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We're back, baby. Last game we were Flynn, a beloved Messiah whose choices sway the world. This time, we're some nameless, faceless kid no-one cares about until Mid Game. You die, make a deal with a questionably moral demon, and in exchange for returning, there's enemies that need killing for a better world. A LOT of them.
The whole game is actually pretty good stand-alone. Standard SMT mechanics in fore, and it's more forgiving in aspects than the last game (demon recruiting for example). Usual gripes with the franchise are present, such as turn-based combat, 100% completion nutters, etc. But you probably didn't pick this up if you weren't willing to tolerate them for the last three SMT games.
With that said, you really need the previous game for everything to make sense and appreciate the finer points. Without the last game, Apocalypse seems to be biased towards The Power of Friendship as the only ending you're supposed to get: the typical anime message, which annoys some people. In CONTEXT, your party is restricting you of choice, making you pick the moral options because you're obliged to. They're likeable enough though for some, and if you decide not to kill them at the end it's your call, but you do it in the understanding that in the larger scheme of things you changed basically nothing.
I just wish the Neutral Massacre ending were a bit better presented. Fights-wise it's almost the same, but has less fanfare, which makes people think Bonds is the one true ending.
There will be other aspects that will annoy without SMT IV knowledge too. The antagonists like Merkabah and Lucifer seem portrayed as crazy and extreme, in contrast to the last game, but to be fair, that's because of perspective. Remember, you're not playing as Flynn this time, you're playing as someone with second-hand information on them. The main 'bad guys', the Divine Powers, are actually pretty deep if you don't dismiss them as crazy, and their gripes are legitimate ones with God in general.
Speaking of which, one gripe for ME is that the Law and Chaos endings in this game are unilaterally presented as the bad endings, where in previous games either one seemed fine, even if neither resolved everything.
So to summarise, this game is best enjoyed by actually taking what both the antagonists and protagonists say seriously and PAY ATTENTION, otherwise they'll come off as unlikeable Strawmen. Gameplay-wise, it's definitely more forgiving than SMT IV, polishing the more annoying aspects, although certain persisting faults are still there, but YMMV.
I'll start with the good. The battle system and gameplay is much more refined than it was in the original IV. Smirk no longer feels as overpowered, AI allies are actually useful, the difficulty curve is much more even and the final boss now actually puts up a decent fight. Lone problem I have with the gameplay is that it is generally fairly easy all around, and that the final boss just feels shoehorned in.
Presentation wise, it's pretty much the same as vanilla IV, that is good music and so-so portraits. (though Doi definitely improved in this game). The map has seen a major improvement, being actually discernible from the background now.
Now for all my vitriol. To be short, the story and characters are complete garbage.
While it tries to set up an interesting conflict with a central choice, it completely falls flat due to a horrid bias towards one side. This of course leads to no shortage of the Strawman Fallacy, Author Tract and Glurge, were pretty much anyone not aligned with Danu is portrayed as wrong, with all sort of moral and logical dissonances that result from it. The games handling of symbolism don't fare much better with random stuff being thrown around with little consideration seemingly in an attempt to stay relevant. While I don't use this words often, I think pretentious would be a good word to describe this. And all this while the game totes around with a tone that doesn't belong in this kind of setting, the best I can do to describe it is calling the tone schizophrenic.
The characters don't make things any better. They are simply completely flat. They have one single trait that is emphasized and that's it. While the series has never been known for it's characters, these come of as flat even by the series standards. And given how much screen-time they get, that's almost kinda impressive. You know there is a problem when you can figure out their entire character arc from the moment you meet them. And that's if they develop at all. (looking at you Nozomi) Even the games numerous Strawmen end up more interesting than them.
And finally, it is all backed by just plain groan worthy dialogue and a clear implication that the writer thinks the viewers as complete goldfish and morons with constant repetition and extensive exposition dumps trying to use esoteric phrasing and prose, with even spoken lines put extra emphasis on important words ("salvation" anyone). It doesn't even seem to trust the viewer to figure out even the most basic of things at times. And things such as Show, Don't Tell and subtlety are all but absent. The game even has the old classic cliche of the villains and heroes monologuing back and forth for long stretches of time in moments that are supposed to be tense or tragic.
In the end, the enjoyment of the game will weigh heavily on what one wants from it. Refined JRPG gameplay? Go for it if you can put up with a story being showed into your face. Good Story? Look elsewhere.
The gameplay of Apocalypse is excellent. They took out the pointless annoyances from the previous game (slow text skip, horrible fusion menu, difficulty of macca farming, idiotic partners, bad field maneuverability, NG+ quests that only unlock after beating the game on a certain alignment, the difficulty of being Neutral, and completely random demon recruiting), while leaving in what made it hard but fun. But that's not what's important.
Apocalypse had heavy influence from Persona, and it shows. The power of friendship is an important plot point, character development takes up most of the dialogue, the whole game leans towards the power of humanity, and there's a clear set of antagonists.
All that underscores how Apocalypse is a SMT game at the bone. All the light, optimistic tones of Persona allow the dark themes of SMT to stand out. Apocalypse takes the themes of Persona, and twists it into the framework of SMT, making a fresh take on both.
Apocalypse was the first SMT game where killing former allies actually made me feel bad. Previous games started with sympathetic characters, but by the time it's possible to kill them, they're such self-righteous hypocrites that it's hard not to jump at the chance. The focus in those cases is on their tragic descent, not their deaths. Even though I knew it was coming, Apocalypse spent so much time developing the allied cast that murdering them is heart-wrenching.
The Persona-like character focus didn't kill off the gloom. It made it darker.
Even the ending that kills fewer people left a bitter taste in my mouth, but in a good way. The death of one of the main characters, and how it's resolved, is gratingly hypocritical... like many SMT endings. The game makes the player ask themselves, "Is this really a good ending?", the same way SMTI was intended to end.
Beyond the framework of SMT and Persona, Apocalypse is pretty good in its own right. The game is full of awesome moments, and the plot is unpredictable. There is an entire plotline about scapegoating, and it's complex enough to let the player think about whether this person really is a scapegoat or truly guilty.
I'm not going to pretend that the game doesn't have flaws. The way it dealt with Toki was pretty squicky (until it gets resolved and justified), and plenty of people grab the Idiot Ball to make the plot progress. But for all its warts, it's an excellent game.
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