Shin Megami Tensei IV (English translation: true reincarnation of the goddess) is a turn-based role-playing game with dungeon crawling.
You play as Flynn, a young man who becomes a Samurai to protect the holy land of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. You control demons to fight at your side while shaping the world through your choices and moral alignment: Law, Chaos, or Neutral.
Pro Highly challenging, yet rewarding turn-based combat
The battles in the Shin Megami Tensei series are unforgiving in how difficult they are, and SMT IV is no exception. You fight with a party of demons you collect, aiming to pinpoint your enemy's elemental weaknesses and exploit them. Once you find the weakness, you're rewarded with an extra turn; if you keep landing the right attacks, then the game lets you chain a finite number of turns one after another. If you don't look up a guide, then finding weaknesses is a matter of trial and error, and hoping you don't die while you figure things out.
But this also applies to your enemies -- if they exploit your weaknesses, then they get extra turns instead. Most of the opponents you come across hit for a ton of damage, so you absolutely need to take advantage of gaining extra turns. And as you get farther along in the game, you get access to buffs to your party's attack, defense, evasion, and more, as well as debuffs to debilitate your foes. As you get better with the combat and earn some tough victories, the sense of satisfaction you get helps you to keep pushing forward.
Pro Philosophical story where you shape the fate of the world
Shin Megami Tensei IV is all about letting you decide what is just and what is right in a malleable world. You start off as a Samurai who follows orders from his superiors, but you and your friends and fellow Samurai learn that not all is as it seems. Gaining knowledge and power to change the world so that the strong rule the weak, upholding the status quo where God's word is law, or allowing humans to decide their own fate without demons or gods: your journey ultimately takes you down one of these three paths. It's up to you to go with whatever worldview fits your moral alignment best: Chaos, Law, or Neutrality.
Pro Your moral choices branch out to multiple endings
Your choices throughout the game determine which of the three alignments you fall under. Whether you lean toward Chaos with the demons, Law with the angels, or the Neutral alignment that rejects Law and Chaos, the latter half of the game changes to reflect your views. Characters who were once antagonists can become your allies, or vice-versa, depending on which path you follow. The world shapes itself in drastic ways through your choices, leading you down different branches, each with their own separate locations to explore, powerful bosses to defeat, and unique endings that follow.
Pro You get to collect and control many types of demons and angels to fight in battle
Demons and angels act as your party members in battle. While fighting, you can recruit almost any enemy demon or angel as long as it's at your level or below, through a process called demon negotiation. You barter with them through a conversation before asking it to join you; if it likes you, and if you give it the items, money, and whatever else it asks you for, it may join your party. You can then fuse angels or demons together to create stronger allies with better abilities. And there are hundreds of different types of demons and angels with their own fitting designs and relevant mythological lore, ranging from familiar names like Shiva, Lilith, Valkyrie, Phoenix, Raphael, and many many more.
Pro Brilliant music with a unique sound
The music in this game is on another level. Right from the opening main theme, it sets the tone with an otherworldly song with real weight and gravity, like the pulsing of the planet itself. This type of sound comes up in other tracks as a great leitmotif, with the oppressive sound fitting with the bleak and philosophical narrative tones. Other songs mix in rock sounds with classical or even hip-hop influences, making for some memorable moments when an unexpected track kicks in. Some of the boss music, especially later in the game, are quite inventive, with some of them sounding downright mind-bending in how experimental they are. It's an overall incredible collection that stays with you for a long time.
Pro Unusual and clever setting
Shin Megami Tensei IV takes place in a medieval-style society in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, with some modern-looking technology like the Demon Summoning Program that allows you to control demons. To say why would be a spoiler, but the mystery is at the heart of the game's narrative. If you've never played a Shin Megami Tensei game before, the explanation for everything does a nice job at playing on your expectations.
Con Harsh learning curve in the first dungeon
The first dungeon, Naraku, is really, really tough, especially if you're not familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei games. You're basically thrown into the area with basic gear and a few items against demons who can easily kill you in a few hits. You have to recruit demons to your party to even the odds, but this is easier said than done. You may find yourself having a hard time if the demons you try to recruit end up killing you instead. If you get overwhelmed, you can always make your way back out the dungeon, heal up and save, and then continue.
Con Uneven level of difficulty
There are a few things that throw off the overall difficulty. Some of the earlier bosses can be too hard and downright cheap in comparison to others, making things unbalanced. Also, in both regular battles and boss fights, if an enemy uses a light or dark spell and hits your main character, there's a chance that you will be instantly killed, resulting in a game over. But as long as you do your best to prepare for these bosses, and make sure to save often to not lose as much progress from possible instakills, you should be fine.
Con Finding where you need to go on the world map is a pain
Once the game opens up, it's great, except the map is terrible for getting around. Sometimes you won't even know exactly where you have to go: it's just a matter of wandering around until you find the place. Or you do have an idea of your next objective, but the map ends up giving you a hard time. There are way too many dead-ends and fields of poison that you run into -- these, on top of not knowing where to go, makes navigation one of the worst parts of the game. If you want to avoid the headaches, you can find a guide online to help you get around.
Con Annoying and obtuse demon negotiation mechanics
Demon negotiation is a cool concept, but it doesn't always work as intended. When talking to a demon, the answers you give them affect whether or not they decide to join you. Aside from trying to appease their personality types (being playful with young demons, flirting with female demons, and so on), there isn't much you can to do know what it is they want. And there are a number of times when, after answering questions correctly and giving the demon your items, money, etc., it decides not to join you and runs off with all of your stuff. It's incredibly irritating with little rhyme or reason behind the mechanics.
Con The Law and Chaos alignments are black-and-white
There's little depth or nuance to the ending paths you experience if your alignment ends up siding with Law or Chaos. Certain characters represent each alignment, but these characters are static with hardly any development, and their reasons for going down these routes can be interpreted as too extreme for players to sympathize with. You may find yourself wanting to go down the Neutral path instead and rejecting Law and Chaos, but it's quite difficult to get this alignment for the ending, since it's determined by a hidden score from answering questions throughout the game.