The Shin Megami Tensei series is the progenitor of the more recognizable Persona franchise – a dark, disturbing jaunt through bizarre landscapes and absurd plot points. While players may wish to play Shin Megami Tensei IV before Apocalypse for full context, knowledge of the recurring characters has minimal impact on any understanding of the story. Apocalypse is a rare gem that stands out by featuring an absolutely off-the-wall narrative, flavorful characters and bosses, and masterful demonic fusion that is a massive boon for fans of turn-based RPG combat.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo in a three-way war between otherworldly forces, you set out in search of food for your ragtag colony. Things get grim when a demon murders you in the opening moments, setting the pace for you to start summoning your own demons out of your phone. Things only get crazier as you, the “Godslayer,” take on massive icons from mythology and religion, and humanity quakes under the might of the ongoing faction war. The story is constantly shifting and absolutely insane, making it a novelty to follow, but you don’t have to in order to enjoy the things that make Apocalypse great. While I enjoyed the mythological influences, the plot didn’t hold my interest outside of the sheer lunacy of it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics of Shin Megami Tensei, you solve combat problems with chatting as well as the typical slashing and casting. While players can choose where to allocate ability points to create a playstyle all their own, the best part is summoning incredible demon combinations that can lay waste to your enemies, packed with perfectly picked skill lists and boosted stats. How do you get these demons to fuse together to create the perfect party member? By talking it out. Ludicrous exchanges with enemies during combat often focus on the player empathizing, threatening, or bribing demons to come along for the ride and filling out party slots. Your options for bringing demons onboard are difficult at first, as the conversations offer completely random chances of success or failure and difficult or impossible demands, but as you grow you obtain tools to bring even the most curmudgeonly character under your control.
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You learn abilities and make them more powerful via your demonic retinue. Through judicious use of ability points, you can forge huge demons far above your level, have them bring friends along when recruited, and give you gifts. Little is more satisfying than creating an ultimate team ready to handle any encounter, then creating a whole new one a few levels later and smashing a god to pieces. The customization and care that go into creating the perfect entourage make Apocalypse intensely satisfying for casual dark Pokémasters and hardcore min/maxing mixologists.
Other than the story, not a whole lot is new. If you played Shin Megami Tensei IV and enjoyed it, you get more to love here with some small new additions and iterative improvements. Players now have the option of picking a sidekick to support their playstyle; if you want a dedicated healer, support, or attacker, you can throw them into your turn order to provide some critical backup. Selecting your assist ally is new, but it doesn’t make much difference. Moving around the map can be frustrating at times, especially if you decide to take a break for a while. While handy quest markers are available, they don’t often show you how to get to a critical location, and moving around environments that all look similar can be frustrating. Breaking into special areas with the use of a timed buff (you have to run to get to the right place in time) also feels like a bit of a chore. As with many traditional JRPGs, the game runs the risk of getting grindy and repetitive at times as you try to track down specific demons or run up a few levels to get through a dungeon, but it’s not too overbearing.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is a rich RPG experience that’s a respectable addition to the franchise, an often twisted turn-based take on things that flies in the face of more sterilized fare. Despite some minor quibbles, it stands out as one of the finest traditional JRPGs available on the 3DS, an easy choice for franchise veterans and a compelling entry point for someone looking to take a dark dip into something strange and striking.