Shin Megami Tensei sits in a strange place in the pantheon of JRPGs, given that it’s been royally usurped by its own spin-off, Persona. One reason for that comes from having been tied to Nintendo’s handhelds for the past decade (outside of the Wii U-bound Mirage Sessions #FE), missing out on the prestige other series have found on home consoles. So it’s surprising to find that there’s a healthy amount of buzz for this, the fifth mainline entry, as it brings its demonic questing to Nintendo’s Switch. For long-time fans though, the excitement looks like it’s going to be rewarded.
Shin Megami Tensei V feels immediately familiar. For those who’ve been with the series since the start you’ll recognise the mysterious and unsettling atmosphere, and equally the traditional school setting that you find yourself in at the outset. It’s not long before things take a turn for the worse though, with unusual disappearances swiftly followed by your own. The fate of Tokyo subsequently lies in your hands.
You’re drawn into the netherworld, a ruined landscape populated by angels and demons. While you’re a weak and vulnerable human, your survival is ensured when you meet Aogami, a demon who offers to join with you and lend you his powers. In doing so you become a Nahobino, gaining flowing blue hair, armour, and a beam sword with which to do battle.
Focussing on the traditional, this is turn-based battling at its best. The Press Turn system is back, rewarding you with further turns for focussing on your enemy’s weaknesses, and it flows in exactly the way you’d expect. Once you’ve begun battling the denizens of the netherworld, you realise that if you’re going to progress you need to woo some of them into joining your party. You do that mid-battle by having a chat with them, aiming to meet whatever their needs are.
It can be a lesson in frustration, having to explore myriad options as you grind through the same demon type, but sometimes you’ll get a sense of what they want to hear from their appearance and find them joining your party in no time at all. It’s one of the series’ key strengths that these encounters bring these RPG enemies to life in a way that most games never even attempt.
Those strengths extend to the overarching character design. Early on you’ll meet Gustave, the decidedly creepy shopkeeper. He’s an emaciated green corpse with a tiny crown and sceptre who’ll happily sell you goods, charge you to restore your character’s health, and occasionally provide you with some insight into the confusing world you’ve found yourself in. He’s already my favourite character after just a short time playing, and I’m kind of hoping he finds some way to escape Cadavers Hollow.
You also meet Sophia, the ruler of the World of Shadows. She grants you the power to utilise Essences, collected from monsters or found along the way. Using Apotheosis you can accept these essences into your body in a process called Essence Fusion, and while that’s a fair number of confusing words, what it boils down to is the ability to learn new skills for yourself and your demons. It’s a straightforward process that lets you tailor your character and your party exactly as you want them, assuming you’ve got the Essences to do so.
She also grants you access to Demon Fusion. A key part of the series has always been the collecting of demons to join your party, and fusing those you’ve collected allows you to create new, more powerful creatures. It’s a clear and straightforward system, and thankfully you won’t be wondering what the outcome is going to be, or if it’s going to be successful.
The overworld map is punctuated by Abcesses, a nest of demons drawn together by overflowing spiritual power. You’re going to want to make sure you’ve formed a full party here, as, even at an early stage, Shin Megami Tensei is all set to knock you on your arse. You definitely need to make sure you’re developing your party as you go, as the folks at Atlus clearly have no compassion for you.
Shin Megami Tensei V is a little rough-looking around the edges on the Switch. Textures pop-in, and the framerate in the overworld spends some time below 30fps. Hopefully, there’ll be a little more optimisation to be squeezed out here, as otherwise everything snaps along at a punchy pace. Jumping in and out of combat is particularly swift, which is great considering how often you’re taking part in it.
With just a short time spent with the game so far, Shin Megami Tensei V already exemplifies the series’ strengths, forging a highly enjoyable path into its demon-infested mythology. If the narrative can live up to its classic setup, JRPG fans are in for a treat this November.