The Shin Megami Tensei series is a fascinating corner of its genre rooted in theology, philosophy, and an Ars Goetia worth of demons. While each entry’s scenario and characters change, the commonalities remain consistent. This is especially true for the entries that have come after Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, including spin-offs like Tokyo Mirage Sessions and the majority of the Persona series
If you’ve been hoping for some kind of grand evolution of SMT, I personally don’t feel that’s what this fifth mainline entry is. Instead, we have something that takes the best of its predecessors and then mingles those with fresh sensibilities. When those predecessors are as lauded as they are, that’s high praise and lofty aspirations all in one. Thankfully, Shin Megami Tensei V succeeds in not just living up to that legacy, but being a glorious RPG in its own right.
The set-up for SMTV is a familiar one, placing a high school student at the heart of the end of the world. You find yourself in a vast wasteland that was one Tokyo, your classmate is abducted by an angel, and you’re defenseless against the demonic hordes that now call this desert home. It’s stark and cryptic, but it’ll be some time before you’re able to get answers. Instead you’ll find an unexpected ally and your new power.
Becoming a Nahobino by fusing with the mysterious Aogami grants you more than just the most stunning head of hair imaginable. You’ll now have access to the series defining demon summoning, with fusion coming shortly after. These features, along with demon negotiation, are fairly unchanged from games past which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand I felt right at home in the apocalypse, while on the other it means the core of SMTV’s gameplay hasn’t done much to move itself forward.
It’s in other areas where the MegaTen5 has managed to make its mark. While I did encounter dungeon-like areas, those sorts of constrained halls have largely given way to open environments. Running and jumping around Da’at feels so much more free and encourages exploration, and seeing the demons roaming about gives a fuller kind of energy than just shadowy blobs. You don’t know true fear until you’ve turned a corner and encounter a Hee-Hoard of Jack Frosts.
Demon fusion may not have seen much of a change, but a new kind of item gives way to deeper customization options for your party and self. Essences are items that you can acquire based on the game’s demons, which can then be fused to existing demons to bestow skills. This can also be done to the Nahobino, either to customize your personal loadout of attacks or to alter your weaknesses and resistances. It’s a straightforward system that gives way to variety and viability in your builds, which is definitely appreciated here.
You’re still mostly encouraged to fuse upward by design in order to have stronger, more varied demons, but Essences help take that edge off by giving you another means to tailor the experience. Speaking of, the new Miracles and Glory fulfil a similar role as Shin Megami Tensei IV’s Apps. Using Glory, which can be found around maps and gifted from slightly hidden fellows called Miman, you’re able to access Miracles. These have a wide variety of effects spread across four general categories, including increasing your stock of demons or empowering your proficiencies with various elements.
While you can grind for Essences based on them being enemy drops or purchasable, Glory feels a more precious resource and rightfully so. It’s via it that you can really unlock the Nahobino’s potential, and these multiple means of character growth (as well as the constant increases in power my demons went through via leveling and fusions) are the addicting fuel that makes Shin Megami Tensei V so appealing even when it’s constantly sucker punching me onto the Game Over screen.
Yes, here at last is the obligatory “Shin Megami Tensei games are hard” section. Rather than the kind of hard where skill or luck can really prevail eventually, MegaTen most rewards planning and covering your bases. If you start encountering a lot of enemies that use Fire attacks, it’s well worth your while to fuse demons that will resist that element instead. Likewise, having attacks and magic that let you exploit enemy weaknesses and keep them from acting via the Press Turn system is an essential strategy.
Like other things mentioned, this isn’t new to the series by any stretch. There are some diabolical fights to be found throughout SMTV, and the game is usually kind enough to at least warn you of bosses or make it clear what enemies are out of your league on the map. Losing to these I can handle, plus it has the added benefit of letting me prep a party to counter their strengths – what status effects they’re weak to, do I need to be ready to debuff certain stats, etc.
What was legitimately frustrating were the times things just went south unexpectedly, or when I traveled just a bit too far and stumbled on a new threat that outleveled me. Finding a group of enemies where they’re able to act first can be an outright death sentence, especially if you’re tapped out on MP and items. Escaping and trying to talk your way out of these in over your head moments are legitimate strategies as well, but if the Nahobino is ganged up on before you get a chance then it’s right back to the title screen for you.
There is one last powerful tool to bring to the table though. Magatsuhi Skills allow you to use potent abilities tied to the various families of demons once you have a corresponding talisman. In my preview I mentioned the ability to make sure every attack in a turn would be a Critical Hit, empowering Press Turns and effectively doubling potential actions. Further in you’ll be able to make buffs doubly potent, inflict massive hits of Almighty damage, or put enemies to sleep in order to regroup as needed without worry. Ensuring you’re able to use these when you need to most is another piece in the puzzle that makes the game’s combat methodical and rewarding, and one of the best when it comes to turn-based battles.
All the previous cries of familiarity shouldn’t be mistaken for laziness or routine, either. The game’s story, which I’m unable to discuss at length, is one of my favorites in a Shin Megami Tensei title both for the characters involved and what it does with its take on Tokyo. Though a holy war between Law and Chaos is again present, what it does within that framework is something MegaTen5 can hold up as its own.
I’m also a fan of how the game has grown when it comes to presentation both in and out of battle. Having 3D demons in a mainline MegaTen again is highly appreciated, as are the more involved attack animations that are used for unique skills. Sure, previous games were on 3DS and PS2, but there’s no getting around the truth that this is the best looking the series has ever been, and it absolutely benefits from it.
If I have one particular problem with Shin Megami Tensei V it’s in its pacing. I’m accustomed to slow starts in RPGs, but when that slow start is in a desert environment with effectively no other characters and plenty of places to get lost, it can all be a bit much. From the beginning of the game to the next major plot development, it was about ten hours of that which felt a bit much – enough to make me think I might’ve been doing something wrong. Then I ended up against a boss where I was fully outmatched and knew that that’s just how things were going to be sometimes.
Even with that though I pressed onward, and was rewarded with an absorbing and exceptional RPG. This series is unafraid to be itself, and it was worth the wait to get here. Best of all, it manages to be a great entry point that benefits from the hardware it’s on. Visuals may take a hit when undocked, but that’s more than worth the time I spent grinding in handheld. I encourage anyone interested to take that leap into the uncertain apocalypse and to carve a new future for the world in which god is dead. There are hindrances, and it can be dense material, but with that uncompromised depth comes a game worth celebrating.
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: November 12, 2021