My previous post on Shin Megami Tensei IV found me pretty annoyed at the game. In the meantime I’ve found myself drawn back to it on occasion, which has provoked something of a reconsideration.
A lot of my earlier hair-tearing came from a place of genuine appreciation: SMT IV, more than any other new-ish game I’ve played (with the exception of A Link Between Worlds) gets to the heart of why I love the medium, and JRPGs in particular. But it also kinda fails to completely cohere into the game it could be.
If I were to organize everything into a clickbait thesis I’d put it thus: Shin Megami Tensei IV is the Neon Genesis Evangelion of our times. Except that it lacks NGE’s miserabilism, creepy sex stuff, and general contempt for its fanbase.
With the exception of its use of stereoscopic 3D, there’s nothing technical about SMT IV (released in 2013) that couldn’t have been done on the Playstation 2 a decade prior. And it also kinda spiritually belongs to that post FF VII era where JRPGs were weird, big and baroque. But it never feels like a self-conscious throwback to an earlier aesthetic; instead it’s more like a picture of what things would have looked like if that era’s zeitgeist continued unabated into the present.
Actually, it may be worth observing that both FF VII and SMT IV make a very similar opening gambit: both keep the first few hours of the game in an extended prologue that masquerades as the game’s main scenario before unlocking the overworld and dumping the player into the ‘real’ game.
The difference is that, while FF VII’s Midgar setting and class warfare schtick was meant to distance it from its predecessors and contemporaries, SMT IV’s open is deliberately cliche.
To recap, the game begins in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a fantasy world which is hierarchically divided into two classes: aristocratic Luxurors and common Casualries. But there’s also a third group of samurai, whose members are picked out from the Luxurors and Casualries (via a ceremony rather similar to the Harry Potter sorting hat stuff). You, naturally, begin the game as a Casualry who becomes a samurai, tasked with protecting Mikado from demonic forces. Things take a turn for the darker when a mysterious woman called the Black Samurai begins distributing contraband literature that turns its readers into demons. You and your friends ultimately pursue her into Naraku, Mikado’s underworld.
I complained in my previous post that Mikado and its denizens feel too fake and generic to really care about. And I’ve kinda backpedaled on that. Someone in the combox pointed out some good in-game reasons for why Mikado feels that way, but revisiting again I noticed that it also operates at a meta level as well. The opening hours of SMT IV are an almost pitch-perfect parody of stale JRPG and shonen anime tropes. And we get to watch it all fall apart.
(And actually yeah, the early game does kinda have an M-rated Harry Potter flavor to it now that I think of it)
With that in mind, let’s introduce our bland, tepid heroes.
Our player character is Flynn, who, in proper SMT fashion, is a silent protagonist who serves as a blank slate for the player. Unlike most JRPG franchises, however, SMT still has its foot in the door when it comes to the role-playing side of things. The other characters are ultimately going to become paragons of the game’s three different morality alignments, and the player’s choices will ultimately determine what side Flynn is on.
Anakin Skywalker Walter is SMT IV’s chaos alignment character. Born into a family of Casualries, he has some resentment toward Mikado’s hierarchy. Eventually becomes the sort of guy who can’t wait to tell you all about Nietzche’s Genealogy of Morals.
Obi Wan Kenobi Jonathan is the JRPG character who most resembles yours truly in terms of looks. He’s also the Law character, which means he’s ultimately all about God and equality for all. But in a slightly ominous, St. Louis Jesuits kind of way.
Gunning for milquetoast secular humanism is
Padme Isabeau, the game’s Neutral character. She’s a really big fan of The Rose of Versailles.
In addition to these four are other characters who seem to be important. There’s Hope, the stock mentor figure, and Navarre, the Draco Malfoy type, for instance. But they all get brutally sidelined once the artifice is no longer needed.
The early hours of the game consist of visual novel style drama intermixed with some oppressively restricted dungeon crawling. But then you climb down to the bottom of Naraku to find yourself in Tokyo, and you realize that you’re actually in post-apocalyptic Japan. The game unceremoniously drops you off in the middle of the expansive city with only a vague sense of where you’re going.
From this point SMT IV easily divides into three acts and a denouement.
The first act deftly handles the transformation the game needed to undergo. The Mikado plot recedes into the background, with the search for the Black Samurai only providing an impetus for the player to explore Tokyo and encounter its denizens. It’s the complete inverse of the early game’s light novel shenanigans, with the supporting cast being reduced to a peanut gallery which occasionally chimes in from time to time. A lot of people have complained about how difficult it is to navigate the city, but for me the sudden obtuseness of the world is part of the charm: the player is as much a fish out of water as the characters are. Ideally, most of the game would have followed in this fashion, with the conflicts of the second act arising naturally out of the player’s adventures in Tokyo.
But, alas, the Black Samurai is apprehended about a third of the way into the game, and we’re brought back to Mikado. Suddenly all the drama that the game seemingly abandoned takes center stage again, and the player is sent on shorter quests into Tokyo as various intrigues unfold regarding the conflict between the Yakuza gang that runs Tokyo and the Nietzchean, Ring of Gaea cult. Meanwhile, the game wants the player to begin to take morality alignments seriously, and so begins to move Walter and Jonathan into their respective positions.
This puts the characters into a weird limbo state: they haven’t been developed enough to feel like they have any real coherent arc, but at the same time they’re being given too much dramatic weight to be treated as philosophical ciphers. It’s the part of the game which most resembles Revenge of the Sith in that we see the characters develop in ways that don’t really have any internal logic because the story demands that they arrive at a pre-determined outcome.
The third act of the game shoves all this aside in favor of something completely different. A savvy player will have at this point pieced together something of the backstory regarding Tokyo and Mikado. And in the late game it becomes increasingly apparent what’s up: the current situation is the result of a previous “game” of Shin Megami Tensei where the protagonist opted for a Neutral alignment. A rather abstract antagonist called The White causes the characters to travel through two alternate realities where the previous protagonist chose a Law and Chaos alignment respectively. This is all part of a gambit on the White’s part to drive the player into despair by showing how all the possible moral options lead to unfortunate results. The real climax of the game is the player’s own choice to reject The White (the option to give into them does exist, and ends the game prematurely).
Although the transition is a bit clumsy, this part of the game is a return to form. At this juncture the plot is almost entirely dispensed with in favor of becoming a weird meta-drama about the player’s own choices and their attendant consequences. It’s pretty typical for a JRPG to have a scene where the characters vow to fight it out to the end and affirm that they have something to believe in. Here it becomes something the player has to choose. Given that SMT is supposed to function as a metaphor for forming philosophical/moral beliefs this is pretty spot on.
And choosing will lock the player into one of three different denouements based on their choices. By this point the veneer has dropped, and the forces of Law (represented by the Archangels and, theoretically, God from behind the scenes) are duking it out with Chaos (represented by Lucifer), and you’re right in the center of it all.
It feels less like a typical JRPG finale and more like you’re just riding things out to their grisly conclusion, with three different anti-endings that leave you going all, “hmm, uh, well, perhaps the real Shin Megami Tensei IV was the friends we alienated and killed along the way.” It’s uncomfortable, surreal and irreverent. But since the devs are on record for saying that they wanted the game to inflict psychological damage on the player I guess it’s kinda a fitting way to wrap things up.
(I do think I have more to say about the theological/philosophical implications of SMT’s morality system, but I’m gonna save that for another time)
Although SMT IV’s trajectory does make more sense in context, it does feel like it consists of various elements that have been hot-glued together haphazardly, and that its reach outstrips its grasp.
At the same time that’s kinda what makes it fascinating. While the previous two SMT games were more consistent and focused in what they wanted to do, IV has its own unique quality in how it holds all these disparate elements in tension with each other and doesn’t even bother to reconcile them. It’s rare to see this kind of balls-to-the-wall madness get released by a major game developer/publisher.
I still think that Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse looks dumb though.