The Shin Megami series has always reflected the darkness and brutality of the world we live in, reminding us that the odds are often against us and unfair conditions can cause great losses. But it also captures the beauty of standing up to those daunting challenges to endure — even when things seem impossible, we somehow persevere. That’s what makes the Shin Megami Tensei franchise shine, but the road to these victorious highs is filled with demoralizing lows. Voluntarily putting your energy into something that requires extra determination, dedication and patience may not seem like a lot of fun at first glance, but no game has given me the thrill of victory and 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 in the series you know what to expect: face a world in ruins, take on extremely challenging bosses and feel the thrill of getting more powerful by recruiting demons to fight by your side. Shin Megami Tensei V is content that gives fans more of the same, while making a few improvements along the way, mainly in the scope of the world and customization options available for your protagonist and demons’ abilities. These are worthwhile improvements, and the core formula remains hugely entertaining, but I’m disappointed that Atlus hasn’t taken more risks and reinforced more of the series’ weaknesses like confusing map layouts, archaic save points, and maddening difficulty spikes.
Even with these frustrations, the great gameplay and progress loop kept me entertained. The turn-based combat is at its best in SMT V, and it’s reminiscent of III’s Press-Turn system. It takes a lot of thinking to optimize your turns, which comes down to a mix of buffs/debuffs and exploiting elemental weaknesses. It’s a joy to watch your bonus actions pile up each turn by making critical attacks or hitting an enemy’s weaknesses. Special “Magatsuhi Abilities”, which can be used once you fill a meter by doing things like blocking or landing attacks, only add to the fun. These special abilities drastically change the tide of battle, doing everything from refilling your party’s MP to guaranteeing critical attacks. More than ever I experimented with finding additional abilities to increase damage, and loved devising new tactics based on the powers of my demons.
SMT V is a challenging game. Sometimes you will probably die and eventually lose progress. I enjoyed the thrill of staying one step ahead of the enemy and improving at every turn. Much of your success depends on demon-raising and creating an ideal party for every area. Demon negotiation, where you select dialogue options and present gifts to get enemies to your side, is sometimes a gamble, as demons can be fickle and unpredictable, and I found it hard to anticipate their desired reactions. You can eventually unlock an ability that gives you a second chance if you fail, but the moon phase also changes their behavior and the chance to join you. For example, a full moon can be too bright for them so they don’t negotiate. Other times, a new moon offers the chance to give them less money or items to join me, or they can join on the spot, unsolicited. Getting demons felt less of a hassle with these additions than in previous entries.
Demon Fusion, which allows you to combine the demons you recruit for better ones, is extremely satisfying. I love beating my latest creation and deciding what skills I want to pass on to them. Atlus has added more customization here, with a new feature called essences. Once you get the essence of a demon, you can transfer its abilities to other demons or your protagonist. The latter can also gain affinities from a demon. For example, if you find the essence of a demon that blocks or reflects multiple elements, your protagonist can inherit it for the upper hand in battle. It seems like a small thing, but it can make a big difference in tough battles. I also liked how I could pass skills on to newly recruited demons who only had a 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 options, I’ve loved the thrill of reaching these milestones. This doesn’t excuse SMT V’s annoying difficulty spikes towards the end of the game, though, and I felt compelled to put my progress on hold just to grind. But there’s something to be said for the satisfaction of coming back stronger. What SMT V really does well is give satisfaction when you fuse together a very powerful demon that just crushes a boss. However, in the next big battle, they could be completely useless. You can never depend on one demon and must constantly merge to get the best, most balanced party possible.
Another area that impressed me was the extensive exploration, with a newfound verticality to the world making your way to discoveries. I had to search every inch of each area and found valuable rewards for doing so, such as statues that increase all your demon levels and special bosses/quests. In addition, all over the world hidden in hard-to-reach places are creatures called Miman. Collecting these little guys will give you some of the best items in the game to enhance your party. I wish the areas you explored were more visually impressive 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 are hit and miss. I hated one where you had to use fans to blast your character to certain ledges because a missed ledge meant you had to start from scratch, but I enjoyed a later dungeon where you had to find a path through time stopping and enter doors in the correct order.
Story is another area begging for improvement. I love the captivating subject matter of SMT games, as they present philosophical riddles about the world, but the execution often feels haphazard. Shin Megami Tensei V is no different. You play as a modern student who is transported after an earthquake to an alternate apocalyptic version of Tokyo called “Da’at”. From here, you’ll earn special powers to survive in this perilous landscape and learn that not only is Tokyo’s future 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, the power is in your hands to save it and also to decide how it should function in the future. Will you maintain the status quo, shake up current structures, or tear down everything to create a superior society? These are interesting questions, but the game presents them in such a mundane way, with sparse, cryptic exposition and painfully slow pacing. Characters represent different philosophies, spanning law and chaos alignments, of how to reshape the world, but they don’t offer much explanation or reasoning. By the time I came to this big decision, I didn’t feel like I had to make a compelling choice. Everything in the game leads to this pivotal moment, and I felt like I was throwing an arrow blindly at a board as I selected my answer. At the very least, the path I chose had some interesting revelations. I like how SMT V never strays from its dark tone and tries to be more concise, but despite all you go through to defeat the very formidable bosses, more rewarding scenes would go a long way.
If there’s one thing that can be said for SMT V, it’s that it requires the player to give their best at all times. There is no sleepwalking or blindly spamming attacks through combat; you have to think through every move and weigh constant risk versus reward. For someone who plays a lot of RPGs, this is a refreshing challenge, but also exhausting. Still, I can’t deny the feeling that washed over me as I watched the credits roll, especially after going up against a seemingly endless series of bosses to get there. I felt on top of the world, as if I deserved the right to define it; I wish making the actual choice was a little more satisfying. Still, Shin Megami Tensei V makes clever improvements to its already strong core, creating an entertaining and rewarding journey that I won’t soon forget.