Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Shin Megami Tensei V is the latest entry in Atlus' long-running cult classic Japanese RPG series. While SMT's spinoff series, Persona, has handled some heavy topics, the main franchise tends to be darker still, with a sometimes-oppressive atmosphere that comes out in its difficult gameplay.
With how popular Persona 5 has become worldwide, I wondered if Atlus would bring Shin Megami Tensei more in line with its spinoff. Longtime fans will be glad to know that not much has changed here, though. In fact, anyone who played Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster earlier this year will immediately see the similarities between the two games.
Unfortunately, Shin Megami Tensei V's faithfulness to its predecessors might be its biggest weakness, too. While I enjoyed negotiating with demons and experimenting with party compositions, the combat system is similar to SMT games from 20 years ago. The game wears its JRPG pedigree on its sleeve, almost to a fault. As a result, it can feel a bit stale at times.
Sure, there are some quality-of-life improvements here. But peel back that thin veneer, and SMTV would feel right at home in the early 2000s. On the other hand, Atlus seems to believe "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If you want more Shin Megami Tensei, then this game is the best one yet.
Shin Megami Tensei V review: Story
Unlike many JRPGs, Shin Megami Tensei V gets you into the heart of things right away. There are no long introductions here. The protagonist is a student at Jouin High School in Tokyo, Japan. The school has asked students to travel to their dormitories in groups after recent reports of violence.
After leaving the school, your group arrives at the local train station and finds the passage leading to the dorms blocked by a giant curtain. The authorities have blocked off the way, following a murder in the station. While you try to figure out another way back to the dorms, one of your friends tells you that her brother went to take a call, and asks you to check up on him.
While trying to find your friend, you come across a tunnel leading under the roadway. Figuring that might be the way your friend went, you enter it. Moments later, you see your friend running back, and an earthquake occurs, shaking the tunnel. The structure appears to collapse, and you pass out. When you awaken, you find yourself in a desertous, post-apocalyptic version of Tokyo (which is very reminiscent of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne).
Unfortunately, you make it about 50 feet out of the tunnel before being attacked by demons and left for dead. Fortunately, a mysterious entity named Aogami offers to fuse with you to save your life. Upon doing so, you gain great power and transform into a being called a Nahobino.
From there, the game squeezes out the story in little dollops between long exploration segments. Players familiar with Persona shouldn't expect long exposition drops in SMT. The joy here is in exploring the alternate Tokyo, called Da'at, and reveling in meeting the warring angels and demons. The overall story is fairly dark, and it lacks Persona 5's massive cast. Additionally, since the protagonist is the only humanoid playable character, SMTV can feel like a lonelier game.
Shin Megami Tensei V review: Gameplay
The bulk of Shin Megami Tensei V involves exploring large areas as you fight your way toward your next mission objective. Where SMTV switches things up is that it's much less claustrophobic than previous games. While the critical path is still ostensibly linear, it has gotten a lot wider, and you can also access side quests that give you opportunities to venture off the beaten path.
There's also a lot of exploration in each environment. The protagonist can jump, so there's a degree of verticality, which is new to the series. There are also collectibles to seek out in the form of Miman: tiny red guys that you can trade for a special currency. You can then use that currency to purchase some great items.
SMTV also encourages backtracking more than previous entries in the series. Optional bosses and side quests are sometimes too hard to take on the first time you explore an area, and difficulty spikes mean you'll need to go back and grind for experience. Fortunately, every save point (called Leyline Founts in-game) lets you access a comprehensive fast travel system.
Shin Megami Tensei V review: Demon Fusion and Negotiation
The big hooks for Shin Megami Tensei V are its Demon Negotiation and Fusion systems.
You can sway practically every demon that you meet in combat to become a party member through the negotiation system. During combat, you can talk to a demon and attempt to convince it to join your team. This usually takes the form of a question-and-response prompt. Get the questions right, and the demon will lend you its power. It can also choose to ask for resources like Macca (money), HP or items. While the process can be a bit random, SMTV has improved the system by making the questions and answers more sensible. While there's no hard rule, a buff, powerful demon will likely approve of a strong response, while the more delicate or playful ones will prefer a gentler tone.
As the game goes on, you'll learn some shortcuts to negotiating a demon's loyalty. The moon system returns in this game, and can affect how demons react to your recruitment attempts. During the full moon, you have a chance of skipping part of the process automatically, while in the new moon phase, demons tend to be depressed and harder to deal with. Additionally, once you unlock a special skill, demons will have a chance to beg for mercy and join you without question.
Unfortunately, demons don't have unlimited growth potential. Eventually, you'll need to turn to fusion to increase their powers. The fusion process combines two or more demons into a single, (ideally) more powerful creature. The best demons in the game are available via this method. Using fusion correctly is the key to obtaining the best party possible.
Since the only permanent party member is the protagonist, Shin Megami Tensei V feels a bit like a more intense version of Pokémon. There are more than 200 demons to recruit, and some of them are very elusive.
Shin Megami Tensei V review: Combat
Combat in Shin Megami Tensei V is where things will be hit-or-miss for most players. It employs the tried-and-true turn-based battle system that's been a staple of JRPGs since the 1980s. You and your foes take turns attacking, and there's a whole host of elements, buffs, debuffs and other attacks to choose from.
The one thing that can disrupt this flow is the Turn Press system. If you hit an enemy with its weakness, then the party member who landed that blow can go again. Above all other battle mechanics, this one is the most important, because you'll often face foes that are tougher than you.
The difficulty of Shin Megami Tensei V isn't as severe as in previous entries, but it still has spikes in each new area. These can be punishing, especially for players who are new to the series. Even in areas where you match up well against foes, you can suddenly run into a demon or a boss that outclasses everything you've encountered so far. However, since traveling to past areas is so easy in this game, grinding is much more tolerable.
Battles also aren't random. Instead, you have to make contact with a roaming monster to start a fight. This means you can arrange your party to decimate a particular type of demon, travel to the area where they spawn and lay into them until you've gained the levels you need to move on in the game.
There are some new battle mechanics, such as the Magatsuhi Skills, which allow you to access powerful abilities tied to a constantly charging meter. However, for the most part, combat is similar to the past few entries in the series. It's still fun, but it's slower-paced than in Persona. In particular, adding a form of the All-Out Attack from Persona here would have made fights against weaker demons less of a drag.
Shin Megami Tensei V review: Visuals and sound
The soundtrack for Shin Megami Tensei V is excellent. The series has a tradition of fantastic music, and composers Ryora Kozuka and Toshiki Konishi knocked it out of the park this time.
Unfortunately, SMTV suffers from being a Switch exclusive. The models and textures are great, and the designs are reminiscent of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. However, the weak hardware leads to things looking muddled. Performance issues also result in slowdown from time to time. Especially in larger areas, you can really start to feel the age of the Nvidia Tegra X1 SoC that powers the Switch.
The performance issues never got to a point where the game was unplayable, but it was enough to make me hope that the game gets ported to other platforms.
Shin Megami Tensei V review: Verdict
Shin Megami Tensei V isn't likely to be the game that brings this series into the mainstream. It continues to be the sort of niche title that won't appeal to everyone. That's fine, though, because it doesn't need to be anything else. There's a faithful audience that loves the idea of grinding for hours on end to take on challenging bosses and fuse the best demons.
Those looking for a slightly depressing, more adult take on Pokémon should look no further. While it has a few flaws, you simply won't find the SMTV experience anywhere else.