The "Shin Megami Tensei" series is the most popular Japanese role-playing game that Americans don't know about. Despite being on par with "Final Fantasy" and "Dragon Quest," it's been fairly unknown stateside. That's starting to change as the "Persona" spinoff gains traction and other works by the same team are discovered.
With "Shin Megami Tensei IV," the franchise is poised to take another step in the public consciousness. The latest entry throws players into the unusual kingdom of Mikado, which looks like a cross between medieval Europe and feudal Japan. But they quickly will discover anachronisms that make the world more than what it seems, and they take players to locales such as a post-apocalyptic Tokyo.
It's this unusual setting that separates the franchise from its peers and may explain why its past entries have steadily gained ground. The genre is burned out on the same Japanese role-playing game motifs of yesteryear. The "Shin Megami Tensei" series offers a different take. As Flynn (or whatever you name the protagonist), players build a squad of monsters by sometimes talking to enemies and persuading them to join their side.
But that's easier said than done because the creatures -- called demons -- have their own personalities, and sometimes they may con players a few times before they're recruited. The learning curve is steep for newcomers, but once they get a group running, it becomes familiar as they learn the finer
points of the turn-based combat, such as finding an opponent's weakness to gain an extra attack.
That's as conventional as the gameplay gets. Players have to figure out the other part of building a menagerie of monsters -- fusing them to create more powerful creatures. That's done via the Cathedral of Shadows, and it adds endless depth. Players will spend hours rearranging their demons, comparing them and figuring out the right combination for the quest.
Because players only control the protagonist and his monsters, this sets up a fluid scenario for each battle. Characters won't fall into a specific role in each scenario. During many fights, the hero will change hats -- from offensive juggernaut to healer to commander who dismisses and summons recruits. That's one of the hallmarks of the franchise, and it's part of the reason it will delight those coming into the series.
Players don't need to know the story behind the past entries. Despite the bare-bones overworld (it's just a series of menus and bland pictures), "Shin Megami Tensei IV" manages to engross players in its strange universe, where class warfare starts bubbling up and the protagonist faces daunting choices. It's a refreshing change of pace from the usual fantasy fare.
'Shin Megami Tensei IV'
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Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/gcacho.