A Fresh Pair of Eyes
Perspective is a major topic when it comes to both creating the setting of and experiencing a story. In the vast majority of storytelling mediums, the reader/viewer/player experiences the world of the story through the eyes of a written character or group. As such, the perspective of these characters is integral to the way one sees and interprets the story. This is much more obvious in tales told in the first-person perspective, but even for those told in third-person, the reader’s view of the story’s world is still influenced through the thoughts and actions of its characters.
Many stories use this idea of education through perspective to help the reader learn more about a world, or perhaps to help play some narrative tricks, by offering multiple main characters. By changing the character we are experiencing a story through, we gain a new perspective on the story’s world through a new set of thoughts, views, and actions. In some cases, a major perspective switch can bring on a massive change to a story, or even create a new one altogether.
Specific to games, there are a number that get on the multiple-character train by creating wholy different gameplay experiences specific to certain characters within a game. To throw an example out there, the game Tales of Xillia offered the choice to play as one of two different characters at the game’s outset. While much of the game’s story progression was the same no matter who you chose, each character’s perspective and role allowed the player to see Xillia‘s world in two different ways, and your character choice also affected what information you learned about the world. Of course, that latter fact also helped to encourage multiple playthroughs from players.
The game we are looking at today takes this idea of a new perspective in a familiar world. This time, though, rather than offering multiple characters in the same game, this title is an entirely new release offering a new perspective on a world many have already seen a few years back.
Developed and published by Atlus, Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse is set for release in North America on September 20th, 2016. The title is a 3DS-exclusive release.
After the End
Apocalypse takes place in the same world and timeline as the original Shin Megami Tensei IV. In the original, we first learned about the game’s world through the eyes of Flynn, a samurai from the idyllic city of Mikado. In this title, though, the perspective switches to a young man named Nanashi, an apprentice member of a group of demon hunters in the post-apocalyptic remains of Tokyo.
Apocalypse starts off near the ending of the original SMTIV, just as Flynn is preparing to take down the leaders of the demon and angel hordes controlling Tokyo. Nanashi is working to become a full-fledged member of the Hunter guild, which assists the city population by killing demons and locating resources. Unfortunately, during a mission with his friend Asahi and two of their superiors, they are surrounded and attacked by a group of powerful demons, and Nanashi is killed.
While proceeding through the underworld, Nanashi’s soul has an encounter with a diety named Dagda. This god offers him the chance to return to his body, but in return, he must become Dagda’s Godslayer, a human weapon for him to wield. After agreeing to the terms, Nanashi returns to life with two new goals: to assist Flynn in freeing Tokyo, and to figure out what it is exactly that Dagda wants.
Despite my worries of this title retreading the same ground that SMTIV did, the story that is presented here is well-told and enthralling. Actually, I’d argue that it’s more well-told than the story of the original game. I found SMTIV‘s opening hours to be incredibly boring to the point that I dropped the game a few times, but I did not have this same issue with Apocalypse, which presents interesting characters and intrigue right from the get-go.
However, while the opening hours are definitely enjoyable, the story doesn’t really open up into its major themes and conflicts until several hours in. Up until about the 7-8 hour mark, most of the story is driven forward by exploration and fetch quests without a clear plot goal.
Debates and Defeats
As a spin-off of Shin Megami Tensei IV, the gameplay systems of Apocalypse are similar to its predecessor to the point of being nearly identical…minus a few noteable changes.
As with other mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, Apocalypse is a very traditional JRPG, featuring first-person turn-based battles. Every member of your active party gets a turn to attack, and if they land a critical strike or hit an enemy’s weakness, your team gains an extra turn. Missing or hitting an enemy’s resistance causes you to lose turns. Enemies play by these rules as well, which lends some strategic depth to the formation of your teams.
Like other games in the main series, your team is made up of demons that you recruit on the battlefield. During battle, you can begin a conversation with just about any enemy you encounter, and if you can appease your enemy, they will join your party. I’ve heard many praise this system as one of their favorite aspects of Shin Megami Tensei games, but I’ve personally never seen the appeal. Most of the time, the conversations you have with demons just feel like pure guesswork, and successfully recruiting a demon always felt like a stroke of luck rather than an application of skill.
The demon fusion system also makes a return in Apocalypse. You have the ability to fuse two demons together to create a brand new one, with the new one inheriting your choice of battle skills from its parents. Unlike the recruiting system, fusion has always been one of my favorite parts of these games, and it remains so here. Being able to tailor your party to your playstyle or the challenge presented through fusion always feels rewarding, and discovering new demons through the process is entertaining as well.
Speaking of challenge presented, Shin Megami Tensei games have a reputation for their difficulty, and Apocalypse is no exception. The main story presents a constant challenge throughout, but, while often frustrating, it never feels unfair. Apocalypse demands mastery of its various systems in order to progress, and while the challenges (not counting extra dungeons or bonus bosses) are often punishing, they’re never insurmountable.
Also of note is that the game offers the ability to change your difficulty setting at any time without penalty. Difficulty settings only affect battles, and do not change items or rewards, so the game encourages you at the outset to select the difficutly that’s best for you, and not to fear changing it if you need to. With this, despite the reputation of the series, Apocalypse is also somewhat friendly to more casual players, or those getting their first taste of Shin Megami Tensei.
When it comes to differences from the original SMTIV, the changes presented here are focused on lessening some of the frustrations many had with the original title. You can now select your AI-controlled partner character from a stable that you collect throughout the game. These partner characters are also now specialized in their abilities (one is a healer, another buffs and debuffs, etc), and can earn XP to gain levels. The “smirk” status your characters can earn when hitting weaknesses or landing criticals has expanded effects now, such as letting certain spells cause instant death, amongst other effects.
The one part in gameplay that I found incredibly annoying was exploring the environment…more specifically, camera controls. As most 3DS systems only have one control pad, the game compensates by making its camera attempt to automatically follow your character, but the movement in doing so is so slow as to be ineffective. You can manually control the camera with the R and L bumper buttons, but these, too, don’t feel fast enough, especially if there’s an enemy sneaking up behind you. As I played the game on a New 3DS model, I was disappointed that there was no option to use the system’s second control nub to manipulate the camera.
Beauty in Destruction
The design style of Apocalypse pulls off something I rarely (if ever) manage to see be done: a bleak and depressing atmosphere that doesn’t fall victim to a dull black/brown/grey color palette. Much of the game goes for a realistic atmosphere (despite the end-of-the-world demon horde aspect), but it doesn’t sacrifice using actual color to detail its environments. The color palette is fittingly subdued, though, keeping the atmosphere intact.
Character and especially demon designs are just as colorful too. Demons especially have some impressive designs, with color and detail abound while still appearing imposing…or, at least, the ones that are meant to be imposing are so. Human character designs are all very distinct as well, with the main characters all having their own color theme in their designs.
As a final note, the graphical presentation here is handled well by the 3DS system. While not the most powerful console, especially for full-3D games, Apocalypse runs very smoothly even with all of the environmental detail. Some areas, such as the Fairy Forest early in the game, look downright beautiful, even on this hardware.
The music of Apocalypse is very synth-heavy, and not just in the fact that it uses synthesizers. Rather, the soundtrack sounds as if it was completely MIDI synthesized, rather than using any live instruments. Not that there’s anything wrong with a fully-synthesized OST, but the sound quality of the tracks here doesn’t sound all that great.
It’s rather disappointing, though, as there’s some decent tracks in the game’s setlist. Much like everything else in this game, the soundtrack goes for a foreboding atmosphere most of the time. With its heavy use of bass and distorted percussion, it manages to match the feel of the game successfully in places where it counts.
The game also includes an extensive amount of voice acting, and luckily, the sound quality of it doesn’t suffer like the soundtrack’s does. While your character is a silent protagonist, the rest of the main players, along with some side characters, receive full voice acting.
While the voicing of the side characters is…interesting at best, the performers behind most of the main characters do a fairly decent job at bringing them to life. The actor behind Flynn’s voice, though, doesn’t seem to be a great fit for the character, as the performance comes off as too calm and stilted. On the other hand, the slight Irish accent that Dagda has is somewhat hilarious.
Despite some nitpickings and annoyances, Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse is not only an excellent addition to the series, but to the 3DS library as a whole. I did give a bit of pause when I found out that SMTIV was getting a spin-off, as quite often, spin-off games can be low-quality cash-grabs. However, Apocalypse presents something to the same caliber as a full numbered entry in the series, and surpasses the original in some ways.
Even better is the fact that you do not have to play the original game to enjoy Apocalypse. While it certainly does help to have background on the world, the story told here is near-completely stand-alone and can be fully understood with no knowledge of the original. However, if you have played SMTIV, the perspective on the world offered here is even more intriguing and offers a lot in expanding the lore of the game’s world.
While the issues I had do hold the game back from a perfect score, Apocalypse is a game that JRPG fans, and even just 3DS owners, should not pass up. The depth in story and gameplay is incredible, and the accessability options can let anyone dive in, newbie or veteran.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by Atlus for 3DS. Screenshots courtesy of Atlus.