Shin Megami Tensei V boasts JRPG gameplay perfection—even as the main story suffers as the worst-written in the franchise’s 30+ year history.
Following Shin Megami Tensei IV and IV: Apocalypse on the Nintendo 3DS, Shin Megami Tensei V makes its much-anticipated jump to HD on the Nintendo Switch. Shin Megami Tensei (translated as “true reincarnation of the goddess” from Japanese) has a reputation for its punishing gameplay and philosophical stories. This has firmly kept the series in a niche status for decades. Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse made the most notable jump away from this model, offering a greater variety of difficulty modes, including easier settings for new players. The recently-released HD Remaster for Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne also did the same. Shin Megami Tensei V keeps with this trend, making the series more accessible than ever to newcomers. From a gameplay perspective, there’s no better time to jump in.
Megaten veterans will surely be satisfied with most of Shin Megami Tensei V’s offerings. The turn-based combat sees its best iteration yet of the Press Turn system, where the player earns more consecutive turns as a reward for striking enemy weaknesses. Witnessing Megaten’s vast roster of demons and angels in full 3D is a glorious treat. Negotiating with demons to recruit them on your team is less frustrating than in past games, thanks to multiple quality of life updates and new interactions between your demons and the enemy. The change from dungeon crawling to mostly open world areas may take some getting used to, but traversal across the maps is quick and fun. The main letdown is the story.
Shin Megami Tensei players expect thought-provoking plots that challenge the status quo. The people of the world are suffering, and your choices in this post-apocalyptic setting shape your alignment, typically falling under variants of Law, Chaos, or Neutral leanings. Other characters serve as ideological examples to follow or avoid. You must defeat gods, demons, and former friends—anyone who stands in the way of your will to reshape the world. While Shin Megami Tensei V checks all the boxes, it fumbles the delivery and execution on these series staples. It’s a major blemish on an otherwise stellar game.
Shin Megami Tensei V retains its classic turn-based battle formula from past games, improved and enhanced for the modern age. Just as ever before, you as the player collect demon allies to fight alongside you. You collect these demons either by negotiating with them in battle to join your party, or by fusing stronger demons from existing ones. Taking these demons into battle with you, you build up their stats and customize their abilities, keeping their strengths and weaknesses in mind. You’ll want to tailor your group to best suit the challenging boss fights in your path, or even just the regular fodder in the area. Playing on Normal difficulty provides a familiar challenge to past games, where your roster of demons are crucial to victory. Boss fights this time around are marathons, exhausting your resources and testing your strategies, turn by turn. Buffs and debuffs only last a limited amount of turns, and these abilities cost a hefty amount of MP compared to before. The days of setting and forgetting buffs and debuffs for reliable wins are gone. Overcoming these fights is still endlessly satisfying like nothing else.
Customizing your main character and demon abilities is simple in Shin Megami Tensei V. While roaming around the world, you encounter gold treasure chests. Breaking open these chests will sometimes reward you with special Essences from a variety of demons in the game. Using these Essences on either your character or demons grants the specific abilities from the Essence, such as new elemental attacks, new buffs or debuffs, and so on. You can also use these to customize your main character’s attributes, namely their elemental strengths and weaknesses. Going up against a boss that uses mostly ice attacks? Make sure your roster of demons have plenty of fire attacks with them, and while you’re at it, use an Essence to ensure your main character is either immune to ice, or takes as little ice damage as possible.
There’s also the addition of special Magatsuhi attacks. These are strong abilities that either boost your critical hits, or land powerful attacks on the enemy. You can use these abilities once your Magatsuhi gauge fills up to full. Using the critical hit boost is pretty reliable, as these do a ton of damage on top of guaranteeing you another free turn. You can customize how and when you earn more Magatsuhi by spending Glory points on Miracles. These Miracles also unlock other perks, like boosts to your elemental attacks, discounts on prices at the in-game shop, and additional slots for holding more demons in your backup stock. Unlocking new Miracles can often give you a nice edge in battle to help you survive.
The change to open world exploration works surprisingly well. You explore the netherworld, or Da’at, for most of the story, heading back to real-world Tokyo on occasion. Running around is smooth, and traversing the environment is usually fun—save for one particular Da’at map where it’s easy to get lost, even with the map at your disposal. If you do happen to get stuck, you can simply press a button to return to the last save point you encountered. While exploring, you’ll want to stay on the lookout for little Miman. Finding these Miman friends rewards you with Glory points and free items from the shop, although it can get annoying traveling to some of the hard-to-reach ones. Demons also populate nearly every corner of the maps, breathing life into the post-apocalyptic netherworld. You can talk to friendly demons for additional lore, silly conversations with callbacks to older games, or to pick up side quests.
Shin Megami Tensei V’s story begins with an intriguing premise. Following a certain optional ending from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the demons and angels of the world are locked in a years-long war. Lucifer claims to have killed God, while the angels continue fighting in His honor, refusing to believe God is dead. You emerge as an unusual contender in the war, taking the form of a Nahobino—a human with demonic strength. You become a Nahobino by merging with the essence of Aogami—a being created specifically for this purpose. Shin Megami Tensei V poses a unique bias for the series, where your character originally aligns itself with the Law faction—the angels and God—as a member of the Bethel group. You and your allies fight in Bethel’s name throughout most of the story. Yet as you progress, you run into instances where other characters invite you to question your place. Is Bethel really the best group to side with? Or is there a better option to end the war and restore peace to the world?
This setup is common throughout the Shin Megami Tensei games. The problem with Shin Megami Tensei V’s attempt is the poor writing. You suffer through too many information dumps throughout the story. Often these are segments that would have worked best through flashbacks or actual gameplay. The bland and forgettable characters spend too much time “telling” you the story, and the game itself doesn’t spend nearly enough time “showing” you the story. Plots in past Megaten games have gotten away with thin narratives, with characters only representing their moral alignments and nothing more. Shin Megami Tensei V tries to have it both ways, with a more in-depth story featuring these ideologues.
The one instance where they do have a fleshed-out character—one of the alignment representatives—things quickly spiral into disaster. Their whole development centers around them constantly telling you what a weak and useless person they are. This angle could have worked if we had personally witnessed even a few instances of their miserable failures. We don’t get to see much aside from what they tell us. Their backstory, their psychology, their entire character—all told to us. They take up a lot of screen time as well, robbing the spotlight from other characters. This leaves most of the cast to fall to the wayside.
The main exception is with Aogami. While he often plays the role of Captain Obvious—giving warnings about upcoming bosses in a nearby area, and pointing out predictable details to Nahobino—Aogami is still pleasant to have around. He actually cares about what you think as the player, and how you feel about the events going on around you. He’s a nice character who feels like an older brother to Nahobino. While there is another fleshed-out character—particularly one of Bethel’s archangels—they are exceedingly one-note. The Chaos and Neutral representatives don’t have much going for them, either. We never get to learn enough about them to sympathize with their ideologies or their plights.
Because of these many lackluster characters, and the hollow story, the endings lack the impact they normally should have had. For Megaten veterans, the choices you make throughout the story don’t quite add up in the expected, meaningful ways. Although, the hidden, optional ending is a nice touch. You unlock this ending by completing side quests and defeating the optional mega boss in an endgame Da’at area. Unfortunately, several other mega bosses are locked behind paid downloadable content.
Graphics and Visuals
Shin Megami Tensei V breaks up its open world, Da’at, into different segments. These segments are each visually distinct from one another, representing existing Tokyo districts in a post-apocalyptic setting. Sliding through the sands of a desert, hiking along snowy paths, and traversing the mountainous region of a forest—each Da’at area has its own special trademark. While exploring, it’s common to spot a majestic creature flying in the distance, or a supersized demon roaming around your current path. You always have the option of taking on these enemies in battle, but you might end up losing spectacularly the first time around. These demons are often a much higher level than the normal ones in the area. They’re typically tied to side quests, where you receive some nice rewards for taking them down.
The demons themselves look incredible. It’s wonderful to finally see these creations in 3D in a mainline Megaten game. Seeing their unique animations in battle helps each demon feel like fully-realized individuals, with their personalities shining through every encounter with them. Fighting against larger bosses is an epic experience, long held back by the limitations of the older handhelds and consoles. The human characters, for all of their flaws, do have interesting designs. Nahobino in particular is fascinating to stare at throughout Shin Megami Tensei V’s 40+ hour runtime, with his long, flowing hair standing out from his otherwise androgynous features. Aogami’s design has a few notable clues about his history.
The main hiccup is with the expected performance issues on the Nintendo Switch. Slowdowns and framerate drops are common in the open world. Running into areas densely packed with demons, you’re practically guaranteed to run into issues like these. You will also need to be on the lookout for hardware defects with your console. If your Joy-Con controllers run into problems with unwanted drift, you’ll probably end up running off edges of open world cliffs, or messing up a dungeon puzzle without meaning to, forcing you to restart your trek through the area. It’s a shame, but sadly predictable by now. Could Shin Megami Tensei V head to PC or other consoles in the future? We’ll have to wait and see.
Music and Sound
Shin Megami Tensei V’s soundtrack is another standout, filled with many callbacks to older games in the series. Battle tracks often have familiar motifs from Shin Megami Tensei IV. One boss theme in particular even hearkens all the way back to Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei II for the Famicom. The battle themes always evoke the perfect mood for any fight. One example is the catchy, normal battle track that never gets old, and grows more menacing the longer the fight goes on. Optional mega bosses feature some really unique tracks for the series, venturing into trip-hop. Each section of Da’at has its own signature sound, with places like Ginza rocking earworms you won’t want to stop listening to while exploring. Even the in-game shop music is pleasing to listen to, inviting you to spend hours throughout your playthrough shopping for items and upgrades. The area where you fuse new demons and customize your perks, the World of Shadows, has a fittingly evocative track for the excessive amount of time you’ll spend within. The paid DLC fight against Demi-Fiend—the main protagonist from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne—features an intimidating remix of his game’s normal battle track, leading us to wonder if the powerful Demi-Fiend merely sees Nahobino as yet another random encounter fight.
For the voice acting, the demons all sound the way they should. They have a few exclamations, sentences, or catchphrases they’ll say here and there. Each are special for them, going back to the similar voiced lines they would speak in previous games. But the English voice acting for other characters is sometimes questionable. The spoken dialog is usually fine, but there are standout moments where someone’s awkward lines contrast terribly with the dead silence around them. Aogami’s voice acting works well for his character, as he often speaks for Nahobino in place of the silent protagonist. Other members of the cast didn’t quite get the same treatment, and it shows sometimes.
Shin Megami Tensei V’s immaculate gameplay, strong presentation, and stellar soundtrack end up bogged down by a poorly-written story and the Nintendo Switch’s performance issues. While this title is a must-buy for the gameplay alone, these other problems do add up. The story is nowhere near Megaten’s finest, like Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey and the updated re-release, Strange Journey Redux, where the writers successfully pull off a more in-depth narrative alongside ideologue characters. The game also suffers from annoying DLC practices from Atlus yet again, such as locking out valuable demons and challenging mega bosses behind real-world money. With these many painful issues, Shin Megami Tensei V doesn’t fully represent the best of what this long-running franchise has to offer.
Despite the breadth of quality of life improvements, and the difficulty options welcoming new players in, they won’t find the compelling story that veterans hoped and craved for. If the devs simply ran out of time and/or resources, then it is possible for them to fix these issues with the story through an expansion or re-release. But it’s likely Atlus wouldn’t release something like that for free. Those who love and treasure this series will have to wait until the next entry for a complete package on day one.