Without warning, it swooped down from the sky as I beelined toward a golden treasure glimmering in the distance.
The terror from above had a wingspan that could easily envelop my fledgling party — a plucky teen demi-human and his three monster buddies. Worse still, a quick glance at the beast’s stats revealed it was a good 20 levels above mine. I attempted to escape — no dice. All it took was a single attack for this feathered menace to send me packing to the Game Over screen.
It wasn’t my first swift defeat, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Shin Megami Tensei V does not suffer fools gladly. You will be punished brutally for attempting a battle that’s out of your league. But there’s so much to do in its expansive wasteland that working your way up to the challenge never feels like a grind.
SMT V lets you find your own path to mastering its strategic, turn-based combat system, and that feeling of consistent, incremental progress is immensely satisfying. But if you’re looking to be swept away by a story, fall in love with a bunch of quirky characters, or explore environments that ooze style from every pore, this is not the role-playing game for you.
An apocalyptic story
As is the custom in Atlus games, you play as a Tokyo high school student with cool hair who seems to have quite a lot of friends despite never actually talking. One day after class, you and your buds saunter to the Setagaya train station in your impeccably tailored uniforms. But instead of the usual gaggle of salarymen, there’s a large curtain blocking the way. A bloody massacre in broad daylight means you’ll have to find another way home.
You end up taking a twenty-year detour, landing in a post-apocalyptic future where the city’s been laid waste by a showdown between angels and demons. Remarkably chill about the impending annihilation of everyone you ever knew, you soon befriend a mysterious being known as Aogami, fusing your bodies together to become the Nabohino, a “forbidden entity” that is neither demon nor human. As the story unfurls over some 50+ hours, you’ll gradually learn more about this fellow you’ve permitted to inhabit your skin — and humanity’s role in this clash between the forces of good and evil.
But all that set dressing falls by the wayside soon enough. You’ll spend the bulk of the game’s first half-dozen hours zipping around ruined skyscrapers and decimated freeways, alternately haggling with or beating the stuffing out of pixies, imps, and other oddballs inspired by world mythology. Then, just as abruptly, you’re rocketed back to present-day Tokyo. Turns out, you might just be able to stop the end of the world from happening in the first place, but a lot depends on — you guessed it — your high school classmates.
The story on offer here isn’t going to blow your socks off — at least, not right away — but it works well enough to compel you to get to the next area, the next boss fight, and the next plot dump.
First revealed all the way back in 2017, Shin Megami Tensei V is the long-awaited successor to the Atlus dungeon-crawling RPG series that spawned an even more popular spinoff: the Persona series. And as any number of grumpy internet wags will remind you, Shin Megami Tensei is not Persona. Yes, both games share a Pokémon-like monster collection gimmick, but SMT prioritizes combat strategy and dungeon crawling, whereas Persona adds robust narrative and relationship-building mechanics to the mix. That’s still very much the case here, and longtime series fans will appreciate that Atlus didn’t succumb to the implicit pressure to make the latest installment more Persona-like.
If you’re looking for a not-quite-apt analogy, SMT V is like Monster Hunter Rise, where Persona 5 is like Monster Hunter Stories 2. It’s an imperfect comparison because Monster Hunter Rise left me wanting in a number of respects, but I enjoyed the heck out of Shin Megami Tensei V.
That’s largely because Atlus’s sequel doesn’t make you wade through a bunch of dull tutorials right out the gate. For better and worse, this is an old-school experience that plonks you in a strange world with its own set of rules and largely lets you figure them out for yourself. It’s not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination — on normal (or even casual!) difficulty, you will be seeing quite a lot of the Game Over screen. Fast travel and a generous save system make this a less demoralizing affair than the recently re-released Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne or even the Persona games of the mid-aughts. Nevertheless, trial and error is a core element of the SMT V gameplay loop.
This works because it always feels like there’s something else you can try if you find yourself stuck on a particularly challenging encounter:
- You can grind enemies or do sidequests to raise your party’s level and stats
- You can fuse and recruit new demons to your Demon Compendium, allowing you to change up your party with new abilities and resistances
- You can change the build of your main character using Demon Essences
- You can buy a bunch of consumable items that give your existing party access to spells they wouldn’t otherwise have
The most satisfying thing about Shin Megami Tensei V is that your party is constantly evolving, and what you can do in battle doesn’t stay the same for long. A badass spellcaster will become obsolete within an hour or two, only to be replaced by something even cooler. As you grow stronger, you’re able to recruit and fuse more powerful demons. You can also customize your main character pretty much at will, allowing you to go from a tanky attacker to a healer in a couple presses of a button. This freedom to experiment with various team compositions quickly shifts from daunting to exhilarating, and it’s an essential component of what makes the game so hard to put down.
As is often the case, the old-school character of Shin Megami Tensei V is a double-edged sword. While the cutscenes offer all the flash you’d expect from Atlus in 2021, the traversal experience looks a smidge dated, particularly if you’re playing in the Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode. Huge stretches of the underworld are depicted with the same drab shade of paper-bag brown.
What’s more, the overworld map of present-day Tokyo, with its little thumbtack icons meant to indicate people you can speak to, looks almost identical to the one in SMT III: Nocturne, a game that first came out in 2003. It’s serviceable enough, sure, but it definitely lacks the visual punch you’d expect.
On a brighter note, the Shin Megami Tensei series has long been known for its over-the-top demon designs, and the latest installment doesn’t disappoint. There are the cute-yet-familiar faces like Jack Frost and Pixie, along with some pretty wild newcomers like Manananggal, a creature of Filipino mythology said to prey on pregnant women, babies, and newlyweds. With a half-rotted face and her torso separated from her legs, SMT V’s version of this monster is captivating and horrific all at once. In many ways, the demons are the stars of the show here, and the remarkable range of design and cultural references on display is consistently fascinating.
Shin Megami Tensei V isn’t a casual romp for RPG dabblers, but if you love intricate, strategic combat, you’ve come to the right place. Atlus’ latest is a grueling but gratifying RPG experience where your mastery of its mechanics truly feels earned.
Shin Megami Tensei V comes to Nintendo Switch on November 11. Inverse reviewed the Switch version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its world and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)