Shin Megami Tensei IV & Apocalypse

The series has officially disappeared up its own butthole. SMT4 is an empty, vapid game that only serves to demonstrate how utterly creatively bankrupt these writers are. I couldn’t even be bothered to watch a playthrough, the plot summary was so stupid my eyes glaze over at the thought. I may have disagreed — strongly — with the execution of previous entries’ ideas, but at least they had ideas. This game doesn’t. It is about nothing, it is nothing.

This game is a reboot AU again with the exact same trite moral choices again and the exact same set of cookie-cutter centrist propaganda endings again (now with bonus xenophobia and nationalism!) because the writers are physically incapable of doing anything else. Where the plot isn’t a shameless rehash of SMT2 it’s completely unhinged fantasy nonsense that has given up on anything approaching coherent real-world commentary. “If a city got caught in the crossfire between God and demons in a way that bears no resemblance to real-life holy wars would that be messed up or –” I DON’T CARE TELL A DIFFERENT STORY FOR ONCE YOU HACKS. The only new addition of any significance is a fourth ending where you decide the only way to end suffering is to destroy the universe because the war between God and demons is eternal, which sure is a hilariously meta response to this soulless husk of a cash-cow franchise. The setting’s problems are only intractable because you keep resetting it, writers, if you hate that so much let the franchise die already.

To add insult to injury, the series artist got shafted and replaced by idiots who think they can slap whatever design they feel like onto established mythological figures:

The left is by the previous artist, the right is by the new one. They are both meant to represent the same angel. Yes, really. All of the angels are similarly overdesigned messes with no relation to any real depictions. Also, Lucifer looks like a Roswell alien instead of his established design for some reason. The previous artist may have had his faults, but at least he was trying. (And in case you were hoping something good came out of this mess, no, they still use his softcore porn design for the regular angels.)

And minor aside, but it amused me: The standard and hilariously untrue “Any similarity to real people is coincidental” disclaimer has now been shortened to just “This is a work of fiction.” Methinks some legal consultation happened here.

The game was somehow so successful it spawned a sidequel, Apocalypse, which I was willing to actually play because I saw it had a gameplay feature I found interesting, and also supposedly it ends with you killing God (again), which sounded cathartic if nothing else.

The good:

  • Human characters now participate in battle without taking up a party slot. (This is the gameplay feature I wanted to experience myself.) They’re AI controlled and have fairly simple abilities, but they’re useful and provide that material connection to your allies I discussed when contrasting SMT1 with SMT3.
  • Fusion search is back, plus a new feature that automatically suggests good demons to fuse on the Cathedral of Shadows root menu.
  • Touch encounters instead of random encounters, hallelujah. (Apparently this started with Persona 3, though, so this game can’t take credit for it.)
  • The new system for learning skills is both very elegant on a mechanical level and thematically relevant to the historical mythology surrounding demons and magic: After demons learn all the skills available to them (via level up), they teach them to the protagonist. This is conceptually similar to Devil Survivor’s skill crack system (in that it ties skill advancement to demon availability), but much easier, thematically resonant, and better-suited to the mainline series’ gameplay structure. I’m just surprised it took the series so long to come up with such an obviously good mechanic.
    • This also means that, for the first time in the mainline series, a magic build is viable, because it’s extremely easy to learn magic skills and unlike in SMT3 you can use the whole spellbook.
  • Hama and Mudo now deal damage like elemental spells, so they’re no longer useless in boss fights and thus actually worth one of your limited skill slots. They still have instakill functionality, but only under special conditions relating to a new gameplay mechanic.
  • Surprisingly gruesome death animations for demons! The animations are generic and keyed to the type of skill used to land the killing blow, rather than unique for each demon, but even with the relatively limited 2D graphics I was impressed by how visceral they were. Physical attacks rip demons in half, gun attacks splatter the screen with blood, fire spells burn demons to nothing, ice spells freeze them solid then shatter violently, and death spells crumble the target to dust. This is the first time in the entire series (yes, even including Cannibalism Simulator) that I felt a real sense of brutality to the fights.
    • Exception: the kill animation for exorcism spells is super goofy (the demon basically gets raptured), but I suppose that’s to be expected.
  • The prologue wastes no time getting to the point. The tutorial is only as long as absolutely necessary and then everything immediately goes to hell for the protagonist (literally lol). This was clearly designed assuming the player was a series veteran and it doesn’t waste time holding your hand. Pokemon, take note.
  • After the disgustingly nationalistic plot of SMT4, a Japanese nationalist does make an appearance as a minor antagonist, and reveals that the National Defense Divinities were created through crimes against humanity. I’d say it’s too little too late, but it’s something.
    • Additionally, Mikado isn’t destroyed in the neutral ending this time.
  • The battle against God is indeed awesome. You basically insult him so much he dies, it’s hilarious.

The bad:

  • Why is Shesha such a cakewalk of a boss fight after all that buildup?
  • Why is Krishna such a brick wall of a boss fight if he supposedly threw the fight?
  • Demon data isn’t displayed when targeting them like it was in SJ and DeSu, and requires you to pull up the analyze submenu instead. Why. You already perfected the UI, designers. All you had to do was literally nothing. Why did you do this.
  • The stat scale has been increased again, this time capping at 999. I genuinely don’t understand why they keep doing this. I like when single stat points feel meaningful.
  • Gaston. Can we have a moratorium on “insufferable arrogant elitist gradually learns to be marginally less of a dumpster fire of a human being” characters, please? This is not a story that needs to be told.
  • YHVH’s universe is such a boring, tedious slog of a final dungeon and completely kills the pacing.
    • The music being a remix of his SMT2 battle theme was cool though.
  • Jailbait mermaid, because BDSM angel wasn’t enough. I can’t get over how her tail is designed like stockings. She looks like someone (specifically, a teenager) wearing a sexy mermaid costume instead of, y’know, a mermaid.
    • What’s especially rich is one of the story scenes has someone admonish succubi for hitting on teenage boys, yet the artists thought nothing of plastering this lolicon garbage on their game.
  • Cleopatra has boobs the size of her head because of course she does.
  • The misogyny. This requires multiple paragraphs, so… we’ll get to it.

The complicated:

  • There are no longer any restrictions on what demons you can recruit. You don’t even need special conditions like the full moon in SMT3, Vile and Haunt demons will happily join up with you same as any other race. I have mixed feelings about this; while it is more convenient, I liked that there were some demons you couldn’t recruit. It added more challenge to the gameplay and more depth to the demons that there were some who refused to work with humans under any circumstances.

So, the plot.

I said the prologue gets straight to the point, and it does: You and a bunch of seemingly important characters are all gruesomely murdered by a crazy strong demon showing up out of nowhere, which does a fantastic job of demonstrating just how scary and dangerous the setting really is as well as giving you a very personal stake in the war against the demons. You are then resurrected by Dagda in exchange for servitude, which I found a clever reversal of the standard series mechanic of enslaving demons. It also serves as an elegant solution to the “But thou must!” choices: You can, in fact, refuse to do the Obviously Bad Idea, but your demon master puppets you into doing it anyway.

Of course, it wouldn’t be SMT if it didn’t squander a great premise. Despite Dagda repeatedly gloating (in front of your friends, because he’s an idiot) that you’re nothing but his puppet, he is a remarkably permissive slavemaster; he only forces your hand on a few plot-critical decisions, and instead focuses on attempting to genuinely convince you he’s in the right even though your opinion on his philosophy shouldn’t matter. (He also insists you’re nothing but a walking corpse, except you still possess your soul and exorcism immunity, so you’re clearly “alive” by the universe’s metaphysics.) So what could have been both an excellent “trapped in your own body” horror premise and a cheeky commentary on linear gameplay is just confusing and nonsensical. If Dagda is so insistent friends are worthless and I shouldn’t trust anyone, why does he allow me to be nice to Asahi and constantly induct more people into my found family?

Don’t worry, it gets worse: the plot is insanely xenophobic. It appears I judged the series writers too quickly; it’s not only Christianity they give a pitifully shallow and puerile portrayal, but all non-Japanese religions. See, the villains of this game are an alliance of all the non-Christian and non-Japanese gods, who seek revenge on YHVH for subjugating them and branding them as “demons” in a very blatant allegory for Christian imperialism. For some reason, instead of being portrayed as completely justified in this, they are portrayed as just as one-dimensionally evil as YHVH. (Possibly you are supposed to sympathize with them a little but think they ~go too far~? idk) You can tell they’re evil because they’re foreign, you see.

I’m not exaggerating, they literally say it.

To really emphasize how utterly nonsensical and bad-faith the writers are being about this: The big bad and leader of the pagan alliance is Krishna.

Krishna. The Hindu god of compassion. One of the most popular and beloved deities in Hinduism. That Krishna. Out of all gods from all mythologies, that’s who they chose to be their cackling evil big bad.

This has now gone beyond a fairly justified hatred of the foreign religion that was imperialistically forced upon Japan; they just hate everything that isn’t Japanese. (There is a token line that some of the Shinto gods sided with the evil pagans, but I sure didn’t see any.) What could have been an interesting kitchen sink setting meaningfully engaging with the mythologies of disparate cultures has become a shallow, nationalistic screed filled with poorly-written strawmen OCs with “this is totally [real mythological figure]!!!” scribbled on top. Truly, truly disappointing.

What I really can’t get over is how one-sided this is: There is no option to side with the pagan gods, not even as a glorified game over like the Law and Chaos endings. You can murder all your friends to take the Empyrean throne for yourself, but agreeing with Krishna, that’s a bridge too far. (It’s especially weird when Krishna and Dagda’s philosophies are essentially the same as Shijima and Musubi, respectively, from SMT3, and we were allowed a choice there.) I always find it very telling what choices these “Your Choices Matter!” video games refuse to even consider.

Also, the pagan alliance’s master plan is to kill all humans so their souls can be freed from the current awful world and reincarnate in the new world they create, and this is portrayed as horrific. Not only is that pretty rich coming from the same series that gave us this garbage:

Death is awesome UNLESS HINDUS DO IT

…but the gods are objectively right here? If immortal souls and reincarnation actually exist, then yeah, killing people so they can be reborn in a better world is actually a perfectly valid idea. You’re not ending their existence, you’re just transferring them to a new one.

Krishna even explicitly makes this point, but the characters just ignore it. There are definitely valid objections to raise because it’s a very ends-justifies-the-means plan, but the characters’ only objection is “killing bad”. They’re operating purely by the morality of our world, where death is permanent, instead of engaging with how the supernatural changes these ethics. I can understand why they did it this way — when death hath no dominion and everyone’s immortal it’s basically the ethical calculus equivalent of dividing by zero — but it results in an incoherent moral reasoning.

But hey, at least this means the story won’t be pro-death garbage right LOLNOPE

Why do these writers keep writing about transhumanism when they hate it so much.

Oh and then after all that you’re told ACTUALLY IT WAS ALL GOD’S FAULT GO KILL HIM TOO because we can’t let even a single game be about someone other than YHVH.

(Also, the voiced dialogue renders “YHVH” as a glitched record-needle scratch, which I get is a way to get around the fact we don’t know how it’s supposed to be pronounced, but it’s so goofy. Couldn’t have just had the voice actors say “God” or “the Creator”?)

And speaking of Christianity… the plot hates women so much. Except for Nozomi (who is the best), all the women are pathetic mousey support characters whose lives revolve entirely around men. (Asahi in particular is literally a support character, as she learns nothing but healing spells.) Asahi’s dad constantly tells you that he knows you can handle yourself but you need to watch out for Asahi because she’s so stupid and reckless. The opening features every NPC and their dog talking up Flynn like he’s the Second Coming, but Isabeau isn’t mentioned at all until we see her in person, even though that very scene establishes she clings to Flynn like a shadow. Then when the Divine Powers show up to kidnap Flynn, they force him to surrender by holding your waifu hostage, at which point he of course goes “I suppose I have no choice but to let you massacre tons of people in order to save some girl I barely know,” while Isabeau just stands there and watches because she is useless. Isabeau continues to do nothing for the next several hours, even though her introduction establishes her to be just as OP as Flynn, and only enters the plot when she joins up with you… because she wants to participate in Flynn’s rescue. Though I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything more from Ms. “I’m killing myself so ~your hands won’t be stained~ uwu

And that’s not even getting into everything about Toki, which is just… ugh. Uuuuuugggghhhh. “I refuse to be an old woman’s slave anymore! I want to be a hot boy’s slave instead.” Followed by an incredibly stupid and awkward love triangle with your sister, because of course! It’s not like the world is at stake or anything, no, we definitely have to make time for Hot Teen Romance With Bonus Incest. (Don’t worry, you’re not blood related, you only call the same person Dad, so it’s cool!) Later we get the exact same “Do you peek on the girls while they’re changing teehee” choice we got in Devil Survivor 2, because the writers see no problem with attaching childish porn to their manifesto about war, religion, and the future of humanity. It’s like Bidoof’s Law, but in published media people attached their actual names to.

SMT clearly wants to play in the big leagues where it gets to commentate on real-world politics and philosophy, and that means we have to hold it to a higher standard. What is any of this an allegory for? What is this commentating on? At least there are answers to these questions, unlike in SMT4, but those answers are incoherent when they aren’t downright offensive. Pagan faiths pushing back against Christian imperialism is… bad, because… religion/gods are inherently bad? And they’re bad because a strawman OC kills puppies while stating his goals. At least I think that’s what the story is trying to say.

At the end, right before you fight YHVH, you’re told the following things about this universe’s cosmology:

  1. Gods and demons are anthropomorphic personifications of natural phenomena, and humans have the unique ability to literally bring these personifications to life by observing and defining the natural world.
  2. This ability was given to them by YHVH.

The first point is something I, as an atheist, would agree is an accurate analysis of religion, and is a sensible explanation of where demons come from in this universe and why they behave like mirrors of humanity. However, it is immediately undercut by the second point: If humans only have this power by the will of God, that means God predated humanity and is, in fact, an actual god, not just a creation of humanity like other demons. Religion is fake, except God, God and God alone is real.

As I make my way through this series, it’s very surreal to see the writers’ bizarre love-hate relationship with the Christian God. They consistently characterize him as absolutely, irredeemably evil in ways even I as an anti-Christian atheist find slanderous and absurd; yet at the same time they agree that yes, he really is the specialest most important being in the universe, he really did create the world and humanity and everything really does revolve around him. Plenty of other religions attribute the creation of the universe to their gods, but no, this one creator god is the real creator and everyone else is a fake. Even though the series is ostensibly anti-Christian, it does so from what feels like a very Christian perspective; the cosmology implicitly confirms Christianity’s claim of being the one true religion. They can say God is evil, but they can’t say God is fake. And they can’t stop picking at the scab, either; outside of spinoffs like Digital Devil Saga, they can’t spend even one game depicting a universe YHVH isn’t the center of. Over and over, every single time, the conflict is YHVH vs. everyone else. This is clearly a deep psychological obsession of theirs, and I can’t quite understand why. As someone who also enjoys mythology, Christianity’s is just not that interesting, guys. You have your pick of every mythology in all of human history and you choose the most boring one every time? Why? Tell a different story for once, you hacks.


  1. Seed of Bismuth says:

    first none of the image links work for me. So assuming this is the mermaid design your talking about:

    Because aside from the fish-scale lingerie, that design is just lifted straight from the 110 year Little Mermaid bronze statue which yes also had small breast and legs fuse-ing into fish tail after the knees. I bring this up because the Actress hired for the statues likeness refused to do nudes so The Little Mermaid’s head is a then famous Actress and the naked bodies The Sculture’s, then 28 yr old, Wife.

    To Be Clear. I do not like SMT mermaid design. And Japan obviously has a Lolicon problem. But i honestly think in this case your crying wolf.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      I will admit I was playing SMTV at the same time as this, and the Mermaid there uses the same design but is much more blatantly underage (see the updated link), which colored my view of this one. I do think it reflects poorly on the artistic intent that when the 2D image was updated to 3D, they made sure to emphasize that aspect.

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