While Atlus' booth at E3 this year was decked out from top to bottom in Persona 5's deep red regalia, tucked in between artwork of the Phantom Thieves and attendees swarming for swag was a single splash of neon green, representing a hidden gem for 3DS gamers: Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. This upcoming RPG is a sequel of sorts to 2013's Shin Megami Tensei IV, with an all new story centered around a fresh demon hunter cadet who bites the bullet just moments after the opening credits.
Fortunately for value-conscious players, our deceased hero makes a deal with the Irish god Dagda, winning his life back in exchange for doing the deity's bidding. Of course, as in all Shin Megami Tensei games, what you do is ultimately up to you, and the choices you make will decide your path on the crossroads between law, chaos, and neutrality. We got to spend a good bit of quality time with this latest Atlus adventure at E3, and we're very excited for what's coming; if you loved SMTIV, or are at all interested in RPGs, this is definitely one to watch.
Roaming around the beat-down neon expanses of Apocalypse's Tokyo in our demo felt comfortingly familiar from the first Shin Megami Tensei IV, but along with the same engaging combination of third-person exploration and first-person turn-based combat, there were also a few signifiant tweaks to the formula. The first came in the form of 'partners', human (and human-adjacent) characters that can join your party in battle, on top of the protagonist and traditional triad of demons. Which characters are available to partner up with will depend on where you are in the story, but in our demo we were able to join forces with fellow hunter cadet Asahi, an assassin from the Ring of Gaia named Toki, and the ghost of Navarre — yes, the hilariously haughty professional poseur from Shin Megami Tensei IV, who's apparently met with some sort of an accident by the time Apocalypse has come around.
Each partner has their own AI tendencies, techniques and skills, but most importantly, their 'Partner Gauge' will raise as you fight. Once it's full they'll automatically head up an all-out assault that varies based on their assist type; they might heal your whole party, buff your demons, debuff your foes, or cast some serious spells (including those with an instakill chance). Whichever way they help, they'll also use up the enemy's turn and pass the baton back to you, giving you an extra go and a serious advantage in tough battles. This gauge is consistent across fights, ala Final Fantasy IX's Trance meter, so you'll want to be strategic about how you employ its power; we can imagine gaming some low-level fights to take it right up to the limit before a boss, so you're stocked up with a massive boost for your opening move. It's also integrated smartly into the gameplay itself — we were told bosses will pose moralistic questions to your party during the fight, your answers to which can raise or lower your Partner Gauge accordingly.
Aside from the addition of partners, the turn-based combat in Apocalypse felt similar to Shin Megami Tensei IV: snappy, smart, and incredibly stylish. Press Turns and Smirks return, rewarding smart moves and taking advantages of enemy weaknesses, and we noticed some slick new animations for spells and specials. Demon fusion works in much the same way, and you'll still be recruiting deities, mythological figures and monsters to fight by your side, and combining them into more powerful allies in time. Apocalypse promises over 400 in its menagerie, and since demons are one of the biggest draws of the Shin Megami Tensei series — from their always excellent art to their surprising personalities — we're definitely excited to meet the new members.
One smaller — but still significant — shakeup to the combat comes in the form of Affinities, which work a bit like weaknesses and resistances, only on the offensive side of things. One demon on our team in the demo, for instance, had a +3 affinity for Bufu (ice) spells, so every time she used an ice attack — all else being equal — it would deal significantly more damage than one of another element. These look to add another layer to monster raising, as now you'll want to think not only about what skills you pass down in demon fusion, but also how well your specific demon will be able to use them. It certainly made a difference for the pre-rolled demons in our demo, and we expect min-maxing Affinities will keep dedicated demon hunters busy throughout the game.
The other big upgrade we got to experience in Apocalypse was the new, much more detailed map. The original Shin Megami Tensei IV was infamous for giving players an unmarked, birds-eye-view of Tokyo and not much else; now not only is there a lot more labelling — the overworld now has all unlocked areas clearly marked and named — but there are also helpful waypoints to mark story goals, sidequest locations, and collectables. Even though we were fans of the first game's more hands-off approach — having a paper atlas of Tokyo spread out beside the 3DS while reviewing SMTIV was one of the most memorable gaming experiences ever for this writer — we appreciate the improvements made for Apocalypse. Our representative explained that the development team wanted to make sure players weren't wandering aimlessly or getting lost in Apocalypse, and these changes should make things a lot more accessible for newcomers, as well as veterans who've since misplaced their Rough Guide to Tokyo.
Apocalypse uses the same engine as the first Shin Megami Tensei IV, and it still looks fantastic; we spent a good portion of our time with the game wandering through a cherry-blossom-ringed area at night, and seeing the pink petals stream in front of the screen in stereoscopic 3D was a delight. Crossing over a wooden bridge back to Tokyo was stunning as well, with the city's neon buildings reflected in the water's surface; these graphical touches combined with the updated version of the disarmingly stylish UI from the first game made for a breathtaking display, and we're definitely looking forward to exploring Tokyo further in the full version. Plenty of locations will be returning from the first game, of course, but our Atlus rep told us that revisited locations will see switched up map layouts and plenty of cosmetic changes to reflect the time that's passed since SMTIV, so fans will have lots to uncover as they comb through Tokyo.
That seems to be a theme of Apocalypse in general, in fact; along with getting to see Tokyo again — arguably one of the most important 'characters' in SMTIV — you'll run into lots of familiar faces from the first game, all in new "Where are they now?" roles. We heard lots of whispers about Flynn as we roamed around underground bunkers, partnered up with Nozomi and Navarre (who makes for a genuinely entertaining peanut gallery), and were told Isabeau and other favourites might make an appearance as well. And if you're looking for more fan-service scenarios after the main game, our Atlus rep mentioned that one of the planned DLC missions will let you spend some quality time with the protagonists of all four mainline Shin Megami Tensei games.
With SMTIV ranking as one of our favourite 3DS RPGs we jumped at the chance to dive back into Tokyo's underground, and we loved what we got to play. The shakeups to the combat feel great, and the new map looks to be a goddess-send. We also appreciated that apart from these adjustments, Apocalypse doesn't seem to be changing things up too much from the original Shin Megami Tensei IV. It looks to be more of a good thing, only with a brand new story, intriguing characters, and a host of small 'quality of life' updates to make the action easier to get into than ever, which sounds like a winning formula to us. It's not long now before we'll be heading headlong into Dagda's servitude, and we'll have more on this apocalyptic adventure ahead of its Summer 2016 North American release.