It’s been a long time since I’ve played a Shin Megami Tensei game; in fact, you’d have to go back to 2006 with Digital Devil Saga to find the one and only MegaTen game I‘ve played up until now, so it’s fair to say I’ve missed out on some classics, like Nocturne, Persona 5 and Persona 4: Arena Ultimax. So, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to get to grips with Atlus’ latest demon-catching RPG Shin Megami Tensei V, which sees you traversing between modern day Tokyo and the desolate Netherworld whilst building a team of powerful demons to fight beside you to protect the people of Tokyo.
The game does a quick enough job of thrusting you right into the action too. After a quick introduction to the protagonist and his classmates, you’re soon thrust into the Demon Netherworld and turned into a Nahobino – half-human, half-demon with the ability to control and summon other demons to assist you in battle. From here you’re introduced to the game’s main loop of battling, convincing demons to join you, leveling up and fusing demons together to create a more powerful one. It’s a fun and addictive gameplay loop that makes the grinding far more rewarding and at the same time encourages you to engage in more battles to get stronger and have more demons join your party. It reminded me of Jade Cocoon on the PS1 as there’s always a better demon to find or fuse together if you’re willing to grind for it.
The battle system does a good job at not making the grind feel boring or not engaging too. It’s a turn-based system with a strong emphasis on the ‘turns’ element, with each character in your party starting with one action per turn, and you can have up to four party members in any given fight. If you attack the enemy with an element they’re weak to or a critical hit, you’ll gain an additional action during that turn, allowing you to increase the damage you deal, heal up or set up your defence. Miss with your attack or hit the enemy with an element they can block, and you’ll lose an extra turn, meaning you’ll have less actions to perform and potentially end your turn early. The opponents follow these rules as well, so when you encounter a large group of enemies, a strong demon or a boss, you really have to pay attention during the battle; otherwise, you can quickly get clobbered and find yourself back at the title screen.
Working in tandem with the battle system is the game’s Essence and Miracles mechanics. Whilst exploring you’ll find Containers and Mimans to collect for the in-game shopkeeper, which award you Glory, and you then spend that on Miracles for the Nabohino to make your main character stronger or increase how many demons you can hold and how many skills you can select from in a fight. Essence is a way of swapping out one demon’s skills for another or making a combination of skills from the two. So, if you have a demon with a high strength stat but no decent physical skills to pick from, you could use the Essence of another demon with a better skill selection to fix that problem. It’s a system that really helps you customise the roles you want a demon to play in your party and further comes into play when you eventually end up fusing the demons to make a stronger one later on.
That leads on to probably the only criticism I can have for the game, and that’s how sometimes you just don’t get enough time with demons you’ve either fused or convinced to join your party as there will always be a better one coming up sooner rather than later. The game has over 200 demons for you to find or create, and early on you can find yourself overwhelmed with the abundance of demons potentially at your disposal; however, when you hit the second area and start getting to level 30 or so, that feeling soon starts to slow down as your time with newer, higher levelled demons starts to increase. However, the way the Fusion system works in the game means it’s not really convenient or necessary to keep a favourite lower class demon in your party as the ones you can create with Fusion are far superior and usually more visually impressive and unique.
The demons themselves are really the standout stars of the game’s cast, ranging from Angels to Hellspawn and everything in between. A lot of religions and cultures are represented or given a nod to in the overall collection of demons you can recruit, with Norse and Egyptian gods included and fairy tale or folklore entities, like the Manananggal from Thailand or Fion Mac Cumhaill from Celtic mythology (or Fion McCool as it’s pronounced in-game). All of the demons look visually impressive with individual attack animations and have unique personalities as well. Atlus did a great job, especially with some of the higher level demons looking incredibly cool on top of being really powerful, giving you plenty of incentive to find and convince them to join you or grind to fuse them.
Exploration is a big part of the gameplay as well, with each “dungeon” in the Netherworld actually being a more semi-open world area that you are free to explore. The Netherworld has a post-apocalypse and desert feel in the first area you visit, but it’s a big sprawling area for you to do as you please, and with no random encounters, you really get time to explore every nook and cranny. Instead, you can see the demons and attack them to start a fight or ignore them and go about your business, a system which, again, works great with the other in-game mechanics, like Demon Fusion, as it lets you easily identify a demon you need to collect.
It also helps the exploration aspect that the game really is top notch visually. Whether it’s the sandy dunes of the Netherworld combined with destroyed urban environments, the beautiful secret forest of the Fairies or modern day Tokyo itself, each area you visit is jam-packed with detail, and if you can see something of interest in the distance, you can probably explore it and see what secrets are lurking. Combined with the game’s excellent soundtrack and banging battle music, it all just adds to the enjoyment of the game’s Fight – Recruit – Level up – Fuse gameplay loop.
Sometimes you’ll get the feeling that the overall story takes a back seat to the main bulk of your time spent with the game, and whilst the overall story itself isn’t bad, you’ll just end up naturally spending more of your time exploring and fighting demons. The narrative focus is between the Angels of Bethel and the Demons of the Netherworld, with the Angels working to protect the humans from invading Demon hordes. You and some fellow high school students end up working for the Japanese Branch of Bethel to protect Tokyo from Demons that keep showing up in the real world. The story does have its moments when it really makes you sit up and pay close attention to the drama unfolding and does a good job at incorporating typical high school themes, such as bullying and self-esteem issues characters experience that make you want to see the outcome.
After over 40 hours or so of play time, I still found myself just finishing the second part of the game, and I still feel like I’m only in the first act of the overall story so far. Such is the level of detail they’ve crammed into the early parts of the game, and I’m still really invested in playing more, getting better demons and seeing what comes next in the story. Shin Megami Tensei V is one of the best solo experiences you can get on the Nintendo Switch. Even if the collect-and-fight approach to RPGs isn’t usually your thing, I’d highly recommend you give SMTV a chance as the gameplay loop will quickly have you hooked alongside the stunning visuals and soundtrack to match. If you’re still unsure what to get for Christmas, I’d put Shin Megami Tensei V straight at the top of my list.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 12th November 2021
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Shin Megami Tensei V was provided by the publisher.