The Shin Megami series has always reflected the darkness and cruelty of the world we live in and is a reminder that the odds are often against us and unfair circumstances can cause great losses. But it also captures the beauty of facing these daunting challenges in order to stand tall – even when things seem impossible, we somehow hold out. That’s what makes the Shin Megami Tensei franchise shine, but the path to those victorious heights is fraught with demoralistic lows. Voluntarily putting your energy into something that requires extra strength, commitment, and patience may not seem as appetizing at first, but no game has given me the rush of victory and the satisfaction of testing my skills like Shin Megami Tensei V .
SMT V stays close to the roots of the franchise, meaning if you’ve played an entry on the series you know what to expect: confronting a world in shambles, facing extremely challenging bosses, and feeling the onslaught through which Recruit demons to become more powerful to fight by your side. Shin Megami Tensei V gives fans more of the same, with a few tweaks in the process, mostly around the world and the customization options available to your protagonist and the demons’ abilities. These are worthwhile improvements, and the core formula remains extremely entertaining, but I’m disappointed that Atlus stopped taking more risks and addressed more of the series’ weaknesses like confusing map layouts, archaic save points, and insane difficulty peaks.
Despite these frustrations, the amazing gameplay and progression loop kept me in suspense. Turn-based combat is at its best in SMT V and is reminiscent of III’s press-turn system. It takes a lot of thought to tweak your rounds, which is due to a mix of buffs / debuffs and taking advantage of elemental weaknesses. Seeing your bonus promotions pile up each turn by landing critical hits or hitting an enemy’s weaknesses is a joy. Special “Magatsuhi Skills” that can be used once you’ve filled an ad by blocking or landing attacks just add to the fun. These special abilities change the battlefield drastically, doing everything from replenishing your party’s MP to guaranteeing critical hits. I experimented more than ever with finding complementary skills to increase damage, and I loved creating new tactics based on my demons’ powers.
SMT V is a challenging game. Sometimes you will likely die and ultimately lose progress. I enjoyed the tension of being one step ahead of the enemy and improving with every step. Much of your success depends on recruiting demons and creating an ideal party for each area. Demon negotiations, in which you select dialogue options and present gifts to attract enemies to your side, are sometimes a guessing game, as demons can be fickle and unpredictable, and I found it hard to predict their desired reactions. You can eventually unlock an ability that will give you a second chance if you fail, but the moon phase will also change your behavior and chances of joining you. For example, a full moon may be too bright for them to not negotiate. In other cases, a new moon offers them the option to give them less money or items to join my side, or they can join on the spot without being asked. Getting demons felt less of a chore than in previous entries because of these additions.
Demon Fusion, which allows you to combine the recruited demons for better ones, is extremely satisfying. I love defeating my latest creation and deciding what skills to pass on to it. Atlus added more customization options here, with a new feature called Essences. Once you have acquired the essence of a demon, you can transfer its abilities to other demons or your protagonist. The latter can also acquire the affinities of a demon. For example, if you find the essence of a demon blocking or reflecting multiple elements, your main character can inherit it for the upper hand in battle. It may seem like a small thing, but it can make a huge difference in difficult battles. I also enjoyed how it enabled me to pass skills on to newly recruited demons who had few skills.
The demon fusion system makes grinding bearable as there is a great reward for leveling up in battle. Whether your demons gain powerful abilities or your main character opens up new fusion opportunities, I’ve enjoyed the thrill of reaching these milestones. That doesn’t excuse SMT V’s nasty difficulty spikes towards the end of the game, however, and I felt compelled to put my progress on hold just to grind. But there is something about the satisfaction of coming back invigorated. What SMT V does really well is creating contentment when you fuse a very powerful demon that just smashes a boss. However, they can be completely useless in the next big battle. You can never rely on a demon and you have to constantly merge to get the best balanced party possible.
Another area that impressed me was the advanced exploration, with a newfound verticality into the world that puts you on your path to discovery. I had to comb through every inch of each area and found rewarding rewards such as statues that raise the level of all of your demons and special bosses / quests. In addition, creatures called Miman are hiding in hard-to-reach places all over the world. Collecting these little companions will grant you some of the best items in the game to level up your party. I just wish the areas you explored were more visually stunning and easier to navigate. I often felt like I was looking for a needle in a haystack to find a well-hidden path. The game has a few short dungeons, but they’re hit-or-miss. I hated one where you had to use fans to blow your character on certain ledges as a missed lead meant from the start, but I enjoyed a later dungeon where you had to find a way out by stopping time and entered doors in the correct order.
The narrative is another area that calls for improvement. I love the addicting theme of SMT games as they are philosophical riddles of the world, but the execution often feels arbitrary. Shin Megami Tensei V is no different. You play as a modern student who is transferred to an alternate apocalyptic version of Tokyo called “Da’at” after an earthquake. From here you will acquire special powers to survive in this dangerous landscape and learn that not only is the future of Tokyo in danger, but a war is raging between the angels and demons.
It could be the end of the world as you know it, and like previous SMT games, it’s up to you to save it and also decide how to make it work in the future. Are you maintaining the status quo, shaking up existing structures or tearing down everything in order to create a superior society? These are interesting questions, but the game presents them in such a monotonous way, with sparse, cryptic representation and a painfully slow pace. Characters represent different philosophies that span laws and chaos in how to reshape the world, but they don’t offer much explanation or reasoning. Indeed, when I came to this big decision, I didn’t feel like I had to make a compelling decision. Everything in the game leads to that crucial moment, and it felt like I was blindly throwing an arrow at a board when choosing my answer. At least the path I chose had some interesting revelations. I like that SMT V never deviates from its dark tone and tries to be more succinct, but for anything you go through to defeat the hugely formidable bosses, more rewarding scenes would go a long way.
If there is one thing that can be said about SMT V, it is that the player does his best at all times. There are no sleepwalking or blind spamming attacks through battles; You have to think through every step and constantly weigh the risks and rewards. For someone who plays a lot of role-playing games, this is a refreshing challenge, but also exhausting. Still, I can’t deny the feeling that came over me as I watched the credits roll, especially after facing a seemingly endless brood of bosses to get there. I felt in the world as if I had earned the right to define it; I wish the actual choice was a little more satisfactory. Still, Shin Megami Tensei V is making smart improvements to its already strong core, creating a fun and rewarding journey that I won’t soon forget.