Part 1 of 2; The Broader Themes
This will contain major spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei IV and Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse.
For Part 2: The Specific Themes
What can be said about SMTIV: Apocalypse? I’m not sure if my meager words can ever provide this game the sufficient praise that it deserves for being quite possibly the greatest game of 2016 and perhaps the all-time best game ever created in all of humankind’s history. Indeed, it is as if all of human evolution, all forms of human invention, and all of humanity’s lengthy history of entertainment was a prerequisite for greatest video game to ever be created. In the future, I’m sure people will look back and gape in stunned awe at the sheer magnificence of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. The all-time best sequel game and best duology to ever exist thus far in video game history. I kid you not, it is by far the greatest plotlines to ever exist, but requires actual knowledge of its philosophical and religious underpinnings to fully appreciate.
This duology – and indeed, it is a duology with SMTIV – is quite amazing in its usage of it’s in-game plot and the subtle philosophical themes combined to make one of the greatest and most unappreciated masterpieces of gaming. It has become my favorite duology game with one of the most brilliant uses of writing and plot progression ever written in gaming. The best use of the alternate universe concept – in effect, Atlus has made a duology that is the multiverse written in the best way imaginable. This game outstrips and outdoes the multiverses of Chrono Trigger-Cross by a wide margin.
Without further gushing, let us begin examining the greatest duology in all of gaming history. I doubt I’ll be able to give this duology the full breadth of praise that it deserves, however, but I’ll do my best.
The Juxtaposition of Flynn and Nanashi
Central to the duology are the experiences and views of the two main characters on the same conflicts that effect their lives. We have two games that present what is largely the same major conflict but with two contrasting views on the same information.
The philosophical underpinnings of Perspectivism espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche is clear between Flynn and Nanashi. That is, each main character views their reality from their own interpretations of the same information to form their own “truth” of what that information means. In this case, while a stronger degree of facts give a better understanding of reality, people decide which facts hold more significance to them and whether they will be antagonistic or positive to those facts. In essence, there is no objective truth from a purely personalized view of what reality means to a person. Someone might view the same set of facts in entirely different views. For instance, the decision between Jonathan and Walter in IV was a decision between whether the status quo was beneficial despite the use of a small segment of children as sacrifices to keep the people of Tokyo safe and a question of whether Flynn had any right to change the future of Tokyo, or a decision to do what was necessary and overturn a system that allowed such pernicious brutality against the small segment of children even if it meant putting Tokyo itself in immediate danger.
Flynn is constantly recognized as a Messiah. From the start of his story, when meeting those mysterious voices and talking to the dream versions of Walter and Jonathan. He is constantly asked for his views; both his close friends and the societies around him ask for his personal opinion. There’s a deep, underlying message about Flynn being such an important and impactful figure on the scope of the world because of his triumphs and tribulations. His accomplishments create reverence and acknowledgement. This is an explicit, active part of the Neutral Path’s latter-half where he raises the hopes of the people through his positive, humanistic deeds.
Lucifer and Merkabah are presented as almost heroic and relatable due to the human element of being close friends with Walter and Jonathan before their respective ascensions, and the player – as Flynn – has to do a cost-benefit of what is of more importance for the future of the world.
Each choice feels meaningful and you identify with each because of the personal relationship that Flynn has with both characters throughout the journey. You feel a sense of loss when you’re forced to fight former friends and hearing their voices in the monstrous forms gives you a sense of loss. But in the end, you’re choosing a path that feelings like the correct decision, even if it costs hundreds of thousands of nameless, faceless people their lives. The sacrifice is worthy, necessary, and possibly even honorable for the greater purpose designed for their personal sacrifice.
Whether it be the people of Tokyo or Mikado in the Law and Chaos paths; whether it’s to allow God to reassert absolute control over humanity with you giving yourself to the greater goal or whether it is to allow humans to live in freedom with you as King. Even in Neutral, their positions seem understandable for the most part, because they’re struggling against the cosmic horror of the endless war of Law and Chaos explained by the White, but still have decided on a profound choice despite the endless cycle. This creates a very privileged position, typical of a the standard JRPG “chosen one” narrative, that feels normal in a video game.
The foreign language on the scaffold of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado is presented as the “mystic script” and as Flynn, you’re left to wonder about the mystery because it’s never explained what the language is. You’re simply made aware of this strange, mystical language that Mikado is in wonder of. After that, as you go down what you believe to be the depths of hell itself, you see below the medieval kingdom of a typical JRPG lays the vast city of Tokyo and most players felt surprised by this revelation when playing the game without spoilers as Flynn. You meet denizens of Tokyo with noticeable thick accents and a bizarre fear of God and angels.
The Four Routes: When playing as Flynn and making decisions, you feel a significant sense of freedom and that your choices are meaningful. Within the framework of the game itself, it feels that way. However, story-wise, you’re forced to accept the fact that none of your decisions have any sense of permanence for the greater purpose of the story itself and you must acknowledge that despite your decisions, humans are tools to be manipulated. The White offer the only resolution and that is mass oblivion to end human suffering.
The theme of Hope is central to the Neutral route of the game. It’s made explicit and even before Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse confirmed the allusions, Flynn’s actions bringing meaning is what created the hope despite knowing that it would all come to ruin as part of the endless cycle of Law and Chaos. As mentioned in a previous segment, the Chalice of Hope and the Great Spirit of Hope, in conjunction with Masakados character unambiguously espoused this theme, The theme is an answer to humanity’s nihilistic feelings regarding the meaninglessness of life itself. It expresses this point fabulously through minimalism with the White. The theme of Hope borders on nationalistic pride in certain parts of the game and gives this idealism for a hopeful future despite the pernicious understanding that it’ll all fall to ruin regardless of Flynn’s actions because it is a constant, cyclical change bound to the extremes of Law and Chaos.
Nanashi is constantly vilified as a demon’s pawn throughout his journey. His allies become ambivalent in their trust towards him during the first mission to rescue Flynn in Tsukiji Konganji. While this encapsulates a small portion, it is part of a larger narrative of the game that is divergent from Flynn’s in IV. Nanashi is constantly told by Dagda that he’s just a puppet and the only ones who seem to empathize at a certain point are Hallelujah, Asahi, and Navarre.
The people of Tokyo come close to murdering him in cold blood because they view him as a constant threat to their continued existence. Neither Asahi’s emotional pleas or Fujiwara’s rational approach work to quell their hatred and desire for revenge for the loss of Flynn and the rise of the Divine Powers. Nanashi’s age is simply a non-factor as he’s constantly told to take responsibility for his actions because they have such overarching consequences. Consequences that he was too ignorant to understand at the time, but in the end, it doesn’t matter what his reasoning or limitations were once Shesha had murdered hundreds of thousands of people. Any attempt to point out naivety or ignorance is seen as running away from responsibility.
The only reason that the mob in Fujiwara’s Cafe Florida don’t outright murder Nanashi is because the Divine Powers act on their plans to seal away demon summoning to temper down the resistance to their plan of saving the universe from YHVH’s control. Nanashi becomes a convenient tool for them to utilize for their continued survival because he’s the only one that can summon demons thanks to Dagda.
After Nanashi is forced to prove himself, the people of Tokyo begin celebrating him as a Champion of Tokyo just like Flynn in the previous game. Unlike Flynn’s narrative of bringing meaning into people’s lives through good works, the narrative of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse has a double-edged sword. The player can view it in the same viewpoint as the previous game of bringing meaning into people’s lives, however, we’re presented with the knowledge that these denizens of Tokyo will cling to anyone convenient and powerful enough to act as their savior. It doesn’t have to be Flynn, it can be anyone who does the work for them. And if you, as Nanashi, fail and cause mistakes? You have to accept the knowledge that you’ll be vilified as a demon’s puppet like before. The way they view Nanashi – whether as champion or Messiah – is dependent upon what benefit Nanashi brings to them. It is a subversion of the message of Hope. You’re a tool of the people for the sake of their own convenience. It is an admittedly dangerous situation, but they place pressure with no regard for Nanashi’s personal wellbeing at any point in time.
The language of the mystic script that the people and Samurai of Mikado speak of in the early parts of Shin Megami Tensei IV are revealed to be the plain, mundane language of English. It is a rather amusing development that Mikado reveres the English language as sacred.
As Nanashi travels up the scaffold, he views each of the dungeons in reverse numerical order from how Flynn viewed them because of their vantage points. Flynn grew-up in Mikado and the shock of seeing a city “below ground” through Naraku is juxtaposed with a youthful generation finally being able to bask in the sun and skies for the first time in their lives. The only prior experience being knowledge that such landscapes existed and seeing it through a small hole made by Shesha when it tore through space-time. The thick language of Tokyo in IV is not present in Nanashi’s understanding of the language, everyone sounds normal to Nanashi. By contrast, from Nanashi’s view, the random Samurai that Nanashi meets sounds very off and strange in his pronunciation of words compared to the people of Tokyo.
Lucifer and Merkabah are presented as antagonistic and morbid monsters who seek to hurt Tokyo for their own insane ideological positions. We learn that the young men who they use to be, Jonathan and Walter, are now dead as a personal sacrifice for the sake of these ideologies that the majority of the people of Tokyo neither want nor desire. Denizens of Tokyo wonder whether everyone in the firmament is insane because of what they’re being told about what Jonathan and Walter did to themselves. They’re seen as foreigners and almost alien in nature.
Nanashi has no personal relationship with either of them. He only knows them through images on a television screen or a brief summary on their phone and he only understands them within the insulated environment of the Hunter faction. Neither Lucifer nor Merkabah vie for his favor in the beginning of the story until he seems to be useful for their goals in the latter-half of the game. Some players speculate that the game purposefully made them out to be antagonistically evil and that the deep, meaningful personalities were removed. However, this ignores what Atlus has brilliantly done to further juxtapose Nanashi’s personal life with Flynn’s personal life. If Atlus had meant to express them as unambiguously evil, then they wouldn’t have bothered showing their human forms or having them reunite for one last battle as brethren samurai in Bonds or even had the characters interact with Anarchy Flynn at all in the Anarchy route. We see a relationship between Flynn, Walter, Jonathan, and – in Bonds – Isabeau that we’re simply not privy to from Nanashi’s personal perspective.
Most important to note is that there was no change in either Merkabah or Lucifer’s personalities. Lucifer wanted war for the sake of survival of the fittest due to the doctrine that Power is Everything, Merkabah outright kills Tokyo and Law Flynn in Shin Megami Tensei IV because they were spattered with unclean blood. Neither the angels nor demons changed their behaviors from either game. Nothing about the conflict beyond the addition of the Divine Powers changed. So what was changed? Why is there such a dynamic shift in presentation of the conflict? It was not, as people may assume, to make a good versus evil representation or to unambiguously say that people who choose either Law or Chaos are wrong. The presentation wasn’t meant to be objective and it wasn’t presented as such.
You changed. Your vantage point of the conflict is all that changed in the story of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. You aren’t Flynn, the messiah who has been curried in favor of by both sides from the personal relationships that he has with Walter and Jonathan. You’re Nanashi, a kid whose name translated to “no name” and who has no say on the grand scheme of these decisions. You have no personal relationship with either Walter or Jonathan and they don’t know you. You’re seen as one of the nameless, faceless people of Tokyo just like the rest of the NPCs in the beginning of the game.
Flynn has the privileged position of feeling like a Chosen One, who can freely choose to either support or reject Law and Chaos, and who is one of the prominent figures that decide the fate of the world. Nanashi is just a random denizen of Tokyo. He is a product of the conflict. He is doubly hated for being seen as a demon’s puppet and as one of the unclean ones, the discriminated group who were never given a choice. While Walter and Jonathan had very good ideological reasons for their choices, the people of Tokyo never learned of those reasons and can only learn of the conflict through biased filters. Moreover, neither the decision of Law to commit genocide upon Tokyo or the decision of Chaos to commit to warfare to reshape the world were ever favorable to the vast majority of Tokyo in Shin Megami Tensei IV. The only difference now is that you’re no longer a foreigner from Mikado with the privilege to choose sides, you’re a resident who identifies Tokyo as home and lives with the consequences.
The beginning of the game shows these consequences from the three that Tokyo views as leaders. Flynn’s neutral choice presents us with vastly improved hunter technology, running electricity throughout the active areas (this was, in fact, one of the sidequests in IV), a more hopeful people, and the prospects of the emerging three-way conflict. Walter’s choice of becoming part of Lucifer and raising a demon army is what leads to Adramelech attacking and killing Nanashi, Nikkari, and Manabu. Jonathon’s choice of merging with Merkabah results in the sealing of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado with guards violently preventing Hunters from utilizing the terminal in the scaffold to better control their movements for the mass extinction plan.
The theme of Dependency. Clinging from one object of hope to another, to the extent that despite all of Flynn’s heroics during the Neutral path for a vast majority of Tokyo in Shin Megami Tensei IV, nobody really knew him as a person. Neither Fujiwara nor Skins picked-up or mention any changes in Flynn’s behavior, Isabeau mentions that Flynn seems different, but she still believes that it is Flynn. The only two people who had clear understanding of the dire situation and pointed out that Flynn was a fake were Merkabah and Lucifer. Not surprisingly, the only two people Flynn had any meaningful personal relationship with in the previous game. By contrast, when speaking to the people of Tokyo, you see how easily they cling from one hope to another. First, by vilifying you as a demon spawn one day to celebrating you as a “champion” the very next day – Nanashi is given the same title as Flynn in Shin Megami Tensei IV. Then, by showing us the Shesha-Flynn plot twist.
As Nanashi, we witness how easily hope can be manipulated for the purposes of someone who pretends to embody them. How did the Divine Powers go about masquerading the fake Flynn? They had Shesha tell the people what they wanted to hear, they acted as the part of a cartoon villain in the second Tsukiji Konganji scene to continue misleading the player and the cast of what was going on, and Shesha never acted “out of character” for our own expectations of how Flynn should act as a Neutral-aligned protagonist. It was, shockingly, perfectly in line with what we should expect from a Neutral Hero and it’s a slap in the face when the plot reveals it isn’t simply Flynn having some curse placed upon him or programmed via brainwashing to conduct certain actions against his will. The person that we thought was Flynn, and who followed the expected patterns of behavior for a Neutral protagonist, wasn’t Flynn at all. Nanashi sees firsthand how hope can be used to manipulate and use people for purposes counterproductive to their self-interests.
The most crucial aspect of the theme of dependency is the large cast of characters that are part of Nanashi’s journey. You’re presented with a cast that you can act as compassionate or mean towards. While Dagda acts as an overt and controlling force that demands that you obey him, it is under the expectations that you were going to follow his commands because he brought you back to life from the horrendous death that the player suffered. Some fans, particularly those who hadn’t played Shin Megami Tensei IV, seemed to assume that this was an expected anime-like set-up where you’re suppose to choose the expected “morally right” decisions regarding the power of friendship. But this idea of needing to choose the morally right path for the sake of it is, in actuality, meant to make you feel as if these friends are too dependent upon you and dragging you down. In essence, the feeling that you need to choose the supposed morally righteous decisions because it’s expected in a archetypical anime set-up is used against the player to make you feel that these characters are dragging you down and forcing you to be what they want you to be. They are dependent on you insofar as what you mean to their own personal expectations of you and you feel bound to a duty to them. Asahi being the most significant example of this and serving as an anchor of anger and guilt in the latter-half with her death. Her relationship to you interpretable as either a sister, lover, or a nuisance regardless of how you see her. Nevertheless, all of this can either be interpreted as the standard expectations of any typical JRPG with you meeting and helping allies as a good and typical JRPG protagonist or you can view them as hindrances. You can feel that they are sapping you of choice. After all that you go through together, you can choose the bonds of friendship as being well worth the struggles or see it as blind sentimentality compared to the overarching problem that will surely doom the future of the cosmos, if you don’t choose the morally reprehensive but objectively rational path.
How Flynn and Nanashi perceive Akira:
As Nanashi, when journeying into the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, you meet and have fun speaking with ignorant medieval folks who don’t understand how a simple thing like a fan works and who have become more fundamentalist in their beliefs despite the social concessions for equality. Unlike Flynn, who viewed the statue of Aquila standing proudly with full appreciation of who that man was, Nanashi only sees it as defiled and broken. A statement of how little they view the founder of the country despite how hard he worked. Unlike Flynn, who had the chance to read the Obelisk fully to learn of and feel a part of Mikado’s history, Nanashi finds the history of his previous incarnation defaced and the people supporting extremist measures of genocide of his home of Tokyo under Merkabah.
As Flynn, we experience the social dynamics of Mikado with the two-tier caste system, the social issues between Samurai and the Monastery having in-fighting over Aquila’s law, and we gain a sense of wonder and mystery over this amazing human being known as Aquila. We meet two versions of him from the other worlds, Demonoid Akira and Human Akira. We know that this man, Akira, is someone of great importance who can reshape world events but will live a tragic life faced with total doom of all his achievements because of the endless cycle of Law and Chaos under YHVH. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Akira is seen as an honorable and heroic figure who does his best just like Flynn.
As Nanashi, we see the past memories of the Third Akira directly. We become aware that the angels were set on an isolationist and stone age society under the angel Gabriel and the other Archangels. We see that the angel Merkabah has successfully taken power and rules over Mikado with a plan to commit genocide against Tokyo. Isabeau’s brief explanation of the caste system sounds stupid and obviously antiquated. Meanwhile, everything related to Akira is defaced or ignored. To Nanashi, Akira comes off as looking like a complete failure despite his earnestness.
As Nanashi, we’re forced into viewing the life of a man that we understand is our previous life but we don’t know why we’re seeing these images. We see Akira trying to form the middle path and believing in humanity, but Nanashi is well aware of the results. He was vilified in Tokyo as a traitor and his hard work in Mikado led to the rise of an extremist, isolationist, and hateful society out to destroy the only home that Nanashi has ever known and most of the friends that he’s expected to cherish. Unlike Flynn, who sees Tokyo as a distant country filled with adventure; Nanashi sees it as home as exemplified by their distinct differences in the Tokyo world map music of each game.
In an interesting twist, while Flynn is only vaguely aware of his past life and sees the ramifications of what other versions of himself did. Nanashi witnesses the suicide of past Flynn firsthand and from the narrative, Asahi herself is disturbed by what Nanashi tells her. We see how a man had to give-up his own life just to preserve Tokyo and how broken Tokyo still is. Nanashi is actually more informed than Flynn about Flynn’s past life; by contrast, Flynn is more aware of who Nanashi’s previous life was and helped seal the archangels after they murdered Akira when sent to the past via Mastema’s power.
Why Both Games are necessary to understand the full story:
This duology presents one of the most intriguing cases of shocking the player regarding the full scope of what is necessary versus what is comforting. People who have only played Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse without having played Shin Megami Tensei IV feel it is a black and white choice of good versus evil that is being presented, in which players should be expected to pick Bonds instead of the supposed “Bad” ending. The narrative would lead someone who hasn’t played the previous game, and who isn’t paying attention to Dagda or Krishna’s explanations or perhaps not taking them seriously since they do go into great lengths about these problems, to believe that you’re making a good choice.
The White, in Shin Megami Tensei IV, go into copious lengths of elaborating that humans are just tools to be manipulated by God, that humanity cannot escape it’s pitiful cycle of endless Law and Chaos forced upon them by God. If the Law and Chaos world doesn’t align with God’s will then it is cast into destruction.
And, as previously mentioned, the philosophical underpinnings of the ascetic ideal are being expressed as the general theme of the White.
The first meeting alludes to how often they meet in this setting throughout the multiverse. The White ask what you believe the meaning of life is:
The Second meeting, they explain that humans are tools to be manipulated by their social conditioning. The context goes broader than religious worship later on to mean human weakness in needing a hope to cling to and being unable to suppress their desires during the battle against them. In this instance, however, the White’s nihilism over the truth of what human beings are within their own socialized context and under the rule of a God who decrees them chosen people is made apparent.
The third and final meeting, in which they explain humans are prisoners of God’s expectations and how anything not aligned to God’s will – even if it’s Lawful – will be cast into destruction. If humans choose freedom, then freedom will also be cast into destruction. Humans are constantly repeating their mistakes. God wants humans to view their life as a “test” and loath themselves so that he can keep himself in power. Thus, humans are prisoners of his expectations. Humans must constantly loath themselves for the crime of being born human and appropriately worship God as the perfect creator of the universe. The allusions to sinfulness are clear.
The Divine Powers, Danu, and Dagda clarify additionally that the Creator, YHVH, bound humans into cages of flesh and essentially that the physical world is – from the point of view of all the deities – an illusion that humanity is shackled upon. The natural living within human flesh is seen as the worst possible misery for the souls of human beings and must be obliterated to save their eternal souls for true prosperity in the afterlife from the perspective of the Divine Powers. There are allusions to the Divine Powers loathing sinfulness as an anathema to existence itself.
Krishna and the Divine Powers view what YHVH has done to humanity as inexplicably evil and wishes to give all of humanity salvation by destroying the sinful world and recreating humanity to be free of sin.
Krishna speaks of humanity being bound to cages of flesh and makes his intentions clear:
Danu admits that Krisbna is right. Her only defense is that it’s still life:
Lucifer adds further clarification explaining that so long as humanity (within this context, the humanity created by God) exists then neither herself, the White, or YHVH himself will disappear.
The humanity of Flynn’s is the Fifth humanity. The previous four were slaughtered by the Archangels and the White came into being from the ancient races and are the Will of Humanity. It seems to be implied that when humans repress their nihilism towards life itself, it gives the White strength.
Stephen is the one who tells us about the White being aggregate sentient of humans thoughts:
Gabriel explains much of the same as Stephen:
The SMTIV Artbook further clarified:
“the embodiment of the ancient races destroyed by the angels. They’ve appeared to humans four times now, sharing their memories and knowledge of the past. They claim that whether humans submit to angels or unite with demons against God, history is doomed to repeat itself and the future will never change. Therefore, they aim to obliterate all existence and return the cosmos to nothingness. They show the protagonist visions of two alternate futures – “Blasted Tokyo” and “Infernal Tokyo” – while taking on the appearance of Isabeau and Hugo in order to deceive the protagonist.- Shin Megami Tensei IV Artbook
Once you play both games and understand the full scope of the plot, you realize that not only have you made the objectively wrong choice in Bonds, but you’ve doomed all of your allies to an eternity in hell under Yahweh’s rule. Playing the Bonds route would simply have you believe that the ceiling not being broken apart and the characters all living happy lives is the only difference between it and IV’s neutral ending should you search it online, but the actual narrative tells us a dire tale. The happy ending of IV Neutral was, like all Neutral endings in the mainline series, a ruse that would only lead to total failure in the long-term of the story. In this case, not only was fighting Yahweh pointless because the extremes will always exist, but Nanashi and the player have wasted their only opportunity to free the universe from utter ruin. Bonds is about fighting hard for what they have and holding steadfast to keep their lives intact, but eventually all of them will die of natural human causes. Dagda and Nanashi are implied to never meet again. Everyone in Bonds will be cursed forever similar to Aleph and Demi-fiend. This pernicious and subtle theme isn’t make-believe, it’s presented clearly within the game as a recurring theme that’s only noticeable to people who take the time to chat with NPCs and who pay attention to the narrative involving the NPCs in the main story.
The Bonds ending is worse than at first glance; not only will Law and Chaos return with an extreme vengeance because humans created by Yahweh will always repeat their mistakes, but the White present a ticking time bomb of any and all future incarnations of Jonathan, Walter, Flynn, and Nanashi accepting their goal and destroying the Yamato Perpetual Reactor. Even worse, should none of those four be reincarnated then the White known only to Nanashi as the Pale Man explains that Twisted Tokyo is a world in which no Messiah came to save the human race from extinction. That explanation thoroughly repudiates the entire point of Bonds. If no Messiah comes to save people, the Bonds that people themselves forge don’t matter at all. Atlus goes further to express this point: if Nanashi agrees with Yahweh’s proposal and ignores Dagda’s pleas to give Dagda his hand, then the game ends and Yahweh is implied to have cast the rest of the party into hell for all eternity. If there Bonds really mattered and the power of the people can overcome everything, then why is this presented to us? Is it a glaring plot hole? No, considering the length they went in their revelation of the White in the previous game and the fact that we have the White explaining how a world simply dies off without a Messiah, it’s clear that they were making implications and subtly hinting that the happy friendship ending of Bonds will never last. The party even remark, it is all up to them. What we’re left with is a brutal war of attrition until the Fifth humanity dies out so that Yahweh makes good on his threat to replace humanity with more obedient servants like the previous four times.
So then, is Bonds just a horrible ending secretly made out to be positive, just like all previous Mainline games? Well . . . not necessarily. Bonds is about living and dying for one’s convictions of what is right, even if it means suffering eternally for making the most meaningful choice for one’s loved ones and home.
The party of Nanashi and Flynn know that they’ll suffer eternally, Yahweh doesn’t mince words. Unlike previous main characters, it doesn’t come as a horrifying surprise, they’ve accepted eternal suffering as meaningful for the sake of preserving their world and believe in the infinite possibility that positive changes will be ongoing with the dire struggles. To believe in the pure, blind chance of humanity. To be cursed eternally in hell for one’s convictions, one’s intrinsic beliefs, is a horrifically tragic, but ultimately loving and admirable message. It is not a deviation from previous mainline games, it’s just the most satisfying and expressive pro-humanistic message.
Most insidiously, from Shin Megami Tensei IV to Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, only one ending was foreshadowed in the duology. But more on that in the next part regarding specific characters and character-driven themes.