With the fifth installment of the cult classic series Shin Megami Tensei here after a lengthy development, Atlus has a lot to prove. But prove it they shall because Shin Megami Tensei V is a truly transformative experience. With the popularity of the related Persona series and the recent re-release of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the series is finally poised to seize the limelight. In many ways, it is a game I did not expect and one I did not know I wanted — it is also still wholly Shin Megami Tensei.
We begin, as many stories do, with an ordinary high school student, the player character. Strange things and unexplained deaths have been occurring in your home of Tokyo, so naturally it isn’t long before you get involved. A quick trip to the Netherworld later and a fusion with the friendly demon, Aogami, leads to you becoming the indigo-haired Nahobino. The Netherworld opens up from there for you and some of your classmates to investigate its mysteries.
When I say “opens up,” I don’t exaggerate. Shin Megami Tensei V is structured unlike any other game in the series. You don’t navigate a world map to enter individual dungeons here. Instead, the few areas you explore are massive, layered, open, and incredibly dense. Inside a ruined building, you might find some treasure and a Miman (a small collectible demon exchanged for rewards) and then find a powerful, unique enemy lurking on the roof. The underpass of a broken highway may hide vending machines full of “relics” to sell for Macca, while a winding path leads you over the same highway and straight to an amiable, sidequest-bearing demon. Pick a direction to wander and you are sure to find multiple points of interest. This is all made lightning quick by the Nahobino’s wonderfully animated sprint and the ability to fast travel between glowing founts that connect to the Netherworld’s leylines. These Leyline Founts also act as a one stop shop for saving, buying, selling, healing, summoning, and fusing. Of course, the Netherworld isn’t a safe place; wild demons wander. There are no random encounters, so it is best to sneak up on your enemies and attack them from behind to gain the first turn in the coming battle.
The battle system is fundamentally unchanged from the last few titles. Shin Megami Tensei V still uses the Press Turn system introduced in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, and to great effect. You get extra turns for targeting enemy weaknesses or getting critical hits, but so do your enemies. Turns are also lost for hitting resistances or missing attacks. Buffs and debuffs matter and can easily make or break a given boss battle. Don’t avoid them. One new addition is the Magatsuhi Gauge, which (when full) allows access to potent skills that don’t cost a turn to use. You can unlock various ways to fill the gauge faster, and eventually you will be using the skills several times in a single boss battle. Nearby demons look on in horror after battle, frozen for a key moment where you can chain battles together, seizing the initiative with no need for an ambush.
The most significant changes in interacting with the battle system come from the many ways you can customize your party. Shin Megami Tensei V has, without a doubt, the most freedom in series history when crafting your pack of demons. Classic fusion is still a vital part of the game, and Sophia — the demon who handles all your summoning and fusion needs — is happy to make it as simple as possible. While you can still toss two demons together and see what you get, you can also look at every demon available to fuse from your current stock or even every fusion possible, including summoning demons you have registered in your compendium. Special Fusions are also straightforward. Once unlocked (usually from a boss battle or completing a quest), a Special Fusion shows the level and type of each demon you need, even those you do not currently have registered, so you can easily obtain the required demons. After choosing to fuse a demon, you are treated to an absolutely glorious demon-fusing cutscene that has to be seen to be believed.
As fusion dwindles your stock of demons, you can always recruit more. This is done, as always, by having a chat with them in battle. You have to convince them of your sincerity through dialogue choices first, then you have to bribe them. They usually want some Macca and items, but sometimes they might challenge you to a competition based on one of your stats instead.
Most demons are referred to as fusion fodder by Shin Megami Tensei series fans. This is largely due to the difficulty in keeping a demon’s stats, skills, and level up to date, a problem that fusion solves instantly. While fusion is still the best bang for your buck in the fifth game, there are a few changes that make keeping demons around more viable if you so choose. For example, demonic monuments dot the landscapes of the Netherworld and interacting with one instantly levels up all of the demons in your stock. You also obtain items called grimoires, which give a demon of a lower level than the Nahobino enough EXP to increase their level. The large amount of EXP granted by side quests contributes to keeping demon levels up too.
So, it’s obviously easier to keep a demon’s level current, but what about stats and skills? For stats, you obtain a constant flow of Incense and Sutras which respectively increase a demon’s stat or skill potential by one. For skills, the Essence Fusion system comes into play. Essences are dropped by enemies, gifted by your demons, found in treasure chests, and bought from the shop: much like equipment would be in another RPG. It isn’t long before the Nahobino is positively rolling in the essences of various demons. Each essence can be fused to the Nahobino or his demons to grant them skills that another demon learns naturally. For example, Jack Frost’s essence offers various ice-based skills, and Yoshitsune’s offers powerful physical attacks. Withthese systems in place to buff your demons, you are welcome to use a Slime for the entire game if that’s your thing.
If you’re still hungering for more options, let me tell you about Miracles — permanent passive abilities that range from increasing the number of demons you can keep in stock to making the Nahobino a better conversationalist. You can buy Miracles from Sophia with Glory, which is earned from finding Miman, using Glory Crystals, and obtaining Glory deposits in the Netherworld. Some of the best Miracles can be game-changers, like one that allows your demons to use items in battle or another which allows the Nahobino to acquire elemental affinities from essence fusion.
All of the customization options are a wonderful addition that allow you to make your demon team truly your own. As a byproduct, it is much easier to adapt your team to a specific fight. While this might affect the challenge some fans are looking for in a Shin Megami Tensei game, there are enough optional battles, unique enemies, and bosses that your resources aren’t enough to tailor your team perfectly for every fight. Plus, some truly terrifying bosses don’t care how well prepared you think you are. The choice between four difficulty options (safety, casual, normal, and hard) also allows you to tailor the experience to your specific need for being destroyed by demons.
In previous Shin Megami Tensei games, side quests were rarely explicit, but Shin Megami Tensei V follows modern gaming trends by marking and tracking side quests as you play. With the importance of side quests in shaping the Netherworld and developing the demons who inhabit it, they might as well be mainline content. I highly recommend doing them because their rewards are also integral to the game. They include talismans that grant Magatsuhi Skills and Special Fusions for many of the game’s most useful and powerful demons. They also give big EXP, a useful way to keep up with your enemies.
While some side quests are the simplest of fetch quests, even these give you some insight into their quest giver’s desires. Don’t count out NPCs without side quest markers, either. They may still offer you items, information, or eventually lead to new quests. Demons in general have a huge amount of personality this time around. Sometimes two mythologically related demons might even engage in an amusing conversation during battle. The human characters are, unfortunately, less interesting than their demonic counterparts on the whole, with the possible exception of the intimidating and mysterious demon hunter, Yakumo.
The Netherworld is a giant wasteland, and it looks it with sand and ruined buildings as far as the eye can see in each area. The largest aesthetic difference between zones is the sand changing colour. There are visually striking moments and places, but they are less common than one might hope. Some visuals can feel uninspired at times, but Shin Megami Tensei V being well designed and jam-packed with content makes up for it. Thankfully, the designs of both human and demon characters are exceptional. I think this is Masayuki Doi’s best work on the series yet. The Nahobino is easily my favourite character design to come out of Shin Megami Tensei. Combat animations are also a high point for the game, especially ones for the unique skills many demons have. I never tire of watching the Nahobino create a tornado with their sword slashes.
It should surprise no one that, while I have reservations when it comes to Shin Megami Tensei V’s environmental aesthetics, I have nothing but praise for its soundtrack. The series is known for tone-setting songs that don’t hold back, and Shin Megami Tensei V is no exception. In particular, the furious pace and aggressive guitars of the combat pieces never fail to get you pumped for battle. However, there is no shortage of complementary melodies of a more contemplative or atmospheric inclination.
It is challenging to compare Shin Megami Tensei V to previous games in the series, as it is such a refreshing take. However, having reviewed the recent remaster of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne earlier this year, I can say the two games trade on a lot of points. What the fifth game does well often exposes weak points in the third and vice versa. Shin Megami Tensei V is an incredibly freeing game, offering numerous ways to engage with its demons, systems, and world, even though its main story sometimes feels thin and doesn’t quite recapture the excitement of its mysterious opening. In contrast, Shin Megami Tensei III’s powerfully brooding narrative and impressive cutscene direction are one-of-a-kind. V has impressively substantial open areas to explore despite its slim selection of dungeons, while III’s Amala Labyrinth is one of my favourite dungeons in a game already full of excellent ones. Overall, Shin Megami Tensei V is the smoothest to play the series has ever been, and I can’t hold its faults against it in the face of its towering ambition.
With all that said, Shin Megami Tensei V is a premiere JRPG that can’t be missed. Don’t let worries over difficulty (the game has four difficulty settings, one will work for you, I promise!), legacy (this is a whole new direction for the series), or performance (it can get a bit sluggish at times, but the developers have utilized a lot of tricks to make the game run smoothly most of the time) stop you from playing one of the best games of the generation.