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Top 50 Challenge – Shin Megami Tensei IV

An exceptional RPG strikes the perfect balance between story and mechanics. Players should be engaged by the characters and events, but also by the combat and the systems under the hood. Ideally, a game serves both sides of the equation equally. Lucky for Shin Megami Tensei IV, a surplus of good ideas in one area can compensate for a deficit in another…but that might not be enough.

Learn more about the Game Informer Fight For the Top 50 Challenge 2013.

As a fan of the Persona games (and other titles that fall under the Shin Megami Tensei banner), I gladly accepted Kim's challenge to play SMT IV. Though I’m no stranger to the series, it took me a little while to reacquaint myself with its unique brand of combat. This game doesn’t hold your hand at all. Before the tutorials are even done, you are encountering enemies that can wipe you out in a single round if you’re not careful. This difficulty isn’t a knock against SMT IV at all; I appreciate how even regular battles can be tense and require your attention. It’s a refreshing change from the “mash button to auto-attack” approach that some turn-based RPGs embrace.

I also enjoy the strategies that encounters are built on, forcing players to use skills wisely and exploit enemy weaknesses to gain extra turns. Battles can still feel repetitive (particularly with the need to grind), but the tactics from one to the next have enough variety to keep them interesting.

As fun as it is to defeat monsters, collecting them is the bigger draw. After recruiting demons from battle (by talking to them instead of fighting), you fill out your party and balance it to ensure that you’re equipped with the right abilities to handle any situation. My least favorite part of this process is getting the bad guys on your side, since you need to negotiate by answering bizarre questions, giving up gold, or paying money.

For example, a demon might give you a ball of mud and tell you to eat it. Do you eat it? Do you offer to split it with the monster? Your choice determines whether or not negotiations continue. The problem is that the correct answer changes constantly, so you can never be sure of the outcome. I’ve heard Kim refer to these interactions as “mind games,” but that implies that some sort of puzzle to figured out. In reality, it just feels random. Not only are the failures frustrating, but they also diminish your successes because you realize how little input you have in the whole process.

You deal with this junk because it allows you perform demon fusion, where you take two demons you’ve already collected and combine them into a new beast that inherits some powers from its “parents.” This is my favorite part of the whole package; amassing a demon army and slowly refining it is an addictive and satisfying process. I wanted to catch every demon in every area just to see what new possibilities opened up. However, it’s also the driving engine behind other Shin Megami Tensei titles, so it’s hard to give SMT IV too much credit for including the franchise’s signature element.

Instead of motivating me to complete it, SMT IV does more to make me want to replay Persona 3 or 4 – games with captivating characters accompanying the cool demon collection/fusion system. The story and cast for SMT IV are completely uninteresting. Granted, I only had a day to play for this challenge, so I didn’t get far enough to see the narrative develop. Even so, after eight or nine hours, players should be at least somewhat invested in the unfolding tale. I wasn’t. The game is entertaining in other ways, but when an RPG under-delivers on the story front, it really needs to over-deliver everywhere else.

My Vote
I think there’s a battle ahead for Shin Megami Tensei IV. I would love to see some more love for Japanese RPGs on our Top 50 – especially since the genre has been so sparsely represented in recent years. But that alone isn’t a reason to fight for SMT IV. The combat and demon fusion are both fun, but I honestly don’t know if they’re enough to elevate the experience from “a solid game for RPG fans” to “one of the best games of 2013.” I won’t be fighting for SMT IV right out of the gate, but depending on its competition, I can see myself supporting it as we fill out the final slots on our Top 50.

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