After wowing gamers with 2013’s Shin Megami Tensei IV, Atlus is back with the latest entry in the celebrated series, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Not quite a sequel but much more than just a simple expansion, SMTIV: Apocalypse expands on the lore of the first game with new characters, perspectives and events, but fans will feel right at home in this all new adventure.
The story picks up a ways into the events of Shin Megami Tensei IV. Tokyo is in ruins following the appearance of The Ceiling, a tremendous black mass that blocks the entire sky from view, as well as demons that continually wreak havoc on the people.
The heroes of this dystopian wasteland are hunters; brave fighters who serve the community and combat demons using a smartphone like device that summons – you guessed it – more demons. One of the main tasks of the hunters is killing edible demons, as eating demons is what the survivors have been reduced to thanks to dwindled resources.
You are Nanashi, a 15 year old hunter in training who, together with his childhood friend Asahi, is pulled into a thrilling adventure that tasks them with overcoming angels and demons alike for the fate of the entire universe. After dying moments into the game, Nanashi is revived by the god Dagda and from there all hell breaks loose.
While your narrative experience will likely be enhanced at various times thanks to a playthrough of SMTIV, and you can transfer a save file to earn something, the story largely stands on its own and focuses on newly introduced characters, so having played SMTIV definitely doesn’t seem like a prerequisite for jumping in and enjoying this title. The harsh challenges the characters must face and some of the events they must cope with make them easy to get behind and cheer on.
The dark atmosphere as well as serious narrative themes and dialogue make the story rather engaging and exciting. You’ll definitely want to see the next development and see the story to the end as new powers and factions are introduced. The excellent production expected of the game makes the story very entertaining. The camera pans around during dialogue scenes, fully animated scenes are interspersed appropriately and the voice acting, of which there is tons, is strong enough to drive home some scenes and events.
The story and its delivery are strong enough here to make them big selling points for fans of the genre or series. Visually speaking, this might be the best entry the main SMT series has seen yet. The ruined world is depicted with a pleasant level of detail and the 3D environments and character models are on par with assets from the last game.
The character portraits are lovely and there is lots of variety in the main cast. The portraits for the demons are also surprisingly crisp and detailed for the volume of them that exist. The sprites look as good as expected and some of the sprite animations can be rather sophisticated. In battle, the attack effects are detailed and diverse. When enemies are defeated, their “disappearing” animation changes depending on how you defeated them.
If you used fire, the enemy will burn into ashes and whither to the floor. If you used an ice attack, the enemy will become frozen solid before shattering into pieces. These little flourishes demonstrate how much care was put into the game and they contribute to the overall feeling of wholeness and quality that it totes. You can customize the appearance of your character, but the options here are initially limited rather severely.
The lack of the original Japanese character voices is disappointing but expected from Atlus as this point. Atlus typically assuages the pain this omission causes me by including a strong English voice track and Apocalypse delivers. While likeable characters and a good story are always great to have in an RPG, I play more for the combat and gameplay systems.
Thankfully, Apocalypse shines in this regard. The change to a third person perspective for exploration was a great idea for this series. It’s engaging and exciting to explore the big environments and discover what secrets may be in waiting. You can interact with various parts of the environment, such as ladders and manholes, to access other areas.
This makes the stages feel big and multi-layered. Scattered around the environments you can find corpses of fallen hunters, which lends to the dark vibe of the game. You can also find tons of NPCs that have dynamic dialogue that changes after seemingly every major event that occurs. These NPCs add to the game’s story and world as well, adding tidbits about their perception of events and recalling events from the first game.
A ways into the game you’ll need to solve puzzles to reach certain areas. You also collect relics (from pre-crisis Japan) as you explore which you can use to complete quests and sell for extra funds. All these factors combine to make exploration fun and rewarding and I definitely enjoyed filling out the maps. You’ll receive main story related quests and side quests to complete at your own discretion.
The side quests can be rewarding and each comes with a bit of a backstory, making them feel more meaningful and less like mindless fetch quests.
Of course the glue holding the varied and exciting gameplay together is the turn-based combat, which still occurs from a first person perspective. The element based combat system hasn’t changed a great deal.
You’ll still exploit enemy weaknesses to gain turn bonuses and a “smirking” status which triggers the instant kill effects of dark and light magic and guarantees a critical on your next attack. It’s more than just yourself and demons in each encounter now; you’ll get to choose from various partners to assist in each battle. The partners have various strengths and weaknesses and can complement certain play styles.
Maybe you’d rather have someone throw out a mass heal or a buff at the end of your turn instead of another elemental attack. Choose the right partner and it’s done. Certain boss fights may even mandate or may become much easier with certain partners.
The partners offer banter in and outside of battle, the entire group and not just whomever you have set as the main assist.This makes the game feel a lot less solitary than some past series entries. You can develop your character in various ways by distributing stats as you see fit and you learn skills directly from demons after they reach a certain level.
Difficulty-wise, the game strikes a fine balance for the standard difficulty. Some of the boss fights were pretty tense and even random skirmishes can go awry if the enemy starts smirking.
As you level your character up, you’ll be able to customize your play experience with the apps on the hunter device. The apps have all sorts of different effects, such as increasing your open slots for new demons, adding resistance to certain status ailments, improving the stats of your demons, easing demon recruitment and much more.
The demon recruitment and fusing system is back. Recruiting demons is interesting as you can get lots of different dialogue from the various demons and the initial trial and error can be fun. Fusing the demons presents a similar appeal and since your fusion level limit increases with each character level you gain, you’ll be proactively fusing on a regular basis to keep your allies from becoming outclassed.
It’s also always exciting to see what new possibilities will open up with each level up, and the useful recommended fusions page keeps you from getting lost among said possibilities. Although you may feel the urge to cling to a certain demon or team, you’re encouraged to experiment and discover ever stronger allies.
Additionally, your smartphone houses a tremendous amount of content to read. Each of the demons has a description which is amazing since most or all of them are based on actual mythical deities and historical figures. In what other game could I read about Ishtar, Tlaltecuhtli and Xiuhtecuhtli? You can also read scores of notes about characters and events and they’re updated as you progress through the game. You also receive emails from other characters after major events, conveying their thoughts and feelings. It all makes the game feel immersive in a way that not every RPG achieves.
The various gameplay components combine to make this into a satisfyingly addictive title that you can and will sink dozens of hours into. Whether it was witnessing the dark and compelling story and events, devastating enemies with my unique demon and skill combinations, exploring the varied dystopian setting, fusing better demons, completing side quests or customizing my character’s apps, skills and appearance, I was always engaged while playing this game.
It doesn’t improve on SMTIV in many fundamental ways but it doesn’t need to; Atlus is wise enough to not try to fix what isn’t broken. This one is sure to please series fans.