Friday, August 8, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei 4-1's Problems

Hey, reader peoples. Have you ever noticed how totally thoughtless I am to your convenience by never providing links in my rants to previous rants which I reference? Well, no more! I've gone through all my previous rants and updated them to include links to other rants whenever they're mentioned, and all future rants will also have this basic, simple, why-the-hell-hasn't-he-done-this-for-years-before-now feature. W00t! And now, back to the rant.

In July 2013, Shin Megami Tensei 4 was released in North America, and in celebration, I decided to do an SMT rant once a month for a year. It was actually a lot of fun--I wouldn’t have thought I’d have had 12 rants to make about the series until I pushed myself to look at it and see what stood out and what I had a particular opinion on. I enjoyed criticizing it at times, praising it at others, and sometimes just expounding on whatever theories popped into my head. It’s proper for the blog, too; before this past year, I really didn’t have enough rants here for such a large and notable RPG series. But all good things must come to an end. Last month I finished that year out with a rant on Shin Megami Tensei 4, and, well, that’s proper and good, because my excitement for SMT4 is what started the whole thing. Still, that was a rant on gameplay mechanics of the title, and while I obviously have no problem ranting about such things, anyone familiar with this blog knows that gameplay never seriously enters my mind as criteria for how good or bad an RPG is. So I thought I’d make just 1 more rant on the fourth game to properly close Shin Megami Tensei Rant Year, something of a little more significance than just my adventures in do-it-yourself hair removal with the Fiend encounter rate.

Unfortunately, that still means closing SMT Rant Year out on a negative note, because to me, the most noticeable things of significance about Shin Megami Tensei 4 tend to be negative ones.

Let’s not start off with the wrong idea, though. Shin Megami Tensei 4 is not a bad RPG. It’s actually pretty decent. No, wait, that’s not an accurate or fair assessment. By itself, SMT4 is not just decent, it’s good. But I tend to think of it as actually only being okay, and not better than that, and that’s because I’m comparing it to the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei series, a series with such consistently high standards that even a solidly good title like SMT4 seems only passable. But high standards or not, it’s not a bad RPG. There are a lot of ideas in its plot that are interesting and creative, it has purpose, it relates well to its spiritual predecessors SMT1 and 2 while standing on its own, and there are several moments in its course that are really handled well, like the atmosphere of anticipation and the unknown during the first descent from Mikado to Tokyo, the fights against the Minotaur, Xi Wangmu, and Isabeau*, the tragedy of Issachar, the sidequest with Nozomi and Black Maria, and the dungeon in which the secrets of the Ashura-kai are revealed--that’s just a fantastic one right there.

Still, for all the good things that SMT4 has going for it, it’s got some pretty heavy flaws that really lessen its power as a story and as a tool of philosophy. One of the biggest problems is understanding the game’s back history. The events of SMT4, the lands of both Mikado and Tokyo, the beliefs of The White, the current conflicts between Law and Chaos, the travel to alternate worlds, and the ultimate question of what philosophy Flynn (protagonist) will throw his lot in with, all of it hinges upon the events of 25 years in the game’s past, the cataclysmic day in Tokyo when the forces of Law and Chaos met in battle to determine Tokyo’s fate. That day and its results are what the entire game is really about; SMT4 is at least a tale about a previous story’s aftermath as it is a tale in itself.

But the problem is that the exact events of that time are left too unclear, and the history and mechanics of the results of the cataclysm are sometimes tough to get a clear idea of. It’s not that it’s completely unexplained, but most of your understanding of the events of 25 years prior is going to come from sketchy references and tiny hints that still don’t give you a thorough enough explanation. There’s only one vague mention of the difference of time flow between Mikado and Tokyo that you can easily miss, for example, and I’ll be damned if I ever heard an explanation for the cause of this temporal discrepancy offered in any way. Through what you learn in the game from scattered references, mentions, and the rare direct explanation, you can piece together the major actors of the cataclysm of 25 years before (Kenji, Kiyoharu, and Flynn’s former incarnation) and how their philosophical stances shaped each of the 3 worlds that SMT4 shows, but even then things are spotty. I mean, look, I’m all for subtle storytelling, but that’s...well, think of it this way. Subtle storytelling is letting an audience connect the dots themselves to finally get the big picture and understand what everything amounts to. In regards to the cataclysm of 25 years before, SMT4 is like that, only not all of the dots you’re supposed to be connecting are numbered, and several are almost the same color as the paper they’re printed on, hard to notice and properly connect.

I have as whole an understanding of the game’s back history now as anyone can, but I’ll be honest with you, the SMT Wikipedia played majorly into that clarity, and I’m very certain that a lot of the details contained within its articles are from outside (though doubtless still official) sources, not the game itself. And while a partial and ultimately inadequate understanding of past events is usually just an annoyance to over-enthusiastic lore-hoarders like myself, well, like I said, these past events are the pivotal plot point around which everything important in the game turns. You can’t just let something like that be shrouded in halfway explanations and ambiguity. Final Fantasy 7 did eventually show us the truth of Sephiroth’s fall, Nibelheim’s destruction, and Cloud’s past, and Bastion eventually does narrate everything we need to know about the Calamity and how it relates to the Kid and Zulf’s current conflict. Because that’s what you have to do when so much of your game’s story, theme, and message revolve around 1 particular event of the past--you have to make sure your audience has a fully adequate comprehension of that event. Otherwise, the audience’s lack of understanding impedes their ability to properly appreciate and consider all the rest. Knowing what I do now, having read outside information on the subject of SMT4’s past until I’m satisfied with my knowledge, I can look at the game and really appreciate a lot of the intelligent, thought-provoking questions it raises in regards to the ongoing battle of Law, Neutral, and Chaos, can better appreciate its world-hopping and The White and much more. But before I came to comprehend it all, to be able to see how all these details and themes tie together, the game’s story made little impression on me, its themes and ideas seeming spontaneous or eluding me altogether.

Bad pacing. That’s another problem. At least, sort of. As a general rule, things flow pretty well in SMT4; nothing ever seems to be going too slowly or too quickly. It’s only when I step back and look at the whole story that something seems off. But once I do, well, I can’t help but notice that you spend a lot of time in this game’s first half involved in the question of the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, which are the human factions in Tokyo for Order and Chaos, respectively...yet when all is said and done, how important are they to the game’s second half, really? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think that the conflict involving the factions and their leaders, the questions raised by each and their impact on you the player, is a lot more compelling than the later business with Lucifer and God’s Chariot. Really, I wish the game could have ultimately been about the battle between Lilith and Tayama (the leaders of the Ring of Gaea and the Ashura-kai). But the fact is that the really important battle in this game is between the angels and demons, to which the song and dance with Lilith and Tayama are barely even circumstantially related. The disconnect between these major conflicts of the game is so sheer as to almost be bizarre--once you finish with the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, you go on your little alternate-worlds field trip and deal with The White, and finally return to Japan, to find the game’s major conflict has begun, and honestly it didn’t really have much of anything to do with that former conflict that had such narrative focus put on it. For all the time and effort put into the question of the Ashura-kai versus the Ring of Gaea for the game’s first half, they’re both ultimately just irrelevant stepping stones. It’s almost like you spent a third of the game on a long side quest. I mean, you can argue, I guess, that the ultimate question of God vs. Demons was prepared by the question of Tayama vs. Lilith, but it’s a hell of a stretch of logic--the Law that Tayama represents is strongly different than the one that God embodies, and there are some ideological differences between Lilith and Lucifer, too. The first conflict of Tayama vs. Lilith just had stakes, goals, rationales, representatives, and methods too different from the later, true, and traditional conflict of God vs. Lucifer for the first to effectively set up the second.

Adding considerably to why this is a problem is the fact that with the pace of the game’s plot giving so much time and effort to the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, there’s a lot less set up for and explanation of the conflict between the angels and the demons. It doesn’t exactly just happen out of the blue, but it’s not really anticipated or explained, either. Its philosophy is glossed over, its significance not played up as much as it should be, and you’re forced to extrapolate too heavily from the nearly-hidden backstory if you want to flesh it out at all. With previous, better Shin Megami Tensei titles, the big conflict of the game is given its narrative due, its proper context, its thematic weight. Here, the ultimate battle for Law and Chaos almost feels like it’s being shoehorned in, and yet it’s definitely not a last minute addition to the plot; the all-important back history of the game and the dilemma of The White definitely foretell this event.

Another problem with SMT4 is that it has a pretty weak cast. Many supporting characters like Hope, Fujiwara, and Hugo ultimately don’t really contribute much to the plot, while some, like Issachar and Kaga, are interesting and serve their purpose well, but unfortunately that purpose removes them from the story very quickly. Along with that, the major characters are just...well, they’re just not very good. Honestly, one of the completely optional sidequest characters, Nozomi, has more appeal and character development than most of the characters who actually matter, and you don’t even have to necessarily meet her.

The problem’s only worse with the major characters. Jonathan and Walter...well, I want to like them, I really do, because they’re the traditional Law and Chaos Heroes of the game, but they aren’t as single-minded and inflexible as that role tends to be. Ultimately Jonathan supports the angels and Law, and ultimately Walter supports the demons and Chaos, but they’re both human enough that they’re able throughout the game’s course to question their stance, express doubts about the side they’ll eventually serve, and understand the other’s perspective to some extent. During the Passage of Ethics, both Walter and Jonathan do know where they stand, but they at least agree that the questions can be difficult and aren’t ironclad in their positions. I can appreciate these characters actually being complex enough that they’re not just blind advocates of their side of the plot.

Buuuuut, the problem with this is that they also come off like they lack conviction to their side. I know, I know, I seem like I just can’t be pleased, but honestly, Jonathan’s dedication to following his duty and the angels never seems to have any particular basis. I mean, just what IS Jonathan’s motivation? Do we ever learn anything significant about him whatsoever, hear any philosophy to his choosing to follow orders over all other possibilities? Walter’s a little better in that he does have and give a reason for his supporting Lilith and the demons, one which originates in a plot undercurrent of struggle between social classes (which, by the way, is a theme that I would have loved to see examined far more than the barest of touches that the game gives it), but he still doesn’t come off as convincingly devoted or having an especially strong opinion. They’re both kinda wishy-washy, honestly. And once you reach the dimension-hopping part of the game, Walter and Jonathan have very little problem with working together again even though they were just fighting against one another over ideological differences. I mean, there’s a little hostility between them at first, and they’re not exactly chummy (but then, they were only casually friendly before, anyway), but I’d have expected a little more. It’s like they forget they ever had a violent difference of opinion at all.

They’re both just so...dull. Like I said, I appreciate that they’re not just unreasoning advocates of the philosophy they stand for, but that one small redeeming quirk doesn’t change the fact that they’re both poorly developed, boring, and overall weak characters. When you choose sides in most SMT games, part of the difficulty is often the fact that you’re standing against characters you like or respect, that your protagonist is betraying comrades. Jimenez was a good guy in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and I felt bad about having to oppose him in my playthroughs of Law and Neutral--and I felt even worse standing against Zelenin on the Neutral playthrough. And when you choose sides in most SMT games, you understand how the characters you’re about to support or betray got to where they are, and how you feel about their take on the question of alignment. I don’t particularly like Chiaki and Hikawa from Shin Megami Tensei 3, and I think Isamu’s a total doofus, but I understand how each came to believe in their Reason thanks to the character development they’re given in the game, and each one makes an argument for his/her Reason that has a certain compelling logic to it (well, maybe not Isamu, but the other 2 do). Jonathan and Walter, 2 of the most important characters in SMT4 with the most screentime...well, they’re just not memorable, you just don’t feel like there’s much to them, and I personally just don’t feel any particular loyalty to either of them.

And then there’s Isabeau. Completing the alignment trio of your party, Isabeau, the last of the major characters, is the heroine of the Neutral side of the game’s thematic debate. Isabeau is a dull, indecisive twit who is utterly incapable of possessing a real, actual opinion of any kind--see my rant on the Shin Megami Tensei Series’s Recent Neutral Figureheads for the details on that. Likewise, Isabeau is equally lacking entirely any defining character trait whatsoever. Oh wait, no--she likes reading manga. Secretly--so don’t expect to see it mentioned, referenced, or even considered more than, like, 5 times. Non-specific, barely-mentioned manga reading as the single sole defining characteristic. Yup.

I think I’m gonna add that to my mental list of the most inane, meaningless, idiotic things that you could possibly make the 1 and only notable trait of your character. It’s getting tucked away right between “Has a Pirate Accent” and “Wants to Eat Cafeteria Hot Dogs.”

Last weak part of the cast: villains. The problem here isn’t that there aren’t any decent villains in the game. The problem is that the ones who stand out are the secondary ones, the relatively minor Tayama and Lilith, while the major foes of the game, Lucifer on 1 side and the angels Uriel, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael on the other, are incredibly uninteresting and weak. You’ll see a tiny bit of Lucifer if you’re on the Chaos path during the game’s final chapter, but if you’re Neutral or Law, you’ll only see and hear from the guy as you meet him for the last battle.** Only-meeting-at-the-final-battle villains may be common enough for your standard rinky-dink half-assed RPG created by writers just out to score a quick paycheck before their lunch break, but this is fucking Shin Megami Tensei, people! Let’s aspire just a bit higher than Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, huh? You’ll see a bit of the angels earlier in the game, a bit more if you buy the overpriced, somewhat nonsensical Clipped Wings DLC, and of course Gabriel is involved reasonably well in the plot, but you’ll know virtually no more about them than you do Lucifer anyway, so it’s bad on both sides. What villains DO you get to know, though? Lilith and Tayama. What villains DO actually have some slight depth, have goals and beliefs that they have to explain instead of just relying on players’ familiarity with previous games’ incarnations to do all the explaining for them? Lilith and Tayama. Whose rivalry seems more intense? Lilith and Tayama’s. But, like I went into before, ultimately these 2 become small potatoes, just a few steps away from not having played a part in the true struggle of the game at all. And instead we get nigh-faceless entities arriving last minute to steal the show.

Second to last major problem with Shin Megami Tensei 4: the theme of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s...well, it’s just too overused by this point. Look, don’t get me wrong on this point: the philosophies behind SMT’s Law, Neutral, and Chaos are interesting and deep, and there’s still plenty about them left to explore in new and intriguing ways in the games. But the fact is that I have played Shin Megami Tensei 1, 2, Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, Devil Survivor 1, and Strange Journey. I’ve seen this concept by now a good handful of times. And I’ve enjoyed it each time, definitely! But all the same, God vs. Demons with humanity stuck in the middle, with each side representing secure order, free anarchy, and the middle road, respectively, it’s something I’m quite familiar with at this point. So for a game this late in the series to use it, it needs to be exploring some sort of new ground with the concept, have some new perspective on the matter or a setting that gives it a new angle. Like the second Raidou Kuzunoha game did--it brought the matter down to a much smaller, non-plot-vital, but no less compelling scale by focusing the question of mindless adherence to the law vs. reckless freedom onto the village of Tsukigata and the events therein. But SMT4...well, it doesn’t really do much of anything new, doesn’t delve deeper or in new ways into the philosophy of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s business as usual for SMT. I’d almost call it generic. Maybe the social class conflict in Mikado was meant to be the new angle for it? Walter’s beliefs do stem from that, I guess. But like I said before, that aspect is barely examined at all, especially once the game’s first chapter is done with. There’s really only 1 significant twist put on this otherwise by-the-numbers theme, but unfortunately, it’s the last major problem of the game: the new fourth path, Nihilism.

I want to like this addition to the SMT theme. Really I do. And not just because I’ve often thought to myself that the fact that the infinite cosmos of possibility can, in its limitless stream of multitudinous eventualities without end, produce Robin Thicke, then maybe the entirety of creation and the multiverse just aren’t worth the trouble.

First of all, it’s great that they added a fourth path to the Law-Neutral-Chaos thing during SMT4. More importantly, it works so well as an alternative choice. I mean, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Basically, Nihilism is the path offered in the game by The White, the path of destroying everything, all realities in a single go, in an effort to free humanity from the suffering of the perpetual cross-realities war between Law and Chaos. The White claim, quite convincingly, that no matter what choice is made in the struggle, humanity will always pay the price and suffer. If Law is chosen, we see in Blasted Tokyo that God purges the world of the majority of humanity, saving only the few pure and chosen, and letting the rest, even some who helped Him to overcome Chaos, die out in a poisoned wasteland. If Chaos is chosen, we see in Infernal Tokyo that society is destroyed, the strong dominate and abuse the weak, people live as monsters, and there’s constant battle as one fight after another keep cities ablaze and civilizations are divided between warlords like a piece of meat among feral dogs. And if Neutral is chosen, we see in the home reality that all that really happens is that the war between Law and Neutral is postponed for a few decades, before it erupts once more. Annihilation for all but the lucky few, eternally raging destruction of a species unable to maintain a society for its ferocity, or one war after another without end--those are the end results of Law, Chaos, and Neutral paths that The White show us. Their option is to simply end it all, because no side does anything but prolong suffering one way or another. It’s neat and interesting.***

The problem for me with this, though, is that even though Nihilism seems to be an official fourth path in the game, it’s not given the same importance as Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Really, it’s treated more like a Bad Ending than anything. Which it essentially IS, I suppose, but I think that it’s intended to be seen as a viable new option, a viable new philosophy--and if it’s not intended as such, then it should be, because it fits in very well with the SMT path conflict of Law, Chaos, and Neutral, and SMT4’s plot gives it an appropriate buildup for that importance. But once you reach the White in the game, well...that’s it for for this fourth option. If you decide to pursue the path of Nihilism, then the game concludes right then and there, that’s the end. But if you reject Nihilism and confirm your path to be Chaos, Law, or Neutral, then the game continues on, with you going through a dungeon to defeat the White, and then entering SMT4’s last chapter, in which you hook up with your path hero (Walter, Jonathan, or Isabeau) and go on the final quests of the game to defeat the leader(s) of the faction(s) that oppose(s) your path’s vision of the new world order.

See what I’m getting at here? You pick Nihilism, then you’re done and the game’s over. You pick 1 of the traditional SMT paths, and you go on with the tale, entering the game’s final chapter, reuniting with comrades, following through on unresolved plot threads, and generally cleaning up the story tidily. You get the most you can out of your game, out of Shin Megami Tensei 4’s story and characters, as long as you do NOT choose this supposedly equally important new path. That’s not giving equal narrative importance and treatment to this new and fascinating take on the SMT formula, in spite of it being one of the most creative and compelling aspects of this game. It wouldn’t have been hard at all to make Nihilism fit into the game in a way that you get to experience the last chapter just as well as with any of the other paths--just make up some key component of the White’s plan to erase all realities and have it be spiritual essence of Merkabah and Lucifer, or have their power standing in the White’s way and thus require them to be defeated before the Nihilism path is capable of being completed. That way you still would get the chance to go through the last part of the game with relatively the same amount of content and storyline wrap-up available to this path, and in doing so, validate it as one of the game’s major philosophical alternatives, the way that the build up and the game’s themes indicate it’s meant to be. Because as it is, abrupt and prematurely cutting off a major chapter of the game, the Nihilism choice just comes off as any regular old Bad Ending would.

And yeah, I guess you could say that cutting off the game early is thematically appropriate for a Nihilsm path, a chosen self-destruction before one's natural time of end, like a suicide precludes your experiencing the full potential of your life, but even with that in mind, Nihilism still isn't treated well enough as an option. Nearly all of its explanation and reasoning is laid out before you in one single scene of dialogue with The White; every time they contact the protagonist before then, everything they say amounts to little more than vague, foreshadow-y mumblings, like when you get scenes in RPGs of people talking in the shadows about plot-important things and characters but not referring to anyone by name so as not to spoil later twists, which of course always comes off as really awkward when just viewed as conversation between 2 people.**** While the philosophies of Chaos, Law, and Neutral are brought up over and over again in 1 way or another throughout the game, there's no long-term support structure for Nihilism given by the game. Just a single major conversation and that's it. It's not being given the same exploration as the other paths, not even close.

Poorly explained back history, bad pacing, subpar cast, uninspired exploration of theme, and inadequate showcasing of a thematic lynchpin. Honestly, it adds up to a lot of major blows against Shin Megami Tensei 4, enough that it’s actually a little surprising to me, now that I’m looking back on it, that the game managed to be pretty decent in spite of it all. I guess it’s almost an odd feather in Atlus’s cap--even when they screw up, they can produce a better title than the average work of some other developers (*fakecough*SquareEnix*fakecough*). At the very least, SMT4 is not the worst of its series; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 is much, much worse. Still, it’s a disappointment that such a big moment in the series wasn’t handled better than this, especially considering that if they made a decent game even with this many critical faults, you can just imagine what it would’ve been like if they had been more on the ball with it. Still, for all these faults, it is, like I’ve said, a pretty good game, and even if it didn’t really live up to my hopes, I had a lot of fun challenging myself to come up with these 13 SMT rants this past year in celebration of it. Hopefully y’all had had some fun with it, too.

* Ironically, the only moment in the game where Isabeau has any worth as a character, shows herself to have a personality in any way whatsoever, and affects the player on any level, is her demise. It’s so well-done (to me, at least) that it almost made me forget that Isabeau had failed during the course of the entire game to get me to form any kind of attachment to her at all.

** Oh, I’m sorry, that’s right, Lucifer shows up a couple times in the disguise of a girl named Hikaru. He does that sort of thing in a lot of SMT games. Except this time it’s a hell (ha ha) of a good disguise, because “she” does and says exactly nothing during “her” incredibly few appearances that has any relation to Lucifer’s character or that could possibly give you the slightest hint of who “she” really is. What gives, Lucifer? You stick your nose into games you aren’t even an actual plot-related actor in, like SMT3 and SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, and actually show up in those games more often and say much more of actual relevance to yourself! Hikaru feels like a minor character the writers originally just forgot to find a place for in the game’s finale, and had her loose end tied by a last-minute decision that she’d just happen to be Lucifer.

*** I did like it better when Owlman did it, though.

**** I should really make a term for this, like I do with things like Sailing and Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome.


  1. Hm yeah SMT4 did have a lot of problems like the characters and such.

    Can I just say that I also really really hate the overworld? It requires to at least have some real world knowledge of how Tokyo is and it's a pain to know where you're supposed to be to going.

    Good theme though that lessened the pain some.

    Also the alignment choices there just wasn't enough neutral choices you to juggle like a madman to even get neutral alignment and even then it's pain because unless you did the hunter missions you have a good number to actually progress onwards.

    Fuck that.

    Also Walter has the dumbest reason for going chaos ever.

    "I want people to make their own paths!"



    Oh and yay for an easier time looking for rants.

    1. Yeah, SMT4's overworld is rather irritating, although honestly, I find most SMT overworlds to be rather annoying.

      Walter's logic isn't always the greatest, but at least he HAS a reason. Jonathan is just an unquestioning, unthinking rule-follower, that's his whole reason for throwing in with the angels. I mean, I know adherence to law is the biggest part of, well, Law, but the advocates for this alignment still understand what they're doing and talk about how they came to the conclusion that that was best. Jonathan's just an automaton.

    2. I watched a bit of gameplay a few weeks back that featured a chat between Jonathan and some boss. He was ranting on and on about how horrible it was that Man found knowledge and free will, causing the demon to reel in genuine horror.

      I thought the demon had a point. I mean, it IS a school of Christian theology, but IMO one of the sadder ones.

      I never noticed the lack of links to cited rants. That's when you know you're current with this place.