It's always fun to expand your gaming horizons, testing out games with unexplored themes and mechanics but it's just as much fun to settle into familiar territory. Shin Megami Tensei is a franchise that knows what it is, while it took a game or two to get there fans will know what to expect when booting up the game. It's simultaneously a trip down memory lane, while also inviting players to come along on a new adventure of teenage empowerment and a tough of God slaying. As the first mainline title in 8 years did Shin Megami Tensei V make the right decision by not fixing what isn't broken?
After the Samurai-inspired adventure of the previous title, Shin Megami Tensei V returns to the traditional modern-day setting of Shin Megami Tensei III. You play as the gorgeous voiceless Protagonist as his world is turned upside down as he's pulled from modern-day Japan into the Netherworld known as Da'at. This monster-infested post-apocalyptic wasteland is all that remains after a great clash between Angels and Demons in the past. After learning how to summon demons to fight on your side and unlocking a great power that allows you to deal out some hefty damage yourself you're conscripted into an international corporation called Bethel who has set their eyes on killing the Demon King and finally ending this prolonged war of light against darkness.
Shin Megami Tensei V immediately throws players into the action. You barely have enough time to meet some classmates and get the lay of the land in Tokyo before you're taking out demons and learning what happened to the world. You'll certainly have a lot of new terms and mechanics are thrown in your face but each is so well explained to the Protagonist it immediately gets the player on the same page. The story pacing was always excellent, even if it was a smaller mission there was always more plot progression just around the corner that kept me constantly engaged.
One aspect that I felt really lacked when playing Shin Megami Tensei III this past May was how it dealt with the other human characters. SMT III barely gave you time to connect before blowing up the world and gave you sparse interaction with them from then on. Shin Megami Tensei V really understands the importance of giving those relationships context and time to grow. As the war continues to break out and Bethel takes on missions and attempts to further the cause you can see the different ways these characters develop their own ideals, something that culminates in your own decision for how to shape the world, a running theme of the Shin Megami Tensei games. I wasn't just siding with what ideology I liked the most in the end, but also was able to take into consideration what kind of people these ideals came from.
While the Tokyo overworld movement is a cursor on a map, similar to previous entries in the franchise once you get to exploring Da'at you have free roam to explore with a third-person perspective. This change also does away with random encounters. Ironically the sand-ridden world filled with destroyed buildings is full of life as you see all manner of demons roaming the wastes. Every now and then you'll even be warned of powerful demons leveled way above the average of the region that slowly seeds the idea of returning to previous areas to the player.
Destroyed buildings are used creatively as bridges between sand dunes or skeletons of themselves for players to climb or explore. This added sense of verticality to the world really brought back memories of the world design in Persona 5 Strikers. This exploration of every nook and cranny was also well rewarded with all kinds of treasure chests and collectible Miman. Every wrong turn I took exploring the world was normally worth it. In some of the denser regions of the world, the map legibility was a bit tough to figure out, but never for long enough that it truly felt like I was going in circles.
While the vast majority of the game is set out underneath the sky and sun there were a few classic SMT dungeon areas. These areas were filled with labyrinth-like corridors and even introduced interesting mechanics like gusts of wind. These new mechanics were perfectly implemented allowing players some trial and error where a gust of wind would only briefly hinder their progress. After seeing where these could set you back the game then began introducing situations where the only way to progress was to get caught in them, or even offer you a choice of paths to take. The large open-world areas really elevated Shin Megami Tensei V, but these familiar dungeons definitely brought a smile to my face.
Part of the Shin Megami Tensei V experience that felt mostly unchanged was the combat. The turn-based combat offers up the ability for the player to fight, use items, and talk with demons. The push turn mechanic is back once again pushing players to attack enemies with super effective attacks to give them additional chances to attack before their opponent gets a turn. In other RPGs where a super-effective attack only does more damage, the need for strategy can be easily overcome by finding a bigger and better attack, but by rewarding players with more chances to attack it's too important to miss out on. This is the part of the game where the "if it ain't broke" mentality comes in and I'm really glad because it's such a fun and rewarding combat system.
You can recruit demons by talking to them, completing their side quests, or by fusing them as you could in previous games but there are also some new ways to power up your team. The Essence system allows you to take the essence of a demon and apply its attacks to other demons. If you find yourself without a demon that has healing spells but you happen to have a Pixie Essence on hand you can immediately teach one of your demons Dia. This is also the only way that the Protagonist learns any type of move so befriending demons and getting their essence is an extremely important part of the game.
Essences can even be used to alter the strengths and weaknesses of the Protagonist allowing you to completely shift how they function in combat. What makes this Essence system so great isn't just that it pushes you to create more powerful demons or level them up but that it allows your team to be so flexible. In times where I couldn't take down the next big boss, I could make myself resistant to their attacks, and alter my roster to be a complete counter to an enemy. You'll be amazed at what types of teams you can throw together.
Not only does the game play great but it also mostly fits the part. Most impressively is each of the main characters. Each is not only very detailed but looks like they've walked right out of a fashion model. Even in his powered-up demon-fighting form, it's just entertaining to watch the Protagonist run, jump, and slide with his hair flowing in the wind. Unfortunately for times when you're in school it's very easy to play "spot the protagonist" as each student of no consequence is not only bland to look at but most don't even have faces. Thankfully not too much time is spent at school…
The Da'at environments are also all great to look at even if it's mostly broken down cars, destroyed portions of highways, and sand. There is an odd effect on the sand where it looks like a light sparkle was what Atlus was aiming for but with so much on the screen it looks more like artifacting or signal loss, this was definitely less noticeable when playing in handheld mode but took some getting used to on my TV. Some other minor graphical hiccups were a consistent texture pop issue in cutscenes that took place after scene transitions.
Shin Megami Tensei V wouldn't be complete without its fantastic soundtrack too. As you move between Tokyo and Da'at you can really feel the tempo of the music change to match that of the setting. This is most noticeable in battles as the music responds to the options you take, or holds back and kicks in for emphasis. Some boss fights will start with little to no music, taking that first turn to set up some items or use some magical buffs the track stays quiet and almost contemplative. As soon as you unleash that first attack there's a hard turn as the music picks up the pace and begins to really jam out. While some RPG suffer from the tragedy of battle music that loops too frequently to become annoying this reactive take on the soundtrack was much appreciated.
There's a lot that Shin Megami Tensei V kept the same, but where it does change from its formula it manages to successfully enhance. There are strong themes of light vs dark and all the grey areas between but enhances the battle by firmly placing you in the center of the scuffle. Powering up your party is still heavily incentivized but now more flexible than ever. The post-apocalypse is still a literal sandbox, but it's so alive and rewarding to fight and explore within. Shin Megami Tensei V has managed to retain what makes the franchise so loved to its core, but truly demonstrated the kind of leap that's possible coming to the Nintendo Switch. Shin Megami Tensei V is a no-brainer for any fan of the franchise but is also an excellent stepping-on point for those who might have been waiting to try an SMT game.
TechRaptor reviewed Shin Megami Tensei V on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher.
- Engaging Storyline
- Deep and flexible combat
- Next leap in exploration
- Strange graphical choices