Samurai boogaloo

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Shin Megami Tensei IV is a game which holds its good and bad points in such tension that I alternate between finding it intriguing and then feeling dumb for wanting to take it seriously. It’s also Revenge of the Sith: The JRPG.

Anyway, the story goes something like this: after about only thirty people actually played Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, the people at Atlus decided to develop a game that would satisfy both hardcore SMT fans while acting as an accessible starting point for all the new Atlus devotees the Persona games were dragging in.

There was a lot of grief when people found out that Kazuma Kaneko, the franchise’s man scenario writer and character designer, wouldn’t be working on the title beyond providing the initial concept. This was further compounded by the reveal of some of the new monster designs, which had a very silly, generic fantasy art look to them.

Now, over the course of this year I’ve developed a sort of respect for Kaneko’s work. True, its surface level makes some pretty provocative use of religious imagery, but there was more to it than just shock value: interviews with the guy showed a Neil Gaiman-esque love of stories and myths, and the imagery often functioned in a thematically resonant way which showed that a lot of care was put into their use, even when I found it disagreeable and in poor taste. And it’s not hard to find fans who claim that his work was a gateway drug to the likes of Campbell and Bullfinch, or to an interest in the study of religion.

(which I find interesting from an anthropological perspective, as it suggests that there’s still a hunger to engage with the meaning of religious symbols, however muddied or misguided)

But let’s not beat around the bush – the main draw for a lot of people is the grimdark occult death metal surface texture of it all. It’s much in the same way that the Inferno is the only part of Dante’s Divine Comedy to have significant pop cultural impact: sure, you can talk about the Christian allegory and the scholastic fusion of Aristotelian ethical theory with Christian virtue embodied in it, but its interest for a lot of people is the gruesome catalogue of the torments of the damned. And if you were to rip out the allegorical infrastructure, the whole thing would feel rather unjustifiably morbid.

Such is SMT IV. It feels like a game that has the franchise’s ooga booga side down pat, but which doesn’t really have much coherence on any higher level. While I had my criticisms of Nocturne (which is actually SMT III), it felt like an adult game which I was able to compare to A Voyage to Arcturus. SMT IV feels more like, I dunno, Spawn, or something.

Which is a shame, because there are so many flashes of brilliance throughout where you could see the possibility of something far greater. It has, without a doubt, the most thematically rich premise in the franchise, and could have been amazing in better hands.

So I should probably get around to what this game is actually about.

SMT IV opens in a rather generic fantasy world called the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. Society here is broken down into two castes: the aristocratic Luxurors and the common Casualries (no, the amusement of someone yelling, “filthy casualries!” is not lost on this game). People here adhere to a vaguely Christian-ish religion, although we’re never let into the details. There’s also an order of samurai, whose members are chosen by a gauntlet rite that everyone undergoes when they come of age. Naturally, you’re one of the lucky few chosen and tasked with protecting the kingdom from demons who emerge from the underworld of Naraku.

All this changes when a mysterious Black Samurai starts distributing contraband literature that transforms its readers into demons. After she flees into Naraku, you and your fellow samurai are sent in to pursue her.

The early hours of the game try to convince you that Naraku is this giant, underground mega dungeon that you’re going to be spending the entire game in. But after a few floors you suddenly find yourself in post-apocalyptic Tokyo and realize you’ve been climbing down the Tokyo Sky Tower this whole time.

It’s a brilliant inversion: instead of exploring the fantastical through the eyes of a mundane, the player explores the mundane through the eyes of the fantastic. The fantasy world has become home, while the modern metropolis has become an enchanted realm.

A much bolder game would have forced the player to have a stronger identification with the pre-modern ethos of Mikado, and would have done more to make modern day Tokyo appear alien. It would have been interesting for the morality system to ask the player what they think of modernity through the eyes of the outsider.

This never happens. The game makes an abrupt aesthetic shift here, but it doesn’t have much impact beyond the, “whoa, that’s weird.” This is in part because Mikado feels kinda fake, like a society of LARPers that got out of hand. Which is in turn symptomatic of the poor writing. The early game spends a lot of time setting up characters and plot points that quickly become irrelevant, or just flat out ignored, and as a result it’s kinda hard to get invested in things.

Incidentally, if you paid attention to the character designs at the top of the post, you may have noticed some similarity between their uniform and the Jedi of Star Wars. This was an intentional choice on the developers’ part: the samurai of Mikado bear more of a resemblance to Jedi than to the historical samurai caste (which makes this weirdly recursive, given how the Jedi were inspired by Japanese jidaigeki films which were themselves inspired by American westerns). There’s a very demented feel of, “Star Wars, Shin Megami Tensei-style” running through the proceedings.

Again, the writing misses the most interesting aspect of this, i.e. how would someone bound by a chivalric code operate in a morally complex world? Nevertheless, there’s some interesting stylistic friction between the Star Wars-esque stuff and the post-apocalyptic stuff.

And this is where the comparison to Revenge of the Sith comes into play. Since this is SMT, it’s inevitable that things will take a dark(er) turn, with the characters suddenly hardening into crazy ideologues and forcing the player to make decisions that quickly and farcically snowball into stuff like genocide or tyranny. Kinda like in Sith! In fact, you could, with some alterations, stick this scene into the game as the prompt for a definitive decision on the player’s part:

(vice versa, the writing of Revenge of the Sith makes a lot more sense if you imagine it as an SMT game where the player chooses a Chaos route)

SMT IV is basically a game where Obi-Wan and Anakin are both your best friends, and so you inevitably wind up on one side of this (unless you bought the strategy guide and avoided breaking Padme’s Isabeau’s heart, thereby triggering the neutral route):

The writing is on par, with the primary difference being that, because this is SMT, the Archangels and Lucifer are both egging you on in the sidelines. The forces of God don’t come across as particularly well here, but neither do the forces of darkness. It’s just grimness all around, and, absent any real coherence, comes across as really messed up and nihilistic for the sake of it.

(The developers also seem to have reeled from this a bit, if second hand reports about the game’s sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV Final/Apocalypse are reliable (the game is out in Japan, but forthcoming over here). But it seems to do this by doubling down on the more asinine elements of the original, while turning God into a Final Fantasy villain. And your protagonist is a kid wearing the lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine on his jumpsuit. Barf. Even the people who are more sympathetic to SMT’s themes are starting to find this a bit stupid).

Anyway, positives: mechanically, this is the soundest, most smoothest playing SMT entry yet. As a game it completely succeeds in being the accessible yet challenging entry it wants to be. One of the modern conveniences even has a bit of droll, Discworld-esque humor to it: dying gets your character sent to the River Styx. But Charon the ferryman is a few millennia behind schedule and bogged down in bureaucratic red tape, so he’s more than happy to accept a bribe to revive you in the game (and, in a way, that embodies my frustration with SMT IV, as every now and then there’ll be something clever enough to goad me into thinking the story’s more interesting than it is).

Ryoka Koduka’s soundtrack is also quite revelatory, sounding almost like a collaboration between King Crimson and Daft Punk in its alternations between intense prog rock and synth-laden disco. It completely sells the surreal setting.

In a way, my disillusionment here seems to also mirror that of Star Wars, where the stuff that got you interested in the first place (Digital Devil Saga, in my case) increasingly seems like a fluke compared to the majority of the franchise.

Which is kinda depressing.

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About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
This entry was posted in Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Samurai boogaloo

  1. a991807 says:

    Glad you finally got to play SMT IV! Sorry I haven’t commented in a while, I’ve been very busy with summer work. I just want to respond to some of your critiques.

    “A much bolder game would have forced the player to have a stronger identification with the pre-modern ethos of Mikado, and would have done more to make modern day Tokyo appear alien. It would have been interesting for the morality system to ask the player what they think of modernity through the eyes of the outsider.” This never happens. The game makes an abrupt aesthetic shift here, but it doesn’t have much impact beyond the, “whoa, that’s weird.”

    I agree. I felt they could have gone more into this. Maybe showing how the people of Mikado have a greater love of family (there are very few children under the dome in Tokyo and it’s at least implied there are many in Mikado). Or maybe showing the main character grieving over the death of his family (or really have more of his family in general, like maybe them being thrilled he was chosen as a samurai or something). They could have also shown more personal piety among the Mikado People. Maybe have them pray before meals and other activities? There aren’t really any beggars in Mikado so there’s not much of a chance to show charity (I assume the lack of beggars is the result of strong families and the altered genetics of Mikado people due to the time spent in the cocoons as the main characters seem immune to the poison gas present in parallel universe Tokyo).

    “This is in part because Mikado feels kinda fake, like a society of LARPers that got out of hand. Which is in turn symptomatic of the poor writing. The early game spends a lot of time setting up characters and plot points that quickly become irrelevant, or just flat out ignored, and as a result it’s kinda hard to get invested in things.”

    A) While you might have something of a point here remember that Mikado was essentially a civilization made from scratch by a handful of adults and mostly children. It has only just managed to reach levels of technological sophistication on par with the medievals. Furthermore remember that much of Mikado society was essentially the brainchild of Akira (“King Aquila”) who essentially manipulated the people after betraying the angels that had shown him mercy (remember he wasn’t one of the chosen ones but after he aided the angels against his former comrades and protected the kingdom they chose to forgive him and let him stay in the kingdom). Akira must have cobbled together a bunch of ideas and concepts and used them as the basis of his society. Warrior caste? Just take Samurai from his Japanese culture. Calendar? Just take the name Gregorian Calendar and reset at Year 1 Day 1. Caste system? Everyone that was onboard with him as king gets upper caste, everyone else lower caste. Religion? Well there weren’t a lot of devout Christians in Japan to begin with and Akira probably wouldn’t stand for a strong hierarchy tracing its history back long before his rule so set up a quasi Buddhist style monastery run by monks and throw a bible in there with no context and call it a day. It’s supposed to feel off because it IS. Akira’s influence is poisonous and it’s only after the Angels reestablish control that his constructed façade begins to be dismantled.

    B)On early game characters becoming irrelevant. I have to admit you’ve got a point. You don’t spend a lot of time in Mikado sadly (most of the design being spent on Tokyo) so a lot of those characters don’t get a lot of screen time. Furthermore the early game really pushes the neutral characters into the foreground and then completely forgets about them rather than having them reappear again to try and influence the characters.

    “The writing is on par, with the primary difference being that, because this is SMT, the Archangels and Lucifer are both egging you on in the sidelines. The forces of God don’t come across as particularly well here, but neither do the forces of darkness. It’s just grimness all around, and, absent any real coherence, comes across as really messed up and nihilistic for the sake of it.”

    As I’ve said before the Angels do seem really cold and unforgiving in this, which is sad because they nailed the Demonic philosophy so well. However I wouldn’t say the game is nihilistic. The Angels are still the most upright of all the factions: They genuinely want to protect the people of Mikado and Mastema (despite his creepy vibes he is still classified as a Herald, the highest rank of Angels in the game) has a special mission to try and help reconcile the people of Tokyo with God (think Old Testament and how God was willing to slowly draw the Israelites to a more moral state over many generations rather than instantly expect them to be fully righteous). The angels, through side dialogue the player can initiate, reveal that once they have eliminated the demonic scourge they will depart and leave earth in the hands of mankind, “As the Lord intended.” The angels also are not averse to the Mikado monks researching old world technology but just restrict the breadth of what they can research (probably for safety and moral reasons). Gabriel even says in a side mission that knowledge and wisdom in and of themselves are not evil but the misuse of them is [since most of the books the demons distribute are basically atheist/misotheist propaganda and cursed to force demon possession on you (because the whole, “the books turn you into demons because of your rebelliousness” thing is clearly a lie upon further investigation so they must be cursed) it was probably a good idea to root out all the books she distributed]. The angels also destroy Akira’s unjust caste system and establish equal dignity for all people. It’s clear that the angels resort to the destruction of Tokyo as a last resort (previously being willing to merely allow them to continue existing separately) due to the perpetual reactor spitting out demons at an alarming rate. I find the decision to stop the reactor (which required the black hole) a justifiable one under the principle of double effect because it was either A) allow the reactor to keep running and have a demonic horde running amok or B) destroy the reactor and unfortunately have the remaining people (who are few in number) in Tokyo die while saving the people of Mikado and the rest of the surface (the majority of humanity) and stopping the demons for good.

    In the end the path you pick leads to the logical results of each path. Chaos: Demons overrun the world and everything is horrible (but there is a tiny bit of hope because Mastema still remains to possibly sway people back to righteousness when all the loot, rape, and destruction leaves them hollow) Neutral: while the demons are still a problem their leaders have been banished and both populations survive. However, mankind has rejected divine guidance and this can only lead to more conflict in the future when mankind finds itself at the crossroads again (remember that this game is the “sequel” to a “game” that previously occurred but that the player did not participate in where the main character picked neutral merely delaying the conflict). Again there is hope Mastema might be able to turn things around. Law: Tokyo and its people are unfortunately destroyed (and Mastema’s physical form is also destroyed because the salvation of Mikado and the surface cannot be done without destroying Tokyo, negating the need for his role), however the surface is saved and Mikado (freed of Akira’s manipulation) becomes a holy land where people live out their lives as God intended. The game’s not nihilistic. It just allows the player to act as the stand in for humanity’s free will and the ultimate fate of the world is a dramatic version of what one would assume happens to the real world if man chooses to either: A) Make himself God (Chaos) B) Give God His Due (Law) or C) Engage in some form of pluralism that leaves no one really happy and just puts off the inevitable conflict until the next go around (Neutral)

    Overall, I think your review was great but I would disagree with some of your final conclusions. I’m sad that the news about SMT IV Apocalypse is making God seem like a bad guy because he’s really not depicted as such in SMT IV. I guess I’ll find out myself when I play.

    • Josh W says:

      Hi! Thanks for the surprisingly detailed and thought-out comment. I’ll dig into it in a bit.

    • Josh W says:

      Okay, so:

      I feel like my post does make it seem like I’m more down on the game than I am; it has a lot of stuff that I love, and as a result it’s more easier for me to get frustrated at its shortcomings than if the entire thing was a wash. It’s a very knee-jerk post (as are most on this blog, really)

      Point taken about Mikado’s fakeness. I didn’t mention it in the post, but I think the backstory and all the Akira stuff is the strongest part of the story. A lot of thought went into it.

      At the same time SMT IV has kinda retroactively caused me to re-evaluate what Nocturne was doing: the idea of having a setting so surreal and abstract that you’re encouraged to not get caught up in the details and to think about it more in terms of metaphor/allegory. And I’m starting to think that SMT works best when its operating in that mode, rather than attempting to present a plausible world. While my complaint that the game felt nihilistic is probably a bit unfair (given how the nonstandard ‘bad’ ending is the nihilistic one), it does feel more chilly to me the more it presents its whole struggle of deities, demons and humans as a literal affair.

      I feel that compounding this was the actual cast of characters. Aside from the aforementioned missing characters, Walter, Jonathan and Isabeau, while likable, all felt weirdly underwritten, given how chatty they were. It was a bit like they were trying to simultaneously be Persona and SMT characters, and as a result not quite being convincing as either. And the plot felt structurally very weird: separating the first and second thirds with the apprehension of the black samurai made the plot lose a lot of momentum for me. I’d have liked it more if she had remained completely elusive until the reveal of her identity.

      As an addendum: I wonder if Mikado was at one point meant to have more content and essentially function like a Persona game (in contrast to the more “traditional” SMT style of Tokyo). That would explain why characters like Hope and Navarre suddenly become footnotes: in a Persona game they’d be the sort of characters you’d spend time with even after they’re no longer strictly relevant to the plot.

      • a991807 says:

        I’m glad you liked my comment!

        I can see where you’re coming from when you say you prefer Nocturne’s more metaphorical setting to SMT IV’s realistic one. SMT’s style is very aggressive and intentionally unsettling and having that version of the supernatural interact with the world is a weird thought. I guess for me it was just kind of refreshing to have the option to pick a side that was intentionally opposed to the pro-secularist/atheist narrative in most games that bother discussing religion at all. Furthermore (given SMT’s track record) having a game where, upon rational investigation, the evidence puts God and the Angels in a good light (admittedly their character still deviates significantly from the actual Judeo-Christian tradition, but all of their decisions are justifiable, they change the world for the better, and ultimately their plan is the best choice for mankind in the game world) is refreshing and much more satisfying (and significantly less insulting) than some previous games in the series (if you thought the attempt at creating a realistic world with SMT’s Supernatural style in this game was unsettling then SMT I and II are WAY worse especially with how they also mix in xenophobic undertones). The game creators clearly prefer the neutral route but I am glad that, unlike many big name game developers (*cough* Bioware *cough*) they let me choose a path that was opposed to their own ideals while not turning the Angels or God into Mustache-Twirling Villians. It’s just not every day when a game lets me have a final boss fight with Satan while flanked by a team of 3 Seraphs and God’s Chariot, while wielding the Lance of Longinus and shouting, “For God Almighty!” It’s kind of childish of me, I know, but in a time where the “People on the Right Side of History” TM say anyone who believes in the supernatural is a savage/fool (and this is hammered in constantly in media) it’s kind of refreshing to be able to play a game where the Supernatural has come in and knocked postmodern society off of its high horse.

        At first I kind of liked the other characters. We’re told from the beginning that Jonathan and Walter are the series’ trademark Law Hero and Chaos Hero respectively. However, unlike previous games that use this trope, the two are not immediately at each other’s throats (they even get along very well in the beginning). At first I was curious to see what events would drive the two into conflict and I was a little apprehensive of having to side against Walter [I had a feeling early on I would pick law (for context this was my first SMT game and I went in blind so I didn’t even know that there were Angels in the game or that the “demons” were actually serious DEMONS, after finishing the game I went a little nuts researching the series which is why I know as much about it as I do)] because he seemed like a cool guy and the whole gang got along well.

        I wondered if gradually events would lead Walter down a dark path that would put him on the enemy team. Maybe the demons would manipulate him with promises to make his family powerful (they were still lower caste after all) or he’d become so bitter at perceived injustices that he’d switch sides. But I was apparently more ambitious than the writers because Walter’s character progression was 1.Cool, laid back casualry guy who’s just happy to be here but is more than willing to stand up for himself and friends and doesn’t like being used to 2. Guy who is impressed by power and skill (which isn’t inherently bad. You can acknowledge some one’s power without worshiping it) to 3. Guy who is willing to annihilate all orderly society to institute a system of survival of the fittest and doesn’t care how COMPLETELY INSANE his superior’s plan to achieve this goal (or how horrible the goal is itself) to 4. LITERALLY SATAN
        This character arc struck me as completely ridiculous (Me and my sister joked about it constantly by saying, “Walter, what are you doing? Walter, STAHP!” ). Could Walter have eventually been swayed to the side of evil? Sure. In the real world (and games) it has been done to better men. But the motivation here seemed weak. Walter wanted a system of might makes right because he felt that, as a casualry, he had been kept down for no good reason. However, at this point in time he has been raised to the warrior caste through no power of his own but rather (in some sense literally) by the grace of God. He was no longer kept down but was actively pulled up by the system. All his newfound power was derived from him being chosen as a samurai. Furthermore the system he wanted to create would not raise the casualries up but would crush them into paste. The weak would not become strong suddenly but rather would be trampled. Those trampled would include HIS OWN FAMILY. It’s all well and good for Walter, his gauntlet lets him take on the strongest demons, but his father, the fisherman, lacks that advantage.

        Jonathan had a somewhat different problem for me. He’s a loyal, soft-spoken, friendly guy who’s willing to give it his all and be a noble samurai and he tends to stay consistent throughout the game. This eliminates the issues with Walter’s character arc but presents new ones. We never get any insight into why Jonathan is the way he is. They could have put in side quests or conversations that fleshed out his background (maybe he wants to be a noble samurai because he had a samurai like that as a role model growing up, or maybe he had a traumatic experience as a child, or maybe he got it from his family). But we never get anything. At least in Revenge of the Sith we’ve had two movies to establish why Obi-wan is opposed to Anakin’s rebellion.

        Isabeau is the weakest character of all. At the beginning of the game she seems aloof and unpredictable (which suits her neutral personality) but then we’re introduced to her love of romance manga (which is never really fleshed out) and she suddenly becomes completely indecisive during the game’s key moments. Like Jonathan, side quests could have really helped flesh out her character but we don’t really get anything. She disappears completely during the gang’s adventure through parallel earths and only has a significant role later if you end up on the Neutral Path.

        I agree that the black samurai hunt could have been replaced with more story. I think dragging out the process (her punishment could have just happened off screen) was detrimental to the pace since it really starts ramping up once you end up working with the factions in Tokyo.

        As to Mikado acting like a persona game, that actually would have been a really cool idea. It would help the player get better acquainted with the world while providing a break from the action in Tokyo. It’s unfortunate they didn’t do something like that.
        It does seem like SMT IV: Apocalypse is putting more of an emphasis on the party members this time around (increasing the number of party characters, giving them unique skill sets, and giving you the power to control them). It remains to be seen whether they’re written better than SMT IV’s.

      • Josh W says:

        “I guess for me it was just kind of refreshing to have the option to pick a side that was intentionally opposed to the pro-secularist/atheist narrative in most games that bother discussing religion at all.”

        Heh. It’s understandable. I do find it bracing how morality in SMT games ultimately becomes a religious choice, and how the locus of the conflict is one of ideals. Incidentally, I found Digital Devil Saga to oddly be the most religion-friendly MegaTen games, since it seems to concede that there are issues with human existence that only admit of a theological answer, and the people who seek out purely technological solutions actually come off quite poorly (albeit the theology involved is very explicitly Hindu).

        “if you thought the attempt at creating a realistic world with SMT’s Supernatural style in this game was unsettling then SMT I and II are WAY worse especially with how they also mix in xenophobic undertones)”

        Yeah, the first two SMT games are really more of a curiosity for me than anything else. I think the SMT franchise for me is sort of comparable to the Silent Hill franchise: in both cases the broad idea of the franchise appeals to me, while a lot of the details and execution rubs me the wrong way, and so in both cases the game I gravitate to the most is the one that drops a lot of the baggage of its mythos and does its own thing (Silent Hill 2 and Nocturne).

  2. Pingback: Samurai boogaloo redux | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

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