Dogma central to riveting "Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse"
“Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse” continues the Japanese role-playing series’ take-no-prisoners approach to incorporating humanity’s varied religious beliefs into a work of fiction in ways the devout would likely see as offensive and heretical.
As I’m the furthest thing from devout — and have occasionally been deemed as offensive and heretical myself — I’m not inclined to make any bones about a story that curb stomps on many theological sensibilities.
In this game’s world, demons and angels are fighting for dominion over what’s left of the world — a ruined Tokyo, shielded from nuclear annihilation under a dome of rock thanks to a last-minute commingling of man and ancient Japanese deity — and humanity’s few survivors are caught in the middle.
“Apocalypse” is actually a sequel of sorts to “Shin Megami Tensei IV,” a game where a player’s choices decided how the story played out. If you played the previous game, “Apocalypse” assumes you got a “neutral” ending, where neither the fallen angel Lucifer nor Merkabah, the Chariot of God, won ultimate dominion. You can actually import save data from “SMT IV,” but as I don’t own that one, I’m unsure what effect that has in “Apocalypse.”
As I said, Tokyo is in ruins. Humanity lives in fortified communities built in subway stations, sending hunters to scrounge for supplies and slay demons, which are consumed as food. It’s a world of eat or be eaten, and Heaven’s host has no pity for mankind’s plight.
The central character, Nanashi, is a cadet — a wannabe hunter who, at first, lacks the smartphone necessary for the job.
What’s a smartphone got to do with demon hunting? Glad you asked.
In this “Pokemon”-esque world, hunters must make pacts with demons, by talking to and appeasing them. Up to three tamed demons then join the hunter in battle, summoned by phone app — though the hunter can maintain a larger collection stored in their phone.
Over time, as the human and demons fight together, the demons will grant their “master” some of their powers. Eventually, though, an individual demon’s power plateaus. To cope with this, hunters have two basic approaches: recruit new, more powerful demons; and/or fuse the demons they’ve got into new ones, using their demon-summoning smartphone app.
In “Apocalypse,” there’s more than 450 demons, angels, gods and monsters to fight, fuse or recruit, and they stem from
a wide selection of Earth’s cultures and religions, including Christianity, Greek mythology, Hindu legends and Chinese folklore. In other words, it’s entirely possible to recruit the three Fates or put together a team featuring Jack Frost, an archangel and a succubus. It’s generally about creating a balanced team to ensure survival.
The fighting abilities you’ll rely on in the turn-based battles stick with typical role-playing game tropes: basic attacks with swords and guns (it is a modern world, after all); spells focused on the various elements (fire, ice, wind, etc.), as well as buffs, debuffs and healing; and single-use items for emergencies.
Combat is heavily strategic. Successful attacks that target an enemy’s specific weaknesses earn the players — or their attackers — extra turns, always an advantage. And such attacks also tie into what’s called the “Smirk” system. It’s a little convoluted, but it boils down to this: Certain actions can cause party members or enemies to smirk. A smirking character’s next offensive or defensive action will then be boosted, i.e., a smirking person’s attack will always dole out a “critical” hit. And some skills can turn into insta-kills if the character is smirking.
New in “Apocalypse” is the addition of ostensibly human partners, who can pitch in from the sidelines. You don’t get to command what they do, but they’re usually smart enough to be helpful — tossing out a heal when your team needs one, or attacking an enemy’s weakness.
The overall game-play is quest-based and story-driven, where you’re tasked to visit specific parts of Tokyo in response to unfolding events. However, the game freely allows you to explore the ever-expanding map in order to grind levels and build up your power, with no time crunch if you don’t feel like getting to that “urgent” mission immediately.
You can also save the game pretty much at will, which is extremely useful if things aren’t going so well on the demon recruitment front and you want a do-over.
The demon fusion aspect of team-building can drag down the pace of the experience a bit, at least for me. I’m too easily tempted to explore all the possible fusion options in my quest for imagined power or to see what sort of prurient game art I can discover. More than a few of the demons, angels, etc., are depicted in fashions some might find salacious, whether because of scanty clothing or symbolic phalli.
If you feel that might offend you, well, you’re probably also not someone who’d enjoy a game that dares to ask questions like, is the relationship between man and divinity symbiotic or parasitic? Or, is mere survival worth acquiescence to someone else’s notion of mercy?
But if such questions don’t bother you and you’re looking for a solid role-playing game that will provide you with many, many hours of diversion, I have a feeling you’ll like this “Apocalypse.”
Joel Leizer is The News-Gazette’s Playing Critic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.