Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series, despite having a very large cult following, has been majorly overshadowed in popularity by its very own spin-off series, Persona. This changed in 2013 when Shin Megami Tensei IV released for the Nintendo 3DS, which brought the primarily console-based main series to a wider audience of handheld gamers. The game was a huge success, becoming one of the developer’s best selling games worldwide, but it suffered from an underwhelming story with one-dimensional characters and unattractive visuals for the 3DS. This didn’t stop Atlus from announcing the direct sequel in late 2015 titled Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, and this game would follow the events from the previous entry but with a new cast of characters to liven things up. Being one of the few titles in the nearly 30-year-old main Megami Tensei game series to receive a direct follow-up, does Shin Megami Tensei serve its purpose as a meaningful continuation of one of the series’ most popular entries?
Set in the year 203X, twenty-five years after a now post-apocalyptic Tokyo was barricaded in a rock dome to protect it from an ongoing battle between angels and Lucifer’s demons, this game places you in the role of a young Hunter named Nanashi who is murdered while on a mission. Following this he is contacted by the demon known as Dagda in the afterlife and is promised to be revived if he allows Dagda to become his “GodSlayer”. This causes Nanashi and his best friend, Asahi, to be deceived by Dagda into freeing Krishna, a deity who intends to destroy the universe and recreate it to suit himself. With support from returning characters from the previous game, including Isabeau and the protagonist, Flynn, Nanashi and Asahi set out to end the trouble they helped cause, but eventually Nanashi will have to decide if he inevitably wants to side with the enemy or work with his friends.
Unlike its predecessor, Apocalypse manages to tell an intriguing story with more interesting protagonist characters and villains such as Dagda. Sadly though, the main villain, Krishna, does fail to come off as anything unique. Supporting characters such as Asahi and the intriguing femme-fatale, Hunter Nozomi, do make up for this, though. While they don’t obtain much development, they do manage to just be more interesting personalities than the ones present in Shin Megami Tensei IV. The returning characters bring nothing more to the story than they did in the original. Isabeau is the same, Flynn is a barebones silent protagonist turned into an actual character, but Navarre, a character seen briefly in SMT IV mainly to tease the player, returns as a well executed comic relief character. I sighed at my first glance of him in the game, but the ironic use of his overblown ego brings a good amount of no more than chuckle-worthy dialogue to what is otherwise a very dark story.
Gameplay in Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse falls into a very underwhelming area for a sequel released three years after the original game. The game feels more like an expansion than a sequel, more of a glorified, overpriced DLC release than a necessary new addition to the universe of SMT IV. Most of the reason for this is due to the fact that the gameplay remains almost exactly the same. The game retains the turn-based Press-Turn system the series is known for where you expose an enemy’s weakness or gain a critical hit and gain an extra turn in battle as a reward. This system has no noticeable upgrades to gameplay at all, unlike the Demon Negotiations system, in which you converse with enemy demons in order to attempt to recruit them, which has gotten very minor updates to make it more accessible. They do help make what is undoubtably every Shin Megami Tensei fan’s least favourite mechanic less tedious.
Although the main party members are still the demons you collect as you progress, Apocalypse puts a bit more emphasis on the partner characters during combat. The game now allows you to select which character you wish to have assist you during battle, each one delivering their own perks like being better at saving HP or MP or being able to balance both. Every time a partner attacks, they will accumulate a point in their ‘assist gauge’. Once this is full, all of the available optional partners will group together for one massive attack on the player’s behalf, similar to the All-Out-Attacks in the Persona games. This is probably my favourite new addition to the series with Apocalypse, as these really helped me as last ditch efforts during some tough battles against enemies and bosses when things weren’t looking good at all.
These are, unfortunately, the only new noticeable additions to the gameplay with this entry, which only comes across as underwhelming when it’s all they add to the extra 70 hours of what is more or less the same gameplay experience as the previous game. These additions are such helpful improvements to the main SMT format that it’s confusing how they weren’t just saved for the inevitable Shin Megami Tensei V. Mechanics such as Demon Fusion and the Demonic Compendium have no improvements whatsoever, which comes across as even more surprising as they’re so essential and important to what makes the series so special. It’s bizarre to see these features not have any focus placed on them in terms of improvements.
The 2013 original was admittedly not a very attractive looking game for the Nintendo 3DS, the game used a bit too many dark colours with a generally unattractive art style in gameplay. The artwork looks great up close and in the portrait animations but definitely not in 3D. Despite running on the same engine, Apocalypse does help to remedy this by completely overhauling the original game’s user interface. Learning from their recent games, such as Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE and, most notably, Persona 5, Atlus have put more emphasis than ever into the UI of this game, and it really pays off. Everything about the UI design is more accessible than before in Apocalypse. Even small things like putting a red flag on the bottom screen’s map to help the player avoid getting lost on the way to their next objective (which, trust me, happened a lot in SMT IV) to being able to search by levels in the Demonic Compendium, the UI design of Apocalypse definitely shows that Atlus is one of the strongest developers at understanding the importance of good user interface in gaming with regards to both design and style.
While it doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from its predecessor, the upgrades brought to Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse leave so much to be desired because there is so much potential to use them in a game that has so much more to offer than what this one ends up being: glorified DLC three years in the making. The game improves on minor issues present in the original while definitely not being accessible enough to newcomers who haven’t played it. The story manages to tie into the gameplay well and brings more interesting characters to the table, but it also doesn’t present an interesting dilemma to place them in. At the very least, the game does bring impressive updates to the UI and similarly impressive yet minor ones to gameplay. If only they didn’t have to make a new game in which they could implement them…
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: 2nd December 2016