Review: Shin Megami Tensei V updates a classic without losing its identity
Shin Megami Tensei is a JRPG series that these days is best known for giving birth to its more popular spin-off, Persona. But before we were raising social links and delving into the metaverse, we were summoning demons in the post-apocalypse and fighting against God himself.
Yes, the mainline Megaten series is a fair bit darker than its high school counterpart, more blood sacrifice than the power of friendship, more Lovecraft than anime. It’s known for its deep and complex systems, its confusing dungeons, and its punishing difficulty.
And it’s returned with a new entry, Shin Megami Tensei V, on Nintendo Switch. But the big question is, does it still have an audience? Are its convoluted demon wars and painfully difficult boss battles a relic of the past, or do they have a home here in 2021 on what some would say is the most casual-friendly console?
Welcome to the End of the World
In Shin Megami Tensei V, you play as a high school student in Tokyo who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and seemingly gets transported several years into the future, into a post-apocalyptic ruined world overrun with demons. To save his own life he fuses with an Aogami, a different demonic being, to become the Nahobino, a half-demon half-human fusion of humanity’s knowledge and the demon world’s power.
And that’s about as much as I can tell you without spoiling everything.
The story in SMTV is sparse but poignant. You will spend hours wandering through the game’s locales without a single cut scene or line of dialogue. Then you’ll pass a checkpoint, and something will hit you with enough gravity to crush the plot into a black hole.
This is mostly because of one of the most loved aspects of the Shin Megami Tensei series, the ability to choose sides. Fundamentally, every Megaten game is about remaking the world in your own image, and SMTV is no different. In a battle between gods, angels, and demons, you will eventually get to choose who guides the world into its future. However, no choice comes without consequence. You’ll have to make sacrifices, lose people close to you, and maybe even forsake humanity itself.
That being said, SMTV leans on you being able to insert yourself into the Nahobino’s shoes. He’s an absolute blank slate who says nothing unless you tell him to. And the people he interacts with aren’t the brightest of personalities either. They say little and do less, only becoming important in massive plot bending climaxes and twists. You have to fill in the blanks with your own imagination.
In this way, SMTV feels less like a traditional JRPG with a focus on narrative and dramatics, and more like a traditional tabletop RPG, where you hop from an important story point to another important story point with exploration and battle in the middle. It’s not a style that will please everyone, but in a world where it seems like every JRPG is obsessed with being a movie, it’s refreshing to see one that embraces its identity as a game.
Traversing the Wasteland
And what a game there is to play.
SMTV seemed most concerned with approaching the elements of the Megaten series that were previously inaccessible and reworking them for a modern audience. You might think that this means lowering the difficulty but, no, SMTV is as difficult as ever. You still stand a chance of dying from random encounters, and bosses will stomp you into the ground if you don’t prepare.
So how does it appeal to more modern gamers?
Well, first of all, it does away with its labyrinthine dungeons. Older Megaten games constructed their environments from repeated and sometimes randomized corridors that made every dungeon feel like a rat’s maze. SMTV, however, trades these in for more organic open maps. Yes, SMTV has gone open world, sharing more in common with Breath of the Wild than its brethren.
And this works surprisingly well. The maps certainly aren’t as forgiving as BoTW’s, you can’t climb on structures and there are plenty of invisible walls that bar your path, for example. However, the same concept is at work here. You can head right toward your goal and face off against a ludicrously difficult demon boss right from the get-go… and probably die, or you can scour the wasteland for new demons to recruit, special items to use, XP to level up and try to take on each boss at full power.
So Many Demons to Farm
Another way that SMTV is made more appealing to a modern audience is by focusing on all of its systems. There is no equipment to worry about and no special skill trees. Instead, the main resource of the game is demons.
Like in most Megaten games, you can either kill the demons you find or negotiate with them in an attempt to have them join your party, like a strange unholy social version of Pokémon. Then, once they join you, you can level them up and merge them with other demons to form new and more powerful demons with new and more powerful skills.
This is the core of SMTV’s gameplay loop. Go out, kill demons, recruit demons, fuse demons, lather, rinse, repeat. To make this even more compelling SMTV has adopted the modern-day quality of life improvements of the Persona series, as well as more recent entries in its own franchise. So newly fused demons no longer have random stats or skills. Instead, you choose the most optimal demon to build every time you fuse. You also don’t have to wade through chart after chart to get the demon you want. SMTV is nice enough to tell you every demon you can fuse, both just with the party you have right now, and by summoning demons from the compendium with cash. If you want to, you can still fuse demons the old way, by choosing two and just seeing what you get, but why would you want to?
What about your main character, the Nahobino? Well, his skills are also based on demons. Level up a demon enough and you will get a demon “essence.” The Nahobino can then consume these essences to either change his elemental affinities or inherit skills. The Nahobino can also find special non-demon essences from quests and treasure chests that give him unique skills, but these are few and far between. The main focus of the game is still just recruiting and raising the most powerful demon you can.
Quality of Afterlife Improvements
There are a million other ways that SMTV simplifies the core Megaten loop for a modern-day audience. For example, there are fewer attack elements than usual, making it easy to remember enemy weaknesses. Light and dark elemental attacks are no longer restricted to insta kills only, making them easier to use. The Nahobino can unlock “miracles” that break the rules of the game, giving him access to things like extra skill slots or passive HP and MP regen. There’s even a limit break style “Magatsuhi” bar that lets you use obscenely overpowered techniques, like ensuring critical hits and taking double the turns you normally would take.
In short, SMTV is absurdly generous, showering you with different ways to increase your power.
Just as the good Megaten giveth, the good Megaten taketh away. Because you need everything the game throws at you to take on its demons. As I said before, normal random encounters have a chance of outright killing you on normal difficulty. You can’t auto-battle your way through them. Boss fights will kill you even on the lowest difficulty if you don’t spend time genuinely thinking of your party composition. You will want to fuse a full party of demons with access to spells that hit a boss’s weakness. You’ll also want a bunch of stat increasing spells for your party and stat decreasing spells for the enemy. Plus, you’ll want to create special attack combos that deal even more damage, take in a bunch of healing and status removal spells, and much more, and even then, you’re going to die. You’re going to die a lot.
Whether or not you are OK with that is going to be the main signifier of whether or not you like SMTV. Because the core gameplay loop here is, once again, quite compelling. In fact, it too feels like BotW. No matter where you stand there is something that will catch your eye. Maybe there’s a blue pillar of light in the distance signaling a fast travel point. Maybe you’ll see a shining orb, or a giant building, or a glowing red “abscess” which can unlock more miracles. There’s always something new to push toward, and in your way, there are lots and lots of demons to fight, recruit, and die to.
But if you aren’t OK with the core gameplay loop, SMTV will frustrate you, and not just because of the difficulty. The framerate drops frustratingly low, well below 30fps, even when docked. The controls are very loose and will result in you running off ledges or into enemies you didn’t want to fight. The voice acting is mediocre at best, even though it’s the most voice acting a mainline Megaten game has seen. In short, you kind of have to be a fan to see this through to the end.
That being said, if you aren’t a Megaten fan, SMTV is the perfect excuse to find out. Because regardless of its frustrations and shortcomings, it’s easily the most fun and engaging mainline Megaten game yet. So yes, I’d say SMTV is worth giving a try. It’s not the year’s best RPG, but it’s still an incredibly solid old-school RPG experience that presents a fulfilling challenge that’s worth overcoming.