Shin Megami Tensei V Review
An uncompromising return of a cult favorite
Despite being the series that it spawned out of, Shin Megami Tensei has been stuck in the shadows of Persona for some time now. Starting with the release of Persona 3, the sub-series has attracted a far larger audience here in the West than the SMT main franchise has. This can be chalked up to a more crowd-pleasing format, but also the fact that Shin Megami has sat dormant for a few years. The re-release of SMT III: Nocturne in 2020 was nice, but the last original main-line entry came back in 2016 and was stuck on the Nintendo 3DS. Despite the limited audience, something must have drawn Atlus back to Nintendo, as the first new entry in five years, Shin Megami Tensei V, has come exclusively to the Nintendo Switch.
As the darker, grimmer older brother of Persona, it makes sense that Shin Megami Tensei V has a dark attitude reflective of today's society. You control a typical school student who finds themselves thrust into the endless battle between angels and demons. After being transported to a ruined version of Tokyo known as Da'at, you are beset upon by demonic forces. However, a mysterious being known as Aogami rescues you by literally fusing with your body. This creates a creature known as Nahobino, which is something between man and deity. With this power now coursing through your body, you end up getting drafted into an international agency focused on keeping the angel/demon conflict away from humanity. You have little time to catch your bearings, though, as the denizens of Da'at soon come flooding into modern Tokyo.
As you come to find out, the reason Da'at is the way it is that God has been vanquished by Lucifer. This hellish landscape is reality, and the Tokyo you resided in is essentially a façade. However, with no ruler to be found, you can step into the role of a god in Da'at. As the Nahobino, you are given the power to shape the universe as you see, but just because your decisions may seem logical, that doesn’t mean they are right. Do you try to keep the status quo in your previous world? Or do you work to bring order to the universes at the price of freedom? The choices you are forced to make are difficult because they aren’t easily defined by terms of good or bad.
One area that does disappoint, though, is the writing for the companion characters. The Persona series has been great at getting you to care about all the members of the team, but the writing falls flat here. The side-characters oscillate between not fleshed out enough and too annoying for my taste. In what is a reversal of my usual approach, I was more interested in the grand scheme plotting of the universe than the more personal character driven dramatics.
Shin Megami Tensei V feels a bit like a gumbo of disparate gameplay elements. The core combat engine of the title is very much attuned to the basics of the genre. A classic turn-based system where you can either use physical attacks, or tap into coded magic attacks. Outside of battling, the game is almost an open-world platformer. You can jump and dash through various areas in order to reach new locations that house secrets and side-quests. Finally, there’s a splash of Pokémon-like strategy when it comes to recruiting demons. You can convince them to fight along side you, and even level them up by fusing them with other demons you recruit. There's a lot to uncover in the title, and it feels like a more meatier experience that traditional JRPGs.
Although the real Tokyo may be getting invaded, the bulk of the action in Shin Megami Tensei V takes place in Da'at. There are four major areas in this version of the city, with each section containing ruined relics that hint at where you would be if this world hadn't been destroyed. You are given free reign to explore each area. Most of the time will be spent taking out demons, but there are also plenty of secrets to uncover. Helpful items can be found, and you should always keep an eye out for little demons known as Miman. Finding them not only gives you a personal boost in skill, but collecting enough of them will award bonus items from the shop.
Enemies are prone to hanging out in the open, so you're free to take on battles as you see fit. I would recommend getting in as much experience as you can during the opening hours, as the difficulty of the RPG is steep. Not only will preying upon weaker demons allow you to grind out levels, but it will also help get acclimated to the layered combat engine of the title. The challenging battle system requires you to carefully plan out attacks. Making one errant move is often all it takes for the enemy to turn the tide of battle.
While fighting is a constant in the world of Shin Megami Tensei V, there is another way of dealing with conflict. You almost always have the option to talk with enemies upon getting into combat with them. Depending on some outside factors, they may just choose to ignore you, but ther's always a chance to convince them to join you. The first step is responding to something they do in the correct manner. Failure to do so will result in the enemy getting the first attack in. However, if you navigate that process, then they will typically ask of some kind of tribute. It could be money, items or even some of your health. Once you give them what they want, then they will join your party. This will let them fight on your side in battle. Or if you already have a line-up set, you can fuse them together with other demons, or borrow some of their essence.
Both demon fusion and essence play a huge role in the combat engine. Fusing two demons together is integral to getting stronger allies. Having a party of strong allies that are blessed with different powers is a must for taking out some of the tougher bosses the title features. A nice option to have is also being able to reverse a fusion if need be. Essences can be transferred from the demons you align with to bless your character with new skills and powers. Proficiencies in specific stats, such as lightning or fire, can also be transferred to your character. I enjoyed being able to constantly change how my character played, and what they were proficient in. It's nice knowing that I wasn't locked into a specific skill path at any time.
The importance of being able to transform my skill set is readily apparent from the first few battles. The combat features a typical turn-based system, but there are modifiers that make planning important. If you, or someone in your party, connects on a critical hit or using an attack an enemy is weak to, then you'll be given extra turns. However, if you hit them with something they are resistant to, or they dodge your attack, then you'll lose turns. Enemies are quick to capitalize on weaknesses, so you desperately need to stockpile turns while you can. You do have access to certain abilities that can provide a huge boost in battle, though. These are built up through the Magatsuhi gauge, which fills up in combat. Depending on what you have equipped, this special skill can be a powerful attack, or a boost that gives all your allies critical strikes for a round. Mixing those powers with your other skills can lead to a chain of attacks that completely wreck an enemy. Or, you'll whiff on an attack, and find that your whole plan has gone up in smoke. Such is life in Da'at.
As a Nintendo Switch exclusive, I did have some concerns regarding the performance of SMTV coming into it. Thankfully, it held up well whether I was playing docked or not. There can be a lot going on at once, so the fact that there is no slowdown is a great. I do think that part of this solid performance can be chalked up to the iffy visual quality, though. Atlus does what it can with the art design to help cover the technical limitations of the console, but they can't cover everything. Environmental textures are bland regardless of whether you are in Tokyo proper or Da'at. Character designs fare better, and I do think that is due to the fact that the developers created great demon designs. Some of them are totally off-putting to look at, while others have regal designs that give them class despite their demonic nature.
If you like your gaming experiences to be frequently punishing and typically bleak, it's hard to go wrong with Shin Megami Tensei V. Atlus has done an excellent job of reintroducing the series to the masses. The layered combat engine seems daunting at first, but as you experiment with it, the options afforded to you are staggering. Every encounter carries weight, and the boss battles are immensely satisfying to tackle. Despite the intrigue the angels vs demons plot carries, I was disappointed with the cast of characters crafted for the adventure. The core cast was a major step down from what the studio has delivered in the past. Regardless of that quibble, though, SMTV is still an excellent RPG, and one of the best exclusives currently available on the Switch.