|Release Date Sep 20, 2016|
To understand Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse, you need to think of it as a b-side.
The Nintendo 3DS title — known as Shin Megami Tensei 4: Final in Japan — is not exactly a sequel to Shin Megami Tensei 4, but it’s more than a director’s cut of the original game. It’s an alternate story starring a different hero and some new pals, set in the same universe and time frame as SMT4. Sort of. Apocalypse takes place during a specific path of SMT4’s multiple endings and amends the would-be events of that timeline significantly.
Atlus doesn’t pull off this continuation — or alteration, depending on how you look at it — flawlessly. Apocalypse can’t match the stand-alone power of SMT4; its story and cast feel like a bonus chapter to an already good book. But it smartly reuses its predecessor’s strengths and even improves on some of them in a way that feels admirable.
In Apocalypse, a teenage hunter-in-training named Nanashi and his friend Asahi live in demon-filled Tokyo in the late 2030s. As in SMT4, the Tokyo of their world is a dark one, rocked by a war between angels and demons many years prior that left the city decimated. A pocket of humanity lives outside of this barren hellscape in a feudal-era enclosure known as Mikado — where SMT4’s samurai heroes originally hailed from.
Apocalypse has more in common with its predecessor than returning characters
Unlike SMT4, Apocalypse’s leads are of the younger sort. Nanashi and Asahi are an untested duo, and when the pair runs into trouble, Nanashi is killed alongside several of his friends. Nanashi’s time in the underworld, however, is short. A demon named Dagda offers to resurrect him at a cost: Nanashi will become his Godslayer, effectively a meat puppet that exists only to do Dagda’s bidding. Dagda’s greater intentions are explored in the game’s larger story, which pulls angels, demons and everyone in-between into a devastating conflict. As the plot progresses, Nanashi will come across SMT4’s lead, Flynn, as well as Isabeau, Navarre and several other key characters from that game.
Apocalypse has more in common with its predecessor than returning characters. It explores several of the same locations of the original game, albeit with some new dungeons. Much of your time is spent running around Tokyo, whether navigating the region at large as a simple icon on an expansive, overheard map, using fast-travel or getting to explore each new area and its buildings up close. Apocalypse is rife with backtracking — more so if you spent any amount of time with SMT4. Where SMT4’s map was a headache, however, Apocalypse makes this process a little smoother; the game’s added "goal" icon, a flashing flag, will at least help you navigate to each destination with ease.
Apocalypse is keen on refinement, and it shows in more places than one. The game deepens the franchise’s core concept of recruiting, fusing and controlling demons. Nanashi can use up to three demons at a time as allies in battle, with the option to swap out party members for others in stock. As you explore new areas, you’ll also run into new demons. Convincing them to join your party, however, is harder than a simple talk. Some demons will ask for health, special items or money, while others will con you out of all three before fleeing the battle entirely. While there are ways to make this process easier — SMT4’s app system, which also allows you to improve general skills or choose perks, returns — each demon ally feels like a friend well-earned. There’s a push-pull tension to each negotiation; success is never easy or guaranteed.
While much of this original system remains intact, Apocalypse positively tweaks the way you interact with demons. A demon too high-level to recruit, for example, will call a friend to take their place in your party rather than leaving you empty-handed. Demons will also chat with you once they’re in your party, sometimes offering you the chance to change their skills or gifting you items.
Demons aren’t the only allies to see improvement; your human companions are better suited than ever for battle. The game has a cast of revolving characters that join you on your mission, of which you can select a main partner to join you in battle. Where SMT4 saw one of Flynn’s fellow samurai jumping into help at random, Apocalypse makes support feel intentional and satisfying. Different partners offer different abilities — from healing or buffs to impressive offensive skills — and once you fill your assist gauge, your entire crew will jump in with an extra powerful attack.
Apocalypse deftly improves on its battles and systems related to it, but fails to hit that level of success with its story. It may veer into new narrative direction, but it’s a tale that still feels more like a companion to SMT4 than a necessary tale. Most of your efforts are to help Flynn, SMT4’s hero, which fails to cement Nanashi as an independent main character. His purpose from the start is to be a puppet, and it’s a role that he fulfills well. The game will also occasionally dangle a choice in front of you, only to have Dagda yank your leash and decide for you. You, and the actions you take, belong to him.
This pattern is broken during key moments, but these options fall flat. Where the original game threaded interesting and often substantial choices during its adventure, Apocalypse seems to only serve the Big Options. These paths didn’t feel like choices at all, but rather straight shots to specific (and mostly "bad," clearly non-canonical) endings.
There’s just not as much story depth to be found as there was in SMT4. That’s not to say the plot is bad, or the cast is weak; characters like Dagda, a demon whose cool attitude and confidence made me eager to see him on screen whenever possible, are worth the trip. Where Flynn and his companions always seemed capable enough to win, Nanashi and his friends are more of the bumbling sort. I enjoyed seeing a younger cast wrestle with the complexities of an objectively bad life, but it couldn’t match the plot of the core SMT4.
Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse is a familiar, yet enjoyable journey
It’s hard not to compare Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse directly to its predecessor, but that comparison doesn’t really do the game justice. Apocalypse is more robust than the average remix, and in some ways it’s even better made than Shin Megami Tensei 4. It piggybacks on the game that came before it, but Apocalypse introduces just enough improvements to the original to be a meaningful improvement that’s worth experiencing — as long as you can handle a little déjà vu.
Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse was reviewed using Nintendo 3DS code provided by Atlus. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews