Written by guest writer and friend of the site, Ethan Morris.
It’s been a while since a game burned me quite like Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse. There was every reason to expect this game would be excellent. The original SMT IV released in 2013 was excellent and this game is a direct successor built on the same technology and developed under the same creative leads. The developer Atlus has carved out a niche supplying high quality mechanics focused JRPG titles in a world where most other developers in the genre are prioritizing narrative, spectacle, or waifus. The critical reception of the title has been positive and the average score exceeds even the original SMT IV.
Despite all that when I finished my time with the game I was left to conclude that this game is bad! It pales in comparison to the original SMT IV. To effectively juxtapose the two let me first explain what made SMT IV so good.
SMT IV is a game about Japan. The game opens in the “Eastern Kingdom of Mikado” which is characterized by a feudal class system, pre-industrial technologies, a Samurai warrior tradition, and ethnic homogeneity. It is isolated from any other civilization. This represents an ideal Japan, a vision of the peaceful prosperity the country historically fought to preserve and protect from the corrupting influences of the outside world. In case the symbolism here wasn’t clear enough, this kingdom isn’t even East of anything! It’s the “Eastern” Kingdom of Mikado solely to reinforce geographic association.
Several hours into the game the player leaves the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and enters a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. This is a version of Japan where humans struggle to survive; they have been overrun by demons of every mythological tradition. Again the game is not subtle with symbolism. The inciting incident that kicks off the story is a false prophet from another land spreading forbidden texts and encouraging foreign forms of worship. Those who follow her path become demons themselves, losing their identity as citizens of Mikado.
Down in Tokyo the player travels to the Ikebukero district, explores a dungeon full of Chinese demons, and eventually defeats the Chinese mother goddess Xi Wangmu. Xi Wangmu is made vulnerable because a group of Japanese warriors recently devoured are difficult to digest. Their indomitable spirit even from within her belly weakens her. Once she has been slain the area is repopulated with demons from Japanese mythology. The invaders are cast out, they were unable to assimilate the Japanese into themselves.
These examples illustrate the key symbols in the game. Demons represent outsiders; Mikado represents Japan without foreign influence. Symbols are not an end unto themselves though, what is important is the way SMT IV leverages these symbols to say something. This is where the Shin Megami Tensei tradition of offering a variety of endings becomes relevant. The player is given three options and the game provides preset endings showing how those work out.
You can choose to ally yourself with the demons in Tokyo and march on Mikado; this is the ending of Chaos. If you choose this the game shows Mikado in flames. A character asks who will have the strength to rule this ruined land. The statement is clear. Should the distinct history and identity of Japan be fully subsumed by the outside world then the result will be anarchy.
You can choose a neutral path, unambiguously the “good” ending of the game. In this ending the surviving people of Tokyo are given a chance to build a new life in Mikado and Mikado’s xenophobic rulers are put to the sword. This is basically the happily ever after, refugees from Tokyo are able to live safely and Mikado modernizes to incorporate good aspects of the outside world such as technology and social mobility. When considered with the symbolism of the game in mind the statement becomes one of moderation. Traditional Japanese ways are necessary for the people of modern Japan to maintain their identity and security, but these traditions must not be treated as immutable dogma.
The final ending option is to defend Mikado from all “unclean ones” living in Tokyo; this is the ending of Law. If you end up on this path then your final action is to destroy Tokyo and all those living in it. Your goal is to ensure that there can be no further corruption of your homeland. The main character stays in Tokyo to die with those he has condemned as he too has been “stained with their blood.” The final images are of the fictional Mikado existing in perpetuity, never changing in any way.
Many disliked this ending for being terse and incorporating suicide. I say that this is the best ending. The statement made by the ending is the easiest to interpret and the most confrontational. “Japan can no longer be extricated from the outside world. To purge that influence would be to destroy Japan. We are all unclean ones now.”
Shin Megami Tensei IV is not a masterpiece of storytelling. The plot is largely illogical, the characters are static, and boy those first 5 hours of the game are a dull slog. And I completely understand that the messages here are by the Japanese, for the Japanese, and about the Japanese. But it’s a game actually about something and it communicates its themes effectively. In today’s JRPG landscape finding such a game is like finding a unicorn. This is a story that could only come from a country with Japan’s unique past and present.
Now let’s talk about SMT IV Apocalypse.
It’s a story about the power of friendship overcoming evil.
What a fucking bummer.