Shin Megami Tensei V has been a long time coming. The last mainline entry in the series was released over eight years ago for the 3DS, while the last home console entry was another ten years before that. Moreover, Shin Megami Tensei V was one of the first games ever revealed for the Switch, mere months after the console itself was first shown to the public. All those years of hype have thus generated some awfully high expectations. It was never in doubt that Atlus would give this release the attention it deserves, but the question has always been whether it would be good enough to get over the high bar set by its predecessors. Fortunately, any such concerns can be cast aside — Shin Megami Tensei V is the best entry in the series yet and stands as an impressive achievement for a beloved franchise.
Right from the off, it’s made abundantly clear that Shin Megami Tensei V is every bit as ‘heavy’ as its predecessors. Things start off seemingly normal as you follow your character through a typical day of school, but there’s an ominous tone to the announcement at the end of the day that advises students to travel home in pairs. People have been disappearing and there are rumors of violent attacks taking place around Tokyo, but nobody really seems to have a clear idea of what exactly is going on.
Then, in practically the blink of an eye, Tokyo is gone.
In its place, your character finds himself trapped in a sand-swept hellscape littered with the crumbling ruins of skyscrapers and streets. Strange demonic and angelic creatures roam these wastes and there’s scarcely another human to be found. The world has already ended and you are alone, although this changes quickly when you meet an entity named Aogami, who fuses with you and turns you into a being called Nahobino. Invigorated with this newfound power, you thus begin a lengthy journey to both uncover what exactly happened to the world and to fight a whole lot of angels and demons along the way.
The story is something that really needs to be experienced to be understood, and we won’t rob you of the fun by spoiling anything further here, but suffice to say Shin Megami Tensei V tells quite a compelling tale. This is a story that is still very much marked by the weighty philosophical and moral ruminations that defined past entries, but Atlus has smartly decided to make this a more character-driven narrative than many previous games.
For example, the main shopkeeper in the game is a memorable, green-skinned ghoul named Gustave. Gustave is a friendly fellow. He seems like he genuinely wants to help you on your quest. But he also comes off as the kind of guy who likes to microwave butterflies in his spare time, and there’s something equal parts haunting and endearing in his maniacal giggles as you sell him another few bottles of soda.
Make no mistake, this is hardly a lighthearted tale, but wandering the wasteland in isolation feels purposeful now that you’re given more concrete reasons to have emotional investment in the narrative. You have clearer goals and objectives for driving the plot forward, and the characters you encounter are more interesting than the mostly one-dimensional idealogues that populated past entries. The narrative is certainly not as straightforward and relatable as, say, Persona 5 or Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but we’d still contend that Atlus has crafted a nicely balanced story with this entry. The world of Shin Megami Tensei V is just interesting in a way that the previous entries weren’t, and it’s a credit to the writers that they were able to pull this off without losing that darker edge that the series is known for.
Shin Megami Tensei V is a true dungeon crawler at heart, and it’s been designed in a way that’s ‘semi-linear’. Each of the maps you can explore are ultimately laid out in a simple-to-follow fashion that’s nearly impossible to get lost in, but there are also many side paths and areas that reward exploration and offer up some compelling side content. There’s never a question of where you need to go or what you need to do next, but the path you take to get there and the things you do along the way are still very much up to you. Exploration is also assisted in part by little Magatsuhi energy balls dotted throughout the landscape like breadcrumbs. You automatically pick these up as you run over them, and they’ll top up things like your health, MP, and Magatsuhi gauge while their positioning often encourages you to step off the beaten path.
Once you start poking around the world a little more, you’ll find that there’s often quite a bit to help you build up your characters better. There are, of course, the expected treasure chests that offer up nice rewards, but the main draw to exploration is usually side quests and little creatures called Miman. The side quests are usually offered up by friendly demons and give you the expected tasks of going on fetch quests or fighting powerful foes, and while they usually don’t have a ton of depth, they add some welcome texture to the otherwise lifeless environment and often act as the only way to unlock more Magatsuhi skills.
Additionally, there are 200 Miman to find throughout the whole game, and these are all connected to an ongoing side quest for Gustave. Each Miman gives you a little bit of Glory (more on that in a bit), while hitting certain milestones with how many of them you collect will lead to Gustave giving you some special gifts. Suffice to say, there is a lot to do in the world of Shin Megami Tensei V and you’re constantly doing something that either progresses the main story or somehow builds up your character or their party.
Another important factor that greatly aids the accessibility of this new world design is the Leyline Fount system. Dotted around the world are blue portals that act as one-stop shops for everything you could possibly need for your adventure. You can use these portals to quickly fast travel around the world, save, heal your party, shop for extra goods, and engage in any demon-summoning or fusion shenanigans. Given that combat (at least on normal difficulty) is as savage and difficult as it was in past entries, these founts act as a nice balancing factor to make the journey feel that much more bearable. You’ll still likely wipe more often than you intend to, but it feels like the game 'earns' those deaths now that you are frequently given reasonable access to every tool you could need to succeed.
Combat follows the same Press Turn rules of previous entries, making for what feels like the best take on straight turn-based combat. You can have an active party of the Nahobino and up to three other demons, and each party member is given one action per turn. However, if you manage to connect attacks that crit or hit an enemy’s elemental weakness, you can get up to four additional actions for yourself. Smartly using this system in your favor means that you can effectively clear average enemy encounters in one turn if you’re tactical, but the flipside is that you lose turns if an attack misses or gets blocked by an enemy. Additionally, everyone in your party has elemental weaknesses of their own, and enemies can gain extra actions if they hit these.
Thus, this Press Turn system is very high-risk, high-reward. If you get the first turn on the enemy and planned your team well, battles can typically be wrapped with scarcely any effort. Yet if the enemy gets the jump on you and you’re just beginning to explore a new area, it’s not uncommon for a few party members to get completely wiped before you even have a chance to do anything. The only real downside with this system is that it can become a little repetitive once you’ve ‘solved’ an enemy encounter. By this, we mean that if, say, an area is littered with Cait Siths and you’ve already discovered how to best leverage your current team to defeat one, all subsequent encounters mostly become you using the exact same moves in the exact same order to maximize your turn count. Luckily, there’s quite a bit of enemy variety and you usually come across new ones just as you’re beginning to get bored of the current crop, but this repetition does crop up if you spend a little too long in any given area.
New to Shin Megami Tensei V is an additional feature called the Magatsuhi Gauge that works as a nice means of fudging battles even more in your favor. This gauge fills up a little bit by doing specific actions or naturally with each passing turn, and once full it allows you to unleash powerful skills to tip the scales. Every character and demon has different skills they can use, and these offer helpful buffs like ensuring every attack for that turn is critical or massively raising everyone’s evasion for a turn.
Best of all, casting a Magatsuhi skill doesn’t cost an action and the caster can still act after they’ve used one. The Magatsuhi gauge feels like a welcome addition to the tried-and-true combat system, as its not influential enough to ‘break’ the game, but sometimes gives you that extra oomph you need to decisively finish a fight.
Much like in previous games, you build your team by a combination of negotiating with demons to join your team, and fusing allied demons together to form more powerful varieties. Demon negotiation remains just as opaque and frustrating as ever, but here it feels like you generally succeed more often than you fail. Even so, we’ve had plenty of times where a demon fleeced us of some health and items, only to laugh and run off with the goods. Still, negotiation gets a little easier as you unlock more skills that help to give you a better chance, and once a demon has been caught, it remains in your compendium forever.
Running back to a Leyline Fount then allows you to create demon fusions by either fusing together party members or paying a fee to temporarily summon former ones for fusion fodder. Naturally, this means that your fusion options are rather limited in the first few hours given that there’s only a few demon types to collect, but the table opens up exponentially as you add more demons to your compendium and create that many more potential combinations. It can be a little nerve-wracking when you’re making changes to your team, as there are only so many skills you’re allowed to carry over from the two ingredient demons, but the end result is usually something notably more powerful than either demon you’re losing. Sure, fusion in Shin Megami Tensei V may be basically the exact same system that’s been in previous entries for the past several years, but it’s a good example of Atlus choosing not to fix something that isn’t broken. Fusion remains a compelling and fascinating way of measuring progress, and it only becomes more interesting as the game goes on and you have more options to choose from.
Borrowing somewhat from the last mainline numbered entry, Shin Megami Tensei V uses a new system called Apotheosis for guiding your Nahobino’s growth. For one thing, this is now the main way of giving him new skills, as he doesn’t learn them from demons anymore. Rather, you collect Essences from demons either through leveling them or getting them as rewards elsewhere, and each Essence acts as a small bundle of skills that you can pick from to add to his abilities. This feels like a welcome change, as it allows you a little more flexibility over actively changing up the Nahobino’s moveset without having to worry about how you’ll later get back the skills you had to toss.
Additionally, you can now use a new currency called Glory that you collect from Miman or other sources on your adventure to give the Nahobino new permanent passive skills. These skills touch on all areas of Shin Megami Tensei V and grant you things like better proficiency with different spell types to lower costs for fusing from the demon compendium. These skills don’t come cheap, however, which really pushes you to prioritize what kind of build you want the Nahobino to have. This Glory system doesn’t feel like it breaks the game too much, but it does offer up some lovely benefits and a thrilling sense of forward progress as you develop your character.
In terms of presentation, Shin Megami Tensei V is certainly the best-looking entry in the series yet, but it does come with some caveats. Seeing all these beloved demon designs in glorious HD is something to behold, and the art style does a great job of giving them a certain ‘realistic’ look that they lacked in previous entries. Things like dynamic lighting and high-res textures are welcome additions, but they do come at the cost of performance. Whether you’re playing on portable or docked, Shin Megami Tensei V always looks slightly blurrier than we’d like and asset pop-in is a common sight. The frame rate mostly seems to stick to its 30FPS target, though there are some times when there are lots of demons in the field and it slips noticeably. It would be disingenuous to say that Shin Megami Tensei V is disappointing with its performance, but it’s abundantly clear that this is a release that pushes the Switch to its very limit.
We’d be remiss to close out this review without also mentioning the soundtrack, which is simply sublime. The music is mostly characterized by heavy synths, fast drumbeats, and metal guitar riffs, and it’s a mixture that feels equal parts intense and relaxing. At any rate, it sets a wonderful tone for the often oppressive atmosphere established by the rest of the game. There’s no soundtrack out there that sounds quite like Shin Megami Tensei, and we’re happy to report that Shin Megami Tensei V continues this legacy of memorable music.
Shin Megami Tensei V is a modern masterpiece. It successfully delivers on all the aspects that have made the series thus far so popular with fans—namely through its high difficulty, heavy narrative themes, and expansive team-building options—while polishing up and tightening the weaker aspects. Things like a more easily navigable map and more difficulty options to cater to players of all skill levels comfortably make this the most approachable entry in the series, and it feels like there’s more things to do in the world than ever before. If you are at all a fan of RPGs or have been looking for a good entry point into this oft overlooked series, we would strongly encourage you to pick this up as soon as you can. Shin Megami Tensei V was worth the wait, Atlus has successfully stuck the landing with this one.