Playing an RPG should involve strategy. Every foe has a weakness and it’s up to you to collect and develop the tools for exploiting said weakness. This is especially true in games like Shin Megami Tensei, where you have the option to cultivate an expansive and varied party of helpful demons. It’s just like my father used to tell me, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight, and always use Pyro Jack against that icy Wendigo.”
I can generally get behind the idea of role-playing games, where cunning and creative thinking lead to success. Even in a linear-story-driven world, players have several options to make the journey worthwhile. There is a tacit understanding between the player and the developer in a title with a bevy of gameplay options: If you are going to provide a gigantic toolbox, you had better make the hammer just as effective as the screwdriver.
If I decide to beef up my main character and have a dedicated team of fire-type elementals, but my wife decides to raise a massive team of cute-yet-dangerous melee warriors, then we should both be able to plan our way to victory. We might have to tackle certain situations differently, but if our individual strategies are sound, then some kind of victory should be assured. This all breaks down when you throw an unfair and single-strategy-specific obstacle on the road to glory.
For those of you who have enjoyed Shin Megami Tensei IV, you may know the specific obstacle of which I am speaking. Outsiders would assume this roadblock must be the final boss, where an appropriate challenge should be expected. This is not the case. The particular offender is a major boss during the third act of this great 3DS RPG, King Kenji.
Once a mere human who sought power in a world ruined by demons, Kenji is now a massive digital monstrosity who rules a post-apocalyptic world by force. On a more technical level, King Kenji is a very difficult boss encounter with practically no weaknesses and a wide variety of attacks. The worst of the weapons at Kenji’s disposal is Ancient Curse: a party-wide strike that can-and-will inflict all status effects on your team. This includes sleep and paralysis, which makes your heroes both useless for battle and sitting ducks for future attacks. Once the first instance of this spell has been cast, a vicious cycle of Curse-Strike-Repeat begins and the battle is lost.
As with most video games, there is a strategy to beat King Kenji, albeit a rather limited one. There are ways to breed particular members of your party with immunity to certain status effects (in this case, you would want to avoid sleep and paralysis). But this method of optimal grooming takes quite a bit of time and planning, along with a great deal of foresight. If you are playing SMTIV without a guide, then you wouldn’t necessarily know to develop fighters for this singularly frustrating attack.
For players who have not focused their demon-fusing decisions around certain immunities, only the luck of the battle remains. As I had already sunk over 30 hours of play into SMTIV, the idea of giving up at a frustrating boss gnawed at my obsessive mind. So over and over I fought this King of Tokyo, my battle count reaching the double digits before the random number generator behind the scenes responded with a battle where the Ancient Curse was not cast. Without this debilitating spell in play, my fight with Kenji reverted to the usual ebb and flow of offense and defense, attack and heal. Victory was mine, but with the bitter aftertaste of wasted hours.
After years of playing video games, I have come to expect certain frustrating moments as a result of being ill-prepared. Many of the point-and-click adventure games of my youth featured no-win situations if a certain item was lacking. But this sort of challenge doesn’t necessarily improve the player’s skills. It merely creates a scenario where a single convoluted solution is the right one, and no amount of clever planning can circumvent the obstacle. For a game like Shin Megami Tensei IV, it is a shame to have the wide variety of battle strategies reduced to the options of good breeding or dumb luck.