Shin Megami Tensei IV has the challenging task of introducing Western gamers to the mainline series, further opening the door for SMT to hopefully become as big a brand over here as it is in its native country. While Shin Megami Tensei IV has certainly done an outstanding job in the gameplay department, I feel the game widely misses the mark where it counts the most.
You play as Flynn, a silent protagonist from a peaceful realm known as the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. Every person who reaches the age of majority is required to undergo the Gauntlet Rite, where they're asked to put on a mystical gauntlet. If the gauntlet accepts you as its master, then you are inducted into the order of Samurai, a warrior caste with the duty of vanquishing demons. Because you're the main character and it would be a very short game if you were sent home, you can imagine what happens when Flynn takes the rite.
From then on the story loses relevance and impact at an alarming rate. We're introduced to three fellow samurai: Walter, Jonathan, and Isabeau. It should be quite telling that, even though I've clocked a good 90 hours into the game, I can't say much about them because they're so forgettable. Walter is brash and outspoken, Jonathan is calm and reasonable, and Isabeau is ... well, she so rarely says or does anything of note that I don't really know what her deal is.
Herein lies the greatest flaw of this game. From the very instant these characters open their mouths they become instantly bland. There are no dimensions or hidden depths to them, only their one-note character traits. To compound this, none of them evolve over time. This is a shame, because a little character development would have gone a long way. Walter, for example, clearly has a chip on his shoulder due to having been born in a lower class family, but because this facet of his character is never truly explored, it's difficult to empathize with him. Contrast this with characters such as the Black Samurai and Nozomi who, despite their limited appearances, manage to show more personality than the entire main cast combined.
It doesn't help that the plot can be best describe in two words: wasted potential. There is certainly the makings of a great story here, but the game spends next to no time fleshing out the characters and very little time exploring the implications of the things that are happening around the heroes. Therefore, when a big plot moment comes it has no real impact. Something happens, the characters comment about it a little, then you move on. There is never a feeling that the events of the game are having an impact on the world or the characters personally. The only character/plot device which comes close is the Black Samurai, but she appears so infrequently that its easy to forget that she is even in the game. That's a shame, because the Black Samurai makes an excellent foil for our heroes on the few occasions she does actually get to appear on screen.
The saving grace of Shin Megami Tensei IV is its gameplay. If you can look past the lackluster characters and story, you'll find a truly exceptional RPG experience that is genuinely fun, if not downright addictive. As a Samurai, you have the power to summon demons to aid you in combat. These demons take up three slots in your party, and you can mix and match them however you like. You may gain new demons to command by talking to your enemies and convincing them to join you. Talking to the demons is tricky business, as they have distinct personalities and, much like talking to complete strangers in real life, it is difficult to guess which response might please or offend them.
Once you've gained a few demons, you may then fuse two or more of them to create an entirely new demon which inherits the special skills of its fusion materials. Fusion is the best way to amass a party of strong demons to help you overcome the challenging battles ahead. This is where the addictive quality of the game comes into play. It's quite easy to become so lost in gathering more demons and fusing them to create the perfect team that any faults in the story seem irrelevant. This makes leveling up particularly rewarding, as each level your character gains unlocks more powerful demons for you to create via fusion.
A side note: One may be tempted to think of Shin Megami Tensei as a Pokemon knockoff, or "Pokemon with demons." However, the SMT series invented the monster collection genre back in 1987, 9 years before Pokemon was released. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that, if anything, Pokemon is a Shin Megami Tensei knockoff, or "SMT with yellow lightning rats."
Combat can be a grueling experience for the unprepared. Even if you are adequately equipped, you may find yourself taking a severe beating if the enemy manages to get a preemptive turn. It's not uncommon to find your party decimated, if not killed off outright, by enemies quite a few levels lower than yourself simply because they got the first turn. Unless you've mastered the game to the point where you have an absurdly powerful party, each new battle could potentially be the one that ends you, or, at the very least, forces you to spend a revival item on one or two of your demons.
To mitigate potential frustration, you're allowed to save anywhere. Even if you haven't saved in a while, you can pay Charon, the Ferryman of Souls, to revive your party and put them back exactly where you left off. You may pay using Macca, the in-game currency, or Nintendo 3DS play coins. If that's still not enough, dying a few times unlocks an easier difficulty setting. This allows the game to be accessible to newcomers while still providing long-time fans with the nail-biting difficulty that Atlus has become infamous for.
Fighting demons is a strategic affair. Your party's combat turns are represented by icons known as press turns. You get one for each member in your party. Taking an action depletes a press turn, and the round switches over to your enemies once you've used them all. Land a critical hit or attack an enemy with an elemental spell they're weak to and you will only use half a press turn. By exploiting enemy weaknesses in this way, you can easily double the amount of actions you can take during your turn. Critical hits and weakness exploiting also has the possibility of making the one who just attacked smirk. A smirking party member will do more damage with their next attack and has an extremely high chance of dodging an enemy attack.
The press turn system works both ways, however. If an enemy gets a critical hit on you or hits one of your party members with an elemental spell he's weak to, they get more turns and can smirk as well. Also, if your attack misses or you hit an enemy with an element they're immune to, you'll use up two of your press turns instead of one. If you're unlucky enough to have your attack reflected back at you or drained, you lose all of your press turns immediately. Therefore, it's a good idea to create a party with a diverse array of attacks and elemental defenses to gain the maximum advantage.
In summation, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a definite must-buy for fans of JRPGs. While you're unlikely to be moved to tears by the stirring narrative, the addictive monster collecting and party customization combined with a challenging combat system is enough to pull a player in and make him wonder where the time went when he looks up from his 3DS and discovers that hours have passed.