Last weekend, I got the Neutral route in Shin Megami Tensei IV after a first cycle under the chaos route, and I can honestly say that, while I still have issues with the Neutral ending, it’s actually better than the Chaos ending this time.
Think about it: Instead of going with the plans of the Archangels (who then fuse into Merkabah), Lucifer, or The White (a quartet of spirits born from the despair of mankind), you instead work with Isabeau, who is now the only one of your friends who’s still alive, and you summon the guardian of Tokyo, Masakado, defeat the forces of both Law and Chaos for another generation, and lift the ceiling that covered Tokyo for 25 years, thus bringing sunlight back to Tokyo (although the rest of the world still suffers from the nuclear onslaught carried out by the angels before the game’s events). In the Chaos ending, all you end up doing is taking over the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and lead an invasion of demons who then attack the people of Mikado, but the ceiling is not lifted and Tokyo remains in darkness never to see the sun again, with demons still running wild and attacking people in Tokyo, and the Law path sees you destroy Tokyo with a black hole, leaving only Mikado and letting yourself and Merkabah get destroyed by it.
There’s more. After you defeat Lucifer in the Neutral route, you can still do Challenge Quests before triggering the ending, which leaves room to wait for downloadable content you haven’t accessed yet and time to finish Challenge Quests you haven’t done yet, which can mean unlocking demons for fusion if you haven’t done so already. In the Chaos route, after defeating Merkabah, you enter Mikado, and can explore parts of Mikado and even rest in the barracks one last time, but you can’t do any more Challenge Quests and there’s almost no point since you’re just supposed to go to the rooftops and watch the ending unfold. And if you do decide to explore Mikado before activating the ending, you might find that demons are already eating and terrorizing innocent people, people mention demons attacking people and demons talk of hunting and devouring or just killing people (there’s even a scene where a group of Halphas corner a woman and make her choose between her eating a red pill to become a demon or them killing her). You even find your former commander, Hope, lamenting and asking himself if he had forged the worst threat to Mikado with his own hands by training you, and Hope was actually a nice guy.
However, there is a downside to the Neutral route in this game. For starters, to get it you have to carefully balance and calculate your alignment, which you’re probably gonna need a guide for because your alignment is pretty much invisible in this game, with the only indications being what the “cynical man” at the bar tells you, and who you meet up with at Monochrome Forest (you meet Jonathan and Gabriel if Law-aligned, Walter and Hikaru/Lucifer if Chaos-aligned, and Stephen if Neutral). But even after you do that, you don’t just go on to fight the Law and Chaos forces right away. No, after the alignment lock and finding Masakado, you first have to do Challenge Quests until you get Rank 1 on the Hunter Association billboard and then go around being greeted my mobs of people in four districts of Tokyo until you fill a chalice with the Great Spirit of Hope (what?), and THEN curbstomp the forces of Law and Chaos in order to extract the Great Spirits of Goodwill (from the Law forces) and Spite (from the Chaos forces). That explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense to me (what good will does Law have, honestly). Not to mention, you’re supposedly pursuing your own path in the Neutral route, but aren’t you doing that in any of the paths? That said, are you really? How do you know you aren’t just doing favours for Stephen, and for that matter, why does he care about reviving the goddess of Tokyo (and why is a little girl the goddess of Tokyo anyway?), what does he know, and who the hell is he? For all the game’s exposition on Law and Chaos, there’s not a lot of exposition about Stephen and his background, and not much more about the goddess of Tokyo other than he modelled Burroughs after her. As undeniably positive an outcome the Neutral route offers, it doesn’t really add up a whole lot. Or maybe I’m missing something.
Going back to the Chaos ending, I have actually done some thinking about part of the ending where Lucifer invites you to become king of Mikado, and it actually does make me think of a part of Shin Megami Tensei II’s Chaos path where Lucifer mentions creating a new order over the corpse of YHVH and his rule. So could it be that you’re actually doing the same thing in this game’s Chaos route, and if that’s the case it’s really not so bad. That said though, I must wonder if it’s really worth creating an order with this game’s Lucifer after he kills Walter to fuse with him and callously disregards Isabaeu’s death at the hands of the player and himself, and then you watch as the demons indiscriminately attack innocent people rather than living in harmony with people, which is what the game leads you to thinking with the Chaos path through Lilith and Blasted Tokyo’s Akira. At the very least it can’t be much worse than Strange Journey’s Chaos route, in which you kill Commander Gore, sport an evil laugh, and then the half-demon Jimenez sends a horde of spirits to brainwash the rest of the crew into being bloodthirsty savages, as opposed to the Law route where your crew is brainwashed into being mindless worshippers, then Mem Aleph uses the Schwarzwelt to create a world where strength rules over anything else and there is no more order. So in other words in the Chaos path you fight to create a world of freedom, by brainwashing your crew and making the new world so harsh and frenetic than you can’t have any rest, calm, peace, or luxury (you can tell by reading up what the sectors of the Schwarzwelt all mean). Do you see that problem with that yet? Even if the Neutral ending in Strange Journey is the worst Neutral ending in the series and epitomizes the idea of restoring the status quo in these paths, I’d rather do that than brainwash my crew into being almost like demons. What’s the point of fighting for freedom if you’re gonna do that?
I have to say though, at least the alignments are more ambiguous in Shin Megami Tensei IV (although Law is by and large the same as ever just with an ending that might be considered positive for some this time around), because even Neutral has its problems. Like in Strange Journey, Neutral is very humanity-centric. Traditionally Neutral is meant to be amount balance and human willpower. The problem is that all too often this stops meaning individual willpower and focuses on the potential of humanity as a species, but it’s a way of forgetting that humans are flawed. Neutrality is actually a fine position for the individual to align him/herself with, but lets face it, Neutrality has never really offered a solid, permanent solution. Granted, in the SMT-verse Law and Chaos aren’t shown to be permanent outcomes either, but at least they’re, well, outcomes. Also, the idea of Neutral preserving the status quo is does not ring well to my ears because it means preserving this world as it is, and we all know how much I like the world as it is don’t we? It should be noted however that Neutrality in Shin Megami Tensei IV seems to mean both preserving and upending the status quo and tolerating both preservation and destruction, but while the latter makes sense, the former does not in terms of actions since you can’t both destroy and preserve the status quo, and even if you could that’s not what happens in the Neutral routes anyway.
I kinda wish there were a MegaTen game that has a path that’s either a mix of Neutral and Chaos and a mix of Neutral and Law, but to be honest I can also see how that might undermine the Law-Neutral-Chaos dynamic of the games as it stands.