Despite the Megami Tensei series being over 30 years old now, its spin-off has garnered the most attention worldwide. Persona outshines the series that spawned it. But that could be about to change. Persona 3 made its sub-series popular, and I suspect Shin Megami Tensei V could be the installment that does the same for the main branch. It’s simultaneously challenging, cohesive, intimidating, stunning, and welcoming.
The player is a normal student in a typical high school. Well… not too usual! Violent acts threaten the community. So much so that students are advised to go home in groups. You’re doing exactly that when an incident blocks your route home. When checking up on a friend, an earthquake results in you being transported to a foreign land. Supernatural creatures abound. When some devils attempt to kill you, a demon named Aogami fuses with you. You become a singular being, the Nahobino. In so doing, you get an incredible power and opportunity to make a difference.
This means the player becomes a defender of two realms. One is Tokyo, the ordinary city free from demons. The other is Da’at, a post-apocalyptic, desert Netherworld home to demons, fairies, and gods. You’re a go-between the two, facing unfathomable challenges. You’ll make tough decisions along the way, perhaps not realizing the weight of them until it’s too late.
The first thing I relished about Shin Megami Tensei V is how distinct Atlus made the two regions feel. It is more than cosmetic. Tokyo’s map is set up like an early overworld area in similar series titles. So it looks akin to the one in SMT III Nocturne or the original Persona. When you head into Da’at, you are traversing massive, more open environments. You trek across cities. Ruins of buildings come up and can be explored. Rather than guiding a peg along specific routes, you can pretty much go anywhere. Want to run along the top of an abandoned train? You can! Find your way into shells of skyscrapers? Odds are, you can do that too.
You’re also always rewarded for said exploration. Multiple currencies make the world go round in Shin Megami Tensei V. Macca can be used in the Cadaver’s Hollow Shop and World of Shadow demon fusing/summoning space. Relics, found in vending machines or as occasional post-fight rewards, can be sold for Macca. Miman are little minions of Cadaver’s Hollow’s Gustav that hide around the world. Finding one gives you Glory. Finding certain increments grant larger rewards. You can also collect Apples, typically by venturing off the beaten path and some mild platforming, to get larger amounts of Glory. Defeating Abscess demon nests unlock new Miracles and clear up the map. Spending Glory on Miracles at World of Shadow does things like increase kinds of battle actions, improves the Nahobino’s affinities, gives the Nahobino and demons more range in battles.
In particular, I grew increasingly fond of how Shin Megami Tensei V uses Abscesses to handle growth. In the series, we always see our avatars grow in strength. We see how formidable they become. Which makes it seem reasonable when certain endings happen. Here, it seems even more plausible. Yes, leveling up in turn-based battles definitely makes you feel powerful. Especially when you exploit weaknesses so the Press Turn system lets you act so often that your enemies die before they have a chance to strike back. Or when the Magatsuhi Gauge fills and you can get buffs as a result each turn or spend it on a chance to really hurt your opponents.
But the fact that we dominate these nests of demons, who are crazed and stronger than the ones we normally face, feels like such an accomplishment. And yes, it can feel restrictive to initially have only a few spaces for demons or be able to use four or five skills. Yet when you get that Glory you worked for and spend it until you have an army of allies on hand, full skill slots, new affinities, and opponents begging for their lives? It feels incredible. You earned it.
I’d even say demons qualify as a reward for exploring. There are over 200 available in the game. As you explore, you’ll always encounter more. Talking with them provides an opportunity to recruit them. (You’ll be especially successful during a half moon. They won’t talk at new or full moons.) That’s when another sort of transaction occurs: bartering. If a conversation goes well, negotiations begin. Demons might ask for Macca, items, some of your health, or some of your stamina. They could also directly compare one of their stats to yours, joining you if you “win.” What I especially appreciated here is that if things went well, but your level was too low for the demon to join your party, they’d ask you to “come back” when you two are on equal footing. If you do encounter that demon after and talk, they’ll “remember” the conversation and join immediately.
That’s one of many quality-of-life conveniences in Shin Megami Tensei V. Even though the game will test you, Atlus isn’t stacking the deck against players. To start, Leylines are incredible. Each one is a save point, fast travel point, shop, demon management center, and recovery point. They’re critical. Easy to see, too, since they’re always blue and glowing. So if you’re uncertain about where to go next in Da’at, look for the light. They’re also easy to reach, as within the first few hours you get an infinite use item to teleport to the last one you used. You can use essences to change the Nahobino’s weaknesses and strengths or both the Nahobino and your demons’ skills.
Not to mention when you have demons, it is easy to combine them. The summon options to allow you to go one-by-one with characters you have on hand, use a reverse fusion with people in your party, do a reverse compendium fusion with any demon you’ve recorded so far (if you have enough Macca), or perform special fusions if you have the right folks. Not to mention you can also pick up Dampener items to block everyone in the party from one type of attack the next turn or characters might learn similar blocking skills.
While that makes it “easy,” as do difficulty options like Story and Casual, Shin Megami Tensei V is exactly as difficult as you might remember. Unless you are incredibly overpowered in an area, it is possible to occasionally run across a group of enemies that can knock you out. Literally. One-hit KOs are a fact of life. Should it happen to the Nahobino, that’s it. Game over! You better hope you saved at a Leyline recently, because there’s no auto-save. Also, each area will have a few stronger enemies around. They’re noted on the map with a larger icon as a warning. Run into that opponent? Even if you did level-grind, odds are you’re dead. Those are the baddies you come back to fight around five hours later.
Those fights to come back and look forward to are one of many points of interest. Shin Megami Tensei V is full of a wealth of interactions. There are constant rewards. You always have things to do. In addition to the story quests, plenty of side quests appear. These might be fetch quests. You could have to visit certain places to collect things. Maybe you need to fight a certain number of opponents. My favorites are the ones that forced you to pick a side. Sometimes, a demon will ask you to seek out and fight another demon. But when you get there, that person tells their own side of the story. Which could mean an additional quest to fight the original quest giver. You have to consider what the possible reward could be, like an ally or new special fusion, then decide.
Of course, that element of choice is also present throughout the campaign. Everyone important is always listening. Your human allies! Aogami! Amanozako, and the major players in the conflict! When an especially poignant decision comes up, Shin Megami Tensei V does something I love. It focuses in on the Nahobino’s face. When you highlight a choice, the one you don’t is blurred. You feel the gravitas of the moment, because it forces you to focus. Though there are also plenty of times when people like Aogami and other demons also ask your thoughts on things.
Speaking of style, boy, does Shin Megami Tensei V have it. This is a gorgeous game. (Especially on an OLED Switch, as things are extra crisp.) The demons are all defined, both in terms of appearances and personalities. The way they look and sound are always so distinct. The major NPCs are fashionable and look incredible. You can see the extra care. Even the environments are rich and fantastic at setting the stage. You know exactly how to feel at every moment, due to color choices, design decisions, and the soundtrack. The only quibble I have is that if you are especially far away from a Miman, the frame rate for its movements drop. But then, it’s such a minor thing, and it actually made them more noticeable when I’d scour the horizon.
Shin Megami Tensei V is an incredible and memorable experience. It does some extraordinary things, both in terms of gameplay and its story. I’d even say the experience could be daunting, but in the most positive way. It is going to test you and make you think. You might even find yourself frustrated at things both within and beyond your control. Yet even so, it will compel people to return and shape the future.
Shin Megami Tensei V releases November 11, 2021 in Japan and November 12, 2021 worldwide. It’s a Nintendo Switch exclusive.