Title: Shin Megami Tensei V
Release Date: November 11, 2021
Reviewed On: Switch
Shin Megami Tensei V was initially announced during the unveiling of the Nintendo Switch at the start of 2017, leaving fans on the edge of their seats ever since. This franchise, which started in 1992, has had a variety of spin-offs that take the style of the game in vastly different ways, of which notably Persona has vastly eclipsed its origins.
But that’s not to say the main games don’t shake up their own formula, each one putting a spin on their traditional RPG roots. So what would Shin Megami Tensei V, the first SMT game title developed on the Unreal Engine, bring to the table? I couldn’t wait to find out.
It wouldn’t be a Shin Megami Tensei game if Tokyo isn’t somehow ruined, but it’s a bit weird this time. You begin as a perfectly normal high school student, in the same vein as Nocturne’s Demi-fiend, a Persona protagonist, or the lead from If… One day you’re walking home with some student acquaintances because there have been a series of monster attacks of unknown origin, so it’s too dangerous to walk home alone.
When the gang’s path is blocked off by the investigations of one such attack, one of these acquaintances wanders off to take a phone call. It’s not safe to go alone, so you go after them, make it into a tunnel and run into a couple of other classmates recording a horror vlog. Then, everything goes south.
Moments later, you all end up thrown into another world that also happens to be a ruined Tokyo, the Netherworld, before the robotic Aogami rescues you from being demon chow. You forge a pact with him, become a Nahobino (whatever that is), which nets you sick demon powers. Finally, you then embark on a quest to figure out what the hell is going on.
In the first four main series entries, navigation had a distinctive feel. You controlled a little icon and could enter areas that would allow you to explore in first person (for I and II) or third person (in III and IV). From there, due to being early PS2 and 3DS releases, III and IV had you explore rather confined and more maze-like locations that were a bit boxed in.
On Switch, the Nahobino, with the enhanced physical abilities granted by Aogami, has no such limits. You’ll be sliding, dashing, and vaulting your way through the ruins of Tokyo. The game is full of really aesthetically pleasing locations that often remind me of liminal spaces. Coupled with a rather atmospheric or serene background track and there’s some real enjoyment to be had running through the remnants of the city. And with all sorts of items you can grab, as well as the Miman collect-a-thon, which will net you Glory, a resource you can exchange for passive skills, there’s more than enough incentive to investigate each area thoroughly.
However, you won’t get too far without confronting enemy demons, and with them appearing on the field, random encounters have been made a thing of the past. Of course, you can take advantage of that enhanced mobility to glide past your foes, but this is Shin Megami Tensei. Avoiding battles when you enter new areas is the last thing you want to do, or you’ll be like me and go up against a miniboss that offers you the chance to escape in exchange for a lump of cash. Obviously, so confident in your abilities, you’ll laugh at the prospect, only to get one shot by a medium-level fire spell when you decline.
Battles use the series’ famous ‘Press Turn’ system, where you have an equal amount of turn icons as the number of present party members. Each action consumes one icon, but if you pass your turn, crit an enemy, or exploit their weakness, one of the icons will pulsate and last for an extra action. Once your icon is pulsating, any action will cause it to disappear, but it does mean that you can get in an extra 4 moves during your turn with careful planning. Though it is worth noting that if you miss outright or strike an element they nullify, drain, reflect, you’ll lose at least two icons.
This system goes both ways, which means that you can practically double your turn rate and minimize enemy actions with careful planning. It does mean a few unlucky critical hits can floor your entire party, but it’s your job to reduce that chance of adverse luck by using buffs, debuffs, and ailments. If you can tank them, kill them before they can act, or stop them from hitting you entirely, you don’t need to worry about an unlucky strike. This all gets backed by some killer battle themes. They’re almost all incredibly fantastic, and some non-standard ones really captured a good vibe. It’s an enjoyable and rewarding battle system, especially when accounting for the challenge.
You might have super demon powers, but you’re still going to need to bust out the big brain strats if you want to win your battles, even on lower difficulty modes. If that’s not for you, there is a free DLC difficulty option that’ll make things easier; Safety Mode. Demon negotiation also follows the trend of Shin Megami Tensei IV and Apocalypse, making demons more defined and feel like calculated gambles if you understand them. My only complaint is that the bartering system isn’t as in-depth as SMTIV’s, and I liked being able to extort demons for money consistently.
Demon Fusion, the dark art of smooshing your demons together to make new ones, has returned with the handy ‘Reverse Fusion’ option. This mechanic allows you to check any possible demon you could summon at the given moment, even using ones you’ve previously noted down in Compendium. Shin Megami Tensei V has also introduced the new “Essence” system, allowing you to change your elemental affinities or instill you and your demons with new skills. I think this is a great feature that lessens the amount of fusion chaining you’ll need to do and is one of many minor additions that allow for quick and heavy customization.
The presentation is stellar, especially in cutscenes. They’re not common, but they all look great, and some hype up great moments and boss fights. There are also unique skills with superb visual style. I left Aramasa in my moveset until near the endgame because it looks so damn cool.
The story itself is rather lacking, though. Feeling lost or uninterested after the first arc is expected because, following the first 20 minutes, it takes roughly 10 hours for any more narrative to kick in. The cast remained largely unchanged and received next to no exploration, with a couple of interesting characters forgotten about.
That was a bit of a step down from IV, but I did enjoy the unique spins on the classical alignment system. If the characters weren’t so much weaker, I’d compare it to Devil Survivor 2. Still, the cutscene quality makes up for some of it. Mainline Shin Megami Tensei isn’t exactly known for its story either, besides IV and Apocalypse. These titles generally have plots that serve as window dressing to capture a particular vibe of personal struggle, and I think V nails that approach.
Even without strong narrative backing, Shin Megami Tensei V delivers a compelling experience for the entire 60+ hour journey. The game smartly provides the player with core features the series is known for, alongside excelling in its fantastic environments, combat mechanics, and immaculate soundtrack. Shin Megami Tensei V is a natural evolution of this series and a must-play RPG.
As a side note, I’ve gotta try and take down the Demi-fiend DLC when it launches. Now that my demons can learn Freikugel, too, I might stand a chance.
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