There’s a lot of pride in the Shin Megami Tensei fanbase, for better and for worse. While Persona has been a growing fixture in videogame pop culture, the series’ origins and “core” offerings remain in the Cool Zone. If you’ve been up to speed on the series so far, or the wider umbrella that is Shin Megami Tensei, this is knowledge you’ve sought out for yourself. But this year, many newcomers will be colliding with Persona’s grumpier older sibling for the first time.

Shin Megami Tensei V Review

It’s hard to prepare for a game like this if you aren’t used to it. Sure, Atlus dropped Nocturne HD Remaster ahead of Shin Megami Tensei V, but these two games are worlds and decades apart. And yet, if you live and breathe the MegaTen, you can feel Nocturne everywhere you go in this latest demon-summoning journey. It’s incredible how visible the tug of war is here, between what veterans will get out of it and what newbies will experience.

Nocturne was the third game, though. What about Shin Megami Tensei IV? It’s in here too, albeit in more subtle ways. The biggest distinction between SMT and Persona is raw difficulty. Persona can be tough, but it’s friendly. Nocturne will eat your lunch and drag you back in line to get a second lunch it’s also gonna eat. When IV hit on the 3DS, Atlus’ teams tried to build a bridge. 

Because of that bridge, the Shin Megami Tensei brand has become much more of a large, amorphous blob than several stark pieces of a whole. Persona 5 took elements from Shin Megami Tensei it hadn’t used in ages, like talking to demons. Meanwhile, Shin Megami Tensei IV brought in things like difficulty options, more character writing and these little systems that allowed players to tinker with their overall experience.

Shin Megami Tensei V is everything, all of the above and then some. It’s an overwhelming piece of post-apocalyptic JRPG cake even for someone like me, who has read the original Megami Tensei novels. The translated ones, anyway. This is the loudest and busiest a core SMT has ever been. You can feel the bits of Persona DNA that have bled through and assimilated with the rest of it. You can see the team taking what was introduced in IV, and poking at it with curious glee. 

Being overwhelmed is kind of the point, though. Previous Shin Megami Tensei games took their time to ease the player in, cooking up the suspense and scenario powering them through dozens of hours of grinding. In SMT V, you barely get your feet on the ground before you’re swept into the battle between demons and angels (also demons), quite literally this time. The world changes around your character without warning, and that isn’t the only change they have to deal with.

In a surprising move, Shin Megami Tensei V also tosses in some superhero stuff for good measure, perhaps using today’s fondness for comic book flair to get a little Tokusatsu party cooking. Your character meets a mysterious presence and the two fuse, giving you some ferociously androgynous new duds and a majestic blue wind that crackles with energy from literal Christian Hell.

You can run really fast and stuff, it’s great.

Like I said, this game is loud. There is a story actively happening, and you’re right in the middle of it. And since this is a sort of open world-style adventure, you’re also running into random side quests and collectibles in ways that have not been in this series before. Rather than trudging your way through oppressive dungeons or stumbling to find the next brief progress flag, you’re zipping around the map at breakneck speed, jumping around and looking for things, getting into fights, chasing map markers and scouting for save points.

But just because Shin Megami Tensei is more brash than its predecessors, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as somber and joyless in its overall worldview. The other distinct flavor of SMT versus Persona is despair. You aren’t fighting to save the world, you’re fighting to figure out what humanity can do with itself after that ship has sailed. Even if you don’t realize it at first, the running theme for the player is being a key component to reshaping the world, and figuring out what that means by exploring you and your friends’ ideological differences. That’s all here, baby.

Related: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster Review | Persona's Badass Uncle

Despite how active it is, Shin Megami Tensei V’s story isn’t nearly as clear as its siblings’ narratives. While often creepy and understated they were relatively straightforward. But here, it’s such a rollercoaster of Shit Going Down it’s hard to process where the bigger picture is headed. There are twists and turns that aren’t dramatic, so much as strange and droll. I’ve often found myself, jaw hanging open after a big scene, wondering what in the world just happened. In a good way.

While this game’s vibe is difficult to fully process for a while, the gameplay is classic Shin Megami Tensei. Ya got demons, the demons got magic, they fight like Pokemon. The Press Turn system is here once again, and while many of the tricks and techniques you might’ve developed over the years are still here, some noticeable tweaks stand out. For example, you can collect demon “Essence” gimmicks, which you can consume to alter the movesets and affinities of yourself and your team on the fly. There are also wonderful new skills such as strength-based element attacks, making bruiser demons much more viable in the long-term.

Demon fusing and recruiting works exactly as it has for years, except for this time your character summons a Hell Organ out of nowhere and gets their Phantom of the Opera on to make new demons. It rules. Recruiting is a little more streamlined than before. You’re still figuring out demon’s personalities and trying to get them to join you without pissing them off. However, there are less restrictions on which demons you can talk to and when. There’s even a pretty funny gag about how Slimes want to finally be helpful and talk to people, but are frustrated because folks are too used to the language barrier.

Where SMT V really sticks out on its own is that open world stuff I alluded to earlier. There are separated areas you explore, and the classic weird board game-style Tokyo map is still a thing. But when you’re all suited up, generally you’re skittering around some pretty big maps, relatively speaking. These aren’t just big, empty spaces for chasing waypoints, though.

This aspect of the game took me a while to warm up to, but I think I dig it. While the maps are big, that doesn’t mean you can just go wherever you want. The smouldering remains of buildings, post-apocalyptic detritus and other bizarre obstacles placed throughout the maps effectively turn each big map into a maze. It’s like the developers snuck the dungeons in when nobody in the open world-demanding executive suite was looking. This can be frustrating, especially since demons chase you on sight and can start a fight without fully ramming into you. 

But I came to appreciate the maze-like world structure. It made grabbing collectibles, of which there are many, more of an active experience. Sure, I could see the treasure on the map, but how the hell do I get to it? That’s the fun part. Some things aren’t even marked on the map, and I often found myself seeking high ground just to pan the camera around and look for possible routes. Luckily, there’s a fast travel system, with save points you can teleport to placed fairly generously. These are also where demon fusion and shopping happen, so you don’t have to worry about things like remembering where the special rooms are.

I haven’t finished the game, and am probably quite far off. I’ve put in about 40 hours so far, getting my crew around the 40s in level. Even on the “Casual” difficulty, I’ve found myself needing to make full use of everything I like to engage with to survive, with a little grinding on top. Despite all the big, bold changes this is still the same Shin Megami Tensei us oldheads have grown up with. And for the newcomers, it’s hard to say what y’all should expect here, but it has enough going on that the transition from Persona 5 will be easiest here instead of an earlier game.

Shin Megami Tensei V has been the game I’ve been looking to all year, and then some. Now that it’s here, I’m almost at a loss for words when it comes to whether or not I like it. It’s an overwhelming game, evoking Nocturne more than I expected while still bucking several long standing traditions. But while the Switch can barely handle it, dashing around these strange, maze-like maps while clashing with demons and solving some of their problems has been endlessly compelling. If I could describe the latest MegaTen joint with one phrase, it would have to be “a lot.” This game is a lot.


Pros:

  • Super dense
  • Tried and true core mechanics
  • Trashcore soundtrack shreds

Cons:

  • Fuzzy visuals and frame rate dips, the Switch is trying its best
  • Would’ve preferred random encounters over field enemies with massive hitboxes
  • Seems weird/shallow to flaunt gender ambiguity but firmly refer to MC as “him” (edit: as opposed to using "they" for more ambiguity or giving the player some kind of choice)

Score: 9

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review