Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei's Identity Crisis (Part 3 of 3): False Reincarnation

by Eirikr J.S. [tumblr] [twitter]

(continued from Part 2) (Part 1 is recommended to read prior to Part 3)

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
might be one of the greatest examples of fanservice ever made. In a genre where “fanservice” usually means crass pandering with skimpy outfits for female characters or other brazen titillation, Strange Journey instead provided its ravenous fans with more of what they already loved about Shin Megami Tensei: creative direction from Kazuma Kaneko, more demons, mature characters, an original setting, and proper apocalyptic atmosphere—a true SMT game in every sense. Neither the limits of the Nintendo DS hardware nor the series’ usual rough edges would suppress Strange Journey’s understanding that the greatest fanservice is respect for its audience.

There’s just one big problem: Strange Journey under-performed at retail relative to other games in the franchise and in spite of being on a platform with a large install base, moving only 127,946 copies in Japan. [1] To add insult to injury, Persona 3 Portable, the second re-release of Persona 3, was released in Japan only a few weeks after Strange Journey’s launch and completely outclassed it with 183,283 in sales. [1] The niche Shin Megami Tensei had always relied on was apparently eroding away.

It was in this climate that development of Shin Megami Tensei IV began. "I first started thinking about [SMTIV] once Strange Journey, which came out October 2009, was finished," said SMTIV’s director, Kazuyuki Yamai. "I've been hearing from fans who wanted an 'official' SMT sequel for ages, and we thought that we were finally at the point as a team where we were mature enough to tackle the job, so that's how it got started." [2] So much like what happened with Persona, a new generation of creators would take hold of Shin Megami Tensei with a fresh, modern approach. But amid changing tastes, how much of SMT’s old identity would have to be sacrificed to bridge the series to the new players it so desperately needed?


We don't know many specifics of Shin Megami Tensei IV's development, other than Yamai's quote above confirming it was the next project for him and his team following Strange Journey's release. However, there would be a significant event that would have certainly impacted its early development: In August 2010, Atlus was dissolved into its parent company, Index Holdings. [3] The idea of a beloved company losing its independence to a purely for-profit holdings company with a alarmingly generic name like “Index” certainly seemed troublesome, but Atlus was quick to reassure fans that this change would not affect their games development. [4]

While this dissolution came as a shock to fans, what is just as surprising is that ownership of Atlus had been bouncing around for quite a while; toy maker Takara had acquired the company in 2003 [5] before selling it to Index in 2006. [6] So while corporate oversight was nothing new to Atlus and its development teams, the concern now was the possibility of direct involvement, as it’s reasonable to assume that Index wanted to make good (i.e., money) on its IPs beyond the snowballing performance of Persona. Shin Megami Tensei is a storied franchise—why couldn’t it be just as much of a success? Again, without direct sources it’s impossible to know the truth, but the ambiguous starting date of SMTIV’s development and Atlus’ folding into Index are close enough to suggest a possible correlation.

The Shin Megami Tensei Four (from left): Masayuki Doi, Kazuyuki Yamai, Ryota Kozuka, Eiji Ishida
So who would be in charge of Shin Megami Tensei IV? Not Kazuma Kaneko; as Strange Journey was a kind of creative pet project for him, its modest results either earned him the fabled “window seat” of Japanese corporate politics or perhaps convinced him to step aside in favor of others. Much of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’s staff was now inseparable from Persona-related development, so they would be out, too. Instead, the responsibility would fall on the shoulders of the so-called “Maniacs Team,” so named because many of them worked on the Maniacs re-release of Nocturne (and the Devil Summoner: Raidou series), including director Kazuyuki Yamai. Joining him would be character designer Masayuki Doi, who did design work for the Trauma series and Persona PSP ports; concept artist Eiji Ishida, who also directed Strange Journey; and finally, relative Atlus newcomer and composer Ryota Kozuka, who contributed to the soundtracks of Persona 4 and the Devil Survivor series. Importantly, these leads each had previous Megami Tensei titles under their belts, and along with working for so long under people like Kaneko, it’s reasonable to expect they "understood" SMT.
Initial photo of the SMTIV announcement teaser from May 30, 2012
Shin Megami Tensei IV was first announced on May 30, 2012, with only a vague two-page magazine teaser. However, that was more than enough to send fans into a frenzy; finally, after nearly 10 years, the next mainline Shin Megami Tensei game was soon to come. The fervor reached its zenith with a teaser trailer included with the Nintendo 3DS Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers port, which offered tantalizing glimpses at the game’s mysterious medieval kingdom and presumed Tokyo sprawl. The sheer possibilities of what could lay ahead absolutely reinvigorated the excitement of main series fans who may have felt they had been left behind. With the benefit of hindsight, the final game would meet these expectations in some important ways. Here’s what SMTIV did right:

Music. Shin Megami Tensei IV’s soundtrack is absolutely one of its strongest aspects, performing the double duty of living up to the atmospheric spirit of its predecessors while also sounding fresh. This is no doubt due to SMTIV being Ryota Kozuka’s first work as a lead composer, leaving his style comparatively unproven to the likes of Shoji Meguro’s domineering acoustics. Stylistic comparisons aside, SMTIV’s music is just good, filled with moody (and sometimes sinister) technopop and synth that’s just right for the game’s setting. The best part of all, there’s a lot of it, too: SMTIV’s official soundtrack release fills four discs, dwarfing the musical content of just about every stand alone SMT game except for Nocturne. Kozuka and SMTIV’s sub-composers, fellow Atlus initiate Toshiki Konishi and veteran Atlus sound designer Kenichi Tsuchiya, deserve a lot more recognition than they’ve received for their stellar contributions to the game.

Environment and character concepts. From Tokyo’s dead streets to the limits of Purgatorium or Lucifer Palace, SMTIV’s environments reflect its excellent and creative art direction. Some of the concept work of Eiji Ishida (and freelance artists) can also literally be seen in-game in the many static 2D backgrounds used throughout. While SMTIV’s particular version of Tokyo restricts the game from going as far out with its locations as, say, Nocturne or Strange Journey, there’s no lack of interesting sights.

Additionally, Masayuki Doi's character designs succeed in Kaneko's absence. In Yamai's words, "[Doi] is capable of making these simple-looking characters that still strike a major presence...We worked closely together, exchanging opinions as we tried to keep the characters as simple and free of excess frills as possible." [2] That they strove to keep away "excess frills" shows the two recognize the series aesthetic, resulting in Doi's conception of a main cast very much in line with the rest of the series.

SMTIV is just a lot of fun to actually play
Progressive changes to gameplay. Shin Megami Tensei IV features numerous gameplay enhancements, both major and minor. These include: Fusion search, allowing you to search your demon stock and compendium for specific demons or skills you want for a particular fusion; freeform skill selection in fusion; saving anywhere; improvements to the user interface, with one of the least clunky menus in any SMT game; and the app system, which doles out gameplay modifiers as permanent upgrades. Then there are the little things, such as demons telling you the results of their skill mutations before committing (whereas previously the player would have to roll the dice on an unknown outcome). While not every change or addition SMTIV presented was successful, most of them were modernizations the series desperately needed.

Strength of specific narrative choices. Shin Megami Tensei IV’s backstory and the ways in which it intersects with its main plot are simultaneously the most ambitious and successful parts of the game’s narrative. In short, SMTIV’s picks up after the conclusion of a previous “game,” so that its own world is merely an effect of the choices of a previous set of heroes. For better or worse, information about the plot’s previous “cycle” is mostly pieced together from random NPCs, throwaway lines from important characters, and alignment-specific cutscenes, but its broad strokes and the underground Tokyo that results from it are both fresh and in the spirit of past SMT games.

Particularly effective are SMTIV’s Blasted and Infernal Tokyo segments. Though both are relatively brief, in tandem they serve as SMTIV’s climax, not just for their narrative impact but because they have so much to offer visually and conceptually. However, because the Tokyos aren't drawn out more than they're needed, their brevity may explain their impact.  

Kaneko’s “punk” fingerprints. At the release of SMTIV's first trailers, Kazuma Kaneko’s name was waved like a banner to prove his involvement and thus “legitimize” the game. In fact, his is the first name you see in the game’s opening credits. In actuality, however, Kaneko took a mostly hands-off role, ultimately only credited for his legacy demon designs and the “scenario concept” of the Samurai and the kingdom of Mikado. These latter concepts Yamai proudly admits were "Kaneko's idea," [2] explaining, "we received the original draft of the scenario, with Samurai and Mikado, from Kaneko." [7]

Kaneko's prime position in the game's opening credits
But there may be a message hidden within his original drafts. As Kaneko would often describe Shin Megami Tensei as “punk” or “anti-establishment” in interviews, the conceit of the Samurai of the ostensibly medieval European Mikado experiencing Tokyo as a “foreign” land may have a cleverer meaning. Considering that, as of the SMTIV’s development, the swords-and-sorcery RPGs of yesteryear had been largely surmounted by those with high schools or otherwise modern settings, Mikado’s castles and castes may be a sly, very deliberate commentary about contemporaneous trends in the Japanese game industry. Though it doesn’t take long for the game to break Mikado’s medieval illusion, the irony of SMT retaining its edge by mimicking former rivals (i.e., Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy) would surely not be lost on Kaneko.


Expectation-tempering two-page spread from the TGS 2012 issue of Famitsu
The excitement around Shin Megami Tensei IV’s teasers would be tested in September of 2012, with the media blitz of Tokyo Game Show. The event brought with it an extended trailer and magazine spreads that revealed some conspicuous deviations from past games.  However, any gnashing of teeth or rending of garments that resulted would be invalid until the game was finally in players’ hands. After exactly 51 weeks of hype, Shin Megami Tensei IV was released in Japan on May 23, 2013. It was only then (and especially now, 2 years later) that SMTIV’s problems could be realized. So where did Shin Megami Tensei IV go wrong, and how were its changes at odds with the series identity?

1. Blatant Disregard for Demon Design Rules

Without a doubt the most obvious of Shin Megami Tensei IV's changes, its infamous cadre of new demons spawned controversy the moment they were teased in Japanese magazines. However, the arguments surrounding these demons and the guest artists who designed them have run their course and it would take a scrupulous analysis to bring anything new to the table. But aside from unsound arguments like "they aren't Kaneko!" or "the art is bad!", why are the majority of SMTIV's original demons such a poor fit for the series?

It's simple: most of the artists did not heed of the series' demon design philosophy of using source material and collective interpretation. No wonder, as, according to Yamai, "We didn’t give any instructions on the demon designs themselves though, so we left the artists make their own decisions." [8] As a result, the worst of the lot have a "generic RPG monster" appearance and lack the fundamental design motifs unique to the series. They also clash horrifically with the existing Kaneko catalogue, even though SMTIV already uses Kaneko demons of varying proficiency from every period of his career. Again, it's all about the eminence of conceptual quality over artistic competence.  There are absolute gems in the new roster like Minotaur and Chemtrail, but a scant few can't compensate for critical misses like the four archangels or Lucifer.
The Good...and the Ugly
Commentary from the guest artists highlights their predilection for style over substance. When asked whether he begins the design process considering the "shape" or "meaning," Yasushi Nirasawa, who designed Lucifer, says that he begins with the "shape." [8] In an exchange between Nirasawa and Tamotsu Shinohara about the latter's Minotaur design, aesthetics appear more important than the successful combination of man and bull:
Shinohara: Minotaur...had already appeared in SMT in the past, and I figured I had to draw it differently; I couldn’t remove the bull head, so after racking my brain for a while, I realized I should draw him as ‘two-in-one.’ I really like designs where the face has another face.
Nirasawa: They’re great, I like them too. [8]
Keita Amemiya injected his personal interpretation into his archangel designs, explaining, "I believe that, since demons and angels are embodiments of humans’ thoughts, they will still be artificial beings, no matter how much they resemble living creatures...I am not good with consulting materials and data, so I constantly feel that I am not suited for ‘realistic’ designs." [8] Kuebiko, the Japanese god of wisdom who is traditionally depicted as a scarecrow, is seen in SMTIV as a hulking mass with a fearsome maw of teeth, which designer Kyouma Aki justifies by saying, "using the motif of a scarecrow would have made him look like a Western horror B movie monster." [8]

But you can't really fault the guest artists for not familiarizing themselves with 20 years of demon design rules. Most of the five artists courted for the project are quite notable from Japan's evergreen Tokusatsu live-action genre, particularly Nirasawa and Amemiya, who are known from their decades of work on the long-running Kamen Rider series, among others, so it's unsurprising that they didn't try to adapt to the series' design MO. Nirasawa admits that he "was careful to provide demons drawn in [his] own style" [8], which is likely so firmly entrenched that it would betray his name to do otherwise. Even Shinohara, whose Minotaur design was the Kaneko-like hit of the game, had some critical misses of his own like Napaea and Sanat in terms of straying from source material; hilariously, according to Shinohara himself, his son prefers Kaneko's demon designs, saying his father's "were all too jumbled." [8] This reinforces Kaneko's philosophy that the fewer features a design has, the more memorable it will be. [9]
Comparison of Paolo de Matteis' Annunciation (center) with its archangel Gabriel edited to include Keita Amemiya's version (left) and Kaneko's version (right); only Kaneko's approaches congruence with the original, sharing details like Gabriel holding a lily
The most disappointing part of this situation is that Atlus already employs an artist aware of what makes Kaneko's designs tick: Masayuki Doi. In an article about fashion's impact on the series' aesthetic, Doi states, "Kazuma Kaneko['s]...approach to design is not about just replicating these demonic creatures, but more about looking at their origins in mythology and seeing how he can modernize those beings into something that fits in our real world, [using] a lot of modern fashion design techniques to shape those designs. It’s a mix of both the new and the old. That’s something I felt very close to. It may seem like fashion design and demon design are completely opposite or different, but the way Atlus does things, they’re actually very close to each other." [10]

While it's a shame Doi was not given the opportunity, it's exceedingly clear that the guest artists were hired on the strength of their names alone as a way of bringing some extra notoriety—and new players—to the game. There is scant evidence available to explain why this decision was made, though it's easy to point fingers at Index. But whatever happened behind-the-scenes, the outcome speaks the message that a defining feature of Shin Megami Tensei was considered expendable in the face of marketing potential.

2. World-Building in a City of Plotholes

A Shin Megami Tensei game’s setting and metaphysical rules steer its plot, lending needed directives and consistency to what would otherwise be implausible events. In the first Shin Megami Tensei, the accidental opening of the extra-dimensional Expanse floods "concrete" reality with demons, leading to Tokyo’s nuclear destruction; Shin Megami Tensei II builds on this Tokyo and its premise of demons from a lateral dimension existing in reality. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’s self-contained, "abstract" Vortex World is a demon-centric environment that defines mundane laws; Strange Journey’s chaotic Schwarzwelt possesses similar traits. Conceptually, the dichotomy between Shin Megami Tensei IV’s Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and subterranean Tokyo seems rich, with a plot and concepts that skew closer to the concrete otherworldly invasion scenarios of SMTI&II. Unfortunately, any deeper inspection reveals that its scenario’s foundations are rife with critical inconsistencies that undermine both the plot’s internal logic and effectiveness of suspending disbelief. 

Mikado, the forgotten land
The Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, the first of SMTIV's major settings, is both crucial to the narrative and woefully underutilized. Mikado is given ample establishment during the game’s early hours, which is vital to the perspective of the Samurai as “outsiders” and to the impact of the Tokyo reveal. But despite its apparent importance, Mikado quickly becomes completely overshadowed by Tokyo. One unabashed admission of this fact is that the game only requires you to return to Mikado a handful of times after stepping foot into Tokyo; even issues like the “evil” books that turned your best friend into a demon and are supposedly rotting away Mikado from the inside are little more than justification for chasing Lilith around Tokyo. The castes of Casualries and Luxurors also seem significant at first since they define Mikado’s society, but in practice they matter little except to provide basic, archetypal backgrounds for Walter and Jonathan, an ultimately negligible effect for a relatively thoughtful setup. Even director Yamai seems aware of Mikado’s fleeting importance as he admits, "I believe that there are some people who forget that they’re Samurai from the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado during their playthrough. (laughs) I hope that some of you guys will occasionally return to your hometown.” [11] Mikado and its problems are swiftly forgotten in terms of gameplay and story.

Tayama hamming it up
Ironically, Mikado’s obsolescence paves the way for spotlighting the major flaws of SMTIV’s Tokyo. Something immediately apparent from the first step into Tokyo is that SMTIV has a lot of humans to interact with, far beyond any other title in the series. Many able-bodied humans compete as demon hunters throughout the city, as the putrid, eternal night of Tokyo drives others to desperation. The Ashura-kai organization provides what order it can with a heavy, violent hand. The chaotic Ring of Gaea exists, and no one likes them. Sure enough, this comparatively significant population exists due to the events of the game’s backstory, as the compromised city and human society within are the result of a "Neutral" ending 25 years prior to the start. But even if the backstory allows it, the game subsequently trips all over itself providing the substantiation required for over two decades of human proliferation in a demon-infested world.

Leading the plot’s issues are the Reds. These little pills are the nucleus of Ashura-kai head honcho Tayama’s goal of bartering a “utopia” where humans and demons will co-exist, so they have a lot riding on them. Their essential purpose is to justify why a fragile human population has survived for 25 years in such a harsh environment. Tayama’s arrangement with the demons supposedly ensures that the Tokyoites, should they encounter a demon on the streets, only need to slip a pill to keep their heads attached. It’s a straightforward plan, but, within the context of the setting, practically welcomes obvious questions that the game makes no effort to answer. These include:

  • Aren't many of the demons extremely chaotic? Why would they be willing to settle on this agreement when there are vulnerable human children literally ambling around near wide-open subway entrances? The negotiation gameplay further establishes demons' volatility, as they may run away or slash your throat even if you give them what they want.
  • At what intervals are the demons given Reds? Are they satisfied with one pill a week or month? With the huge number of demons in Tokyo, that would require an equally large amount of pills. Won't some demons be greedy and demand extra pills?
  • Do all demons want Reds? Clearly the National Defense Divinities are against them. Does that mean that not all demons are “hungry” in the same way? Which demons are the exceptions?
  • Similarly, it is the goal of certain Tokyoites to reach the upper surface, but demons like Medusa and angel hordes are said to block their way. Why could the Reds not be given to Medusa or the angels? Are "bosses" and angels distinct from normal demons? Why are they distinct?
  • If Reds are so useful for the Tokyoites in mitigating the demon threat, why are none ever given to the player as consumable items?
Demons will surely read and follow the orders of bulletins instead of preying on unsuspecting, vulnerable children
Et cetera. It doesn't take long to realize that the Reds are implausible as a plot device. The pretenses of Tayama's over-complicated deal with the demons are weighed so heavily in the favor of humans' survival that it is neither convincing nor sustainable within Tokyo's environment. This is especially damning considering the Reds are the load-bearing support of the entire setting and its human population that has persisted for 25 years. The game's lack of information about the logistics of the Reds raises the possibility that its scenario planners intended for players to think about Reds abstractly (or not at all), even though their effects cause just the opposite.

No GMOs!
There's also a plot twist associated with Reds, and it’s about as predictable as they come: the pills are made of human brain matter. This reveal is played to be shocking, but is laughably cliché to anyone familiar with Soylent Green and its own infamous plot twist (and in a society where hunters can kill each other for sport in tournaments to bloodthirsty crowds, is the sanctity of human life really a concern of the Tokyoites?). Another reason the Reds reveal is so ineffectual is because the player has no connection to the victims. We are told, but barely shown, the Reds' manufacturing process, where Tayama's Ashura-kai kidnap children, raise them to be wunderkinds, and extract the needed matter from the adult "seedbeds" to make the pills. The stakes are never personal, such as having a known NPC like Navarre held hostage as a seedbed. Subsequently, the situation also lacks an ethical dilemma; we are expected to accept that Reds are evil without question, just because of the assumption that "humans taking advantage of other humans = bad." This would also be an opportune time to present the emerging ideological conflicts between the Samurai, but not a single character expresses anything but revulsion at the situation. While the Reds' secret might be "evil" in a normal context, Shin Megami Tensei's nuclear holocausts and demon mass genocides dwarf the impact of a select few humans forced to be neurological guinea pigs.  

Demons defined in Nocturne
But beyond far-fetched plans and hackneyed revelations, Reds have a further effect: they literalize the demons and scenario to a concrete level. In other words, since the demons can be appeased at large by tangible, ordinary matter like human brains, this causes the “rules” of the subterranean Tokyo to be balanced more in favor of the rational than supernatural. This is actually completely acceptable if the game reliably held to these rules. After all, the first Shin Megami Tensei has a concrete apocalypse and more or less handwaves the existence of demons by using the interdimensional Expanse as a plot device. Unfortunately, elegant simplicity is beyond the reach of SMTIV's overwrought justifications, as the Reds are only one of a rogue’s gallery of demon summoning methods that inject unneeded inconsistency into SMTIV’s definition of what demons are. In total, based on story beats and questlines, demons in SMTIV can originate from any one of the following:

  • Reds. Human consumption of Reds transforms them into demons. This is a known quality to the populace, as the pills are taken by despaired humans who wish to integrate themselves into the majority demon population. However, instead of turning them into traditional half-human/half-demon demonoids, they become named compendium demons like Dullahan or Rakshasa that could technically also be encountered in the field or summoned via the Cathedral of Shadows.
  • Reading banned books/gaining knowledge. A method exclusive to Mikado where the knowledge within books from the "real" world, distributed by the Black Samurai/Lilith, turns humans into demons. Sometimes the humans turn into named compendium demons, like the baker who becomes Dantalian or the citizens of Kiccigiorgi who are implied to be the demons in their infested forest. Inconsistently, this knowledge may also merely contort one's face, as in Issachar's case.
  • Interdimensional portals. Gates to the Expanse, from where demons originate in most games in the series. SMTIV's is the Yamato Perpetual Reactor.
  • Cathedral of Shadows. The demon-summoning cell phone app which streamlines demons and occult rituals into a digital program. Presumably has some connection to the Expanse.
  • Human emotions. General or specific human dispositions that can manifest as demons. Nihilism results in the White, spite as Lucifer, goodwill as Merkabah.
  • Spiritual mediums. Physical objects that have spiritual connections to specific demons. Exclusive to the National Defense Divinities. 
  • Sacrifices. Ancient rituals of death used to appease fickle gods. Some humans become sacrifices for Baal in a late game quest.
  • Magic summoning circles and rituals. Traditional occult methods like those used to summon Astaroth in a New Game+ quest. 
  • Human apotheosis. The transformation of a human into a deity, seemingly by the will of demons. Happens to the NPC hunter Nozomi, who is implied to eventually become the goddess Danu.
  • Demonoids. While, strictly speaking, they are not actual demons, the demonoids of Blasted Tokyo nonetheless result from the fusion of a human and a demon.
Pork: Be Uninspired
Even though this is much more complicated than it needs to be, most of these methods, to varying degrees, are actually cross-compatible and consistent with other games in the series—except, of course, the illogic of the Reds and books. This is because of an inherent ontological paradox that these two methods introduce, where we are supposed to accept that a demon that transformed from a flesh-and-blood human is equal to one summoned from a metaphysical dimension. Explained another way, the game does cite demons as originating from a metaphysical dimension (Expanse, Cathedral of Shadows app, etc.), while in contrast, the Reds and books demons result from a physical medium (human being) and physical cause (pills, books). Exacerbating the issues is that humans retain their consciousness when transformed. Then, what is the point of changing into a mythological entity when its personality isn’t present? Is it not actually the same even if all evidence says otherwise? This leads to some unintentionally humorous situations, such as the Tokyoite who became the pig demon Katakirauwa, who, incidentally, is also one of the Food race demons the population uses for sustenance. So, then, are some of those pigs former humans? By the logic of this world, would eating a pig who was formerly a human also turn someone into a demon? It’s frankly nonsensical.

The game tries to offer some explanations for the Reds and books methods. For the books, Lilith talks at length how they are imparting "knowledge and wisdom" to the Mikadoans. However, these books, such as what the baker reads, are merely novels from the real world, making their "knowledge" within actual information about the world as it actually is (or was). Admittedly, this could be dangerous within the context of the Mikado kingdom; it would even be clever if the idea stopped short of the demon transformations. But don't the Samurai effectively receive that same "knowledge" the moment they step into Tokyo and its true "reality"? Why don't they immediately transform into demons? Why does abstract knowledge affect your physical body? Is there something special about the books? Lilith also posits an explanation for the latter question: according to her, the transformations result from "humans suppressing their own desires." If this can be taken at face value, then the books and Reds are nothing but placebos. After all, again, how can a physical book or pill with brain matter affect a human's physiology so drastically? Presumably, if you have the will, you could turn into a demon. But this never happens, and every demon transformation occurs with the books or Reds as a cause.

"Knowledge and wisdom"
The Reds also hide a potentially unnatural element that may be intended to explain their transformations. Besides tangible brain matter, Reds contain trace amounts of gaseous excretions from the demon Yaso-Magatsuhi. But what is the nature of this gas? The initial assumption is that it must be noxious because the Reverse Hills workers all wear gas masks, but the Samurai are sprayed directly by Yaso-Magatsuhi and are only charmed briefly before it wears off. So if having direct contact with a pure stream of gas only causes a temporary effect, the trace amount in a pill couldn’t possibly be responsible for the demon transformations. The possibilities regress to Lilith’s words about “human desires,” but that has already been proven to hold no water. It may just be another instance of poor scenario writing. This whole problem could have been avoided if the transformed humans all turned into demonoids instead, as an altered human is easier to accept in this context than a headache-inducing series of complicated threads that may or may not attempt parity with supernatural beings. Considering that demons are of central importance to the series, advocating contrasting explanations for them is not just a misstep but a violation of series essentials.

The primary effect of the Yaso-Magatsuhi gas is to cause a sudden tonal shift with key characters who will soon be fighting over the fate of the world
Amid these plot blunders, SMTIV wants its Tokyo to be seen as a savage, deadly place. It certainly can be for the player; the ruthlessness of the enemies and the toxic squalor of the whole environment certainly speak to this. It's also easy to find NPCs talking about their suffering or Tayama chewing the scenery about the rotten state of the city, but what of their actions or behaviors? Even though these last remnants of humanity are supposedly on the brink of elimination, many nonetheless spend their days hamming it up in bars, staging the aforementioned tournaments where hunters can literally murder each other, taking up photography, or banking on the card-based economy of Ginza's luxury district. (It's worth noting that these examples are all included in Neutrality's critical quest path, which "canonizes" them, in a sense.) While it's true there are cases like the Ikebukuro woman contemplating suicide and, of course, the Reds-takers, these are relatively few. The environment may show pandemonium, but its efficacy is undermined by the actions of the general population.

The original SMT has a large number of human NPCs, but most fill the ranks of the opposing Messian and Gaean clans and will ultimately serve as floaters in the great flood; SMTIV's humans seem to have the privilege of hobbies in a similarly devastated environment
This proliferation of human society, despite its plot justifications, is precisely why SMTIV leaves itself open to questions and reasoning that would be invalid in other SMT games. The problem lies with our own knowledge of being human—and the limits that come with it. Even though none of us have ever experienced a demon apocalypse, and therefore can't know of the "right" way to react, we are certainly aware of the "wrong" way. We understand that tone or genre establishes these acceptable limits for fiction, be it a serious drama or supernatural fantasy; introduce ideas that contradict these limits and it's all too easy to shatter suspension of disbelief. Clearly unnatural things happen in both Nocturne and Strange Journey, but their respective settings, the Vortex World and Schwarzwelt, are just as clearly extraterrestrial, like stepping into Alice's Wonderland. On the other hand, SMTIV wants its fantastical, demon-beset Tokyo to be taken seriously as a bleak and dangerous environment akin to the future world of The Terminator, but is simultaneously grounded and disputed by the erratic behaviors of its human society.

We know how frail humans are from gameplay feedback: even though the main character is "special," even he can only withstand a few hits from enemies; the game also has an entire death mechanic in anticipation of inevitable failure
There's probably a practical explanation for SMTIV's human throngs: making the city seem "alive" to new players unaccustomed or turned off by Shin Megami Tensei's desolate atmosphere. This comes with a high price, as the irregular tone of the game pegs it closer to a spinoff like Devil Summoner rather than the main series games before it. The ideas behind Shin Megami Tensei IV's Tokyo Dome are solid, but a deficient narrative that requires implausible justifications litters plotholes far and wide.

3. Oversimplification of Mythological Themes and Content

Demons’ centrality to the series tends for them to appear in Shin Megami Tensei topics across the board. But perhaps nothing is more important than the acuity with which demons (and the mythological and religious themes they represent) are utilized as part of an SMT game’s narrative and themes. At a minimum, the series consistently displays an understanding of demons’ source definitions and characteristics; the best case scenarios involve a seamless weaving of a demon’s role or symbolism into a game’s own narrative. Examples of past successes are too numerous to list, but include: SMT1's reenactment of The Ramayana's climatic conflict between Rama (using Vishnu as a stand-in) and Ravana; SMTII’s accurate use of YHVH as unapologetic and wrathful lawgiver in the Old Testament sense, with pre-fall Satan among his Lawful retinue; Nocturne, aware of the symbolic renewing properties of fire, giving the Japanese fire god Kagutsuchi a unique role as the spark of a new world’s creation; and in Strange Journey, where the Ouroboros, symbol of eternity, guards infinite space. Without this understanding, Shin Megami Tensei would be like any common property that cribs mythological names or ideas while neglecting the deeper meaning behind them.

Minotaur, a total highlight
With regard to Shin Megami Tensei IV’s grade on this topic, the good news is that it does find some success. The game’s multitude of optional challenge quests play fast and loose with demons and their myths, to great effect. Some examples include the Maya suicide goddess Ixtab’s influence in the desolate Blasted Tokyo, the hunt for the dismembered body parts of the Egyptian god Osiris, and a fetch quest to retrieve the cauldron of the Irish father god Dagda for his daughter, Brigid. Then there are main quest demons who appear in appropriate places, such as the Minotaur, the master of the Naraku labyrinth. There’s plenty of logical, obvious use as well, like angels as bosses in Purgatorium and demons as the same in Lucifer Palace. Truthfully, these are the kinds of simple things you expect at the minimum from Shin Megami Tensei.

The White and their motives
More substantially, SMTIV’s narrative includes themes from Theosophy [12], an esoteric, pan-religious philosophy popular at the turn of the 20th century. These Theosophic themes are primarily represented by The White, a transcendent, nihilistic force that professes the futility of choice and free will, and are allegedly the creation of mankind’s hopeless state. They bear definite similarity to Theosophy’s Great White Brotherhood, a fraternity of supernatural beings who impart knowledge to select humans. Though their motivations are sinister instead, The White certainly share a similar relationship with the main character, particularly if you interpret the Blasted and Infernal Tokyo sequences as visions or “teachings” of higher spiritual beings. The White aren’t anything more than flat, narrow-minded villains and they even present one of SMTIV’s many logic-bending, paradoxical questions (they apparently built the physical Yamato Perpetual Reactor, even though they themselves are constructs of human thoughts), but these matter little in the face of some of the game’s other shortcomings. The White are, simply, good enough.

"Dear diary...God is a poo-poo head"
Standing in the way of SMTIV’s other major Theosophic element is the game’s treatment of Lucifer. A major character in the series, Lucifer always harbors a motivation to oppose YHVH's Law and sway protagonists to his side, but does so with conniving Faustian deceptions that include thematically appropriate guises, like Nocturne’s old man or young boy and Strange Journey’s Louisa Ferre. Instead of this nuanced approach, SMTIV opts to depict Lucifer as a simple-minded foil to God, personally obsessed with the symbolism and meaning of his own name, the “Morning Star,” a self-delusion so strong he clings to any related associations, such as the planet Venus and "light" itself—as tenuous or irrelevant to his actual character as they may be. Even the names of the areas within his Lucifer Palace refer to light, though the swirling black vortex that surrounds the structure is anything but. Unlike other series depictions of Lucifer, SMTIV’s version does not seem the least bit self-aware.

But aside from his crass, ugly artwork as a pallid bald man wearing the traje de luces (“suit of lights” of matadors) with an embryonic Walter-tumor hanging off his arm, Lucifer’s other preferred form in SMTIV is Hikaru, a cute, smiling Japanese high school girl whose name makes her as conspicuous as “Louis Cyphre”—in Japanese, “hikaru” means “to shine.” [13] While this seemingly pandering, thoughtless disguise just goes to show how much SMTIV lacks a solid thematic core, Hikaru at least displays some of the tendencies of “old” Lucifer, even if only to act as a plot device, like giving you the matchbook needed to access Café Florida. Unfortunately, Hikaru also commits a grave narrative sin: her presence is acknowledged by her Florida compatriots Skins and Fujiwara only for them later to have no recollection of her, an intentionally cheap deception that serves no purpose. But such is the pattern for SMTIV’s uninspired portrayal of Lucifer, a straightforward villain who ironically represents the black of the game’s black-and-white motif.
"The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that [she] does not exist"
This leads to SMTIV’s other Theosophic character, the figure of Sanat Kumara, who appears in a DLC-exclusive quest. In Theosophy, Sanat is an "eternal youth" from Venus who guides the spiritual development of Earth from his higher plane of existence. But because of this relationship to Venus, critics of Theosophy, particularly Christians, latched on to the connection to Lucifer and deemed Sanat the Devil in disguise. SMTIV's Sanat, through words, form, and Chaotic alignment, is based on the critics' misinformed interpretation rather than the actual source material. Contrast this with the series’ impartial, origin-based portrayal of Baal, who is unfairly villainized in the Bible and beyond. But SMTIV, in its zeal to equate anything having to do with Venus directly to Lucifer, would cast a being of light as one of chaos rather than abiding by the design rules that set SMT apart from other properties. Perhaps the gnarled mess of SMTIV's Sanat makes for a more imposing "boss" than Theosophy's "hippie" Sanat, though that is an inappropriate justification at best when there’s literally a world of myths from which to choose a character that wouldn’t need such a drastic reinterpretation. 

Left: Theosophy's Sanat, a being of light; Right: SMTIV's Sanat, a being of chaos
The Law faction fares slightly better, though still shows little concern for acuity or consistency. Chief representatives Merkabah and Ancient of Days are obscure and just far enough removed from YHVH himself to avoid potential controversy, yet are still meaningful choices on paper. But while the real-world theological ideas behind Merkabah, the chariot of God, are fascinating, neither SMTIV's Merkabah's garish design nor its invented correlation to the four archangels have much do with the original concept from Jewish mysticism, other than its very general “likeness of a man.” Likewise, Ancient of Days in scriptures represents eons of time and the spark of initial creation, not the human exterminator he is in the game. Merkabah and Ancient of Days just seem like they were available names to cross off on a list of God’s hitherto unused retinue. 

A chariot sans wheels and a wrathful, divine baseball
Similarly, SMTIV’s concluding interpretation of angels as robots devoid of free will is unwarranted. Laying groundwork with the monotonous dialogue of Blasted Tokyo’s Pluto, who actually is an automaton, the angel bosses of Purgatorium also endlessly spout the same line, with either Burroughs or Lucifer patronizingly identifying that they “are like machines.” It’s obvious that the game is trying to make a point that to be Lawful is to be orderly at the cost of ego or personality, and fairly enough. However, SMT’s demons are probably the wrong medium with which to attempt such incisive commentary, as, by definition, they remain “digital devils.” In other words, demons themselves are not far removed from computer executables and thus cannot act beyond their programmed means, going so far as to be systematized into collections of archetypes (the demon races). [See also: the Nocturne screenshot in the previous section.] Moreover, other angels in the game like Mastema, the archangels, and Seraph all talk normally—but why are they the exceptions when other named angels such as Kazfiel and Azrael fall under the robotic spell? SMTIV’s mechanical angel idea isn't completely terrible, but it's redundant within the series' framework and lacks internal consistency.

"Please understand"

Between the highs of some of the challenge quests and the lows prevalent within the main storyline, it’s apparent that the SMTIV’s main scenario writers and sub-scenario writers each had different goals when it came to demons and mythological content. Compared to other games in the series, the ideas behind SMTIV's main scenario are diluted in complexity and its demons afforded minimal plot participation, no doubt due to the needs of establishing the human population and two major locations. While this is unfortunate enough, SMTIV also shelters a completely different issue with its portrayal of demons that’s deserving of separate attention.

4. Expel the Foreign…Demons?

Gotou in Shin Megami Tensei
Politics and Shin Megami Tensei you’d think would be strange bedfellows, but this is not actually the case. Shin Megami Tensei 1 more or less begins with one of the more effective mixtures of politics and fantasy situations in games, with the fanatical Gotou, a proxy for real-life author and government coup stager Yukio Mishima, wishing to use the flood of demons for the advantage of his nation, while the American ambassador Thorman, the Norse god Thor hiding in plain sight, is actually a puppet of extreme Law and order figurehead, YHVH. Both characters are pragmatic, trying to make the best of a calamitous situation as they see fit, but, more importantly, they also represent the Platonic ideals of SMT alignment heroes, whose shoes SMT1’s Law Hero and Chaos Hero will fill in due time. But, like so many political debates, the temporal struggle between Gotou and Thorman is ended with a complete upheaval of the system—in SMT1’s case, a nuclear strike that wipes the slate clean, making room for a new generation of leaders. The politics of SMT1’s first act don’t just set up the rest of the game, they provide meaningful thematic resonance for the story’s eventual outcome.

"Peallaidh Extermination"
Shin Megami Tensei IV’s attempts at similar socio-political themes are not just unsuccessful but imply a bewildering and pervasive xenophobia. Much of it has to do with some poor word choices, the main culprit being the term 外来の悪魔,” “gairai no akuma,” literally “foreign demon,” which is how it is translated in the English script. This phrase is first used in the early game Peallaidh extermination quest to describe that demon’s relation to the Ueno area, as it had recently emigrated there. While Peallaidh is a Scottish demon, the use of the word “foreign” here is merely bizarre instead of xenophobic, another way the game begs the player to ask the wrong questions. What makes a demon foreign? Aren’t they all foreign bodies? Are only Japanese demons considered native? If not, does each region have an observed demonic ecosystem that has never changed in 25 years? If Peallaidh is causing problems, being labeled a “troublemaker” or “dangerous” is all the relevant information the player needs, not a qualifier that makes no sense in the setting. 

The strength of "a god of the land" (i.e., the Japanese god Kuebiko) is required to overpower a Chinese goddess, who initially defeats but eventually succumbs to the "Yamato-damashii" of Kaga
Unfortunately, there’s another instance of a “foreign demon” where the xenophobic undertones are much more explicit. Before the arrival of the Samurai, the ward of Ikebukuro was taken over by the Chinese mother goddess Xi Wangmu, subsequently filling her areas of dominion with demons of exclusively Chinese origin, like Tuofei or Bai Suzhen. In real life, Ikebukuro is the location of Tokyo’s Chinatown [14] and, in recent history, Japan's and China's relationship has been tumultuous, to say the least. So in SMTIV, this “foreign” Chinese demon delegation has turned Ikebukuro into a depressing, nearly lifeless area where NPCs can literally be talked into committing suicide. Naturally, the Tokyo native Ring of Gaea wants Xi Wangmu and her “gairai” hordes gone; as you attempt this quasi-ethnic cleansing with them, almost all of the Gaea members, including special NPC Kaga, are swallowed whole by Xi Wangmu’s monstrous maw. Then you, also a foreigner, defeat Xi Wangmu, after which the whole episode is swiftly forgotten, as it was only an unrelated speedbump on the way to the main quest. The only effects are window dressings that speak to the nationalist themes: the areas past Xi Wangmu's domain, the east entrance of Ikebukuro and the Juraku bookstore, are filled exclusively with Japanese demons, like Karasu Tengu and Yuki Jyorou, as if they were primed to retake their territory after the fall of the "foreign" hordes. Though the anti-Chinese sentiments of this sequence are very clear, if it was intended as sly commentary on Sino-Japanese relations rather than just a hostile jab, the confused tone and lack of plot consequences don’t convince. And, like Peallaidh, calling Ikebukuro’s Chinese demons “foreign” makes no sense as 80% or more of the demons in the game are non-Japanese, including the one the Gaeans worship at their base of Tsukiji Hongwanji—if  you take it at face value that their colossal, central icon is Strange Journey’s Mem Aleph, a concept of Jewish origin.

The complex Japanese title of the NDDs, 必殺の霊的国防兵器, means "deadly spiritual national defense weapon"
If the Xi Wangmu event reeks of the Japanese right-wing, the sad part is that its occurrence leaves other parts of the game open to the same scrutiny. An obvious instance is with the National Defense Divinities, a group of exclusively Japanese demons with central plot significance. This group, who are honestly a rather random smattering of Japanese deities and heroes, was summoned by the Counter-Demon Force 25 years prior to the start of the game for the eponymous purpose of protecting Japan; in the present, they are controlled by Tayama and the Ashura-Kai, a fate these demons detest. If you stop here, there’s really nothing wrong about this setup; it’s easy to accept that the other countries in this situation might defer to the deities of local belief systems, and the angle that the National Defense Divinities are being used against their will adds some internal conflict. But once again, the problem with the NDDs is that their whole concept raises many unanswered questions: While NPCs call them "badass," "fierce," and "deadly," why does more than half of the NDD roster consist of gods of knowledge (Omoikane), wisdom (Kuebiko), learning (Michizane), and a mere mortal monk (Tenkai)? Wouldn’t more violence-oriented Japanese gods like Susano-o, Hachiman, or even Buddhist guardians have been more effective at repelling the demon hordes? For that matter, why not summon a more transcendent god like Vishnu instead, if the Japanese gods couldn’t pull their weight? And if demons are capable of personally caring about their homelands, as the NDDs do, in what is presumable a worldwide crisis, then why are the myriad other gods in Japan instead of protecting their places of origin? Why are physical mediums needed to control the NDDs when no other demons, Japanese or otherwise, require something similar? Et cetera.

While bad writing and planning are what really plague the National Defense Divinities, even they can’t get away from the game’s bizarre undertones. In a sidequest, the Japanese thunder god Take-Mikazuchi, who apparently had been waiting around in a Tokyo Midtown room for 100 years even though that building has only existed since 2007 [15], says that he and the NDDs were summoned to fight “a great war” 100 years ago, i.e., World War II (as SMTIV's "present" is the year 2037). Even though he implies they could not fend off the Americans, given Japan’s controversial track record over the perception of its military’s actions in WWII, maybe this was one anecdote best left on the cutting room floor.

A True Patriot: Masakado says "NIMBY", or rather, "NOMB"
And then there’s Masakado, whose motivations in SMTIV are not outwardly xenophobic but can certainly be interpreted as such subtextually, thanks to the influence of the previous instances. Besides his role in the backstory as the firmament protecting Tokyo against “God’s” (read: foreign) ICBM attack, after his reawakening in the present, he has a singular focus: the extermination of the foreign powers, Merkabah and Lucifer, that are corrupting the city and restricting his own power. While you can call the elimination of the Law and Chaos elements mere Neutral tradition or a cognizant criticism of two obviously Western, Judeo-Christian concepts, Masakado’s true intent might be betrayed by his lack of leniency for the Western-influenced Mikado built on his back. Even though Mikado and its intact districts seem like an ideal place for the humans to live, because it’s not part of the archetypal Tokyo, it’s fated to be destroyed as Masakado’s firmament recedes, ironically causing further damage to the already ruined city as the huge slabs and parapets of the castle crash down below. Whether or not Masakado harbors specific resentment at the Western powers in his city, he certainly lacks common sense.

Shin Megami Tensei games always feature a cosmopolitan demon roster. SMTIV is no different. Thus, trying to peg certain demons as foreign just doesn’t work within series establishment. Political commentary can absolutely fit within the SMT framework, but it needs to be a little bit more substantial than a petty, one-sided argument in reference to a regional rivalry. Once again, whether these story concepts were systematically planned or merely sloppy, they leave SMTIV with an unstable foundation begging for inquiry it can’t support.

5. Poor Characterization of Alignment Heroes

Shin Megami Tensei's main supporting characters, its alignment heroes, begin as normal people but become representatives of inhuman extremes; thus, their development is atypical compared to similar characters in other RPGs. Straightforward personal motivations may explain their initial actions and ultimate choices, while their transformations into "heroes" resonate with the dogmas of their respective ideologies. SMT1's alignment heroes crystallize this approach. Law Hero's motivation in the story is to find his girlfriend, but when he fails and is subsequently killed by a demon, he is resurrected against his will for the benefit of a group, the Messians; Chaos Hero wants nothing more than to enact revenge on a bully and, when given the chance, makes the decision himself to fuse with a demon to gain power. It may seem simple, but this formula nonetheless develops characters along dramatic arcs.

The basic, but effective, motivations of SMT1's heroes (top); Jonathan and Walter lack convincing motivations, compensating by telegraphing their alignments at the beginning of the game
The problems with Shin Megami Tensei IV's heroes, Jonathan and Walter, begin during the game's opening minutes, which include a SMT1-style dream sequence that explicitly telegraphs Jonathan and Walter as the Law Hero and Chaos Hero, respectively. If that weren't enough, two additional, nearly identical dream sequences follow over the course of the prologue, which directly reveal their ideological slants. This could be an interesting setup for a reversal, but the game never attempts to deviate the two from the limits it immediately imposes on them. Subtlety is not one of Shin Megami Tensei IV's virtues.   

The two also lack sufficient personal motivations. Part of the blame is shouldered by the scenario: because the Samurai group is under the orders of various superiors for most of the game, Jonathan and Walter aren’t afforded room for individual action. Instead, the game expects motives to be inferred from the characters’ backstories. Each belongs to one of Mikado's segregated castes: Jonathan an exalted Luxuror, Walter a lowly Casualry. While Jonathan rarely makes mention of his birth class, Walter does occasionally grumble about his humbler roots. However, avenging his downtrodden fellows never seems to be a concern for him, as Walter mentions that he is glad he doesn't have to continue his family's business, not to mention being selected as a Samurai automatically makes one a Luxuror. As the Luxuror/Casualry divide is one of the Mikado elements quickly swept under the rug, its primary purpose is then shifted to being a springboard for Jonathan and Walter, for which it is almost completely ineffective. The only conclusion possible is that the motivations that drive them towards their inevitable transformations don't exist.

This has a profoundly negative effect on their character development. With no motivations, their actions under strict order, and a central setting that’s unfamiliar to them, Jonathan’s and Walter’s dialogue up until the capture of the Black Samurai (a third of the way into the game) is mostly reactionary exposition intended to move the plot along, not personal insight. With so little to build off of, the plot has to rush their development. Between the two, only Walter displays some semblance of character evolution, as he expresses interest in the Gaean cult because they have physical power; it’s not much, but it’s there.

Forced confrontation
Eventually, Jonathan and Walter clash over Lilith when she is confronted in Tsukiji Hongwanji, even though it has no plot justification whatsoever. Are we supposed to accept it just because their "inevitable" alignment schism has been alluded to throughout the entire game? Or because Jonathan has been acting to a reserved, demure archetype and Walter to a brash, impulsive one? (Though Walter still has a more polite demeanor than most Tokyoites.) Without sufficient context, their crossing of swords seems to have happened just because the plot needed to escalate. Dream images, social classes, or personality types are no substitute for the personal actions and motivations that develop rounded, believable characters.

The game’s dramatic climax occurs after Tayama, Gabriel, and Lilith show their hands. Of course, because Jonathan has a reserved demeanor and was a born Luxuror, he wants a world of order and Lilith dead, siding with the archangels; because Walter is (sometimes) overzealous, is impressed by the Gaeans’ workout routine, and can’t decide whether he has a grudge against the Luxurors or is relieved to be in their ranks, he is swayed by a talking bug lady into wanting to create a world that “humans can shape as they please,” going on a murderous rampage as a result. It goes without saying, but each shift is abrupt and unsubstantiated. After the player sides with one or the other, the party is sent through the Yamato Perpetual Reactor to view Blasted Tokyo and Infernal Tokyo. Confusingly, the two are no longer at each others' throats, instead cooperating and joking throughout this extended sequence, in the process destroying any tension their already tenuously established opposing philosophies might have had. Once concluded, with neither character deeply affected by what transpired, Jonathan and Walter then “go off the deep end” without much in the way of reflective reasoning, transforming, like Japanese kids’ superhero villains, into Merkabah and “true” Lucifer, respectively. While going nuts has always been a rite of passage for SMT heroes, it’s usually padded out with some amount of gradual philosophical weight. In SMTIV, these transformations seemed to happen, again, "because they had to." 

Jonathan's and Walter's completely demonic metamorphoses may bend series rules, but mainly lack the impact of seeing former allies' likenesses become irrevocably changed, as with previous alignment hero transformations
Unfortunately, it gets even worse for Jonathan and Walter. Even though SMTIV goes to great lengths to pigeonhole them, both characters suffer from multiple instances of contrary actions and dialogue. Among them:  
  • Even though Walter is supposed to be the one who defers to violence, Jonathan physically assaults a man at Club Milton.
  • Walter repeatedly apologizes and acts remorseful for his impulsiveness, including after being taken in by Lilith’s initial words.
  • Immediately after Walter’s homicidal spree, where he slices the throats of Ashura-kai guards and kills Tayama, he suddenly remembers his Mikadoan manners in the discussion over who should hold the Yamato Perpetual Reactor remote.
  • Even though the Mikado Monastery calls the Tokyo population the "Unclean Ones," Jonathan, who should be in line with their opinion, harbors no prejudice against them.
  • After agreeing to kill Pluto for Akira in Blasted Tokyo, Walter dismisses the requests of other survivors, deferring to a Law mindset when he says, “We mustn’t forget our duty.”
  • Jonathan is completely okay with destroying Pluto even though it describes itself as God's tool. 

Jonathan sassing a machine that just described itself as a "tool of the Lord," even though he is about an hour away from becoming a "tool of the Lord" himself; Walter appears apprehensive about committing violence even though he has already murdered Ashura-kai members and is himself a few minutes away from becoming the wrist-baby of Lucifer
But besides bad writing and story planning, responsibility for Jonathan’s and Walter’s poor representation is shared by their constant presence. SMTIV is arguably the first game in the main series with something resembling a traditional RPG "party"; the older games usually featured at least one human companion for battle support, but here the cast exists throughout to reinforce plot developments and constantly quip during demon encounters. Taken along with the presence of Burroughs as an omnipresent navigational AI, they make SMTIV into the most sociable apocalypse, another way the setting’s purported severity is diminished. The ample dialogue may give Jonathan and Walter the illusion of depth, but the reality is that these opportunities are mostly spent acting as silent protagonist spokespersons instead of offering gradual character growth. Because the setting is so literal and requires so much substantiation, the development of SMTIV’s alignment heroes has to happen in concerted, inorganic intervals as the plot requires.

Not everyone in SMTIV is as poorly handled as Walter and Jonathan. Many of the minor characters fulfill their one-dimensional roles well, like Hugo, Issachar, Kiyoharu or Kenji. Akira has just as complex a backstory as the protagonist, with clear motivations across all three of his forms. But because they are so critical to what unfolds and since you spend so much time with them, Jonathan’s and Walter’s “alignment rush” is one of the game’s bigger stumbles. The two are likeable at a glance, but are unfortunately simplified caricatures of what alignment heroes should be.

6. Isabeau: Tone-Destroyer and Tension-Dissolver

Pandering exists in all forms, in all kinds of media. Sometimes it can come in the form of crass fanservice, including types common to Japanese games like hot springs scenes, panty shots, or really any chance to see female characters with less clothing. Thankfully, Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn't contain anything that blatant, but instead has something that's subtler, yet still out-of-place and manipulative: Isabeau.

Heroines of past SMT games like Beth and Yuko deconstructed SMT1's "eternal partner" archetype; Isabeau reconstructs it but without the plot significance of the original
Isabeau's character has many problems with agency and plot significance, made particularly apparent in comparison to previous series heroines: she's nothing close to a reincarnated partner, a mother of a savior, or a wizened mentor. Much like with Walter and Jonathan up to their alignment events, Isabeau mostly exists to add another voice to cutscenes or expound on events for the benefit for the player—and to sometimes be "cute." Her major contribution to SMTIV's plot is to be indecisive and—confusingly—to illustrate how that leads to Neutrality. At the first crucial alignment fork between Walter and Jonathan, she interjects that she can't follow the party due to lacking a definitive opinion about either choice, likely a self-aware implication of the illegitimacy of the Law and Chaos paths (though the player lacks the same ability to reject both paths). Isabeau rejoins if Neutral is achieved, though she still doesn't accomplish anything important; she's there to serve as a battle companion and voice for the silent protagonist and leaves after the first of the two final dungeons. Her most significant action, ferrying the people of Mikado to Tokyo, happens off-screen and could have been accomplished by any other NPC.

To compensate for her lack of meaningful characterization, Isabeau was given a particular trait: an interest in manga. This actually provides effective world-building early on, as through her words we learn that the people of Mikado have a skewed reality, one that sees France as a "fictional country" via relics of a previous civilization now unknown to them. Unfortunately, her interest doesn't mature but remains a mere infantile fascination, causing sudden, inappropriate tonal shifts during multiple major dramatic scenes, best illustrated from Isabeau's own perspective:
  • In the search for the Black Samurai, who is actually an ancient demoness, the party finds a city hidden for "centuries" beneath their own, one that is strewn with demonic atrocities, pockmarked by huge poison pools, and marred by decrepit living conditions, with its survivors (supposedly) living on the brink; when the party finally confronts their quarry, Isabeau is apparently so unaffected by the extraordinary things she witnessed that being trolled by manga spoilers causes her to cover her ears and say "Tralalala" to avoid hearing them.

If the characters don't take the situation seriously, why should the player?
  • Much later, after trekking alone through a dying world to find her purpose, Isabeau confronts the protagonist at Ichigaya, who has now sided with either Law or Chaos. With nothing else to talk about, she then brings up the topic of her manga before the Demon Lord of Hell himself; alternately, an emanation of the God of Israel, who cares enough about Japanese comics to specifically name the genre, will chide her for reading their "unclean" pages.  

A massive tonal shift within a single scene
These two instances are simply some of the worst tonal dissonance in the game, with the additional effect of severely weakening tension, as the ordeals of a world beset by literal pandemonium are seemingly less pressing than the conclusion of a comic book.

Isabeau's manga subplot tries to develop in parallel with her own, but since most of her growth only happens in relation to how the manga's own plotline develops, this trait only affords her character the illusion of depth. While it's been established that Shin Megami Tensei characters aren't overly complex, they still have measured arcs and meaningful transformations that Isabeau fails to equal convincingly. In contrast to Isabeau is Nozomi, a sidequest hunter character who has a better arc than most of the major characters. She does more than Isabeau, is more hands-on with demons, has a more interesting motivation, and her quests are even required for the Neutral path (though don't intersect with the main plot). It's actually a shame that Nozomi doesn't have a bigger role in the game; if she were the Neutral heroine instead, she would also provide the perspective of a pragmatic Tokyoite that the game otherwise lacks. Comparing Isabeau and Nozomi is another example of how the main scenario writers and sub scenario writers didn't see eye-to-eye with the series' standard themes and tone. Even Hikaru has more significance to the plot despite at first glance only existing to meet a modern Japanese games quota for schoolgirl characters. 

A contrast of priorities
Though a flat character, Isabeau manages to be manipulative of players' sympathies due to her manga interest (which has a high chance of being shared by the game's target demographic), soft appearance, and general innocence. This is evidenced by how many players seemed affected by her suicide on the Law and Chaos paths, despite her failing to generate any genuine pathos from legitimate character growth. But similar to how images of malnourished children or maltreated animals can manipulate people to donate money to unknown causes, so can seeing a cute, manga-reading girl slice her own throat cheaply sway emotions. Isabeau may be a horrible match for the Shin Megami Tensei universe, but tonal consistency was apparently meaningless compared to the modern, un-SMT-like need of a character who can appeal to the base senses.

7. The Contrivances of Neutrality

A Shin Megami Tensei game's Neutral path is commonly the target goal for most players, as its rejection of both Law and Chaos carries the most weight for both story and gameplay. But Shin Megami Tensei IV's Neutral has a string of contrived plot points that fit poorly within Shin Megami Tensei's context and go so far as to alter the significance of an important recurring character. While SMT has never been immune to clichés, never before have Neutrality's consequences been so watered down and hackneyed as in SMTIV.

Heralds of Neutrality: being scolded for finding binary choices unappealing; a girl who needs reviving
Neutral's problems begin with the alignment system itself, stemming from the fact that the major choices in SMTIV are always binary. Early in the game, Jonathan and Walter discuss the merits of being a Samurai, resulting in a prompt where you must agree with one, the other, or say "I don't know." If you shrug both off, Burroughs reprimands you for being unable to form your own opinion, even though the other two possible responses are spoon-fed to you. Having absolutely nothing to say might be one thing, but being uncertain or skeptical instead of being peer-pressured into mimicry may be the genesis of rejecting both. Even though such a mixed message makes little sense in context, Burroughs' words portend the game's dyadic choices. Later on, the first major alignment conflict is deciding whether to kill Lilith with Jonathan or deal with Tayama with Walter. It would be fairly compelling if not for the fact that the obvious assertion, that both Tayama and Lilith are loons, and the obvious course of action, dispatching both of them, are not both on the table. This is puzzling in light of the setup resembling SMT1's first act, where killing both Gotou and Thor is available as the Neutral action. The most sensible explanation is that the game's planners wanted Neutral to be more difficult to achieve compared to previous games, and where the good and bad of each alignment are precipitously balanced. That's fair enough. But in trying to achieve that Neutrality, you will in turn have to agree with psychotic extremes from both sides of the spectrum that may not reflect your own opinion or even the most sensible outcome.

Should you be lucky enough to balance the correct number of murdered babies with adequate hours of volunteer service at children's cancer hospitals, you'll end up Neutral. SMTIV's Neutral path begins by meeting Stephen, Shin Megami Tensei’s infamous Stephen Hawking analogue, after the alternate Tokyo events. He’s a character that has been absent from the series for many entries, so the announcement of his return was welcomed. He begins by telling you that for humanity to be saved, the “Goddess of Tokyo” must be revived—a directive that immediately raises red flags. Stephen was originally included in the first Shin Megami Tensei to represent a humanistic Neutral view that rejected the esoteric, supernatural outcomes of Law and Chaos; he was meant to present “science as a candle in the dark” in a “demon haunted world”:
"The famous theoretical physicist Hawking […] became a sensation in the West because he said God wasn’t the one who created the Universe and everything was based on physical principles. He maintained in his books that the Universe wasn’t created by God, but even if we Japanese read the translations of his works, we think this is something obvious. The Japanese aren’t monotheists, so that train of thought is interesting to us. We had Stephen appear in the Shin Megami Tensei series in order to visually present that ideology...So the story of Shin Megami Tensei isn’t just one of gods and demons, but the base concept is that you have to head in a direction different from both of them, and the one who becomes that guide is none other than Stephen." [16]

"What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary." -Stephen Hawking
While he’s still Neutral with humanity in focus, doing so by aligning himself with a goddess is like the actual Stephen Hawking explaining the universe by using the “God of the gaps” concept—i.e., something antithetical to his actual position. Unfortunately, the desire for Stephen’s presence to uphold “series tradition” was met without grasping his actual significance. 

So, to revive the Goddess of Tokyo, the firmament that encases Tokyo must be removed. It just so happens that the firmament is the body of Masakado, guardian of the capital, who took on this form in the game’s backstory to protect the city from nuclear annihilation. For some reason he lacks the capability to remove the ceiling himself, and to do that will need "hope." Literally. As in the feeling.

Hope and its effects

To carry out this task, Masakado gives you a magic chalice that needs to be filled with quantified hope gained by "inspiring" the remnants of humanity. In a contrivance to end all contrivances, immediately after Masakado tasks you, the hunter association changes the rules of its ranking system in favor of one that will crown an ultimate "Champion." Once you have completed enough arbitrary, tension-and-momentum-killing quests to reach the Champion's rank, the crowds quickly gather to gawk at how you, a foreigner, are able to rise through the ranks so quickly, even though these same ranks had been randomly fluctuating, sometimes with the Samurai characters in very high positions, throughout the rest of the game. Regardless, the people's hope, now embodied in a glowing sphere, restores enough of Masakado’s power that he helps you to conquer the other two sentiments that "buttress hope": goodwill, personified by Merkabah, and spite, personified by Lucifer. Compare these to Strange Journey’s MacGuffins, the Cosmic Eggs, which also needed to be collected near its end; they sound silly and arbitrary, but are actually a mythological motif that meshes with the game’s maternal themes. Goodwill, hope, and spite on the other hand are so literal as to be patronizing, to say nothing of how the concept of the hope collectathon seems like a magical girl anime cliché that fits the tone of the series like a square peg into a round hole.

The invented goddess
So who is the Goddess of Tokyo? Besides being the little girl you see in hallucinations throughout the game, it turns out that your trusty AI, Burroughs, was actually a Stephen-created personality he based on this Goddess. She’s not a goddess from mythology or folklore, just one invented for the game. This, too, raises red flags. SMT does have a large stable of original demons, but all of them relatively minor and certainly not of central plot significance, save for some cases in spinoffs like Devil Summoner’s Inaruna (who is more of an avenging spirit within the game’s original setting). SMT doesn’t need to invent to meet specific plot demands because it recognizes world mythology, which probably already contains the needed element somewhere in its traditions. Case in point: Masakado, already a historical guardian deity of sorts for Tokyo. Redundant as she is contrived, the reveal of Burroughs the Goddess is also superfluous from a plot standpoint; it adds little to the game’s denouement and doesn’t affect the outcome of the ending at all. The best possible explanation for the twist is that provides justification for Stephen’s presence (despite it being in opposition to his purpose) and of course to make Burroughs herself the “Megami Tensei”—reincarnated goddess, even if that has traditionally never been a priority in previous games.

Neutral should be the most gratifying path to take in SMT, not a series of events that would be more appropriate within the context of Final Fantasy melodrama. The strange part is that the Law and Chaos paths don’t have setups nearly as contrived, both playing out as one would expect. There’s nothing wrong with an actual “hopeful” Neutral ending, but SMTIV’s literalized sentiments, made-up goddesses, and lack of symbolic awareness read like the simplified, young adult version of a greater, more meticulously crafted work.

8. References: “It’s like poetry”

The original Japanese release of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, in an attempt to reinvent the SMT wheel, tried to free itself from creatively confining "traditions" such as strict Law/Neutral/Chaos alignments and related factions. However, it may have rocked the boat a little too hard, as the game's subsequent Maniacs re-release added a substantial amount of new content, much of it restoring those lost references to SMT's past. These include a decidedly Chaos path (with Lucifer), Law and Chaos bosses (Metatron and Beelzebub, respectively), Fiends, and even the appearance of Izanagi and Izanami, to name a few. It's sheer fanservice, but since the majority of it exists in a separate, optional dungeon, it in no ways compromises the innovative, daring core of the original game.  

Such references and in-jokes are inevitable, almost natural, for any long-running series. Used sparingly or smartly (like in Nocturne Maniacs) and they can be a rewarding wink for long-time fans. Used excessively and they will appear as an obvious ploy to score cheap nostalgia appeal, with the worst case scenario being that the constant references rob the new product of its individuality.

Just a few of SMTIV's bevy of series callbacks
With Shin Megami Tensei IV the product of that same Maniacs team, one would expect some level of series callbacks. Unfortunately, they are so numerous in SMTIV that it edges the game closest to the latter, "excessive" category. While most are minor, innocuous nods, SMTIV commits the sin of having major story beats or world-building elements directly retread those seen previously, such as Yuriko/Lilith, ICBM attacks against Tokyo, the Demon Summoning Program distributed as shareware, and Mikado as a 1000-Year Kingdom; these are just a few among many more that have been exhaustively compiled. [17] Certain references, such as Stephen's reappearance, seem keen to reestablish dormant traditions even though games like Nocturne and Strange Journey deemed his presence unnecessary. 

As if cognizant of its many un-SMT-like elements (like those already discussed), SMTIV's overindulgence in references seems like a facade worn in an attempt to tout its "understanding" of the series and to help legitimize itself as an SMT title. Of course, even when previous games got referential, they approached nowhere near the volume present in SMTIV and, on the subject of "understanding the series," one needs to look no further than the botching of Stephen's role to realize even that understanding may be feigned. While most of the callbacks can be dismissed as simple fanservice, what can't be ignored so easily are the major plot reruns that not only give deja vu but also keep the fantastic original aspects of Shin Megami Tensei IV from truly becoming their own.


Apt comparisons can be made between Shin Megami Tensei IV and the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. For these films specifically, all were highly-anticipated follow-ups to classic franchises, and, on the surface, all looked to be matching their respective legacies: the Star Wars prequels feature Jedi, space battles galore, John Williams soundtracks, etc; Crystal Skull put Harrison Ford back in the fedora and Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair;  Prometheus returned to the horror roots of Alien. Alas, these films would also end up disappointing in one way or another. Episodes I-III and Crystal Skull have been criticized at length [18] [19] for not truly understanding the essence of what made their predecessors so beloved despite emulating their sights and sounds, while Prometheus garnered negative reactions for its plothole-ridden, logic-bending story. [20] As shown, SMTIV shares these same problems.
And also like these films, any under-the-hood issues did not deter interested parties. By the end of its run on the Japanese sales charts, Shin Megami Tensei IV had sold 252,572 units in Japan, [21] about twice the sales of Strange Journey, and a total of over 600,000 worldwide [22] —revitalizing numbers for a series potentially in decline. But unlike movies, a video game like SMTIV has something unique that can potentially compensate for narrative shortfalls: gameplay. Despite some severe, potentially off-putting balance issues in the game's opening hours, the quality of SMTIV's gameplay is high, enough to earn it accolades in the Western press [23]; it’s still a good game if divorced from its issues of SMT identity. Nonetheless, critical voices can be found among reviewers more familiar with series, commenting, "the plot is full of holes, inconsistencies, and unbelievable character actions and reactions." [24] Likewise, once fans were able to play the final release, it became easier (though far from unanimous) to find more negative reactions, calling SMTIV a “joyless slog[25] to “simplified" and "superficial.” [26] Comments like the former tend to come from players who are more familiar with the Persona games, with the latter more common from series veterans.

So what happened? How did a capable staff familiar with Shin Megami Tensei produce a game with such a compromised and conflicted identity? The true intentions are potentially evidenced by something exclusive to the Japanese version of SMTIV: furigana. Furigana are a reading aid written above Japanese kanji with multiple contexts for usage, but most relevant is its use in materials for children still learning kanji [27]; "it's normal to see furigana in stuff aimed at kids," like manga or games. [28] Naturally, this includes the "shounen" genre of action-oriented manga for boys, with notable examples being Dragonball or One Piece. While Shin Megami Tensei has always had the makings of a boy's power fantasy with its computer-aided summonings of gods and demons, previous games in the series (with the necessary screen resolution required for text augmentation, like Nocturne) don't use furigana, suggesting they may have been intended for at least a high school audience. For that matter, Atlus' contemporaneous games on the 3DS like Etrian Odyssey Untold or Persona Q don't use furigana either, making SMTIV an outlier.

Examples of furigana in the Japanese version of SMTIV and One Piece
But when you consider the furigana along with the tokusatsu guest designers, the explicitly sentai-like "transformations" of Reds-takers or Jonathan or Walter, the Samurai team's scarf colors resembling those of a sentai squad, the simplified thematic content, the Goddess of Tokyo acting as little more than a damsel in distress cliché, etc., it becomes apparent that SMTIV's target demographic was pre-teen or early-teen boys. The game's Japanese rating is CERO C (15+) with a content descriptor for violence, presumably for the gruesome demon death animations; this is not a retail-restrictive rating, and likely had little bearing in reaching those younger than 15. Something else to consider is that not long after SMTIV's release, Masayuki Doi gave an interview that stirred controversy for comments that male characters are more suited for an SMT apocalypse than female characters would be, though he admits, "there are traditionalists on the development team that see the series from the past to present and all of the protagonists have been male. To keep that tradition, there is feedback I’ve been hearing saying that if there is a new SMT title we should keep the tradition of having a male lead." [29] Considering SMT's tabula rasa silent protagonists, this "tradition" is transparently about demographics, as the Atlus number-crunchers probably knew the specific boy audience they were trying to attract would identify more closely, or exclusively, with a male character.

The Samurai's distinct scarf colors and arrangement in promo images bear similarity to children's sentai teams
And why shouldn't it try and target that entirely different demographic? Releases like Strange Journey proved that Persona players (in Japan and overseas) were not willing to migrate to the main series just because of a common heritage, and Japan's contracted game console environment means that the hardcore SMT players of previous generations likely don't exist in sufficient numbers to support just the "same old." Appealing to the tastes of the young Pokemon and Monster Hunter players who already own the 3DS is at least smart from a business perspective, even if the series has to contort itself to do it.

But being intended for children can’t be blamed for all of SMTIV’s ails. The sloppiness inherent in its characterization and world-building would be unacceptable in fiction for any age, and if the game had any production issues or disagreements the tight-lipped nature of the Japanese game industry will never tell; yet, the resultant product undeniably displays creative compromises. Of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Kazuma Kaneko once said, "if the game were to be pulled apart into its various components—gameplay, storyline, designs, and illustrations—all of those would contain some aspect contributed by me, [therefore] you can consider the game as a whole to be my artwork." [30] Shin Megami Tensei IV’s incongruous demons from disparate designers, confused thematics, and skewed understanding of its own legacy simply cannot claim a similar unified artistic vision, instead possessing the soul of a staid, formulaic product with safe ambitions.

What Does Shin Megami Tensei's Future Hold?

In a cutthroat era for the industry, there are a surprising number of positives for a small developer like Atlus. The most obvious is their acquisition by Sega in September 2013 [31] and a subsequent corporate restructuring in April 2014 [32] that saw them reemerge as a distinct arm separate from the parasitic Index; it’s currently unknown how this will affect future releases, but on paper it certainly sounds better. Then there’s the undeniable fact that SMTIV even exists and was a modest success, though Persona is clearly the money-making priority, with Persona 5 gearing up for a massive launch. And, for better or worse, there’s Etrian Odyssey, which has become Atlus’ milked dungeon-crawling series. While it began with the noblest of minimalist retro intentions, EO has become a vehicle for typical fanservice, including expanded story modes for its remakes and DLC cheesecake; nonetheless, it seems to be a healthy and reliable seller. Atlus is going to be around for a while yet.

Persona 5 returns to having demons as enemies; will it truly be a game for every type of Megami Tensei fan?
As for the future of Shin Megami Tensei itself, it’s much more difficult to predict. If Shin Megami Tensei IV was considered to have sold sufficiently (and it probably did), upcoming games may be iterations on its model, meaning straightforward stories for younger audiences, character interaction emphasis, lessening of mythological scope, demon designs that play only to the whims of their individual guest creators, and probably fantastic soundtracks; in other words, the potential for more great games, but they might as well be classified as another spinoff. If it wasn’t considered a success, then it’s either back to the drawing board or another long hiatus. Or, if SMTIV’s faults were the result of Index’s hand, the buffer gained from the Sega buyout could allow the Maniacs team the room to blossom creatively. On the other hand, Sega’s own classic RPG franchises, Phantasy Star and Shining Force, have both left their roots behind: Phantasy Star iterates exclusively on its successful online action-RPG Dreamcast makeover while the Shining series has become a vehicle for the erotic art of Tony Taka. It may all come down to how Sega interprets the value of the SMT IP.   

Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem: the potential; the reality
However, a recent disappointment for main series fans may have already divulged SMT’s worth. A few months before Shin Megami Tensei IV’s Japanese release in May 2013, Atlus and Nintendo announced an unexpected collaboration: Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem. Though unveiled with only a brief trailer, it nonetheless teased the inclusion of most SMT main series characters, from Shin Megami Tensei II’s Aleph to Shin Megami Tensei if…’s Tamaki Uchida, fueling wild speculation as to what this crossover would actually be. Fast-forward to April 2015 and the game’s actual form, Genei Ibun Roku #FE, was revealed, resembling nothing insinuated by the teaser. Any notion of SMT main series characters or influence was replaced by bright, cheerful colors and UI, high school students acting as pop music idols (replete with female characters donning skimpy clothing), dungeons with giant maid outfits, and Fire Emblem characters serving as personas. It’s a game very honest about its intentions of appealing to a specific, otaku-oriented demographic. But, more importantly, it proved that Persona’s style, moreso than SMT’s, was the more valuable of Atlus’ potential contributions to the collaboration.
The reality that’s likely difficult for main series SMT fans to accept is that Persona may very well be the ultimate evolution of the franchise, the one that will keep it relevant in the contemporary milieu and carry the series’ legacy the furthest. "Niche" might be the way SMT can remain true to itself, but niche series have also had a notoriously difficult time treading water for the past two console generations. In an era of declining sales that “retired” classic franchises of yesteryear like Mega Man, Castlevania, Gradius, and Contra and where low interest keeps even Dragon Quest games from being localized, the falling sales between Nocturne and Strange Journey potentially heralded a similar fate for the main series and—were it not for the breakout successes of Personas 3&4—potentially Atlus themselves. Maybe it won't be in the form its original creators intended or in the manner longtime fans want, but the Persona connection will all but ensure Shin Megami Tensei endures, even as a perpetually lower budget release intended to keep players content until the next major Persona title.

Many games are technically or artistically exceptional, but almost none provide an experience similar to Shin Megami Tensei
Mythology is timeless. Even when specific stories are not recreated verbatim, their pervasive archetypes and motifs will still cast shadows on the wall for us to interpret. Individual Shin Megami Tensei games are not so timeless, as it's turned out, as some of its boldest ideas are locked behind titles that haven't aged gracefully. But, as a series, its concepts are as malleable and adaptable as the myths themselves. You don’t need Kaneko’s art or Cozy Okada’s oversight to make a “real” Shin Megami Tensei game, it just requires understanding of what separates SMT from the rest. The consequence of SMT becoming indistinguishable from other RPG series, even its own spinoffs, is that there is nothing else that could fill the void it would leave behind. Shin Megami Tensei’s greatest asset is its sheer creative potential, and the most disappointing outcome of all would be to see it squandered.
Cozy Okada: I'm confident to say that Atlus' world of Shin Megami Tensei is very distinct from others; its originality has been firmly established. Whether [through] storyline, theme, or game system, the players can experience something they can't experience anywhere else.

Kazuma Kaneko: People come across something that doesn't work out for them, or think "this isn't the real me" on a daily basis. They continually yearn for an alternative, a different life. I guess the brain wants excitement. Shin Megami Tensei is a piece of work that contains a lot of those stimuli. Its themes are very familiar to us, so that makes them easy for the brain to comprehend. And that, in turn, expands the players' minds beyond their expectations. In other words, it's good for your brain...Whatever that means. (laughs) [33]

Special Thanks

This piece would never have been written without the aid of the following individuals:
  • Soren, for always being on the same wavelength
  • Dijeh, for translating on a whim
  • Pepsiman, for translation and insight
  • Gu4n, for archiving and translating so much on Megatengaku
  • Belmont, for not reading past the 3rd page :p
  • TK, for constructive criticism
  • Jesus, for...wait, I'm agnostic
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer, for Karn Evil 9 and Tarkus
  • Nodal, for being [a nice guy] and prompting me to write this extra-long rebuttal you'll never read
  • Originally, Isabeau's section implied that she brings up her manga before Merkabah on the Law path. This is not the case, as she mentions it before Lucifer on the Chaos path. The text has now been updated to accurately reflect both instances. Thanks to messiaharisato for the correction. 
  • In the Myth section, it was stated that Dagda makes a "voice-only" appearance in the game, but this is not true. He's just name-dropped with the cauldron. The text has been updated. 

[5] Gamespot.com. Takara to buy Atlus.
[7] Dengekionline.com. Kazuyuki Yamai Interview. (translated by dijeh)
[8] Famitsu.com. Shin Megami Tensei IV: Recollections of the New Demon Designers. (translated by dijeh)
[9] Kazuma Kaneko Works III. (archived on Megatengaku) Interview.
[12] Sorenblr.tumblr.com. Shin Megami Tensei IV and Theosophy.
[13] Jisho.org. "."
[15] Tokyo-midtown.com. Development & History.
[16] Shin Megami Tensei II Staff Interview. (translated by dijeh)
[17] Sorenblr.tumblr.com. Shin Megami Tensei IV Callback Compendium.
[23] Metacritic.com. Shin Megami Tensei IV
[25] Amazon.com Customer Review. Joyless Slog.
[26] Ameblo.jp/mecca-of-all-guitarists. Shin Megami Tensei IV~incompatibility.
[27] Japanese.about.com. What is Furigana in Japanese? 
[28] Legendsoflocalization.com. Why Do Japanese Games Have,Like, Double Text?
[30] 1UP.com (archived on Megatengaku) Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.
[33] Persona 2: Eternal Punishment Bonus Disc. Kazuma Kaneko and Cozy Okada Interview.


  1. On topic of robotic angels, I should probably mention that in Islam, angels are believed to have no free will or at least do not worship God out of free will, and more or less can not act beyond God's path: http://www.al-islam.org/faith-and-reason-ayatullah-mahdi-hadavi-tehrani/question-16-angels-and-free-will

    Though it seems to be primarily inspired by the idea Yahweh being originally a god of metallurgy: http://www.bing.com/search?FORM=SK2MDF&PC=SK2M&q=yahweh+metallurgy

    1. Those are both really awesome! Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. Do you think there will be a sequel for the main Shin Megami Tensei series ? According to the SMT IV's sales that are the best of the series so far, I think there will be more attention about the potential of the series, and maybe Atlus will take time to refine a probable new SMT that will appeal to both fans of the mainline SMT (in terms of fidelity and consistency) that those who liked SMT IV...
    ...Maybe the view of Persona 5 reusing demons as enemies gave me hope.
    I'm personally waiting for a sequel of SMT IV, who deconstructs the Neutral alignement like SMT II (I also saw SMT IV like a SMT II-2, if you know what I mean...)
    But I'm also afraid of the future merchandising if (an unexpected outcome) this hypothetical SMT will sale better than the IV. Can't wait for the dancing game with Louisa Ferre or the shooting game involving shooting some angels.

    I'm French (hon hon baguette eiffel tower, you know), and my english is average...Hope you'll undestand whatever I said :v

    1. I did some mainline SMT games except If... and Nocturne (I think I will play it in October), and I understand what you said when I played Strange Journey after I beat the I, II, and eventually the IV. I liked the huis-clos ambiance and the involvement of the protagonists about the destiny of the entire world. Maybe the problem in SMT IV is the protagonists walking around Tokyo without any motive meet some demons who want to change the world and then they will accept their proposal without real afterthought so far :(

    2. No need to apologize for your English or appeal to French stereotypes (though those did make me laugh). :p

      There will certainly be a Shin Megami Tensei V. I personally don't see it happening as the team's next project, though. I've said it other places, but I still think a very likely outcome in the near future is a remake of SMT1 or SMT2, but definitely SMT1. It's a landmark game that has never really been "modernized." Let's see what happens in the wake of Persona 5.

    3. I think there is still some hope pour SMTxFE, featuring Flooded Tokyo from SMT1 https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CP_zJZiWoAEbjT8.png:large

    4. That is likely not meant to be Flooded Tokyo. Too many buildings surviving, for one. #FE is probably a lost cause as far as meaningful SMT content is concerned. Beyond that, there is all of that otaku audience baiting that is well beyond most Megami Tensei games, which will be difficult to ignore.

    5. Oh.
      A wild sequel appears

    6. ...Or a prequel ?
      The boy with the "NO WAR" shirt have the same scar as Akira, and I think the two men on the left are young Tayama and Fujiwara.
      Moreover, the woman on the right looks like Nozomi.

    7. http://personacentral.com/shin-megami-tensei-iv-final-story-and-character-details/

  3. This certainly gave a lot to think about; I honesty loved SMT IV, but never really got to think about its contrast with other games in the series, or all the inconcistencies in its plot. I still love it though. :)

    I want to believe that SMT IV will assure more SMT games, and that at least one is bound to be a worthy succesor, right????

    In any case, excellent articles, are you into journalism?

    1. Thanks for reading! :)

      I am not really into journalism nor am I a journalist. I just wrote this thing out of a love for the series.

      I think SMTIV's sales success will definitely ensure future SMT titles. But as for the overall "SMT-ness" that's the focus of this article? Hard to say. Something I didn't touch on that much because it would have way complicated the scope was the fact of the changing demographics of Japanese game players, due to economic concerns, the shrinking population, and the emergence of powerful niche markets that want more anime-oriented properties like Persona, to name a few. But you can read an excellent treatise on that topic as it pertains to Japanese pop culture at large here: http://neojaponisme.com/2011/11/28/the-great-shift-in-japanese-pop-culture-part-one/

      But we'll definitely get future SMT games, and they will probably be more polished and playable than those that have come before, at the very least.

  4. Mhmm, that article you recommended is interesting, thanks!

    Anyhow, I think that this being such a good article, you could even write for other pages, like Gamnesia (it´s always looking for writers).

    Good luck ;)

  5. "There are absolute gems in the new roster like Minotaur and Chemtrail, but a scant few can't compensate for critical misses like the four archangels or Lucifer."

    Agreed. Great article. I appreciate and share some of your insights.

  6. The line about Nozomi just got hilariously prophetic

  7. All I see is a bunch of whining, ridiculously taking the game out of context, and nitpicking to argue the entire game is terrible.


    You argue why the Samurai didn't become like the villagers. If you had paid attention to Issachar, he explicitly states that he embraced the demonic because he realized that his life was meaningless because of the Luxorer and Casualry difference. That was what was turning the farmers into demons. They realized they had no hope of their lives improving without violent revolution.

    Why did the red pills turn people into demons? This is actually explained by Yuriko. In fact, Yuriko explains BOTH reasons quite well in the game. Did you really even pay attention? Humans originally were demons.

    Thesophy was not all that the White represented. If you hadn't been paying attention, they also represented the nihilism of human existence. They're the aggregate sentience of human thoughts, their will is humanity's will and humanity has become nihilistic due to lack of meaning from the constant Law vs Chaos struggles.

    Neutral was different in this game to show that it isn't the perfect choice. In fact, the game provides a strong criticism of neutrality, to imply that it isn't really a choice at all. That was the whole point of Isabeau's character in contrast to Walter and Jonathan.

    Overall, this review of yours goes into ad hominems of the characters (arguing they'll be turning to demons LATER before they've actually made their choices), and is an embarrassment.

    Here's an analysis of themes that I did for SMTIV: https://byjarinjove.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/a-thematic-analysis-of-shin-megami-tensei-iv/

    1. Oh boy. :)

      I played the game 12 times across 600 hours in both English and Japanese. I know the context of the game intimately well.

      The point is, even if the game does explain why something happens, it's very inconsistent with both the in-game context and the context of the series, which can't be ignored.

      Your analysis I think gives the game far too much credit considering its many other flaws. It sees a bit that I don't think is really there, but it was interesting regardless.

      In any case, thanks for reading. :)

    2. Do you have any reasonable evidence to provide? It was pretty much explained in the game that humanity is at fault for Law Vs Chaos wars on a cosmic scale because they don't know what they want and continue making the same mistakes, which results in reinterpretations and resurrections of Lucifer, God, and the White.

    3. The evidence is all 10,000+ words above us. Of course, not everything in SMT4 is worthy of criticism, and not everything I criticized is on an equal level. But just because SMT4 (or any work of fiction, really) can provide a justification or explanation for something doesn't mean it's particularly good, well-considered, or consistent with other thematic aspects--the whole point I'm trying to make above. For even better examples of this, see SMT4: Apocalypse.

      I'm also happy that I'm not the only long-form SMT4 criticism game in town. See also Michael Peterson's Rebuilding SMT4: http://arbitrarynumbers.blogspot.com/search/label/Rebuilding

    4. I think these views are pure unadulterated nonsense. So you have a friend that agrees with you, congratulations. The themes aren't inconsistent and the "tonal" shifts you're describing is ignoring the fact that real human being act like that even in the face of war, controversy, and death. Apocalypse did a great job in subverting the cliches you continue to harp about. I see nothing of value or anything remotely meaningful from your review beyond "I didn't like it, so it's bad." without any substantive meaning on why.

      "This looks like super sentai" isn't actually criticism and the fact they explained why they did it shows you have no interest in looking at authorial intent. You just think of the closest thing in relation to the game to trash it. For one thing, the extent of the chats you can have in Mikado and the significant degree of side quests more than justify the setting.

      You also seemed to miss the point of Thesophany in IV. Yes, you are correct about Sanat Kumara, but the demonized form is indicative of Christianity's bastardized and demonized version of it. The Chaos demons are bastardized and fallen gods. A point which has been true for the series since it's inception.

  8. Can't agree with everything (SMT 4 is the best for me and it really feels same as 1,2, SJ) but article is very good and informative. Thank you!

  9. Was the intention of the article is tp present SMTIV as a trashy abomination to the mainline SMT games?

    Cuz the game is nowhere as bad as what I've read here.Sure it's subjective since I don't agree with a lot of the statements made here but wow more time spent on the cons compared to the Pros rather than looking at both equally

    1. That was not the intention. I (the author) still think SMTIV is a pretty good video game. I played it for well over 600 hours. However, the sense of identity that separates SMT from other games, hence the title, I think has been diminished. The idea was also to present the evidence objectively, mainly from the confusing world building, to the sloppy presentations of the demons and mythical content that literally made the series into what it is.

      Again, this is NOT a review. A fair review for SMTIV as a video game would give it an 8 out of 10. This article was always intended as an analysis of the game's non-gameplay half and, indeed, how a necessary shift in appeal to a younger demographic may have affected the quality of that half in comparison to the older SMT games which were intended for at least a high school-level audience.

  10. Boy, I really enjoyed reading your article since I had the same « head scratching moment » when I finished the game the third time on neutral. To be honest, since I played the games in order, I do think IV is quite a mess, but not as much as Nocturne in term of Megaten identity. IV had high ambitions but it feels it didnt pay off at all in the end. Some caracters like Hope (the making of book has a interesting protoype artwork of him that remind me Aleph from SMTII and the chalice of hope quest was ''probably'' a bell ringer) or Issachar could really stand out if some parts of the game (like Mikado) were more fleshed out. Its quite a shame, really, cause there was alot of potential there.

  11. I know this might be late compared to when this was written, but I have gone through SMTIVF, and I have to say that the laundry list of problems with IV just got a whole lot longer.

    1. So you'll be writing the sequel to this article? :p

    2. Not likely since I have trouble writing longer articles, as well as my problem to express myself in ways that others understand. While I might try sometime, don't count on it, and if it did happen it would only be a shorter article. Not as in-depth as this.

      Still, I will say that from my experience with it and from what I understand (I can understand spoken Japanese with decent accuracy but I can't read it to save my life) the game's narrative and structure comes of as not only bad for the SMT series, but just plain bad in general.

    3. The specifics of SMT4F's narrative and structure weren't clear to me either as I was playing it, so the English version that's less than a month away now should be interesting to observe even as I probably don't play it right away. But what I do know doesn't seem that much better than any average JRPG these days, particularly from "lesser" publishers than Atlus.

    4. Given my impressions of the game so far, I am unlikely to buy it just to go through it again and might just look up the translated stuff on the web, the game just left that much of a bitter taste in my mouth. Although I maybe should have seen it coming considering all the warning signs. I just hope that Atlus will realize their mistake and go back to treating the series with a bit more respect (kinda like with what happened to the Drakengard series after the black sheep that was the second game.)

      Also, funny thing is I know of several "lesser" publishers that have repeatedly delivered better stuff than this. NieR and Caligula are good examples of this.

      And finally, I forgot to mention this earlier, one reason as to why I am unlikely to write an article about is due to some things in it bothering me without me quite being able to understand why. Maybe it is conflicting with my own values and sense of morality or it is objectively bad but I just don't know what to call it. (spoilers:) The scene in the peace route where they basically kill Dagda and replace him with a version that agrees with them is one such scene. (end spoilers)

    5. Wow, and I thought the language barrier was obscuring all the better details. No idea that was happening in the Dagda scene. I hope you can laugh at stuff like this, as I think we might be in for some comedy gold once the English version releases. :)

    6. I'm surprised almost none took notice of that chain of events. As for laughter then maybe a bitter one bordering on crying due to how it is SMT in-name-only, and over whatever hope I had for the series future crushed to dust.

  12. Thank you very much for taking the time and effort to write this article! I enjoyed reading the entire article, and in doing so learned a bit about SMT's history, its identity, and why SMT4 received such flak. I came here after seeing the link mentioned on TVTropes, and I myself haven't played any of the numbered main games or the Devil Summoner spin-offs (though I want to) I was introduced to SMT from playthrough videos of Persona 3 and Nocturne back in 2008-9 and have since enjoyed the aesthetics, attention to the origin of the demons in the games, and especially the music. Here's hoping that SMT4 Apocalypse can do more than just be a "fix" and that this game becomes an example for the developers of careful use of pandering to a wider base, finding their own Neutral path.

    1. Thanks so much! I'm happy you enjoyed it and especially that you were able to learn something from it. :)

  13. I just wanted to take the time to thank you for this article/analysis. I don't typically leave comments on pretty much anything so this is kind of a strange case in that regard. Your analysis finally answered the question that I had in the back of my mind the entire time I was playing through SMT4 (all three paths + DLC), "why does this feel so off?" As a long time fan of SMT in its various incarnations I obviously wasn't blind to the influence it received from the spinoffs, though I felt it borrowed more heavily from Devil Survivor than the usual culprit of Persona. Ironically in hindsight the Devil Survivor games (specifically the first) treated the mythology with more respect than SMT4 did, which was made apparent the moment you find that Medusa is a bondage wearing Nomura design reject. You managed to articulate the feelings I had beautifully in a way that helped me finally realize what was actually wrong with the game that I noticed but couldn't quite put a explanation to.

    1. I'm glad you got so much out of it. :) Wow, and it's been a year since it was published, too. Crazy.

      So I'd recommend you stay far, far away from SMT4: Apocalypse, then, unless you skip all the dialogue and story. It plays really well (best playing SMT game ever), and I thought I was missing a lot of necessary details with the Japanese version, but learning more of the plot specifics I think I was better off using my imagination. Sheesh.

  14. I LOVE THIS!! Thanks for everything you've written here!

  15. While I don't necessarily agree with everything you say about SMTIV, I still think this is a very well-written and well-researched article. I'll always have a soft spot for it, but you should be proud of this.

    1. That's awesome for you to say. Thank you. :)

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  17. Frankly, i liked the archangel designs. according to religious books, the angels were monstrous, not like the paintings painted at renaissance.

    there is a reason when angels appear to humans, the first words they say are "be not afraid"

    but i agree with everything else, great article.

    1. Hey Abit, thanks for enjoying and commenting. :)

      But check out this post where I delve into what angels were intended to look like according to the texts: http://eirikrjs.tumblr.com/post/120567275182/littlemercury-eirikrjs-littlemercury

      I've found that saying they are monstrous just because of the calls to "not be afraid" is a very modern interpretation. Well, you'll see. :)

    2. I'm sorry, Eirikr, but you're mistaken. Angels have been either portrayed just like human beings without wings, or a complete abomination before the 4th century, where artists began to add wings to these angels because of influence from Roman and Greek deities.

      Also, the "likeness" of a man is free to interpretation. For example, Gabriel here has a shield with a face of a man, which can also qualify as "likeness of a man". Same thing with Michael having a sword, which is how it also commonly depicted as, with more unique and creative twist.

    3. Amemiya, the angel artist, admitted that he doesn't use sources and used his own interpretation with the angels + Merkabah. They are strictly his invention and have nothing to do with any traditional perception of angels, "likeness of a man" be damned.

      And the "abomination" angels are all very specifically described, with the four heads (all animals influenced by the Assyrian lamassu, bull, eagle, lion, human: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamassu), the ophanim, and the Merkabah itself. It's important to note that the major angelic visions were by Ezekiel, who was writing in the 6th century BC while the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, where he would have come into contact with such statues and ideas (if, as archaelogical evidence may suggest, the ideas behind the cherubim/lamassu weren't already assimilated into the local Israelite iconography).

      In other Jewish literature, we have the Book of Enoch which dates to around 200 years after Ezekiel and the angel Watchers fall from God's graces because of their lust for human women; presumably an "abomination" in form won't have the same desires. It's clear that for most of the angels (barring Ezekiel, really), the original Biblical writers envisioned them merely with human-like qualities, much like similar divine messengers in other Ancient Near East pantheons.

  18. As a guy who loves SMTIV, I gotta say that this is a damn well written article. I could argue a lot of the points here, but I'll refrain cause 1. You seem like a cool guy who I'd hate to argue with. 2. I'm too lazy. and 3. I'd probably lose anyway. Regardless, nice work.

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

      I also just posted a new article on Dagda, if you've played SMT4: Apocalypse: http://eirikrjs.blogspot.com/2017/02/dissecting-dagda.html

    2. Yeah, pretty much. That point about Dagda's popularity is really on point. The only guys I like other than him are Navarre and Hallelujah.

  19. Your analysis of Sanat is utter shit. He was demonized by Christianity, that's what they were depicting. Furthermore, theosophy supports going beyond the idea of good and evil depicted by Law.


    The demonization of Theosophy exists even today:


    1. Other than that, the same Baal example is invalid actually. Since he's been represented as demonical too, and his demonical form are present as different demons, like Belzebub.
      (And the Ancient of Days actually represents similiar concept to Sanat Kumara)

  20. Here is my analysis of IV and IVA thus far:



    1. You have conducted yourself like a condescending ass on this blog, no one wants to hear your opinions, pal.

    2. That doesn't disprove my point or invalidate it. Moreover, I used pejoratives on the analysis because it was of poor quality, I didn't insult the writer.

  21. I for one really like Lucifer in SMT4. The level of self-delusion and aggrandisement is reminiscent of Milton's depiction in Paradise Lost. A being that genuinely believes that it's better to rule over hell than be subservient in paradise, and then paves the streets with gold in a cheap imitation of Heaven probably would name his dreary JRPG dungeon after symbols of light. Can't argue with that character design though: dude looks lame.

    Anyways, good read. A lot of interesting points you bring up.

  22. Hello, This blog is too informative and the pictures are giving a good decsription about Industrial Portable Fans. Thank you