- Release DateFebruary 10, 2017
- Release Price$49.99
Sequels are a tricky business. How to not ruin the memory of the first game? Is it the same game again with some minor tinkering? Is it innovative? Doing something new? Continuing the story? Creating a new one? Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse (shortened to SMT: 4A), the sequel to the already-sequel (fourthqual) Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT: IV), mostly plays it safe. It’s the same game with some minor changes, some of them improvements, and some of them, well… some of them not-so-improvements.
In the same vein as its predecessor, SMT:4A is a post-apocalyptic horror JRPG in which the player takes control of a young boy, Nanashi, that travels the world collecting, fusing, and battling with demons in turn-based combat. SMT: 4A takes place just before the end of SMT: IV. The story in both games up to that point is identical assuming the neutral path was chosen during SMT: IV. The player takes control as Nanashi and a new batch of characters are aiming to help the main character of the last game succeed in completing the neutral path. Unfortunately, Nanashi and the rest of the assumed main cast are immediately killed by demons. Nanashi is then resurrected by a god of the underworld and forced into doing his bidding.
To get the important bit out of the way, if you liked the first SMT:IV, you will likely enjoy this one as well. Demon fusion is unchanged and still fun, allowing you to spend an inordinate amount of time collecting demons to see what fusions become available. Battle, aside from some minor differences to skills and a slightly more complex “smirking” system remains tricky and interesting, grinding is still not needed, and the graphics remain the same.
There are some changes. For one, the story takes a much more central stage in the progression of the game. Instead of some minor spatterings of dialogue and some mostly irrelevant characterization, there is a major focus on who Nanashi is, character relationships, and what is going on in the rest of the world. A note system is even introduced to help keep track of the gigantic cast of speaking roles and unique locations. Gameplay doesn’t really start until about 30 minutes in with the majority of those 30 minutes spent on dialogue and world building (don’t worry, it’s skippable). Personally, I don’t mind long cutscenes or extended dialogue and that continues to be the case here. Those that like it will, those that don’t, won’t.
The overworld map and navigation are so much better that if Atlus had made only those changes and thrown in a new story, this game may have been superior to the first.
There are some improvements. One major criticism of the previous game was the poorly designed overworld map that had the player control a tiny board game piece on a gigantic, sprawling network of dead ends. The SMT:4A overworld map is much improved. While similar, it’s smaller, crisper, clearer, and most importantly, has quest markers. Quest markers! Aimless wandering has been removed in favor of actually moving the story forward and it pays some major dividends. The overworld map and navigation are so much better that if Atlus had made only those changes and thrown in a new story, this game may have been superior to the first.
There are some sidegrades. The sidequest implementation is much cleaner this time around. Instead of having to accept a side quest and stall the main story, sidequests can just be triggered and finished along with normal progression. It’s clean and simple. Unfortunately, the sidequests are all pointless and boring. A large set of them simply complete immediately upon receiving them because the needed items were obtained previously. Completing them adds nearly nothing to the story and rewards are minor.
There are some not-so-improvements. “Smirking” is an in-combat status that has a percentage chance of triggering each time a critical hit is landed or a weakness is stricken. In SMT: IV, it meant that the battle was going well or that it was time to brace for impact. When an enemy smirks in SMT: 4A, the battle is likely lost. Smirking in SMT: 4A has the ability to upgrade skills for some demons. Unfortunately, the majority of the time this feature is seen is when a boss slaughters your team with their incredibly powerful new attack. Since smirking has only a percentage chance to trigger, it just adds insult to injury – the boss lands a critical hit (lucky), then smirks (lucky), and then you get to start the boss fight over. How exciting.
The lack of death also has the unfortunate side effect of drastically reducing the effect of the music, especially since most of the themes are reused from SMT: IV.
There are some regressions. One thing I loved about SMT: IV was it’s atmosphere and style. Yes, it’s a turn-based rpg but there were still moments of heart-pumping terror, unease, and eventual relief. The harsh combat system and dark music always kept you on the edge of your seat and careful to avoid mistakes. Those feelings are gone in SMT: 4A because death no longer matters. When you died in SMT: IV, you were given the option to come back to life at a steep cost of in-game currency. It was important to save often, or better yet, to not die. When you die in SMT: 4A, you come back to life. End of story. There is no death in SMT: 4A. Instead, a small scene where the death god explains why he can’t let Nanashi die is shown, and then he is resurrected as if the death didn’t happen. This makes running through dungeons less exciting because there is no fear. Longer battles are more annoying since there aren’t any stakes; it’s sometimes quicker to die and resurrect than actually complete the battle. The lack of death also has the unfortunate side effect of drastically reducing the effect of the music, especially since most of the themes are reused from SMT: IV.
And, there are some mistakes. The damned Jade Dagger. The Jade Dagger is a dungeon crawling mechanic that is pointless and irritating. In SMT: IV’s dungeons, there are occasional barriers that prevent procession in the dungeon. Usually, these require some minor pathfinding to find the correct direction to destroy the barrier from and continue on. There are three forms of barriers in SMT: 4A; normal barriers, which can be destroyed by normal weapons (cool), enhanced barriers, which can be destroyed by a certain weapon (fine), and Jade Dagger barriers which can go die in a fire. In order to destroy a Jade Dagger barrier, the Jade Dagger must first be charged. This can be done by finding a weird floating pool-like thing and pressing A on it. No real explanation is given of this mechanic, some demons early in the game just give your character the Jade Dagger and pools randomly exist throughout the world. So, first step, run around the map until the pool thing is found. Second step, run back to the Jade Dagger barrier that prompted finding the pool. Third step, run back to the pool thing because the Jade Dagger ran out of charge before destroying the barrier. Repeat. There really isn’t any use to this mechanic other than to add annoyance to dungeon crawling.
The story is more engaging, the gameplay on the whole is better, but the loss of atmosphere and overall addition of monotony makes this a game mostly for those who were a fan of the first.
Really, all this means is that SMT: 4A is a fine game with a major problem – it is a sequel. If SMT: IV didn’t exist, SMT: 4A would feel like a fresher game. It does bring some major improvements to the previous game but balances them out with some major regressions. In the end what’s left is a game that does enough to be enjoyable but not enough to be great. The story is more engaging, the gameplay on the whole is better, but the loss of atmosphere and overall addition of monotony makes this a game mostly for those who were a fan of the first. Since it’s a sequel, I suppose it succeeds in what it set out to do by finishing up the story, but in some cases, it does not really feel like a necessary continuation. There is not enough new content for a standalone game, making this feel more like “disc two” than an actual new title. A tricky business, indeed.