Friday, September 23, 2016

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse (3DS) Review

Shin Megami Tensei is always a series I should play more of, but for whatever reason, have not.  I've played a few hours of several of the titles, but always seem to get distracted.  They are dark and punishing RPGs, with crazy mechanics and monster designs.  Basically, they should be games that I love and plow through them to completion, yet for some reason don't.  The best way to correct this: get a review copy of one.  So, that's what I did.

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is a side story to the previously released SMT IV (no subtitle). I do own that, but have only played a few hours of it.  Even so, I had no trouble following the story of Apocalypse and how it connected to the previous game.  It explains any relevant backstory so you can easily jump right into this game.  Just be warned that it will reveal a few plot points from SMT IV if you have interest in playing that first.  The only trouble I had was keeping location names straight.

Like most of the SMT games I have tried, the battles in Apocalypse are turn based, however they are noticeably unique from many other turn-based RPGs.  Each turn you get one action per party member.  If you strike an enemy's weakness, or get a critical, you gain another action for your team.  Meaning, if you know your enemy (or get lucky), you get more turns to destroy them.  It's great because it rewards you for having a balanced team and knowledge of the game.  However, the reverse is also true.  If you miss or the enemy absorbs the attack, you lose an extra turn on top of the one you just spent.  Ouch.  I'm not too fond of that, mostly because missing is sometimes out of your control, but it does make things fair for the monsters.  Thankfully, you can pass the current character's turn at the cost of half a turn, so if their action would cost you extra, you aren't screwed.  If you keep the battle in your favor, you can route a group of enemies with little effort.

Boss fights can be very difficult, though.  They get multiple turns (I guess to keep things fair), jacked stats (to nullify the previous reasoning), and top it off with high critical and smirk chances.  Smirking is a new status that gives you a high critical chance and gives the light and dark spells (Hama and Mudo) their original chance to instantly kill the target.  So basically, bosses have multiple turns, hit hard, and get more turns.  Ouch.  Frequently I would have to grind a few levels before I could take one down, ensuring my game progress was slow.  Thankfully you can save anywhere, so you hopefully won't lose much progress from a team wipe.

Another enemy type that I don't like much are the hordes.  The are represented by a lot of enemies on the screen at once.  They count as one whole unit, sharing HP and weaknesses.  Like bosses, they get several turns when they act.  Thankfully moves that hit all enemies hit them multiple times, which helps even them out.  My biggest gripe is that they usually have multiple waves.  When killing off one group, reinforcements may arrive, which then gives you another group to fight.  At least they give a lot of experience when you defeat them, but I could do with less of them since they are a pain to fight most times.  And if you are wondering, Hama and Mudo can kill the whole group instantly if you are smirking.  It's really satisfying to see that.

Like SMT: Nocturne, your only human party member is the main character.  The rest of the party is filled by demons that you can swap from your reserves.  Demons don't just join your quest out of the goodness of their hearts, they have to be persuaded.  This involves talking to them in combat, and sometimes giving them money, items, or letting them take HP or MP.  It's not an exact science, since there each demon has its own preferences, but it is much more user friendly than it was in SMT IV.  Apocalypse has scouting dialogue that makes more sense, plus if you already had the demon, it will usually join you again if you just ask.  Really great changes considering how vital it is to recruit lots of demons.

The main attack stats in the game are strength, which affects melee attacks and skills; dexterity, which affects ranged attacks and skills; and magic, which affects, well, spells and such.  When the main character gains a level, you can assign the stat points as you see fit, but it pays to specialize, even early on.  You won't have many skills when the game starts, but your demon friends can help you with that.  When a demon levels up and learns all of their skills, they can 'whisper' them to you, and you will learn it.  If it is one you already know, it will power that skill up.  So, the best way to learn strong and useful skills is to recruit demons with them, and put the time and effort into leveling them up and passing them to your main character.  Sadly, the slots available take awhile to open up, and even then don't leave as much room as I would like.  Toward the end of the game is when you can actually have a mage with all the elements, which feels too limiting.

The other use of demons is fusion.  You can select two demons to fuse, and get a third, different one in the process.  You can select which skills are inherited on the new demon.  This is a great system to play around with, since you can have a variety of skills on a demon.  There are also special fusions that use more than two demons.  Sometimes accidents occur while fusing, so make sure to save first if you need reliability.  If you need more demons that you already had, you can pay money to re-summon them, and even overwrite the default ones with their current counterparts that you have raised yourself.  The demons in the game are a very valuable resource that is complex but rewarding to master.

Since you play as a hunter, most story progression is through completing missions.  Unlike most games that do a similar thing, the missions feel really relevant to what's going on and aren't just there to pad out the game length (that's what the boss fights are for).  Get a mission, complete it, move on to the next bit of story, rinse and repeat.  There are also optional side quests, called challenge quests, that are automatically given to you at various points.  One of the many conveniences of getting missions through your smart phone instead of a job board.  Some of the challenge missions are actually pretty hard, and others aren't very clear on your destination.  Even so, they are extra, so I'm fine with them not being perfect.  At least they aren't all fetch or collection quests!

Having a long and storied RPG pedigree, Shin Megami Tensei games are also know for their length.  Apocalypse is no different, offering at least 50 hours of playtime.  Sure, a good chunk of that is grinding for the next boss, but there is also a lot of time you can lose fusing demons and getting powerful skills for you main character.  It's definitely a game for dedicated RPG players, as it is not likely to leave your 3DS until completion.

Being a 3DS title, the game also has some street pass functionality.  You can acquire other hunter's cards, but also randomly fuse or power-up your attached demon.  Both are nice in their own way.  Fusion is good early on, or to use a lower level demon that you don't need, while gaining a random stat point is good for stronger demons or ones that you are going to keep.  Plus, they bring back some items.  I randomly got a pretty strong gun early in the game, which saved me some macca.  You can also connect to the internet for the same boosts, but only every 2 hours of actual game time.  It's still totally worth it to do so once, as you get a big AP boost when you do.  Too bad it does't give you that every time.

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is a fun and length RPG.  Battles can be a bit punishing and bosses likely require grinding, but the skill system and demon fusion are really fun to play around with.  Fans of SMT IV should definitely check it out, and make sure to import your save file for some bonuses.  It's also a game that most RPG fans should check out, even if they haven't played a Shin Megami Tensei game before.

The Good:
Battles reward the player for being prepared and/or knowledgeable.  Recruiting demons is made a lot easier than the previous entry in the series.  A lot of game for your buck.

The Bad:
Each new area brings with it the need for grinding.  If a battle goes bad, it goes bad.

The SaHD:
I wish I could move the camera with the C-stick and switch the buttons for attacking and menu.  Some of the monster designs are cool, some are creepy, but they are all unique.  As an artist, I really appreciate the enemy design in the SMT games that I've seen.

(Review code for Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocolypse was provided by the publisher)

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