Whether you know it from its earliest Famicom days, the immensely popular PlayStation-bound Persona spinoffs, or crossover efforts like Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, ATLUS' Shin Megami Tensei is one of gaming's most enduring and recognizable series, full of top-shelf JRPGs with deep combat systems and intriguing allegories. The 3DS has been lucky enough to host the remastered 32-bit Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, a brand-new numbered entry in Shin Megami Tensei IV, and now Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, a direct follow-up that explores new territory within the SMTIV universe. It's both a shining example of an RPG sequel done right and an absolutely fantastic game besides; anyone who enjoyed SMTIV will have a blast here, and though newcomers might want to start there first, this world-ending RPG will be well worth the wait.

As a sequel-of-sorts to Shin Megami Tensei IV, Apocalypse's story kicks off near the end of that adventure. The year is 2038, and Tokyo is in ruins, razed nearly to the ground by nuclear conflict and an ensuing fallout where all hell (and heaven) broke loose, sending angels and demons streaming into the city. Caught up in a holy war between the divine Merkabah and demonic Lucifer, Tokyo's surviving populace depend on the mighty godslayer Flynn — the protagonist of SMTIV — and his partner Isabeau to defend humanity from both sides. Seeing as Flynn's otherwise engaged, Apocalypse places players in the role of a new protagonist, a young hunter cadet named Nanashi (lit. 'no-name' in Japanese). Along with his childhood friend Asahi, he works diligently in the lower ranks of the Hunters' Association, helping Flynn and Isabeau from the sidelines and living out his days in the blissful peace of obscurity.

At least, that's our best guess for what could've been, had Nanashi not been unceremoniously slaughtered by a mid-level demon and left for dead within the first hour of the game. That's exactly what happens, however, and instead of a 'Game Over' screen, you'll follow our hero down to hell, where the Irish god Dagda makes our man a deal: if Nanashi does his every bidding without question, he'll give him back his life. After agreeing, Nanashi wakes up no worse for the wear, significantly more powerful than before, and with the newfound ability to summon and control demons.

What follows is a wild ride through Tokyo's fall and potential rejuvenation, and we don't want to give away any of it — as in the first game, Apocalypse's narrative is a fast-paced theological thriller that kept us guessing and interested throughout. It's more character-focused than most mainline MegaTen games, but the characters are well-drawn; Asahi in particular is one of our favourite 'childhood friends' in recent RPG memory, and each of the new partners and adversaries you'll meet, both human and divine, are interesting in their own way, and given plenty of personality thanks to excellent writing and tons of high-quality voice acting.

Apocalypse also offers a slightly different take on the 'alignment' system of the Shin Megami Tensei series, which traditionally lets the player side with either Law, Chaos, or Neutral parties depending on their choices in the story. If you've played Shin Megami Tensei IV, Isabeau's presence here will have tipped you off to the fact that Apocalypse takes place in a version of SMTIV's Neutral route, but Nanashi still has plenty of leeway in how he aligns himself with various parties as you play. Without spoiling anything, you'll still find multiple endings and lots of pivotal moral decisions to be made as the Apocalypse unfolds.

Relatedly, it's worth noting that while this can certainly be a stand-alone experience, you'll get more out of it if you've finished — or at least played some of — Shin Megami Tensei IV. It does give a helpful history lesson at the outset for newcomers (or veterans who need a refresher), but starting at Apocalypse means you'll miss out on the subtle connections and direct references to the first game that make its world feel rooted in something familiar.

If you did play Shin Megami Tensei IV, you'll feel right at home with Apocalypse's gameplay, which uses the same mold (and engine) to deliver a surprisingly traditional JRPG loop. You'll move around in both overworld environments and underground 'towns' (in the form of reclaimed subway stations) from a third-person perspective, traveling between them by moving over a birds-eye-view map that calls back to classic MegaTen games, and using a robust Quest system — where you'll pick up story-advancing Main quests as well as optional, absorbing Challenge quests at bars — to keep things moving at a brisk clip.

Far and away the stars of the show, however, are the demons — the gods, spirits, monsters, and mythological figures who fight both against you and alongside you on your journey. Apocalypse's macabre menagerie is made up of demons from a wide range of world cultures — Chinese, Celtic, Japanese, Native American, Polynesian, Indian, and more — all done up in the series' signature style, which means beautiful art and big personalities. Encyclopedic profiles give you the low-down on each demon's cultural context, too, which makes for both enjoyable in-game reading and plenty of potential perspective shifts in any number of real-life texts.

Demons really come into their own in negotiation — the series staple of mid-combat conversation that lets you recruit enemy monsters to your team. While in battle, Nanashi has access to a 'Talk' option alongside 'Attack' and 'Defend', and by choosing the correct dialogue options in the ensuing exchange you'll be able to persuade a foe to fight on your side. What constitutes 'correct' varies enormously by demon, and personalities make all the difference here — a flirty Pixie might want you to whisper sweet nothings to sway her, while a human-hating hellhound might need to take a bite of your HP and insult your appearance a bit before coming around. It feels a bit like demonic speed dating, and it's always a good time — it also feels streamlined and much less frustrating compared to previous MegaTen games, so we were always happy to reach for words before weapons.

Once you manage to amass a respectable collection of demons, you can start fusing them together to create more powerful monsters. Combining demons not only leads to higher-level helpers, it also lets you pass down their skills, and eventually you'll be able to mix three or more together at once. It's an addictive process, and we spent happy hours uncovering multi-step recipes to fortify our team and summon in our favourite deities and devils.

Apocalypse also introduces a new wrinkle to demon fusion in the form of Affinities, which see certain demons better suited for certain types of spells or skills. One particular monster might have a +2 Affinity for Zio (electric) spells and a -2 for Bufu (ice); all else being equal, an electric skill used by that demon will do more damage than an equivalent ice incantation. This makes for new if relatively straightforward decisions in combat, but it really changes up how we thought about demon fusion; now, instead of simply looking to combine demons in ways that resulted in the best or broadest skillset, we needed to figure out what would be the best set of spells for that particular demon's Affinities. It does make things more complicated, but it's also incredibly satisfying to craft creatures with spells tailored to their strengths and watch the results unfold in combat.

As in Shin Megami Tensei IV, that combat is snappy, deeply strategic, and tons of fun. Instead of random encounters, demons appear on-field as clouds of ghostly voxels; running into them initiates a fight, but slashing them with a tap of the 'X' button before they notice you will give you a shot at a preemptive attack. Once you jump in, you'll lead a party composed of Nanashi and up to three demons, in a system based on a series of elemental weaknesses and resistances. Your party and enemies alike will be strong or weak to various types of physical (swords, guns) and magical (fire, ice, electric, force, light, and dark) attacks, and exploiting these is the key to surviving the fight.

'Surviving' is careful word choice there; we've played plenty of RPGs were hitting weaknesses speeds up combat or sends damage counters spinning, but in Apocalypse it's an absolute necessity. It's at the heart of the 'Press Turn' system, which returns from Shin Megami Tensei IV and grants extra turns for smart and/or lucky blows — hitting weaknesses or getting critical hits — and takes away turns for misses and hitting resistances. Smart hits also grant a chance at the 'Smirk' status, which — along with the extra turn — guarantees either 100% accuracy and a critical hit, or massively increased evasion if you forgo a second attack and save the Smirk for defense. Importantly, enemies can and do take advantage of the system as well, which means a single calculated blow can easily spiral into a succession of Smirking turns that wipes your party out flat.

All this adds up to combat that's constantly engaging in a way few other RPGs can manage; trying to tip the shifting status of the turn icons on the screen in your favour while also covering your weaknesses and prioritizing elementally-threatening opponents is always exciting, and ensures that even run-of-the-mill skirmishes demand your attention. Three selectable difficulty levels let you dial the tension up or down as you like at any time, but even on the easier setting you won't be able to auto-battle your way through the Apocalypse, and the brutally challenging boss fights are still a high-pressure highlight.

All of this was true of Shin Megami Tensei IV as well, of course, but Apocalypse adds in its own combat calling card through the addition of selectable AI partners. These key characters — including Asahi, a ghostly version of SMTIV's Navarre, and several new and familiar faces — can join your party in battle when they're available, acting after Nanashi and your demons with their own attacks or skills. Partners are focused on different strategies, so you can pick who you want by your side based on their AI tendencies and skillsets; Asahi learns lots of healing spells and is quick to cure any wounds, for instance, while Navarre will back you up with a barrage of buffs.

As a partner fights by your side, they'll also fill an assist gauge, which — once full — lets your allies unleash a powerful all-out attack. You might find yourself with a full-party heal, see your foes debuffed into oblivion, and then watch as your fired-up friends throw down on the entire enemy mob, cancelling their turn and passing the baton back to you for another go.

As you might imagine in a game where you'll live and die by extra turns, these partner assaults can be hugely powerful; so it's also a bit disappointing that they can't be more strategically deployed. The partner gauge fills across fights, and like Final Fantasy IX's Trance meter, simply fires when ready; if your gauge hits its high point during a low-level encounter right before a boss, your partners will happily unleash hellishly disproportionate fury onto the unworthy foes and leave you high and dry for the bigger battle ahead. The fact that battles can usually be avoided makes up for this somewhat, but we still would have preferred a manual trigger.

That said, we love what Apocalypse's partners bring to the game, both for their combat prowess and for the feeling that you're fighting alongside more than just demons. It's a great integration of gameplay and character building, and we found ourselves significantly more attached to our allies after they'd saved our skin in battle a few times.

Friendship forged in fires like these is not to be taken lightly, but as a teenager in near-future Tokyo, Nanashi's most important partner might just be his smartphone. Taking the place of Shin Megami Tensei IV's gauntlet, this impressive device both transmits the voice and image of Dagda and lets you stock up on useful 'Apps', which serve as upgrades and tweaks to your abilities and the game in general. You'll earn 'App Points' by leveling up and by reporting Hunter corpses you'll find around Tokyo, and can then spend them any way you like in the shop; available apps range from various expansions, augmenting the number of demons you can store in your party or add a new slot for skills, to enhancements like auto HP/MP-recovery or increased success in demon negotiation, and even hacks, which can do anything from substantially increasing the game's difficulty to allowing auto-battle to smart-target enemy weaknesses.

Another convenient feature of Nanashi's Dagda-branded smartphone is the Digital Demon Service, or DDS, which lets you swap player cards with passersby over StreetPass, as well as send out a demon for blind fusions or stat bonuses. It was a fun feature in SMTIV, but here it's also been upgraded with the very welcome ability to swap cards and demons through the internet instead of StreetPass. Every two hours of in-game time, you can upload your info and receive other players' cards and demon bonuses in return, even if the underground bunker you call home is well off of the beaten path. We're happy to see more games including an internet-enabled StreetPass stand-in, and it's particularly well-implemented here, with fun rewards and a sensible cap to keep it from feeling game-breaking.

Along with the DDS, one more app has received a substantial upgrade from the first SMTIV: the map. Shin Megami Tensei IV was infamous for dropping players in an unmarked birds-eye-view version of real-life Tokyo, with no labels or waypoint markers. And while we actually enjoyed the learning curve that came with studying a true-to-life map — after 50 hours with the previous game, we felt confident we could step off a train anywhere in Tokyo and identify nearby demon hot-spots — the lack of GPS guidance also led to plenty of time spent wandering around lost. Apocalypse smartly takes care of those issues with its upgraded Mapper app: not only is Tokyo clearly labelled, with all unlocked areas neatly named, there's also now a 'Goal' option which flags your next destination or objective directly on the map. These two small changes help enormously in navigating Tokyo's winding streets and disjointed districts, and make backtracking significantly less frustrating than it was in SMTIV.

Other welcome quality-of-life improvements include speech bubbles to mark when NPCs have new things to say, rooms greying out on the map once you've seen all the info inside them, and an auto-advance text function (activated with 'L') that follows natural delivery speeds in the voiced lines. We would have liked to have seen a text log, especially since having 'skip ahead' mapped to down on the D-Pad meant we accidentally advanced past a good deal of dialogue in our time with the game, but other than that the interface is intuitive, clean and responsive.

In terms of its presentation, Apocalypse doesn't deviate much from the previous game, but what's here remains both technically impressive and jaw-droppingly stylish. Beautifully crisp character art, Ken Burns effected talking heads cutscenes, impressive anime interludes, and super-detailed 3D environments literally littered with the material vestiges of Tokyo's fall all come together to form a wonderfully diverse package. The stereoscopic 3D effect looks fantastic in both the fully polygonal third-person exploration and the sprites-on-3D battles — although some scenes, like demon fusion, are sadly still stuck in a single layer — and the 2D animations strike a great balance between retro appeal and modern flourishes. And while a good deal of the game works hard to make bleak look beautiful, there are also some traditionally appealing landscapes to explore, with the cherry blossom-flooded Fairy Forest being one early example.

Best of all, Apocalypse's graphical presentation is marked by a series of unique touches that give it a distinctive feel, unlike anything else except the original Shin Megami Tensei IV. The in-game augmented reality system that sends neon circles emanating out from Nanashi to scan for info on new areas, objects, and entrances, the soft-focus filter that makes everything look just a bit hazy and dreamlike, and the optional off-centre, behind-the-shoulder camera angle all combine to create a singular style that leaves a lasting impression.

The only real issue we have with Apocalypse's visuals is the inconsistent treatment of NPCs in the overworld: sometimes they're sprites, sometimes they're 3D models, and sometimes they're simply not there, marked only by a character portrait and dialogue once you walk over the empty space where they're meant to be. One very early mission, for instance, has Nanashi meeting up with a friend at a fountain where there's not a soul in sight; we guessed that their presence was implied because of our experience with Shin Megami Tensei IV, but the disconnect never stops being jarring.

Musically, however, we have nothing to complain about; Shin Megami Tensei IV set a high-water mark for soundtracks, but Apocalypse returns with an excellent follow-up and its own unique audio footprint. Taking cues from downtempo techno and electronica, your exploration accompaniment is glorious mix of synth-wave melodies, tinkling piano notes, underwater vocals, future jazz, and break-beat percussion. There's club tracks, hard rocking battle themes, chill-out grooves, and an upbeat bossa nova track that sounds straight out of Sayonara Umihara Kawase, and we loved it all. Add to that some stellar voice acting — triumphs include Dagda's impressively believable Irish accent and a genuinely cute compromise for sidestepping voicing the player's chosen name — and Apocalypse comes out with an audio package well worth wearing headphones for.

That's especially important, because while this is a mechanically excellent RPG, like Shin Megami Tensei IV, what really sets it apart is its atmosphere. It's a grimy, glittering, neon-futuristic samurai-punk vision of the apocalypse — beautiful, brutal, dirty, unsettling, silly in turns, and always oddly lovable. The art style and the music work together to pull it off perfectly, and though we miss a few affordances of the stranger-in-a-strange-land setup of SMTIV — especially the offbeat descriptions of quotidian 'relics' like CDs and televisions from the Mikadoan perspective — we love how much Apocalypse dedicates itself to its digital-dystopian aesthetic. In fact, outside of SMTIV, the game we were most reminded of while playing was Shin Megami Tensei stablemate Soul Hackers — itself a masterclass in cyberpunk chic. Though things get conspicuously gorier here, we think anyone who reveled the rainslicked cool of Soul Hackers will appreciate Apocalypse's vibe.

Conclusion

As an RPG sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is just about perfect. It lets players revisit a familiar world from a new perspective, keeps what made the original so special, and adds in several small but significant mechanical improvements that make for a smoother, better game throughout. We recommend playing through SMTIV first if possible, both to get the most out of Apocalypse and to experience one of the 3DS' finest JRPGs, but however you arrive at it, this is a game that begs to be played. It's a delightfully dark adventure that's dripping with dystopian charm, and between the personable demons, deeply satisfying combat and killer aesthetic, we couldn't get enough — the end times have never been so good.