The JRPG remains embedded amongst gaming royalty, not necessarily because of its heritage or mechanical innovations, but rather its expansive narratives that often deal with challenging topics, handling them with more nuance than most Western-centric plotlines. The Shin Megami Tensei series is a prime example of that, with a deep-seated penchant for the push and pull between heaven and hell, exploring themes of self, philosophy, and religion. With the fifth entry, Atlus are returning the series to what could be considered a home console for the first time since 2003, and in doing so they have crafted a suitably epic entry in the series that’ll please fans, even if it relies on a tried and tested formula to do so.
This is a review in progress for Shin Megami Tensei V. Check back next week for our final verdict and score for the game.
Shin Megami Tensei V is a deeply traditional JRPG, with suitably traditional mechanics to boot. You take your silent protagonist from a Japanese high school to an apocalyptic vision of Tokyo within moments of the game’s opening, with this netherworld populated by a gruesome menagerie of angels and demons.
These demons form the basis of both your party, and the battle mechanics. Despite there being other human beings caught up in the spiritually challenging events, your party is filled by different demon types. From the simplistic and vulnerable creatures of the opening through to the incredibly powerful demons available at the close, it’s a delight to add them to your party, although it’s not always the easiest of tasks.
There’s no Pokéballs to throw here, with Shin Megami Tensei V instead relying on your ability to charm different demons into joining your cause. This involves talking to them, and then trying to navigate through a series of conversation options that highlight what their personality is like.
They might ask you to give them some money, allowing you to bribe them into joining you, or perhaps they’ll take pity on you if you appear scared by them. If you manage to charm a creature that’s a higher level than you then they’ll refuse to join up, but if you later enter combat with the same enemy type having levelled up they’ll remember and hop straight into your party without a moment’s delay. The whole thing can feel a touch indefinite at times, and repeatedly failing to convince a demon to join you can be tiresome, but there’s another way to bring new additions into your party if you’ve got very few social skills.
You can fuse demons together in a number of ways, creating new creatures with enhanced abilities and altered attributes. The most straightforward fusion sees you merging two members of your party or your support group together, and taking the resulting monster in return. However, it can be quite difficult at times to separate yourself from demons that have been with you a while, so you may prefer reverse compendium fusion. Here you can create any potential demons resulting from any of the monsters you’ve previously encountered, paying through the nose for any demons you don’t currently have on hand.
Both fusion and the merging of attributes are key to your success, but even then that success is going to be hard-fought. Shin Megami Tensei V gives absolutely no quarter, even on normal difficulty. You’ll need to ensure you exploit an enemy’s core weaknesses, and fuse both your central character and those in your party together with other monsters to gain protection against particular attack types if you want to have any hope of progressing.
I found that even if you drop the difficulty to casual, Shin Megami Tensei V still asks a great deal of you. Besides using every gameplay trick available to you, the ultimate path to victory involves a healthy portion of grinding. Now, I’m not adverse to the grind – it’s a central component of most RPGs – but there’s times where it is the only solution here for you to succeed, brute-forcing your way to victory. When you combine it with the difficulty spikes brought by boss characters, it’s little surprise to find that you’re going to be with Shin Megami Tensei V for the long haul. So long, in fact, that I’m not at the stage where I’m happy to pin a score on this review.
Fortunately, that’s no bad thing. The Press Turn combat remains the best aspect of the game, proving to be engaging and fun throughout, and though you’re grinding there’s a definite sense of progression. Learning to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses is always fun, and when you do you can gain an extra turn, up to a maximum of four, though that potentially giving a full party eight chances to act.
Similarly, you’ll be drawn along by the well-designed demon types, whether you’re beating them up or wooing them to join your crew. New demons appear regularly enough, and it soon becomes difficult choosing who you want to hang onto, particularly if it’s a recurring favourite from previous entries. They now look better than they ever have before, with the move to HD giving them a distinct vigour and even realism that they’ve not achieved before.
The level designs and the characterisation have their highs and lows. While the damaged vision of Tokyo can certainly prove atmospheric, playing well into the series’ unsettling nature, there are times where it’s overly simplistic and plain. That extends to the English language voice acting and the dialogue too, with some of the human characters in particular sounding stilted and amateurish. I can only recommend that you opt for the Japanese audio, but then that’s a truism that’s stood for most Japanese game and anime properties since the dawn of time (or the 1970s). At least the soundtrack is brilliant, swerving from rocking combat riffs to eery and atmospheric atonal synth elsewhere.
Atlus has managed to keep loading times down to a minimum on Nintendo Switch, and hopping in and out of combat is suitably swift and snappy. That’s the sole place where technology succeeds in Shin Megami Tensei V, as otherwise there’s clear pop-in off in the distance, and everything is decidedly fuzzy. The effect becomes even stronger when playing handheld. It ultimately makes the game feel a bit plain, and just as with the similarly epic Xenoblade games the framerate will chug if there’s too much going on on screen. Shin Megami Tensei V is clearly at the limits of what the Switch can achieve.
Shin Megami Tensei V is a classic JRPG that leans heavily on the series’ past. It’s nonetheless engaging, interesting, and consistently draws you further into its spiritually-charged narrative. While it’s still not as relatable as its sublime Persona spin-off series, it is a welcome addition to the pantheon of Switch RPGs.
Check back next week for our final and scored verdict.