How Shin Megami Tensei IV Shortens the Curve
Japanese role playing games, the kind with battle systems and awkward, anime-inspired plots, move to a certain rhythm. They march along like coming of age novels written in bright pastels, and their battles resolve like blowout sports games: some early tension followed by collective high fives.
Even the most complex titles worked like this. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (hereafter referred to as Nocturne, but not to be confused with survival horror game), regarded as one of the pinnacles of the inaccessible side of the genre, had these elements but honed them into immense, buster sword like proportions. Nocturne’s Tokyo was vast, filled with endurance matches with incredibly difficult levels, and its battles, when enemies didn’t snipe your character quickly with instant death attacks, required you to think five rounds ahead rather than just mashing attack.
Shin Megami Tensei IV (hereafter SMT IV), perhaps because of its release on a handheld or perhaps because of a major change in the audience since 2003, keeps you thinking about this round. Instead of Nocturne’s long curve, SMT IV goes short: so short, in fact, that most major encounters last less than three rounds. Instead of the split decisions of Nocturne, SMT IV tries for the knockout.
But let’s look at the traditional Japanese RPG battle for a second: say, the one in Tales of Xillia which, despite its real-time nature, mimics the rest of the genre’s march quite well. In Xillia, on a normal difficulty, you enter battles with new enemies feeling a fair bit of uncertainty. It becomes apparent—within ten seconds, or a round of another game—which direction things are going to go in. Usually—Xillia is a pretty easy game—you realize that your team overpowers your enemies. If it’s a boss fight, you might not overwhelm them, but you’re offered a minute and a half of gradual success. If the fight goes on too long, you might begin to feel a second anxiety: maybe you’ll run out of resources.
Most of the time, though, you’ll win, just gradually. Fifteen seconds in, you’ll know how 99.9% of battles will go, and will either escape or win.
Nocturne took this difficulty curve and exaggerated it. Nocturne also added more unpredictability. Punching your enemies in Nocturne works in regular encounters, with the caveat that enemies can, quite unpredictably, kill your entire party. One instant death spell, and poof, it’s all over. Hardcore fans tout this feature, but it’s a tricky rope: most people hate being randomly given a game over screen. And most battles worked like typical RPG scenarios: go in, punch them in their weaknesses, repeat.
Boss battles were a little different. Bosses had a lot of tricks up their sleeves: they could improve their stats, making them impossible to harm, they could grant themselves temporary selective invulnerabilities, and they could get multiple additional turns. In short: bosses were dangerous. Most bosses forced you to cast spells to improve your own baseline stats—particularly evasion—so that your enemies would waste turns on you. The length until you knew you’d win a battle was significantly longer, as you felt out the bosses tricks and built your own up. The end excited, too, as you had to figure out if your machine was going to run out of gas too quickly, and then get an extra turn or two to solve that problem.
It’s an incredible model, but its demanding. Nocturne is like marching forty miles in the snow. This isn’t a bad thing, but it turned a lot of people off of it. It left Atlus to pursue a five year quest to make a more accessible Shin Megami Tensei, which resulted in the Final Fantasy X simulator Digital Devil Saga and then Persona 3.
Now, finally back to the mainline franchise with Shin Megami Tensei IV, I expected more of the same. More incredibly tense, long battles. More death marches. Instead, SMT IV delivers the polar opposite: it cuts the fat from the curve.
Shin Megami Tensei IV makes even the shortest of battles deadly. The longest battle I’ve encountered after thirty hours with the game is four rounds, and that only happened because I made significant mistakes. Further, the enemies, even the most basic ones, do ridiculous amounts of damage. As fellow POD writer Jason Rice pointed out, going back to even the lowest level areas is a dicey proposition even hours later, if only because the enemies don’t mess around. A few mistakes and they’ve killed everyone.
In short, instead of regular battles being six rounds where you know the outcome for five of them, battles are two rounds and always in doubt. Regular encounters I was prepared for have killed me in SMT IV, and not in cheap ways. Sometimes you gamble, and you lose, and SMT IV knows how to go for the throat.
Boss battles, meanwhile, are rarely longer. But instead of trying to manage your resources, like you do in typical encounters, you go all-out against bosses. The gloves drop, and suddenly you’re spending half your resources in one round, hoping to stop your opponent out of existence. If you don’t, if you go half-speed, the bosses will run you down.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that bosses sometimes offer up enough damage to kill one party member and reduce the rest to 20% life in a round. It forces you to come at these battles in different ways, and makes sure that you can never be truly comfortable. More than even Nocturne, SMT IV pushes you, but it does so in a way that’s modern and accessible. Instead of twenty round marathons that end in crushing defeat, SMT IV offers four rounds where victory is constantly in doubt.
And this is a wonderful design choice. It’s a shot of adrenaline in a concept—the JRPG battle system—that’s become a little stale. Certainly, a lot of different approaches have been taken to refurbishing the concept, from Radiant Historia’s grid movement based system and Final Fantasy XIII’s more active system, but SMT IV takes the most basic concepts, keeps them the same, and adds excitement by removing the boring parts of the difficulty curve.
It doesn’t let you get comfortable, in other words. By being more difficult, SMT IV can appeal to players who find the traditional JRPG boring. Tales of Xillia, for instance, has massive fields of enemies who barely drain your resources and who present no threat whatsoever to you*. Why fight them? Because one day you’ll find an enemy who destroys you, and it’s easiest to get your experience gradually. It’s long, it’s boring, and it appeals only to people who’ve played these types of games for ages.
SMT IV, by mining the traditional JRPG battle for every ounce of drama and tempo change it can muster, turns smooth jazz into John Coltrane. Its battles are tense and intricate, dances with death instead of slogs through walls of seamless enemies. This embrace of mobile design, unlike some of the other choices, makes a game that’s both more accessible and more exciting, a game I’m excited to finish and play many times more in the future, a work on par with the esteemed Nocturne.
*I’m picking on Xillia a lot, and I’m doing it for two reasons. One, because I’m writing about it in parallel. Two, because it’s the best console JRPG of this generation. It’s really good! It’s just not a sea change on the JRPG at large, and its adherence to some of the genre’s most tired tropes is its greatest problem.