Overall Favorite Game of 2016, Most Shocking Improvement, Best Weeb Trash AND Least Nintendo-Like Game on the 3DS: Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse
I would like to start with a story.
A long time ago, in a house far away, little middle school Hachi read about a game. Well, it was a series, but he didn’t know that since this was the first majorly pushed installment in the franchise to come here, barring the hackjob localizations of certain spinoffs back in the 90’s. The game was called Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for the PS2, and in a time when all games were focused on ever cleaner, ever more pleasing designs and inclusive play styles, this game instead reveled in being dark and offputting and nasty. The plot was depressing from the get-go, what with the world ending onscreen in the first ten minutes, and only got worse from there. The characters were psychologically complex mirrors of their mainstream counterparts, rendered unwell by trauma and fear that rolls off the backs of less dimensional characters in other games. While other games tried to make you feel powerful and in control, this one made sure you realized your hopelessness from the first scene. While other games avoided references to real world faiths and ideologies, this one rubbed its multi-cultural cast of creatures culled from world religions in your face, with no one from Thor to the Greek Pantheon to Hinduism, Celtic myths, Slavic folktales and all the way to the Judeo-Christian God Himself being spared a portrayal as something less divine and more bestial, more threatening and more harmful to the human spirit, which at that time was an utterly mindblowing idea for me. A game, having the balls to go that far? Unheard of! For me.
I’m going to cut myself off there on the descriptors, lest this descend into a full-on deepthroating of Nocturne, and believe me I’d be happy to guzzle that sweet dark dick, but there is a purpose to this. The point is that was my introduction to the Megaten franchise, a series of tonally dark and ethically complex JRPGs which had never quite made it here in the previous decade because “The Catholic God is evil and wants you brainwashed” might not have gone over well with the twitching masses of late 20th Century America who had already decried the Pokemon games for being satanic. But, Nocturne was a critical darling and a solid financial success here in the states. Said success would lead to the release of Persona 3 and 4 over the next few years, with said spin-off series going on to mega-popularity and eventually eclipsing that parent franchise that so enthralled me on that long ago playthrough.
So when Shin Megami Tensei IV came out back in 2014, of course I was there with bells on my toes and a song in my heart. Strange Journey had more than sated me, being a mainline installment in the franchise in all but name, but that had been years ago. A true new installment, focused on all the morbid and macabre moralizing that so characterized the franchise as opposed to the lighter, more character based Persona games (Author’s Note: Do not mistake my comparison for disparagement of Persona 3 or 4; I am a HUGE Persona fan, but I do sometimes regret how much they overshadow their roots). I was ready to go.
And the game was…really, really good! Excellent, even. It had a dense, dark plot with numerous twists and turns, and a creative setting filled with memorable characters with well-defined personalities. The gameplay was a great mix of the old weakness explotation,-based system from previous entries, but with new ideas like ally characters and the smirk system to make it feel unique. Add in a strong artstyle that had some really unique demon designs and a soundtrack that shined despite the absence of Shoji Meguro, and it easily counted among my favorite games of that year.
But there was something off, some intangible that I spent months trying to figure out. The story was dark, but without a central through-line as strong as the purpose of the Vortex World or the Schwarzwelt from Nocturne and Strange Journey respectively, it felt disjointed and occasionally meandering, aspects that also plagued the previous entries but felt non-obstructive thanks to the strong main mystery and enthralling atmosphere. There was a lot of story locked behind certain plot threads, which unless you engaged in some truly maddening amounts of alignment manipulation would mean that entire chunks of the setting were cut off from you. And those above mentioned battle enhancements ranged from baffling to outright harmful, which in a game as difficult as the Megatens tend to be could spell doom from word one, with the smirk system being ludicrously situational and undefined, tending to favor the enemy far more than you. Finally, certain longtime characters (okay fine, Lucifer specifically) didn’t seem like themselves.
And so, when Apocalypse was announced as an alternate universe scenario/continuation of the plot of the original game, I felt a small amount of apprehension. Not that I thought that it would be bad by any means, but that it would merely be…good. Within one day of starting my playthrough, I began to realize just how wrong I was. Apocalypse fixes everything wrong with its predecessor, while doing so many of its own things right that it not only redeems its parent, but places itself in the great pantheon of modern RPG gaming in general.
To lose control and just exhaustively list everything I love about the game would take way more time than I have, so let’s just list off some great things. The main character is enough of a cipher to be projected onto by the player, but has enough visual personality and presence in the story (even having a spoken name, “Nanashi”, although you choose his hunter title) that you can still feel something for him as an avatar. The setting, while being narrowed down to just Tokyo for most of the game, feels more fleshed out and alive because of it, presenting the downtrodden and generally sympathetic denizens and their barely functioning society in such a way that the setting exudes more life than the humanly anemic, yet sociologically and ideologically fascinating Mikado of the first game. The contrast helps this game further establish its own identity as more than just “glorified DLC”
The supporting cast is made up of genuinely interesting characters who, although not always present in the plotline, provide flavor and dimension for the world at large, from the leaders of the various warring factions to smaller sidequest characters. You party members are an incredibly likable bunch as well, occasionally spilling in to character stereotypes but never losing credit and all imbued with a distinct character arc that plays out in a satisfying, yet non-cloying way. The arrogant, defrosting prick that is Gaston, the earnestly good-natured but somewhat offputting Hallelujah, the dark and somewhat vicious yet also kawaii as hell assassin Toki. Every character feels like they earn their part in the story. But it’s the villains and one very special patron deity who steal the show.
The demon who brings you back to life at the beginning of the game, Dagda, is quite possibly the best character in the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole. A complex, but incredibly nihilistic character, Dagda is the Celtic God of Knowledge who has decided to mold you into his “Godslayer” and send you on a quest to become powerful enough to, well, slay the Gods. And since the Gods of the setting manifest as physical beings, the purpose is less metaphorical and far more literal than it might be otherwise. Despite not appearing much in a physical sense, the skull-faced monster frequently speaks into your mind, acting as a misanthropic Greek Chorus to the events of the game, always tempting you to take the darker, more damaging path yet never falling into bland villain tropes. No matter how vicious his intentions are, the game portrays him with a sad, desperate sort of wisdom, the presence of a being who has seen all the (CONSIDERABLE) horrors this universe has to offer, and is willing to do anything to fix it, up to and including seeing it end. His debates with his mother, Danu (a nature goddess currently inhabiting one of your travelling companions) and his own personal soliloquizing are further enforced by an excellent vocal performance by Xander Mobus, who gives Dagda a gravelly Irish brogue that makes the character stand out from the somewhat uniform accents of the rest of the cast.
Also shining are the Divine Powers, the major threat of the setting who decided to break in to the fight between the angels and demons and make for some sexy, supernatural three-way action. The Divine Powers (Or “Polytheistic Alliance” in the Japanese version, which I frankly like better) are made up of the scattered Gods and Godesses from the in-this-setting marginalized non-European religions. With members from the pantheons of the Aztec, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Chinese, Scandanavian, Hindu and several other faiths in-between, they’re led by the beautiful and charismatic Hindu Krishna and his lieutenants, the warlike and pragmatic Odin the All-Father and the vicious Buddha Maitreya, who in Buddhism is a future Buddha prophesied to return to the world to lead them to enlightenment during the apocalypse (no, really). Unrestrained by the comparative severity of the Christian representatives, the entire group represent a truly brilliant conceit for the setting in regards to the less popular mythologies, and their strongly defined personalities (especially Maitreya and Krishna) inject a shot in the arm to the still highly enjoyable, but somewhat predictable “God vs. Lucifer” conflict of the previous games, with their comparatively inscrutable goals and the frequent revelations about the setting itself that they represent.
I could go in to so much more. I could list the numerous improvements to the gameplay, both big (a functioning smirk system, which ties in to Light and Dark attacks that do numerical damage now when used against non-weak enemies) and medium (chooseable partners, a streamlined sidequest system) that make it so much more enjoyable to play. I can talk about the huge amounts of side content and welcome dark humor. I could talk about the stellar pacing and the fantastic way the story weaves its character development and plot progression. If I had to list one flaw with the game, it would be that having such a well-defined supporting cast of positive characters does somewhat undermine the feeling of solitary desolation that was so intrinsic to the previous games in the franchise. It’s hard for the game to feel as desperate and horrifying when you have a gang of somewhat-cheerful travelling companions, but this does little to hurt the game and there are still plenty of dark and disturbing corners of the game to excavate.
The bottom line is this: No other game did as much for me this year. No other game urged me to dig deep into its mechanics, or commit myself to grinding and making myself a more effective player. No other game left me salivating to find out its next plot twist, or the next character beat, to actively care about what happened to its universe and see it through to the end, even in excess of 100 hours. No other game challenged me mentally like this one did, or left me pondering questions of life, morality and human nature like this one did. No other game tacked on additional hours to my day, just to wring one more moment of its chilling, brutal, fully-realized yet never overbearing atmosphere. If the only complaint I can possibly raise is that it doesn’t QUITE leave the same gaping void of abstract ethical quandary and complex emotional thought some of its predecessors did, said predecessors being among the best their genre has ever offered, then someone did something damn right. An improvement in almost every conceivable way over its parent game, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse stands tall as its own unique creation, and has continued to stay with me months after I finished it. No other game was as good as it was this year, and therefore no other game could reasonably be considered my Game of the Year.
Music Choice: The whole soundtrack is a shining example of consistent tone-setting and manipulation of an atmosphere and a game’s mood, and narrowing it down to one is nearly impossible, so I managed two. Before I do that, let’s rattle out a few equally worthy choices. Godkiller, Domain Boss Theme (now known to me as “Dagda’s Boss Battle Theme), both the Divine Powers Theme as well the Divine Powers Battle Theme (that second one was REAL close to being the choice), The Beginning of the End, Kinshi-Cho Park, the Main Theme of the game in general (or the menu theme, if you want a more specific title) and of course your standard Boss Battle theme. All amazing, all worthy, but there were two I couldn’t stand to leave not honored directly.
The first is the Tokyo (Large Map), your standard world map song. I genuinely didn’t think that anything could even match, let alone overcome the Tokyo theme from vanilla SMT:IV. It was a strong, booming yet catchy melody that made every trip through the streets of Tokyo feel thrilling and adventurous. But then here comes the slightly faster, more tonally complex Apocalypse version, and although it took a few hours for it to grow on me, I eventually came to love its strong, percussive beat and wider array of sounds just as much as the original. And since you hear map music A LOT in this game, it is a spectacular achievement to make it sound so comforting, so propelling and just so…Megaten the whole way through.
SPOILERS IN 3…2…1…
The second song had just as much of a challenge, but for an entirely different reason. While the above song had to stand up to repetition, Evil Incarnate had to play for one very important boss, in one very important setting. Fitting his return as the cruel, vain dictatorial God above all others, YHVH stands as your final opponent at the end of your journey, yes, the actual God of the Bible. Not a stand-in or some fictional deity, but the 100% explicitly described God of the Old Testament. Portrayed as a being peerless in his disregard for all life that was not his own and unmatched in his celestial might, he is the source of all misery in not just the series, but the setting of this particular installment. His first phase theme is a somewhat low-key chant-heavy piece that, while good, can sound like it came from any number of other games in the genre, but it is the second phase of the fight, against his “Fallen” form, that really brings the magic. A tense, atmospheric and bleak yet propulsively energizing theme, it’s a remix of not only his old battle song but of the first Mikado battle theme from vanilla IV, giving it an incredible sense of closure with the journey you just took through hundreds of hours of combined playing. It starts out with an ominous humming, letting the true magnitude of your foe sink in as you gaze upon his grotesque form, before picking up into something that feels part dirge and part, well, battle theme. It is one of the greatest boss songs of modern gaming, and worthy of the creator God and true enemy of the Megaten setting.
And so, there you have it folks. As I said at the top, 2016 was by and large a great year for gaming, if not for anything else. I can only hope I get half as many quality games in the year to come, maybe even one that is, say, tangentially related to my GOTY?