ATLUS has a tendency of making me buy consoles. I honestly wish they’d stop making games that appeal to me so much. Persona 4 Golden made me buy a PlayStation Vita. Persona 5 was a big deciding factor in me upgrading to a PlayStation 4. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE made me buy a Wii U. Shin Megami Tensei IV made me buy a Nintendo 3DS. I then proceeded to indulge in every other game under the franchise’s umbrella that was released on that system. 3DS fans had their pick when it came to this franchise, but since that system was sunlit I think it’s fair to say it’s been dormant. Saying Shin Megami Tensei V is highly anticipated is an understatement. Knowing that the next mainline title was going to be on the Nintendo Switch guaranteed that I needed one. I had no idea how long I’d be waiting, but patience has become a needed skill for me in my decade as a fan.
The wait was worth it. I cannot stress enough how much the wait was worth it. I’ll certainly try in the following paragraphs, but the perfect, hypothetical Shin Megami Tensei V that has been brewing in our minds for years could very well have set bars that were impossible to meet. Having time earlier this year to revisit Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (the game many people consider to be the peak of the franchise), and having knowledge of Shin Megami Tensei IV (the one I think was the best in the franchise) drilled into my head permanently after four entire playthroughs all I really wanted was something in between the two. Take the rich atmosphere of Nocturne and IV’s quality of life, and make them kiss.
It was obvious a few hours into my time with Shin Megami Tensei V that it thankfully did just that. What I was not expecting is that it would take these pretty reasonable expectations and sprint forward with them. It takes the series into a new direction, streamlines mechanics that bloated it, and significantly bumps up the presentation quality. This could sound scary to some fans, and even I spent my early moments hesitant that it could go too far, but those fears were unwarranted. It makes a more approachable and engaging game than any past entries, while never losing the core of what makes Shin Megami Tensei so special.
So, what defines that core? For me, it has always been the interweaving of gameplay and atmosphere. You’re dropped right into a dangerous post-apocalyptic world, with demons and humans often locked in conflict. You are weak at the start and have to crawl your way up to earn your right to survive. Battles are brutal and can feel unforgiving, but it offers a steep learning curve to acclimate players to the world. The unique take on turn-based gameplay that Nocturne introduced to the series – the brilliant Press Turn system – has kept players on their toes for nearly two decades. It’s pretty simple, do good in combat by aggressively going after enemy weaknesses or getting critical hits and you gain extra moves. Play carelessly by attacking a demon with something they’re null to, miss your attacks and you lose moves or even your whole turn. There have been many revisions and improvements across many games, and this is because the foundation of it is worth carrying over.
Shin Megami Tensei V doesn’t take this too much farther than IV and its interquel Apocalypse. But frankly, it’s hard to improve on near perfection. Polish and refinement refined the rules, and the infamous smirk system is gone. The biggest new addition is the Magatsuhi system. Every turn a bar will increase that lets your team either unleash it for a quick buff that turn or store it to get gradual SP and HP restoration. The buffs can vary depending on the demon, incentivizing smart team composition. The most common one will be the ability to have every single attack, including magic, come out as a critical hit. This seems broken, and it certainly would be if enemies couldn’t do the exact same thing to you.
There are few things more exhilarating than thinking you have a grasp on the flow of a certain battle, only to suddenly see that the enemy is charging up their Magatsuhi. At this moment, you have to make a decision. Do I play it safe, use all four turns to guard with my characters to take some damage but not let them gain extra press turns? Or do I play dangerously, trying to use the turns I can to end this battle before they can act. It’s these kinds of decisions that made my time engaging in hundreds of fights across Shin Megami Tensei V so fun. While lacking the snappy speed of IV’s battles, battles still feel pretty fast-paced and you can skip animations if you want with a single button click. There are quite a plethora of unique animations for demons, adding a spectacle to battles that one would expect from modern ATLUS that they just weren’t able to pull off before when the budgets weren’t as big.
Battles balance speed, strategy, and tactical decision-making better than any previous game in the series. Difficulty spikes, especially in the end game, can be excessive but they’re important for the game’s design. You’re not meant to get too comfortable with a certain style of play. The bosses it throws at you are meant to keep you adapting to your environment and engaging with the fusion mechanics. This isn’t anything new for the series, but there was rarely a moment I felt the challenge was truly unfair. It might seem that way at first, but if you come across a boss that feels like you’re hitting your head against a wall, maybe consider backing away from the wall. The gameplay loop encourages learning from failures. Take a step back, reflect on enemy patterns, and restructure your team. Thankfully, team building has never been better.
You recruit demons just like you ever do, but I think they made the right choice in smoothing out the unpredictability of demon negotiation without removing it altogether. Demons will ask your opinion on certain questions, and answering them based on what you guess they’d like to hear will get you in their good graces. From here they’ll probably ask for you to give them things. In previous games, they could very easily just take all of the items or money given to them and run with it, leading to a lot of frustration. Now if you give them what they want, you’re pretty likely to get them to join you. There are other ways of course, and the system isn’t too easy to make it lack the intended bite, but they cut out unnecessary parts that took away from the experience.
This series previously all shared a problem: The Illusion of Character Building. Running a magical build in III and a physical build in IV is possible, but far from reasonable. Both games just incentivize doing the opposite, and you could accidentally allocate stats to your protagonist “poorly” and struggle through a lot of your playthrough. Shin Megami Tensei V blows the floodgates open with its focus on freedom with character customization. Strength and Magic builds are both viable, but the way stat increases work on level up will make sure that one won’t fall too far behind others in case you change your mind early on and want to refocus. What perfects this is an examination of Nocturne’s magatama system, where you have to buy and find bugs you can eat that can temporarily lock your character into a certain role and change your stats accordingly, and IV’s armor system, where you can buy armor that can change your elemental strength and weaknesses.
Each demon has something called an Essence, each containing every skill but unique ones and a copy of their elemental affinities. You can buy some of these, but most of them you’ll unlock by simply playing the game which is already a huge step up. You can implant skills onto any demon in your party with these, allowing you to customize even your demons. If you found one with stats you’re partial to but find its skill selection disappointing, you can now just pick the take some from essences and make that demon the best you can. What’s even better is that those skills will carry over during fusion. Your main character takes this a step further. He is a Nahobino, a fusion with the mysterious proto-fiend Aogami. He’s quite adaptable, and able to apply their affinities to himself in addition to their skills. Having trouble with a boss because you’re the weak link? Use an Essence that blocks that boss’ favorite move. This all comes back to what I was talking about before with encouraging players to be adaptable, and this core idea was brought up to new heights.
What is infinitely more impressive than the battles is the world they exist in. Shin Megami Tensei I and II were first-person dungeon crawlers for the SNES that did their best to create a world with the tile-based design. Everything in those games feels like a dungeon, but they have their charm. Nocturne was the first time the franchise broke into 3D, going above and beyond with its aesthetic so much that it more than holds up today. The areas are all broken up into smaller areas with small loading screens in between them, which is pretty standard for RPGs on PlayStation 2 that tried to portray large-scale environments. When you boil it down though, Nocturne’s locations are a beautiful trick to cover up the fact that most maps are essentially tight spaces connecting square rooms. IV was the first time the series was able to truly convey that you were exploring the desolate remains of cities. It had its own downsides with design, but for a 3DS game, it was impressive. Releasing a remaster of Nocturne so close to V was a clever trick on their part, because my expectations for how world traversal would be was close to that.
It absolutely wasn’t, and I love what they did. Gone are the interconnecting maps to create the facade of a city. Now there are huge zones to explore, with a single loading screen when you enter and then none when you’re exploring them. Exploration was always prevalent in the mainline series, but never to this extent. At the risk of ridicule, I think it’s clear ATLUS has been taking notes from other Japanese games that have grown popular thanks to their take on open worlds. Shin Megami Tensei V is not exactly an open-world game. Don’t worry eager fans hoping to dunk on me, I don’t dare imply that the game industry frequently engages in the healthy practice of borrowing and innovating on ideas that work for other games. That’d be nonsensical, how dare I hypothetically do that.
Anyway, Shin Megami Tensei V takes those inspirations from open-world games and makes them work exceptionally well with that previously mentioned core framework. If you’ve never played one of these games, I’d say the closest comparison I could make is the map structure of a Xenoblade game. The areas are massive, enemies exist roaming the world to make it feel alive, there’s a big focus on verticality, and there are plenty of NPCs strewn throughout to keep players busy. There are even gigantic enemies of a much higher level than you when you’re likely to first find them roaming about, ready to give you a quick game over if you aren’t careful. I’d even argue that these zones are much better designed. Progression is handled similarly to IV, where you have both main quests and side quests to help guide you in the right direction. Explicitly listed side quests were a neat feature IV added that made my brain spark with endorphins every time I saw one checked off. A lot were admittedly weak, and that’s a tough admission from such a big Shin Megami Tensei IV defender so take that seriously. Shin Megami Tensei V improves them immensely by improving their writing significantly. When they’re not tackling interesting moral dilemmas with several possible quest outcomes, you’re at least given a fun reason to do something for a demon that doesn’t want to harm you. It offers a texture to the world, similar to that Nocturne tried to do with its world inhabited solely by demons. Shin Megami Tensei V does it better, I can say that with no reservations.
The post-apocalyptic setting makes this work so much better than I could have expected. I’ve thought this strongly for years, but what makes ATLUS stand out against the competition is their strong game feel. It’s the best it’s ever been here. Running through destroyed buildings to find a secret, using knocked over skyscrapers as bridges, discovering hidden staircases to make it to a roof to get a good look at your environment? These are all moments that caught me off guard and stuck with me. Spread throughout these zones are nodes called Leylines that can be used to save progress, buy items, fuse demons, and fast travel to any previously unlocked zone. The most mind-blowing part of this? Fast traveling from one Leyline to another in that same zone takes three seconds. I don’t know how they did it, but Shin Megami Tensei V pushes the Nintendo Switch to its limits and manages to almost never give out under the pressure.
The art style was recreated wonderfully in Unreal Engine 4, and the resolution holds up rather well. People who prefer modern consoles or PC gaming could easily scoff, but I had a great time playing this primarily on my Nintendo Switch (OLED Model). The fact that every cutscene appears to be in-engine, I can’t believe they got it running as good as they did. Better hardware would have certainly been preferred, as even I can admit that there can be maybe a bit too much aliasing on the models when things get hectic. I hope that if there ever is a “Nintendo Switch Pro” that Shin Megami Tensei V is one of the first games to get an upgrade. This game is truly gorgeous, and I’m glad to see art director Masayuki Doi’s incredible work used in a fully 3D game. There’s a visual cohesion that Shin Megami Tensei IV lacked thanks to reuses Kazuma Kaneko’s old demon art that is resolved here.
The world has been more “gamified” while also feeling more realistic, a tightrope I don’t envy the development team for successfully walking for such an ambitious game. It’s clear a lot of effort went into making it feel lived in, and this harsh wasteland always rewards thorough exploration. The main story is enjoyable, but the focus is the gameplay. Ignoring side content wouldn’t just leave you painfully under-leveled, but it would also lead to a much shorter game. There’s a lot to see and do in the world, and each zone is designed so effectively that you want to take time to check every single nook and cranny.
They’re not perfect, though, just pretty dang close. Some of the end-game areas are maybe just too big for their own good, and can feel exhausting when you’re being attacked by dangerous foes that could kill you with one careless move. I also think the experience could have been improved by gradually introducing more mechanics that let you explore in different ways. You’re able to sprint, slide down inclines, and even jump and platform, but your toolset never really grows. It doesn’t necessarily need to, and I had a fun time, but I was often hoping there would be some upgrade to make exploration more efficient and encourage me to revisit previous locations with a new perspective. Despite that, this was a wonderful first attempt for ATLUS.
As a game, Shin Megami Tensei V is easily the best time I’ve ever had with the series. As a story, I think it’s pretty solid. This is the most newcomer-friendly title by a longshot, but I definitely warn new players from expecting a deep narrative. Storytelling in the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games has always been minimalist, and while there is a big facelift to presenting cutscenes that idea has carried over. I don’t think the story is bad though, by any means. Cutscenes can be sparse between gameplay, but that’s a good thing for the story they tried to tell. There’s an air of mystery that engulfed me and grabbed my attention. The cast themselves are more relatable, despite servicing the same general function where they exist to be representatives of the alignments’ ideals. I think some go underutilized as the story reaches its conclusion, but overall they’re a well-written group of characters. I’ve only beaten a single ending, with reaching it taking me 42 hours of doing moderate side content. Without getting into spoilers I think the story touches upon interesting ideas and mixes up many series staples in fun ways. It’s an entertaining story that exists as an occasional backdrop to the adventure the gameplay provides. I think it could disappoint those with expectations too high, but I had a fun time. I don’t know how exactly it stacks up to past games, I’ll need more time for reflection, but I think it’s able to hold its own.
The presentation for that story is a part where it truly shines. No character portraits to break immersion, and gameplay goes into cutscenes exceptionally well. There isn’t full voice acting, but most of the cutscenes are voiced. This is the first time the franchise has ever pulled off a simultaneous worldwide release, and the localization certainly doesn’t read as if that brought upon any issues. The script reads wonderfully, and the English voice actors do a wonderful job with their roles. There are a lot of lesser-known talents that fill out the main cast, and I don’t think anyone did any less than exceptional. The Japanese voice cast appears to be a free DLC available on launch, and I didn’t have access to it, but I’m sure that’ll be just as good.
To cap off my exhaustive overview, I’d like to highlight the music in particular. Ryota Kozuka and Toshiki Konishi return from IV to compose V’s score, and I can’t believe I get to say that one of my favorite soundtracks of all time was topped. Shin Megami Tensei V’s score plays on the same duality that IV was going for with its harsh black and white imagery. Shin Megami Tensei games all involve the balance, or sometimes lack of, Law and Chaos. I was thrilled to see that V brought more focus to Law in its premise. You’d never catch me dead actually joining that side, but I think they can do a lot when the story is focused on them as the “norm” like in II. The harsh sounds of the instruments being backed with choir-like vocals made me feel as if V’s OST existed on the other side of Nocturne’s coin. Kozuka never fails to impress, and is one of my favorite composers at ATLUS for this reason. Shin Megami Tensei V’s soundtrack is wonderful, and I need to own it as soon as it becomes available.
I didn’t think ATLUS had it in them to make a game with the level of ambition packed into every inch of Shin Megami Tensei V. For those worried that Persona was getting too much of the focus, don’t be. Shin Megami Tensei V shines bright, and proves that this series clearly has more than enough life in it. It takes everything that works about Nocturne and the IV duology, cuts what didn’t, and innovates in so many ways that left me glued to my Switch for days on end. The story is far from revolutionary, but is a neat new spin on the typical formula that kept me entertained from start to finish. The narrative excels at creating a rich world for the player to explore, and does so wonderfully. That’s really all that matters. However, what Shin Megami Tensei V does exceptionally well isn’t how it revitalizes old mechanics, but how it strives to truly bring the franchise into the modern age without losing sight of itself. In a year stacked with excellent games, Shin Megami Tensei V manages to make quite a compelling case for itself as one of the best RPGs of 2021. I hope the wait for the next game, be it mainline or spin-off, isn’t too long. Please don’t make me wait another half a decade, I already miss losing sleep overplaying a new Shin Megami Tensei.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo