Review – Shin Megami Tensei V
In the time between Shin Megami Tensei V’s announcement and release, three different versions of Skyrim came out. Six Call of Duties were released. As did a torrent of phenomenal JRPGs that reinvigorated and changed the foundations of the genre. Xenoblade Chronicles, Tales of Arise, Persona 5, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Nier: Automota, Dragon Quest XI, and of course the return of the king with Final Fantasy VII REMAKE. Shin Megami Tensei V is releasing to a different world than the one it was announced in. That, alongside the hype that built up over the years, seemingly created an insurmountable mountain. Yet Atlus is not one to fold in the face of pressure, and Shin Megami Tensei V is the result of their expertise. One of the best games I’ve ever played.
Shin Megami Tensei V does bring a Persona comparison to mind. Just not the one everyone expects. Rather, Persona 5 Strikers and its relationship to the main series. In my review, I mentioned how Strikers seemed to be the game Persona should have been. It took the core mechanics and style, and put them in the perfect environment to shine. And that’s exactly what Shin Megami Tensei V does. It has all of the things that make the SMT series what it is. The Press Turn system, Demon Fusion, the incredible atmosphere, and the overall focus on exploration and combat. It’s the new labyrinthe open world design that brings it all together for this seamless perfect JRPG experience.
The easiest place to start is with the story. Shin Megami Tensei as a series has always focused on meta storytelling over personal stories. Epic conflicts of order and chaos, discussions of religion and fanaticism, and a mature look at the world and how it works. Characters are less people than they are walking stand-ins for a particular point of view or aspect of society. It’s something that could easily fail or end up feeling preachy. But the series has more often than not nailed what they were aiming for. SMTV changes none of this, and is possibly one of the series’ best. Also following series tradition, the game begins in Tokyo as usual.
While heading home from school, the protagonist is caught in a tunnel collapse. When you wake up though, you’re in another Tokyo. One long dead and abandoned, now called Da’at, or the Netherworld. After venturing into this wasteland, you are ambushed by demons who now rule Da’at. All is not lost however, as you are saved by a being known as Aogami. The two of you then bond together and form a new being known as a Nahobino. Something not quite human, not quite demon, but beyond them both. From that point on, you travel across Tokyo growing stronger, meeting up with fellow schoolmates who also fell into Da’at, and learning about this brave new world and the mysteries behind it. It’s an epic story that uses foreshadowing, atmosphere, and subtle storytelling to expertly tell it’s tale.
At the end of the day though, this is a Shin Megami Tensei game. Great story, world, and atmosphere are crucial sure, but not the main draw. That honor goes to the Demon Fusion mechanic and the Press Turn battle system. And these systems have been refined and polished to perfection for V. Starting with the Press Turn battle system, the UI is the real winner here. The actual mechanics of the system are mostly the same as they have ever been. You start each battle with the same number of actions as you do party members. Basic gameplay is the same as every other turn-based JRPG, particularly Pokémon. The unique mechanic here is when you attack an enemy’s weakness, you get an extra turn. You can repeat this as many times as you have turns, allowing for up to double your starting action points.
What sets Shin Megami Tensei V apart as far as its use of the Press Turn battle system goes is its UI. A good UI can make or break any turn-based game, and SMTV’s is probably one of the best I’ve seen. It’s super clean, with all the information you need easily visible or behind a button press. It reminds me a lot of Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ fantastic UI, but even cleaner and with the cool animation you find present throughout all of SMTV’s UI menus and backgrounds. I honestly don’t see how this system could be improved beyond this, nor can I imagine a better UI to accompany it. This is the kind of game that knows it’ll be with you for many hours, and intends to make things as comfortable as possible.
Demon negotiations and fusion is unarguably the MegaTen franchise’s defining feature. It’s what makes this franchise what it is. During combat, you have the ability to engage your enemies in negotiations. You navigate a dialogue tree depending on each demon’s attitude, and try to convince him to join your party. You then take your party of demons, customize their moves, level them up, and ultimately sacrifice them in order to summon more powerful demons. It’s like Pokémon, with far more arcane demonic rituals. And it’s always been absolutely addicting, with a level of personalization and customization that no other monster collector has ever matched for me. And again, SMTV does it better than ever.
First, starting with the expanded demon dialogues. As usual, Talk is one of your combat options during battle. Once selected, you can choose a demon on the field to negotiate with. You can’t recruit demons higher in level than you, but you can still negotiate with them. And once you reach their level, you can automatically add them to your party the next time you meet them. Thinking ten levels ahead is key to succeeding at this game. Anyway, once you start talking with them there’s one to two questions you have to get right. The answers seem random, but are actually influenced by your stats, the specific demon’s attitude, and the phase of the moon. You can fail, with a variety of consequences. But if you succeed, you then have the chance to pay them macca, items, or HP/MP to recruit them to your team. Always worth it.
Once they’re on your party, they become your servants to do what you will. As you battle with them, they gather XP and level up, gaining new moves in the process. They can also be customized with a brand new system called Essences. Every single demon has an Essence, which contains a few of their chosen moves. You can then use these to teach demons the included moves. It’s a quick and easy way to teach a specific demon the moves it needs to fill the role you require. You can also use Essences on the Nahobino, and customize your own moveset. There’s also special Aogami Essences with Nahobino specific moves. That’s not all when it comes to Demon customization in Shin Megami Tensei V however.
The Demon Fusion system. When you take two of your demon servants, sacrifice them in the World of Shadows, and gain a brand new demon out of it. There are some rules, however. Not every single demon can be sacrificed with each other, there are specific sacrificial paths. Nor is the demonic result always more powerful. But what makes it always worth it is move inheritance. When you sacrifice two demons, you can choose moves from either to give to the result. Not every move can be inherited, and stat/element differences will drastically alter usability. But it’s an incredible level of customization, and can create absolute powerhouses. The endgame of SMTV is built around this mechanic, creating super demons made up of the best stats and moves from younger demons sacrificed together. It’s easy, unique, and makes this franchise what it is.
The three pillars of a JRPG are storytelling, battle, and then exploration. Like the first two pillars, exploration is something else that SMTV does absolutely amazingly. Prior to this, each game in the series was a dungeon crawler. Large labyrinths you accessed via an overworld was the name of the game, and something it did very well. Shin Megami Tensei V doesn’t do this, however, and it’s the ballsiest thing this game has attempted to pull. Open world is still a rather new accepted concept in JRPGs, with varying success. For every Xenoblade Chronicles, you have a Dragon Quest XI or Final Fantasy XV. Often the world doesn’t feel worth it, and in some cases, it actively detracts from other aspects of the game. Be it story pacing, dungeon design, or monotony there’s far too often a price.
Going in, I had no idea SMTV was making this pivot. Especially fresh off of Nocturne, which is defined by the series’ focus on dungeon design. I assumed it was going to be basically that, but newer. Had I known, I would have probably been very worried for the aforementioned reasons. And it would have been worrying over nothing, as this open world stands with Monolith Soft’s masterpieces at the top of the genre. This is not just open world done right, it’s done right in a very SMT way. The labyrinthe exploration dungeon designs of previous games hasn’t been lost, rather it’s been built into the very fabric of the open world. It’s the same thing Xenoblade Chronicles has been doing since 2010, and it’s about damn time someone else follows suit.
There’s three things that set Monolith Soft worlds apart, and they’re all present here in spades. Verticality, rewarding exploration, and a world that feels alive. Verticality is used to make the world feel bigger and complex. What’s core to getting verticality right is the movement system, and SMTV’s is up to par. You have a dash (which doubles as a badass slide down slopes), a sleek very high jump, and total seamless movement. Together, they create a stupidly good feeling system, perfectly up to the task of navigating the complex world. So you have a great complex world and a movement system that makes it fun to traverse. But that doesn’t matter if exploration isn’t worth it or the world itself doesn’t feel alive. Fortunately, it does both.
There’s always something to find. SMTV has a new currency called Glory that you collect from a variety of sources across the world. There’s a bunch of Korok-like beings called Minmans and very lucrative Glory Caches. You use them to buy Miracles in the World of Shadows, which grant you anything from a bigger party to higher element affinites for the Nahobino. A direct link from exploration to power and utility upgrades is perfect for a SMT game. That’s not all, as there’s a variety of side quests, hidden treasures, and relic caches which is one of your biggest sources of macca. There’s so much to collect, all of it being useful, and the world is perfectly designed to make it fun and complex to find it. And there’s always a reason for why you’re chasing something. No wasted space here.
But what really knocks it out of the park is how the world feels. This comes down to demon animations in the open world, and the music. There’s no random encounters here, and it would have been easy to pull a DQXI to accommodate it. Have monsters simply walking across the world, and that’s that. It always felt boring and lifeless, and sterile. Not so here. Monsters have their own unique movement, idle, and running animations for the world, and it makes everything so much more alive. The noises they make too. Early on, I ran into a room full of Slimes, and the squelching sounds as they jiggled across the sands equally impressed and disgusted me. And this scales from the fairies flying among the trees to the giant enemies you’ll find roaming and flying across the world. The attention to detail is absolutely insane, and never lets up.
If I haven’t made it clear enough, I love this game. It’s a clear product of care and passion, and you can see that poured into every aspect of it. The battle system, demon fusion, demon animations, and the entire design of the open world. And none of that touches on the actual meat of the game. The story, the world and lore, and how everything comes together. It took forever to get here, but the waiting was absolutely worth it. It’s not the game I spent all this time thinking it would be, or afraid it might be, and it’s so much better for it. I’ve already poured an incredible amount of time into it, and this is just the first of many playthroughs. Multiple endings, multiple builds to try, and just the fun of running around a perfectly designed world with the best turn-based combat you can experience.
The amount of care and detail poured into each demon, the sprawling open world, and every aspect of the UI puts most other developers to shame. And then there’s the fabulous hair physics.
Every aspect of this game, from the refined Press Turn battle system to the labyrinthe open world, has been polished and designed to perfection.
The music and voice acting are as fantastic as we expect from Atlus, but what puts this one over the edge are the striking and atmospheric demon sounds.
Fun Factor: 10
It’s addicting in a great way, difficult without feeling impossible, and has a great story and world that uses atmosphere and foreshadowing instead of exposition to drive the plot forward.
Final Verdict: 10
Shin Megami Tensei V is available now on Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of Shin Megami Tensei V was provided by the publisher.