Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse review impressions

Ready for the real story? Here it is.

It's awfully tough to tell what game you're getting with a Shin Megami Tensei release. On one end of the spectrum is the Persona sub-series -- in which character development and story aren't only key, they're core mechanics. On the other is vanilla Shin Megami Tensei, where cold, hard gameplay is wrapped in some version of the post-apocalypse -- usually after God has elected to wipe out the rest of humanity, leaving Tokyo citizens to fight for survival with digitized demons.

Shin Megami Tensei IV fell squarely in that austere, latter camp when it was released on 3DS in 2014. Even more-so than past entries in the main series, it focused on demon combat and cold numbers over characters, alongside the usual cyber-weird aesthetic. I was of two minds about it at the time. The very basic story never came close to grabbing me, even while I lauded developer Atlus's usual willingness to update and expand upon the game's combat in interesting ways.

Maybe I wasn't the only ambivalent one, either, since those same developers have decided to roll out Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse.

I'm not sure if I should call it a sequel, an expansion, or a spin-off, but it takes place in the same dilapidated Tokyo as the last game. Except, instead of occurring after the events of the first game, Apocalypse is set about three-quarters of the way through that campaign. You're not playing as Flynn, the until-now silent protagonist of vanilla SMT4, either, but a new hero named Nanashi.

Besides bearing some similarities to the Demi-fiend (Shin Megami Tensei 3's unrelated central character), Nanashi is an entirely new creation. The same can't be said of his accompanying cast-mates I've met so far. For the most part, these have been incredibly minor NPCs from the last game, now given the room to stretch their legs in Apocalypse's more story-driven world.

The ways in which Apocalypse brings story and character to the forefront are actually very interesting. The game runs on, as far as I can tell, the same engine as SMT4 -- which wasn't really designed with more than demonic cockfights in mind. So, Atlus has wedged character moments and development into these combat mechanics.

The "partner system," which allows NPCs to take a swing at your foes every turn -- and hardly played any role at all in the last game -- has been greatly expanded. You can now choose your partners ahead of time, like proper JRPG party members, even if you can't control them directly. They also level up and develop over time, just like the demons you vacuum up over the course of these games, and their abilities tie into their personalities.

A ghostly companion you encounter early on is all about buffing, and/or hindering combatants with his haunting presence, for instance. Between bouts, these party members might also have friendly (incessant) things to say to you as well. Although, often if it's just a bark or two about how you haven't recruited this demon or that one yet.

Speaking of conversation and demons, your Pokémon-like demon acquisitions have also been tuned in some nearly imperceptible ways. You still bring the oddballs to your side through conversations, gift-giving, and bribes, but each demon feels a bit less random than before.

If you fail to convince a specific specter with your answers, you can try again later with better knowledge of what sort of things they might like. In one case, I even met a spirit who asked me a question, ran away, then returned later to see if I remembered what they had asked. I did, and my thoughtfulness convinced them to join my crew. That continuity between conversations lends a lot more personality to your ever-cycling teammates, and makes Apocalypse itself feel more solid under my digital feet.

That's good, because I've got a feeling this sequel/expansion/spin-off is headed in some strange places. The game begins with Nanashi dying, only to be resurrected and enslaved by an Irish god -- one whose schemes seem wrapped up in a war between the polytheistic gods, Lucifer, and the Christian God. Now that's the kind of twisting, religious-y nonsense I come a Shin Megami Tensei game for.

With all the new mechanics (more than I've even listed here) at play as well, Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse is already doing a better job of blending gameplay and personality than its predecessor. By the end of the last game, I felt myself playing only to goose my demons' statistics, but now I’m genuinely interested in what's going to happen next -- not just what demon I can fuse, recruit, or level up.

In that way Apocalypse already feels like the "true" Shin Megami Tensei IV that I expected two years ago.