Last weekend, I finally saw Shin Megami Tensei IV through to the end. I’d been making my way through the game for months, a little at a time, and upon completing it, I excitedly took to GTalk, to rave to one of my friends about how incredible the whole experience had been and how he needed to finish it. He, like me, had bought his own copy at launch, but where I’d continued to whittle away at the game over the course of half a year, he’d stopped soon after arriving at Tokyo.
That is to say, he’d stopped right as the game gets interesting. I was aware of this, naturally, and would badger him on occasion to return to it, but Rune Factory 4 had seduced him away by then, and was not to be denied. The timing couldn’t have been any worse either—it was right after a point when Shin Megami Tensei IV demanded just a little more patience from the player before it truly opened up.
It then occurred to me that I actually knew quite a lot of people that hadn’t completed Shin Megami Tensei IV, despite having owned the game since its release in July.
One of them is among the most patient, tolerant gamers I’ve ever known, having sat through not one, not two, but three dungeon crawlers in the same year, in addition to a Pokémon-themed roguelike. She, too, had sung praises of Shin Megami Tensei IV earlier in 2013, and clearly didn’t dislike the game. Why, then, hadn’t she completed it? This was someone that regularly ate games for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and would routinely voice her distaste for how little patience I had for “slow” games. And now, she had given up on one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Why was that?
As it turns out, quite a few people I’ve spoken to about Shin Megami Tensei IV have the same complaints about the game, which they say prevent them from seeing it through to the end. They say it’s a gorgeous game with an interesting setting, but that the characters feel flat, and that that it feels like there aren’t very many story incentives to keep you going. They also point out that the overworld is confusing to navigate and often requires the use of a FAQ, which can be off-putting.
Fair enough. That point about the overworld is entirely valid. The Tokyo overworld map can be rather cumbersome to make your way around, especially in between major story segments, when you’re required to travel between various districts, rendezvous with different NPCs, and figure out just what you’re supposed to do next. There were several occasions on which I had to consult a FAQ myself, particularly towards the end of the game. That having been said, the idea that Shin Megami Tensei IV is lacking in the story department is one I simply don’t agree with—and I feel I’m in a reasonably good position to make that judgment, having spent over sixty hours with the game.
I can certainly see why people might have issues with the way Shin Megami Tensei IV tells its story, though, and I think that’s more a result of us growing accustomed to the way most Japanese videogames tell us stories—by clubbing us over the head with them, often with no restraint or subtlety. You go on a quest, you complete your goal, you watch a lengthy cutscene. Characters tend to fall neatly into predictable archetypes, protagonist motivations are usually clearly broadcast; and of course, there’s that annoying obsession Japanese developers have with teen romance, despite almost never doing a good job of effectively conveying a realistic relationship. This is what passes for a narrative in most JRPGs, and we take it, because—God help us—that’s what we’re used to.
Shin Megami Tensei IV does none of these things.
When people say Shin Megami Tensei IV’s characters are “flat,” they’re usually talking about your party, which consists of the main protagonist (whatever you choose to call him), Isabaeu, Jonathan and Walter. While your three companions are given a certain degree of characterization—Walter and Jonathan, especially, who represent the ideals of Chaos and Law—it’s true that Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t go out of its way to give you the inside story on your team of four. The game isn’t interested in making you feel like the centre of the universe. Instead, Shin Megami Tensei IV’s narrative is centred around another character entirely—the city of Tokyo.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is not a story about you and how cool you are. It doesn’t care if your favourite food is ramen, or about your childhood friend, who is now a buxom beauty with a large chest. It’s the story of Tokyo and her people. Your goal, throughout the entirety of the game, is to get to know the city inside and out as you make key decisions in shaping its future, and find out along the way the kind of man you are.
Not only is the story different from most games, it’s also littered with clever little references to modern society’s habits. For instance, the fact that virtually everyone has smartphones and uses them to summon demons, either for noble or nefarious purposes. That was a nice nod to Twitter, in my opinion, and the way it allows one to make themselves heard with minimal effort. In days past, making yourself heard required effort, dedication, and a platform people paid attention to. Now, all it requires is a tweet. Some use Twitter to be productive, while others use it as an outlet to misbehave, much in the way that the people of Tokyo utilize demons.
Then there’s the societal hierarchy in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, which is a stunningly accurate depiction of the way society is structured in developing countries like India. You might find society in Mikado to be absurd and backward, but the way the lower class citizenry constantly find themselves in the servitude of the middle and upper classes—often left with no choice but to put their heads down and accept their designated role in society—is quite real.
The main difference between this and other games, however, is that Shin Megami Tensei IV’s story isn’t fed to you—you have to go looking for it, often during various quests that you undertake for the Hunter’s Association, who have made it their job to protect Tokyo. The depth in which the game explores Tokyo and its citizenry is often amazing. Did you ever meet the old lady in Shinjuku that used to run a bar and was now waiting for death to claim her? Or the lonely goddess attempting to resurrect her deceased husband? Did you ever find the the lowest underground chamber of the Counter-Demon Force’s base in Kasumigaseki? Or the demon whose son had been kidnapped by a group of hunters?
Did you ever go back to revisit these people or places after completing certain quests to see if they had anything new to say or how they’d changed over the course of the game? If you didn’t, you missed out—and that’s the difference. Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t tell its story through dialogue, it tells it through exploration. It’s a very “gameplay-focused” RPG, often encouraging one to take pleasure in the simple act of running around and exploring their surroundings. Why else is so much of the story dependent on discovering different parts of Tokyo? Why else does the game have the best environment design of any Atlus RPG to date? Why else is the music for different places in Tokyo so catchy and immediately identifiable?
Moreover, Tokyo isn’t comprised of your regular RPG dungeons that you run through once, in order to find and defeat bosses. Instead, Tokyo is made up of districts, and you’ll return to them time and again, getting to know them a little better each time. Tokyo is your playground, and it often feels like a real place. (Well, it is, but, you know…) The point at which I realized this was when I caught myself navigating the confusing underground passageways of Shibuya without having to consult the map. I’d gotten the lay of the land over the course of numerous repeat visits, and my brain was treating it as though I’d been there in real life. Very few games have ever made me feel like that, but Shin Megami Tensei IV’s locales just tend to have that effect on you.
Chances are, you’ll even make one of them your “home” when you aren’t on a mission. Mine was Shinjuku. Whenever I wasn’t busy with the game’s main story, I would go back to Shinjuku. Sometimes it was to take on jobs for the local branch of the Hunter’s Association, and sometimes it was just because I wanted to save my game while I was “at home”. Ueno had that gorgeous park with the lotus pond in the middle. Ginza had that awesome shopping district with the expensive Samurai gear. But Shinjuku, for some reason, just made me feel more “at home” each time I visited it, and so I just chose to spend a lot of my time there. At first, it was Mikado… but as the game progressed further and further, I stopped going back to my character’s actual home and grew fond of Shinjuku instead. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you why.
And that’s just it. Shin Megami Tensei IV simply likes to do things differently. The story takes a good seven or eight hours to pick up, cutscenes are few and far in between, and unless you take the time to really run around and explore every nook and cranny of Tokyo, chances are you won’t see the best the game has to offer. (Oh, and you’ll want to do it on the Neutral alignment route, because it’s the one with the most content.) It isn’t a game that cares for the habits of your character. You’re a cog in the machine—a rather large and important cog, but a cog nonetheless—and as such, the conflicts and decisions you’re faced with are much more about how you’ll influence the world around you. What do you do when you’re in possession of power and influence? That is the question Shin Megami Tensei IV asks you about yourself.
The game also leaves a lot up to your imagination, just like a lot of older games did, before the days of CG cutscenes and Skits and Social Links. This, too, is a deliberate decision on its part. In an age where stories are more than happy to really try and drill a point home, Shin Megami Tensei IV is content with dropping hints and letting you join the dots yourself. In fact, some of the best voice-acted dialogue in the game arises out of situations like these.
To cite one example of this method of storytelling, you may not even learn the truth about your own character if you miss a certain optional conversation that is available in the game.
Director Kazuyuki Yamai once said, “Twenty years ago, fantasy-style RPGs were the standard of the genre. Shin Megami Tensei on the Super Famicom was something of an antithesis when you compared it.” He wasn’t kidding. And it is his love for what Yamai calls a “punk-minded approach” to the genre that makes Shin Megami Tensei IV so special. After spending over 60 hours with the game, I find that its subtlety and gameplay-first approach is its greatest strength and its greatest contribution to narrative in videogames. It’s a game that’s confident enough to be itself, without compromise, and if you’re interested in discovering what it’s like on the inside, you’ll need to spend time with it.
Do so, and you’ll be rewarded with an experience that addresses just about every complaint that the gaming community has ever levelled against JRPGs and their unwillingness to grow up, both in terms of storytelling and gameplay. And this is why I believe we will always need Shin Megami Tensei—to remind JRPG developers that there are ways to be different and still succeed.
Food for thought:
1. The above is a scene from a certain point in the game. Jonathan’s “…Eh?” is one of the best-timed, best-delivered pieces of videogame dialogue I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Saying why would be a spoiler, but if you’ve played Shin Megami Tensei IV, you’ll probably remember it. It’s at the end of the desert segment.
2. Director Yamai’s love for the older Shin Megami Tensei games is apparent in a number of Shin Megami Tensei IV’s characteristics, the most prominent of these being the use of the familiar Law theme from the very first game in the series.
3. At one point in the game, I was faced with a decision that I genuinely needed a couple of minutes to think over, because it really made made me question what I would do, were I ever in that same position in real life. I was playing in bed, and I put my 3DS down in my lap, staring at a wall in deep thought. About half a minute later, I heard my 3DS say, “Master? Is everything all right? You’re spacing out.”
4. The amount of content in this game is absurd. Even after defeating the final boss, there’s a lot more you can do, and you could easily miss it if you don’t check around.
5. I am the most impatient, unforgiving kind of gamer. I notice the slightest dips in framerate, complain endlessly about pacing in games, care greatly for details such as my character’s running animation and how his/her feet feel against the ground… and Shin Megami Tensei IV was easily my favourite game in 2013.
6. Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem has a lot to live up to.