Minor Recurring Review: Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse

DISCLAIMER: there will be endgame spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse and Persona 4 Golden (it makes sense in context) from the middle of the “the cast” section to the end of the “the endings” section.

 
I’ve been playing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse for the past few months pretty much daily, and last week I finally finished the game, clocking in at about 50 hours of playtime. I came into Apocalypse shortly after getting addicted to Shin Megami Tensei IV (one of those lucky situations where you finish the first installment and discover that the sequel is almost out) and it both met and exceeded my expectations. Before either, the only SMT games I’d played were Personas 3 and 4, but I’m so glad that I finally branched out.

Since you can find a decent, objective review of Apocalypse written by seasoned professionals just about anywhere, I’m going to be providing you with my skewed, subjective review of the game that focuses more on my personal impressions – the main difference being that I discuss the attractiveness of the male cast more so than the average reviewer. Here we go!

THE GAMEPLAY

The SMT IVs have this way of absorbing me for hours like no other game does. I normally have fairly low stamina for gaming, but I actively had to tell myself to put Apocalypse down at the end of every play session. Even when I closed my 3DS in disgust after getting stuck on a boss, I’d pick it right back up a minute later once I’d come up with a new battle plan. My guess is that the source of this feeling lies in a combination of handheld portability, lenient saving/healing mechanics, and a fast-paced battle system. Boss battles are difficult, as is the norm for SMT, but in a way that makes you think about how to optimize your strategy rather than about how many levels you’re going to have to grind.

Apocalypse manages to be even more addictive than SMT IV was because it makes all these factors even better than they were. The overworld map is actually navigable this time, and there’s an objective system telling the player where to find the next plot point. These additions were extremely good because they allowed me to play the game without having a walkthrough up at all times.

The partner system also adds an entire new dimension of strategy to combat. In SMT IV, partners were fairly useless outside of having endlessly quotable dialogue (e.g. Walter claiming “I’ll end it thus” and subsequently failing to end it thus), but in Apocalypse your choice of partner can make a huge difference during boss battles. Each has a different specialty, whether it be offensive moves, healing, or buffs and debuffs, so the choice is yours to make depending on the needs of the battle at hand.

I have only a few criticisms, namely that horde battles are awful and that the final dungeon definitely dragged to the point that I just wanted the game to be over. That whole section felt more like a post-credits sequence than anything else, honestly.

THE STORY

Apocalypse focuses much more on having a coherent plot with Distinct Things That Definitely Happened than SMT IV did. What I mean by this is that although SMT IV‘s premise is simple – four samurai from the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado enter post-apocalyptic Tokyo and have their moralities tested by the world around them – it eventually devolves into a lot of cryptic time traveling, dimension-hopping, and monologues about human consciousness. Or something like that; I didn’t quite understand all of it but it definitely sounded deep.

SMTIVF_-Protagonist_get_killed_by_a_demon

Meanwhile, Apocalypse takes the time to explain to you exactly what’s going on, having added a continually-updated glossary of characters and terms that establishes the world very clearly. The themes of the game are also a little more grounded, being “friends are good” vs. “no, friends are bad” rather than the choice of which boy to date in SMT IV (AKA law vs. order). It was ultimately about abstract worldview, whereas Apocalypse is…also sort of about abstract worldview, but the effects of choosing a side are much more immediate and real.

The actual plot of Apocalypse is nothing in particular to write home about, but it’s fun, has a couple engaging twists, and I really enjoy how hyped everyone is to kill God. Much like SMT IV, it’s really the characters who stuck with me the most.

THE CAST

SMTIVFinal_illustration_by_Masayuki_Doi

Your party members carry a deep sense of presence throughout the game, whether it be their inclusion in cutscenes, assistance as partners, or even their random overworld comments (no, Isabeau, for the last time I’m not going to recruit Bifrons). Everyone has their own individual arcs within the story and undergoes significant character development as a result. Whereas SMT IV had a vibe of “four friends get in way over their heads and are torn apart by their beliefs”, Apocalypse has a vibe closer to, as the German Naruto opening once put it, “here I am with my ninja clan, ninja clan, here we stand”. Since bonds are obviously a big theme of the game, this works perfectly.

I hate to admit it, but my favorite character actually ended up being Navarre. I don’t know if it’s because he was so good in boss fights or his improved personality (he has actual traits now besides hating poor people!), but regardless, Apocalypse has tricked me into liking him. That alone is probably a testament to the power of its writing. Either that or I like pompadours more than I thought.

I also liked Gaston, but for totally different reasons – let’s just say that if I’d gotten a different ending I would’ve chosen him to be my goddess.

My least favorite unfortunately was Toki, which was entirely because of the “master” thing and the Inanna subplot. A 14 year old girl who’s been trained from birth to be a stoic killer is a great character concept, but only if you commit to making her actually act the part.

THE ENDINGS

Multiple endings are a staple of the SMT franchise, and Apocalypse is no different. Knowing this, I was very eager to discover what the game would eventually make me choose between, since it already took place in a neutral ending universe. My theory was that it would be obedience vs. rebellion given all the puppet talk early in the game. With this in mind, I had my protagonist go along with the flow in every situation because I was kind of into Dagda.

But when I actually arrived at the main conflict of the game, which we’ll call bonds vs. anarchy, I was torn. I wanted to continue with wherever Dagda was taking the narrative, but I also didn’t want to kill all my friends – both because I’d feel bad and because it would make the game harder. And it just didn’t feel in-character for this passive Nanashi that I’d created, which I’d like to talk more about in a minute.

The bonds ending is fine. It’s alright. It’s about how life is better with friends, the human ability to frame abstract concepts, and the power of working together. You kill God and everyone settles into the new world of freedom in positive, productive ways. Like I said, it’s good, it’s uplifting. And I loved seeing the SMT IV squad get back together for one last fight. But it’s not really anything I didn’t expect. The game could’ve ended after we destroyed the Cosmic Egg and there would be no real difference.

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But the anarchy ending? Now that one hasn’t left my head ever since I looked it up later that day. Under Dagda’s guidance, you kill your friends, collect their souls, defeat Krishna, take over the Cosmic Egg, turn Flynn and one ex-partner into your willing servants, kill YHVH, and then become the teen god of a new universe. It’s some pretty harsh stuff.

And the game totally lets you do all of that without ever yelling at you. There’s no BAD END superimposed over the last frame or any indication that Nanashi feels at all bad about what he’s done. Once you get past the guilt of murdering your party members, it’s a nonstop, unrepentant ride to godhood from there on out.

This commitment to letting you pursue an extreme is something that stuck with me during SMT IV as well. The law and chaos routes might make you feel bad at times, but never do they punish you for choosing what could reasonably be considered an ‘evil’ path. In the fight with Isabeau, you even got stat bonuses for acting stoic and heartless. As a fan of bad ends, I really enjoy this framing. It drives the nail in a lot harder by just letting what you’ve done speak for itself.

But as I just mentioned above…what would you have to do in order to actually play a Nanashi for whom it is in character to pursue the anarchy ending? If your mental reasoning is that he’s always felt dragged down by the people around him and secretly lusts for power, then you’d have to consistently choose negative dialogue options and be strong enough not to need your partners in battle. But I’d bet that most people aren’t mean to video game characters (unless they really hate them) without knowing that there’s a payoff for doing so. It’s not a characterization you’d intentionally develop if you were playing for the first time. And so by blocking off the possibility for a player to naturally arrive at this ending, I feel like it becomes just a little less powerful.

Of course you don’t have to follow any sort of consistent behavior pattern while playing, but with games based around moral choices such as these, things feel a little more authentic if you do. One example of another SMT bad end that suffers less from this issue is Persona 4 Golden‘s accomplice ending, in which you betray your friends and destroy vital evidence for the murderer you’ve spent the entire game pursuing – therefore becoming his accomplice, hence the title. What P4G also does, however, is it adds a social link for the character in question in which you get to know him, and requires that you to be at a certain point in that link to even have the option of keeping his secret. Basically, in order to get the ending, it has to be believable that Yu would care enough about Adachi to do something so awful.

This could become a moot issue once you consider the fact that most players don’t go for a bad end on their first playthrough. If they play a second time with the express intention of getting that ending, they’ll probably tailor their gameplay style then to create a narrative that they feel is appropriate. And that’s all fine and good, but I think there’s really something to be said about making these choices naturally when you don’t know exactly where they’re going to take you. I’d be interested in studying more of these types of endings to see if there’s even a real solution to this puzzle. Maybe in a future blog post?

To sum up:

THIS GAME IS FOR YOU IF:

  • You’ve always wished Pokemon battles were faster

  • You had no idea what was going on in SMT IV but would like to find out

  • Navarre was your favorite samurai (???)

  • You enjoy Scottish accents

THIS GAME IS NOT FOR YOU IF:

  • You have an intense hatred for RPG-style turn based combat

  • You find creepy pregnancy stuff happening to a 14 year old to be a dealbreaker

  • You have no desire to kill God

  • The thing you liked best about Personas 35 was the idyllic school setting

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go stare at my PS2 and wish it could run Persona 5.

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