When I finished playing the early parts of Shin Megami Tensei V for preview last month, I was very impressed by a lot of aspects of it. What I didn’t expect is to be constantly blown away by how ambitious Shin Megami Tensei V is not just for a Nintendo Switch game, but Atlus in general. The wait has been long, but saying Atlus delivered in spades here would be an understatement. Shin Megami Tensei V is that damn good, and a huge step forward for the Shin Megami Tensei series.
When I played Shin Megami Tensei IV on Nintendo 3DS, I was impressed by many aspects and still consider it one of the best games on the system despite some issues. Since then, there have been many Atlus releases and seeing how Etrian Odyssey improved with features in every release, I was curious to see what a new mainline Shin Megami Tensei game would bring to the table. Following the game’s reveal with the Nintendo Switch back in 2017, Shin Megami Tensei V is finally here and it has exceeded all my expectations with its combat, atmosphere, music, new demons, and just about everything else.
If you’ve never played a Shin Megami Tensei game before, and are curious about this one because of how great it has looked in trailers and with every new feature and demon revealed, you need to be ready to actually engage in the game mechanics for combat and progression. You can’t just auto-battle your way through the story or just do the critical path and expect to just enjoy the story here like in some other JRPGs. Shin Megami Tensei V is very much a combat and exploration focused experience first and foremost with the story also being a part of the overall experience. The good thing here is that you are eased into new mechanics rather than just thrown into walls of text and expected to understand everything. Shin Megami Tensei V is a challenging and rewarding game, but also a fair one despite a few bosses hitting like multiple trucks together.
When it comes to the narrative, I enjoyed it for the most part. I don’t want to get into spoilers (and can’t talk about a lot of the story beats because of the embargo), but I can say that you shouldn’t expect a ton of cut-scenes. This is very much a combat and exploration heavy game as it should be. The cut-scenes that are there are excellent. A few specific story moments made me wish Shin Megami Tensei V supported the Switch’s native video capture functionality because they were that good. The story (you will be making some choices that matter), also goes in very interesting places with how you seem to be pushed in certain directions on the surface. Depending on how good you are at learning the systems, adapting to situations during boss battles, and with fusion, you will likely still spend upwards of 55 to 60 hours on just the main story if you play on the Normal difficulty. This will vary based on how much you skip and how much side content you do of course. If you, like me, spend too much time fusing and trying out different builds, expect your playtime to go much higher.
Structurally, Shin Megami Tensei V is broken up into large open world-like areas. Without getting into spoilers for late-game moments, I loved the unique feel each area had and the music. These open areas felt like those in Xenoblade with the traversal options you have and how you are rewarded for exploration. There are points of interest all over the place and climbing up the stairs in an abandoned building might reward you with a new side quest or even a chest containing something rare. There are also huge demons or enemies in each area indicated by their own larger icon on the map. It is worth staying out of their way until much later because you will likely get wiped in a single turn. Some of them even fly around the area or roam around a specific part like the Chimera.
These large areas are split up into smaller zones that have Leyline Fountains that act as mini-hubs. You can save, access Gustave’s shop, the world of shadows, pay to heal, and fast travel from these points. You get access to an item that can transport you back to the last leyline fount you visited as well. This is very useful if you’ve run into an area with a lot of enemies and you haven’t healed or fused demons in a while. Not being able to save anywhere is the only regression from Shin Megami Tensei IV here. For a portable game, I wish there was an option to suspend save at least instead of just leaving your console in sleep mode with the game running.
Each area also has at least one abscess that covers the map. The abscess is guarded by demons and usually has a mini-boss you need to take down to destroy it. Doing so will add more Miracles to the pool for unlocking through glory. The abscess system is great, but I did have some issues finding one specific abscess thanks to the map being quite confusing when I was playing handheld. It was then I decided to stick to docked for the majority of my playthrough when I went to a new area. It is much easier to spot points of interest or narrow passages you need to get to another part of the area.
Barring having huge open areas with different layers, collectibles, NPCs, and more all over, Shin Megami Tensei V’s most impressive feature is seeing demons to scale roaming around. Running into one of these initiates a combat encounter involving at least one of the demons you ran into. Gone are the days of random encounters or seeing generic enemy symbols walking around. The only place you see generic enemy symbols here is on the map. The grey icons indicate an enemy while a glowing icon indicates the enemy has seen you. This means it will either charge towards you, or run away depending on your level and some other factors. Each area also usually has a navigator or companion who can accompany you on the field. They help you find points of interest that end up being treasure, rare enemy battles, general battles, or items.
Shin Megami Tensei IV’s app system has been replaced and enhanced with the Miracles and Glory system in Shin Megami Tensei V. The world is full of Miman creatures. Finding them rewards you not just with some glory, but various items once you cross specific tiers at Gustave’s shop. There are also rare chests indicated by shining silver or white trails that give you a lot of glory. You can use glory here to unlock Miracles. The pool of Miracles you have access to increases with every abscess you destroy in the world.
A lot of your time in Shin Megami Tensei V will be spent battling demons and exploration so having a great combat system is absolutely essential. Shin Megami Tensei V builds on the press-turn system by incorporating Magatsuhi skills. You start out with a single skill that makes sure all attacks for a turn are critical, but can use more through unlockable key items early on. There are also miracles that help you use more skills here once you acquire the key items in question and have a relevant demon. This system reminds me of the similar system in place in Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ combat. Barring that, you can now skip animations by pressing A or simply turn skill animations off to save time. Seeing demons and Nahobino animate to do skills with gorgeous particle effects is awesome. Some of the unique demon skills have long animations, so having the ability to skip these helps. As of now, there is no way to speed up animations and not skip them though.
Gaining new demons is essential for survival as you’d expect and there are a few ways of doing this. You obviously spend a lot of time negotiating with demons by the talk command, but can also earn new demons through side quests. Your party composition with affinities will make or break just about every encounter in a new area. Boss battles, even in side quests, will truly test your skills and strategies. I was hoping the same tension present during battles in past games would be here and did not come away disappointed.
When it comes to customization options, Shin Megami Tensei V has a ton of ways for you to fine tune your build and party. You can now unlock or find demon essences. These let you either extract skills or the affinities a demon has for yourself. You can also extract skills from these essences for your ally demons. This is very important and will make or break many battles because not having specific skills makes certain encounters much harder than they should be and it is very easy to find more essences through treasure boxes, side quests, negotiation, your own demons levelling up, and more.
I was surprised at how good the side quests in Shin Megami Tensei V are. While many of them involve you going to collect some item or slaying something, the rewards and the interactions usually make it all worth it. Just be warned because many side quests end in boss battles that you might be underleveled for. There are also some that have pretty interesting progression as you get deeper into the game that I don’t want to spoil.
In addition to the side quests, demon negotiation feels expanded on here. Not only do you need to pay attention to the moon phase, but demons behave wildly differently even in consecutive encounters. In one instance, I tried talking to a demon and the demon in my party ended up having a lengthy conversation with said demon that resulted in me getting a rare item. Interactions like this keep happening in various points of Shin Megami Tensei V, and it makes every demon encounter and NPC interaction feel fresh. You do still have instances where demons just ask you for a ton of things and then leave without giving you anything or by killing you with a critical attack after taking your money as you should expect in Shin Megami Tensei.
Press turn combat in Shin Megami Tensei V has you exploiting weaknesses, buffing and de-buffing in addition to using magic (you do unlock multi target skills so don’t worry), using items, and more. Depending on the Miracles you’ve unlocked, every little action including guarding can help you a lot. The opening area of the game really does not do it justice with enemies and enemy placement. From the second area onwards, every location felt like a real adventure as I dealt with new demons, found hidden chests, collectibles, and worked towards growing strong enough to take on the abscess demon.
Shin Megami Tensei V feels like the best implementation of Atlus’ press turn system yet. It made every little encounter even when I wanted to do some grinding feel fun. The awesome soundtrack definitely helps here as well. Given how unforgiving Shin Megami Tensei V can be even on the normal difficulty setting (especially for some bosses), there is no shame in saving often and preparing accordingly. If Nahobino’s health is brought to zero, it is game over and you’re thrown back to the title screen so keep that in mind before jumping into every encounter you run into.
The difficulty in Shin Megami Tensei games is a hot discussion point, but you just need to engage with the game’s systems and mechanics. This isn’t a JRPG where you can auto-battle your way to victory. That likely will not even work on regular grunt enemies a few levels below you given how weaknesses work in the game. While I haven’t beaten Shin Megami Tensei II and If… all the way, the difficulty curve in Shin Megami Tensei V is a lot better than Shin Megami Tensei IV and feels challenging but not broken. As long as you don’t run from encounters and actually work on fusing and getting more demons, you will have a great time with the combat. There are a few bosses that absolutely demolished me over multiple attempts though. This is where you learn attacks, prepare, and come back. One of the early bosses was definitely a wake up call for me even though I expected a tough battle considering who the boss was.
I mentioned that Shin Megami Tensei V is an ambitious game not just for Nintendo Switch, but Atlus in general. This is because of the amount of demons, NPCs, and how big and crowded some of the areas are. The new demons, character designs, and overall aesthetic is phenomenal. The cut-scene direction in particular kept surprising me with every new one the game threw at me in the 70 or so hours I spent in Shin Megami Tensei V so far. Sadly, this comes at a cost. Visually, Shin Megami Tensei V can look blurry even when played docked in some of the open areas. A few of the locations had awful visual popin with grass appearing a few feet in front of me as I ran in different directions. This also affects textures on some characters and demons. Expect shimmering on foliage as well in some areas both docked and handheld.
I know the frame rate isn’t going to matter to some because Shin Megami Tensei V is a turn-based game, but it really does hinder the overall polished feel the game has in a few areas. It is never as stable as it should be with noticeable slowdown in some areas. Load times are mostly great, but the menus should’ve definitely been more responsive. The performance issues are most noticeable in a crowded area like the school early on with other students or in open areas with demons animating at a much lower frame rate in the distance (or sometimes closer than I expected). They obviously animate properly when you get closer, but this distance is much smaller than I expected considering how other Unreal Engine games run and look on the system. On a technical level, Shin Megami Tensei V is both very impressive and a tad disappointing. This game is a Nintendo Switch exclusive and some of the areas feel quite disappointing visually both docked and handheld. Dragon Quest XI S is another ambitious Unreal Engine game, and it fares a lot better technically on Nintendo Switch.
The Shin Megami Tensei series has been known for amazing music for a while now, and Shin Megami Tensei V exceeds the quality I expected even with music. If you played Shin Megami Tensei IV, you already know how amazing that soundtrack is, and it is great to see Shin Megami Tensei V build on that. It still has the same distorted feel for battle themes with great atmospheric ones for specific locations. Expect a lot of melodies as well. One of the battle themes sounds like a blend of old Iron Maiden and Shin Megami Tensei IV which is refreshingly good. The biggest surprise in the soundtrack is how good the themes for levelling up and negotiation are.
One aspect that wasn’t immediately noticeable until my friend pointed it out, is in how there are throwbacks to some classic Shin Megami Tensei tunes fragmented across specific songs here. Shin Megami Tensei V’s soundtrack is full of top tier songs and I feel like it will be stuck in my head for a long time. The later areas have incredible themes as well. The only downside to Shin Megami Tensei V’s music is there not being a release date for the full soundtrack yet. Hopefully that gets rectified soon.
I don’t have access to the Japanese voice DLC (or any DLC as of this writing) so I can’t really comment on how the voice acting in Japanese is, but the English voice acting is excellent. Some demons have some Japanese dialogue even when you use the English dub, which is disappointing. It feels a bit inconsistent because of that in these situations. The main characters and most demons sound great though with good performances almost across the board. I’m also glad to see Atlus use talent we haven’t heard in many recent games to give this a different feel and voice.
Considering this is a worldwide release, Shin Megami Tensei V will no doubt get patches. I hope these focus on improving the responsiveness of the menus and also optimization. While the early parts of the game are mostly fine, there are some later areas and one in the middle of the game that are pretty rough. I had to stick to playing docked during one specific area because it got a little too blurry handheld making it hard to see where I had to go next.
Even after all the time I’ve spent across different playthroughs, I have so much more I want to do in Shin Megami Tensei V with exploration, combat, side quests, new builds, and more. Shin Megami Tensei V gives you more freedom than you’d expect and manages to remain compelling all the way. Over the last few weeks, there hasn’t been a single waking hour I haven’t been thinking about Shin Megami Tensei V or how I can improve my party or take on the special enemies in some areas. When people look back at what JRPGs defined the Nintendo Switch, I cannot imagine Shin Megami Tensei V not mentioned alongside Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Dragon Quest XI S, and Octopath Traveler. It is that good and despite the technical issues, it is one of the best games of the year.