The classic and punishing Shin Megami Tensei franchise is back with a new mainline entry, and it’s full of everything we’ve come to expect from the series: challenging battles, intense demon negotiations, and philosophical conundrums about the state of the world. I’ve been playing Shin Megami Tensei V, already clocking close to 40 hours, but I haven’t reached the end to deliver my final verdict. Until then, I’ll say: Shin Megami Tensei sticks close to its roots – for better or worse. This means common series complaints, such as poor navigation and obtuse instructions, remain, but Atlus has also enhanced certain aspects, with more expansive areas, more skill customization, and stellar demon designs. If you’re an SMT fan, you should feel at home with the long, hard-fought journey that awaits. If you’re a newcomer, some of the game’s more archaic and arduous ways might turn you off.
As a longtime fan, I’ve enjoyed a good portion of my journey through SMT V. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit I’ve also spent my fair share of time yelling at the screen due to infuriating bosses or searching for a needle in a haystack to find some well-hidden path. Sometimes it feels like the game does everything it can to prevent you from succeeding or progressing, and that’s always been part of the point: things don’t come easily in SMT, but overcoming the greatest obstacles does come with big rewards and satisfaction. Nothing beats having a boss wipe out your party with a single attack, only to come back stronger with better skills to counter that.
I love the adrenaline rush of the do-or-die fights, but I’ve been a bit disappointed in the story. Narrative has never been SMT’s forte, but I always looked forward to the interesting ways the series presents issues about the world that don’t have clear-cut answers. I played SMT V for 35 hours before the story started offering meaningful choices about how I wanted to recreate the world. Just like in past entries, you get to choose how you want to change the world, with decisions representing the law and chaos ends of the spectrum. The story’s slow pacing hurts, especially in making you care about this world you’re supposed to save and recreate. Considering the big stakes, I haven’t felt much for the characters or the world’s impending doom. They all feel like background noise to get you out in the world and fighting. Some characters represent different philosophies on how you can reshape the world – such as keeping the status quo or knocking down all the structures in place – but it doesn’t help that these characters are very one-dimensional. So far, I haven’t gained much insight into their logic and what these paths mean for the world. I hope that changes by the game’s finale.
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Thankfully, the tried-and-true gameplay has entertained me enough to ignore the humdrum story beats. My interest is primarily due to the demon recruitment and the fusion system, which, like past games, remains the heart and soul of the experience. In short, you sway enemies to your side with dialogue options and then combine monsters together to create better ones to use in battle. I continually try to up-one my last creation, and I love the freedom alongside increased customization on hand for both your demons and player character. Beyond the choice of deciding which skills to carry over when you fuse demons, you can also infuse a demon’s essence to transfer their skills. For the main character, you can also gain a demon’s affinities using their essence. For example, if you find a demon’s essence that blocks multiple elements – your main character can inherit those. It seems like a small thing, but it can make a big difference in difficult battles. I used this to my advantage when I encountered bosses with deadly elemental attacks to ensure my main character stayed alive and blocked them for an extra turn.
The turn-based combat is at its best in SMT V, and it’s reminiscent of III’s Press-Turn system. It requires a lot of thought to optimize your turns, which comes down to a mix of buffs/debuffs and exploiting elemental weaknesses. Watching your turn number increase by landing critical strikes or hitting an enemy’s weaknesses is a delight. Special “Magatsushi skills,” which can be used once you fill a gauge by doing things like landing attacks, only add to the fun, as these can do everything from refilling your party’s MP to making their next attacks be criticals. I experimented more than I ever have with finding complementary skills to increase damage, and I loved coming up with new tactics based on my demons’ powers.
Exploration is greatly expanded for this entry, and I loved how I was compelled to scour every inch of every area. I found great rewards in doing so, as you can find statues that raise all your demons’ levels, valuable items, and special bosses/quests. Hidden throughout the area and in hard-to-reach places are creatures called Miman. Collecting these little fellows and reaching certain milestones reward you with extremely useful items. I liked stumbling upon these things and felt their rewards were worthwhile.
The areas aren’t only bigger, but there’s a lot of verticality to the world this time around. You’ll find yourself platforming to reach higher points and using height to your advantage to locate paths and items in the distance. Some of the platforming is punishing as missing a jump means going all the way around to the beginning of a long platforming sequence. At times, the world is frustrating to explore due to its sometimes-confusing layout design. I didn’t like constantly consulting the map just to find certain destinations; having your head in a map kills the immersion and thrill of exploration.
My time with Shin Megami Tensei V has been full of highs and lows, but that’s what I’ve come to expect from the series. I like a lot that’s here, even if it makes me curse sometimes. For instance, save points are pretty plentiful, but they don’t prevent the easy loss of progress from one battle gone terribly wrong, which happens a lot in the world of SMT. I respect Atlus for knowing what SMT is and not trying to rewrite the formula and turn it into something it’s not. I just hope there are some surprises left before I finish the game. Right now, it lacks a certain something to make it truly memorable, outside of its excellent demon designs.