The heartless JRPG for JRPG fans.
In an era where role-playing games have evolved to include mechanics like online co-op, huge expansive worlds, or stylish futuristic combat, one JRPG series instead sticks to its roots for over 3 decades: Shin Megami Tensei. Literally meaning "Rebirth of the New God", this iconic JRPG often involves underlying themes of religion, faith, and Christianity, portrayed through not only its characters and narrative, but within the vast library of angels and demons the player can call upon in battle. Also known for its unforgiving difficulty and demon fusion mechanic, the series is almost universally revered among JRPG devotees.
Several months ago I was given the opportunity to review Shin Megami III: Nocturne HD, a remaster of the series' most beloved title that launched in 2003 exclusively for the PlayStation 2. Almost two decades later, players are thrust back into post-apocalyptic Tokyo, following in the footsteps of the mighty Demi-Fiend to wage war against angels and demons in Shin Megami Tensei V. Revealed alongside the Switch itself in January 2017, it's been five long years of anticipation! So does SMTV continue the lasting legacy of this iconic JRPG series, or has the popularity of Persona watered down this beloved hardcore demon slayer role-player? Read ahead and find out!
Set several years after the events of SMTIII's "True Demon" ending, the player once again finds themselves in the role of a humble highschool student. Though don't be mistaken, this isn't Persona with its joyful Scooby Doo crime-fighting students, as this character is soon torn away from the sprawling metropolis and dumped into a harsh wasteland known only as Da'at, which appears to be the ruins of their beloved city. Because would it really be a Shin Megami Tensei game if it wasn't set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo?
Finding themselves accompanied by a mystical entity known as Aogami, a companion and potential ally, the two soon become fused together, becoming a heralded being known as the Nahobino. As foretold in ancient prophecies, the Nahobino, a being who is half God and half human, has the potential to rebuild the world and ascend to the Throne of Creation.
Trapped within Da'at, the Nahobino stumbles across warring factions of angels and demons, all of whom are vying for the throne and a chance at becoming the god of a new world. So whose side will you chose? Is it wiser to befriend those who are right and just, like the angelic force of Bethel, choose to support the malevolent yet powerful demons, or will you instead defy both and forge a path of your own on your way to the throne? That's entirely for you to decide.
If you've played one, you've played them all, and the same goes for Shin Megami Tensei V, which for the most part stays comfortably within the series' roots. In essence this is a linear turn-based role-playing game, where a story unravels across the course of several unique areas to explore. Each sprawling area opens up new elements of story, reveals characters who become involved in the war for the Throne of Creation, and of course gruelling boss fights that act as significant difficulty hurdles along the way.
SMTV takes a step away from the series' typical linear locales or mazelike dungeons and instead opts for a vast, open-world style akin to that of Xenoblade Chronicles. There are four main sections of Da'at, each of which are comprised of the crumbling ruins of Tokyo, and within each area are numerous are numerous smaller areas such as caves, buildings, intertwining dilapidated highways, or the occasional dungeon. It's a refreshing take on the series' progression and works surprisingly well, as exploring such wide open locations with their clever use of vertical space gives the player more free reign without being forced into linear progression. Though do so wisely, as Da'at is littered with demons, some of which will be significantly more difficult to dispose of.
Once you've become familiar with exploring the crumbling ruins, befriending the demons who inhabit it is arguably the most important aspect of any Shin Megami Tensei game. Conversing with demons is a series staple, giving the player a chance to plead their case with foul creatures and a chance to recruit them as an ally. If lucky enough to convince a demon to join, the player can then return to a Leyline (save point) and enter the World of Shadows where demons can be fused together to create powerful new combinations. Anyone who has played Persona will be immediately familiar with this concept, but I should emphasise that Persona is a SMT spin-off and not the other way around.
It's also possible to power up the Nahobino through the use of demon "essences" - the soul of a demon that has either been recruited or felled in battle. Doing so will allow the player to take on the demon's strengths/weaknesses and transfer over certain skills, customising the character to their liking. Want a main character who can dish out massive physical damage? Rather play as a support character and buff your demon allies? Or want to be a glass cannon capable of killing enemies before they even get the chance to act? With the use of essences you can choose any play style that suits, making gameplay incredibly versatile with near endless options.
So once you've amassed a party of alluring angels, strangely phallic demons, and everything in-between, it's time to dive headfirst into a bit of the good old-fashioned turn-based ultra-violence.
It's Pokémon with a twist! This turn-based combat has the Nahobino fighting alongside a party of three demons, which can be swapped out for those in reserve during the main character's turn. Each demon possesses certain strengths, immunities against particular elements, powerful magical attacks, or supportive skills that can be utilised during combat. What might seem like simple combat becomes progressively more complex as the player advances, unlocking a literal army of demons each of whom have a library of skills as in-depth as the player character.
Taking advantage of enemy type weaknesses is essential if wanting to survive in SMTV. Each enemy will usually have at least one elemental weakness to be exploited, and doing so will reward the player with an extra turn. This can be done up to four times during a single turn, meaning up to eight actions are possible before passing over to the enemy. This also works on the contrary, as an attack that is either blocked or missed will immediately sacrifice two actions. Careful planning and exploitation of weakness is arguably the key way to succeed in battle, as there are many encounters that will be incredibly punishing for newcomers.
To make combat even more interesting, each action accumulates a substance known as Magatsuhi, a mystic magical force that is the life-blood of the world. Once a full bar of Magatsuhi is amassed, the player may unleash a devastating skill to turn the tide of battle. More of these skills unlock after befriending demons and completing their requests, making battle even more satisfying. Perfectly timing a Magatsuhi skill and demolishing the enemy in a single turn or turning the tide of battle in an instant is incredibly satisfying to say the least.
Unfortunately, there is one aspect of combat that most players will find frustrating: the Nahobino. Your entire team relies upon this player character, and even if the rest of the party is still fighting fit, once the Nahobino takes fatal damage, it's an immediate game over. This is often frustrating as many enemies can take cheap shots at the main character through powerful skills or insta-kill abilities. So if you'd rather not lose several hours of your progress due to an unfair death, save as often as possible. Shin Megami Tensei is anything but forgiving.
While this game may not have the sleek visual style of Persona 5, or the gorgeous detail of other open-world role-playing games like Tales of Arise, it's an experience that is still impressive for the Nintendo Switch. Where it may be lacking in some graphical prowess, SMTV well and truly makes up for it in artistic direction.
Each locale of Da'at has a heavy use of a certain colour, with expansive deserts of glaring yellow sand, hills and cityscapes bathed in blood-red sunlight, or cool blues within the towering wreckage of skyscrapers. Despite the melancholy nature of the game and its often dark or depressing themes, it's surprisingly colourful and makes creative use of this in adding to the game's visual style. Sprinting across the landscape with the Nahobino's flowing blue locks bouncing trailing behind gracefully looks excellent and really does draw the player into this apocalyptic world.
However, this vibrant world seems boring and bland when compared to the game's huge library of sometimes incredibly attractive, oftentimes downright hideous demons. Taking inspiration from all religions and cultures, the demons of Shin Megami Tensei V are the most varied and impressive of any Shin Megami Tensei game to date. Some of these horrific designs really do make those in Persona look like an edgy children's game. Here are some of my favourites throughout my time in Da'at:
Lastly, there are certain stylish visual sequences deserving of praise. Fusing demons is accompanied by a delightful animation during which the Nahobino plays a mystical pipe organ, many of the game's cutscenes are incredibly dynamic and detailed, and most of the game's characters and designs look as if they were lifted directly from a '90s anime. It's a style that I've not seen in any recent game and a welcome return to this more gritty aesthetic.
The music of Shin Megami Tensei is truly fascinating, as it's so clearly divided into two distinct components: spiritual, reflective chants, and then an aural barrage of fast-paced, blaring heavy metal. The sheer contrast of these two musical styles really does highlight the unique sounds of each. Though don't take my word for it - take a listen to these two examples! We'll first start with the more reflective chanting piece, which plays while exploring Da'at:
In complete juxtaposition, the tracks that accompany combat are the complete opposite to the contemplative or reflective music as you explore the overworld. Though it does suit the mood of battle, as intense music like this really make for more heated encounters:
But it's not all about the music, the game actually features some excellent voice acting as well. Players can choose between English or Japanese voices at any time, which is a welcome addition for a series that has previously been solely focused on its Japanese audience. Cutscenes are fully voiced as are many character interactions, but the real highlight is that of the demons. When conversing with demons in battle, many of them will have absurd, offensive, and sometimes even downright vulgar dialogue. The voice acting in these situations, though limited, is brilliant and easily some of the funniest you'll encounter.
Outside of the main story which takes 45-50 hours for completion, there are quite a few options extras to keep dedicated players expanding their demon compendium. Some such extras include:
Miman - hidden characters scattered throughout the overworld. There are 200 in total and every 5 that are collected unlocks special rewards for the player.
Special fusions - complex demons that require particular combinations to summon and are often incredibly powerful.
Side-quests - each area features ~10-15 side quests most of which are completely optional, but usually feature their own stories and are satisfying to complete.
Optional bosses - within each locale are larger enemies with levels far above any others you'll encounter. Taking on these is a challenge only for the bravest players.
The game also includes several different endings based on choices and alignment made during the game, and difficulty levels to suit any player including a new "Safe" difficulty if wanting to breeze through and experience the story. There are also several exclusive demons available, such as the iconic Demi-Fiend from Shin Megami Tensei III, but they are unfortunately only accessible as paid DLC.
Shin Megami Tensei has been and always will be the JRPG for JRPG fans, and Shin Megami Tensei V is yet another entry that cements its status in the gaming community. If looking for a light-hearted and user-friendly romp through a fantasy world, look elsewhere, because Shin Megami Tensei V can be a punishing and melancholic spiritual experience that appeals to a more hardcore audience.
There are times where the game can be truly brutal, and the satisfaction of overcoming its challenges is a reward in itself. With a vast array of demons at your disposal, a crumbling Tokyo with a unique art direction, and a story exploring heavy religious themes, this is certainly one of the finest JRPGs in years. I usually don't give scores, but this Shin Megami Tensei gets a V/V from me.
So, why should you play it?
You've played previous SMT games and are a fan of the series.
Enjoyed playing Persona and want to try out something different.
You're a fan of games with interesting designs and thematics.
Looking for a hardcore JRPG on the Switch.
Always up for a challenge.
But why shouldn't you play it?
Some grind required unless playing on easy difficulties.
Games with religious themes might turn you off.
Don't enjoy turn-based combat.
A review code for Shin Megami Tensei V was kindly provided by Nintendo for the purpose of this review.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com