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.