moo-rai, which only gets more infuriating as the game goes on), and demons spill out of a hole in the ground known as Naraku.
Okay, so maybe there’s a bit of Japan in there.
Your character is made a Samurai at the beginning of the game, and given a gauntlet they can use to negotiate with the demons in Naraku and summon them in battle. It’s almost like Pokémon, except the demons are far more disposable. Once they’ve learned all their skills, the game recommends you fuse two or more together into a stronger demon, which inherits its “parents” attacks. The more varied a demon’s skills, the more useful they are in combat, which focuses around the series trademark Press Turn system.
Every character in the party is given one turn, hitting an enemy’s elemental weakness or landing a critical hit grants them an extra turn. However, hitting an enemy with an element that they nullify, reflect or drain costs you extra turns. This is true for enemies too, which means having a party with plenty of resistances keeps enemies from overwhelming you with their bonus turns. A new feature added to the system for SMT4 is smirking. When a character gains a bonus turn or nullifies an opponent’s, they have a chance to smirk, which gives them incredible stat boosts, and makes all attacks miss them until they get their next turn. It can totally turn the tide of a battle, but of course, enemies can smirk too, and they never waste it on a useless attack.
In true SMT and Atlus tradition, this makes the game very, very hard. You will be dying a lot. However, unlike most SMT games, you’re given to option to save anywhere, as well as difficulty settings, and the opportunity to pay your way back from death. Whenever you die, you’re sent to Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, who offers to let you revive for a fee, payable in either Macca, the in-game currency, or Play Coins, the 3DS’s system level pedometer reward.
Unfortunately, this happens EVERY time you die, with no way to opt out, meaning whenever you die, you have to go through a few dialog choices telling Charon you don’t want to pay, then confirm that you don’t want to pay, and then finally you get a game over screen that sends you back to the main menu. The game warns you when a boss is coming; you’re never thrown into the fray without a chance to save. It feels like the game was designed with save points, and then hastily retrofitted to let you save anywhere, without anyone realizing that it made the whole revival system moot and frustrating.
But back to the Tokyo thing.
As the game progreses, you eventually find yourself in Tokyo, but only after a few hours of digging deeper and deeper into Naraku. About six hours of the game take place exclusively in the menu-driven Mikado. Dungeons like Naraku and a nearby forest are explored in a third person perspective, much like Shin Megami Tensei 3, or the more popular Persona spin-off games, but in Mikado, getting to those places is as simple as selecting them from a menu. No world map, no exploration, no getting lost.
In Tokyo however, you explore a top down world map with buildings you can enter to explore in third person. The map is massive, complicated, and is sometimes best navigated with an actual map of Tokyo in hand, but it’s also littered with treasures and demons to negotiate onto your side. The stark dichotomy isn’t lost on anyone who’s played an SMT game before, it’s a reference to the game’s other constant, the alignment system.
In a page torn straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons instruction manual, players in SMT make choices that determine their alignment with either Chaos or Law. Law traditionally represents angels, dogma, peace and the status quo. Chaos is associated with demons, and revolves around individuality, revolution and the tenet that might makes right. The rigid structure of Mikado is law. The player can never get lost and can only be hurt if they put themselves in harm’s way, but can also never explore, never see anything that Mikado doesn’t explicitly want you to see. Tokyo is chaos. The apocalypse has left factions warring for control of the destroyed city, with the weak having no place in the ensuing ruins, but the player is free to go wherever they please, even if it means they’ll get horribly lost.
Some players might find that they enjoy Mikado’s structure and simplicity. Some players might want that status quo to be shaken up and prefer the constant danger of Tokyo to the ignorance of Mikado. But for players who find both to be too extreme, there’s a middle ground to the two alignments, one that often represents the “good” endings of the SMT games; neutral. Neutral is associated with humans, balance, rationality, and the ability to make a change. Of course, there’s no good or evil, but historically speaking, the canon endings of SMT games are usually the neutral ones. SMT4 ingeniously ties the games very structure into this message Extremism on either side isn't right, but both sides have a point, there can be a balance, there should be a balance, and you, the player, should strive to find it.
It’s incredibly clever game design and would make the game absolutely perfect, if not for one minor problem: it leads to a game with two problematic halves making an even more problematic whole. Mikado is too linear, too rigid, but Tokyo is too open, too chaotic. Of course, neither is “bad”, just like the alignments, but neither works if you ignore the other half. And while that dovetails with the game’s message perfectly, it also means you have to warp between Mikado and Tokyo a lot, which is less than ideal. Like the revival system, it feels like an excellent idea that’s just executed incorrectly, if not poorly.
The connections between Mikado and Tokyo run deeper than just gameplay and story integration. There’s a story that underlies the whole thing, but it never overstays its welcome, characters are never terribly chatty, and cutscenes rarely interrupt the flow of battles and exploration. It’s an interesting supernatural/sci-fi mystery that stays intriguing the whole way through. But, there’s no way to skip cutscenes or dialog. You can fast forward through it, which works well enough, but when you’ve died on one boss five times, and you’ve just spent all the extra time either going through Charon’s dialog or just exiting to the home menus and restarting the software, those extra minutes of fast-forwarded dialog really add up.
In terms of pure gameplay, battles are addictive, and it never stops being fun to suss out enemy weaknesses and exploit them. But Tokyo can occasionally be a pain to explore, and Mikado often feels too boring and pointless. Tying those gameplay elements into the narrative and themes of the game is brilliant and deserves to be commended, I just can’t help but feel it could have been done with some more elegance.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is, fittingly, a game of dualities. It wants to be hard in an old school way, and forces you to strategize carefully and thoughtfully in battle. But it also wants to be friendly and modern, offering you the ability to save anywhere and revive upon death. It wants to be chaotic and unpredictable, but also wants to get you right to the action when necessary. It wants to be a linear, story-driven game, but it also wants to give you plenty of choices, both in dialog and in gameplay. It wants to be both Chaos and Law at once, and asks you to find your own balance between the two extremes. Unfortunately, sometimes it just can’t find the balance necessary to make itself a flawless game.