I fell in love with ATLUS’s take on JRPG with Persona 5 and Royal, admittedly I was extremely late to the party on that series, but I instantly fell in love with the vibrance of the game, characters, story, music and especially the combat. As I was enjoying it, friends would tell me about the other long running JRPG style series from ATLUS in Shin Megami, so now that I have my Switch, why not tick off another box on the “Games for Nintendo you should have played by now” list and dive into the latest entry “Shin Megami Tensei V”, though I was a little worried if I would take to it as much as I have with Persona.
In short, the answer is a bit of yes and no really, there are aspects to this game that completely connected with me, and I enjoyed and others that came as quite a surprise, especially as a newcomer to the series. Some of it is down to this being my first time playing the series and quite a bit of it does require some adjustment whilst other aspects are quite familiar after playing Persona 5.
The biggest difference that hit me immediately must be the complete tonal change in the world and story. That said, any game that features demons, monsters and angels was never going to be the happy joy type of story, but I was quite taken back by the dark themes woven into the world and the story, from the wasteland of a future Tokyo to the musical score which is very melancholy before the rock of the battle music. I admit, even having watched the trailers leading up to launch, I was not prepared for this, totally on me not understanding more of the series and not the game but I was a little bit distracted by the opening of the game putting you in the role of a character, that you can name, at school, much like Persona. At the end of the school day, a message on the school PSA system advises pupils to not travel home or to the school dorms alone and to travel in groups due to an incident at the nearby train station.
Unable to find pupils to group up with, you decide to head to the station alone, where chatting to people you soon learn that other incidents have happened across Tokyo recently, with this latest one being described as a vicious animal attack. Fearing for the safety of her brother, a pupil asks you to find him which takes you down a tunnel and after a sequence, you find yourself in a barren wasteland of sand and ruined buildings. After witnessing the pupil’s brother being carried off to safety by what looks like an Angel, you are then fused with another being, becoming a more powerful warrior, capable of infusing the skills of demons and using Miracles to improve your abilities.
The story is full of religious themes from across the world with depictions of deities and demons featuring in the game, but it also has more fantasy demons such as Pixies, Mermaids and in the early hours of the game, even Puss in Boots! The variety of demons is impressive, all with different attacks, abilities across casting spells and physical attacks. This all comes in rather handy when it comes to the core aspect to the game, the combat. Demons can be recruited and can join your party to fight with you. As you battle, they will earn XP and after levelling up, they can learn extra skills to be used in battle either in attack, defence or support depending on their class of demon. The mechanic for recruiting them is quite interesting as during battle you the player can ask to have a “friendly chat” and by talking to them, you can attempt to convince them to join you.
This friendly chat can be rather hit and miss as the demons will ask you questions and depending on your answer, can decide if you are worthy of joining but they can also request things from you such as Macca, the currency in the game used to buy items right down to Magic Points and even a chuck of your health. Even if you give what they ask for, they can still decide to just refuse and leave but taking whatever, it is you have given up in the attempt. This can be rather random so be prepared to take a loss especially when trying to recruit a higher-level demon. Once you have a demon in your party you can do more than just fighting with them. You can also acquire the essence of demons, which can be used to fuse their abilities with your player character and any demon in your party to give them new skills. This is a very handy mechanic as you can also obtain resistance to an attack type with them but also gain a weakness depending on the affinity you absorb from the transition.
The aspect that did feel very familiar from my time with Persona is easily the ability to fuse demons together to create a new and more powerful demon for your party, one that has skills from the original two demons used. This is the most satisfying way to strengthen your party throughout the game, though it is limited by your current character level so for example, you will not be allowed to fuse two demons together if the resulting fused demon is higher than your player level. You will end up going on a bit of a search to find the right combination of demons to create these new ones, which being forced to be limited to your character level can make the process quite frustrating.
These processes are all thanks to the Leyline Founts you will find in the game, which serve as not only a fast travel network to move between the regions of the world but also giving you access to saving your game, the world’s shop, and the World of Shadows, which is where you can do the demon fusion and learning the skills of other demons for your character. I love the visual style of these various places with Gustav as a green shopkeeper who always gives you the impression, he is fleecing you out of your hard-earned Macca currency with every deal and using it for some other grim purpose. The sequence for fusing demons together is as theatrical as it is quite sinister, as your character takes to a demonic piano to play the tune as two demons are vaporized before your eyes and the resulting demon forming in their place. Brutal to watch yet beautiful at the same time which is also how I would describe the visuals to the game.
The Netherworld where the demon battling takes place is a very bleak and inhospitable environment to roam and it is a place where you will spend a lot of time exploring and navigating as you move through the map clearing out demons as well as completing the various sub quests you can obtain by encountering the more talkative demons less interesting in fighting as in using you do complete a task for them. The world has a nice verticality to it as well which provides plenty of hidden places to discover and I had great fun discovering new areas with new demons to battle, recruit and engage with just by taking the map and deciding to head in one direction, often away from the main mission marker.
I loved the animation of the battles themselves, with some attacks and spells having fun animations to them, but I do feel that the engine used could drop in textures quite a bit, very noticeable when playing on the TV in docked mode and less so when in handheld mode of the Switch yet noticeable all the same. The cut scenes are amazing with some tremendous setups as the main story moves on but can be skipped if you prefer to get to the action right away. Controls are very intuitive both in navigating the world and in combat, the tutorials to the various and many systems in the game which can be quite complexed so I fully suggest taking your time in the opening hours or even just to give the game a good run through to learn it all before perhaps starting over for a full run once you know more because as fun as this game can be, it can also be very frustrating.
That frustration mostly comes in the very and often harsh difficulty spikes that can stop your progress in the main story because of the game giving you a boss battle you really had no chance to prepare for unless you are following a game guide. The first boss like this was the Hydra demon, the first big bad encounter the game throws at you after a good few hours of trying to learn the many aspects to the game. This guy destroyed me multiple times, forcing me to try out different demon parties to try and counter its attacks and stages, which is not as easy as it sounds as after you have moved to a new region on the map, the amount of XP you can farm is greatly reduced as well as already having farmed the variety of demon types. This battle left me feeling quite demoralized to play the game as I thought I had quite a good party of demons, making use of the World of Shadows to fuse to create new demons as well as completing subquests to acquire what I felt were higher level demons only for this boss to make them look like level 1 characters with its final stage form using a chain of moves that just destroyed my team forcing the reloading of a save just to try again.
This is something I would say to newcomers to the series with this game, it is not forgiving of the fact that you may be new, the handholding of the opening hours very quickly becomes the “get on with it then” vibe and can be both punishing and frustrating. Slow burner is how I would describe this game at times, and it is deliberately so as every loss and failure are a lesson on how to do better next time, though when it comes to that one boss encounter that makes you rethink your entire party lineup, it can be disheartening to say the least.
With that all said, and despite the flaws, this is a very solid JRPG for veterans of the series and considering the eight years since the last entry in the series, this has landed with some fanfare that will be rewarding for fans and challenging to newcomers. My advice for others jumping into the series with this is to take your time, especially if you have come across after enjoying Persona because whilst the two series are similar, Shin Megami Tensei V has a learning curve that will prove a test for seasoned players new or old. Post release and a new and free “Story Mode” has been made available in the Nintendo eShop, which adds a more story focused mode to the game, reducing the difficulty of battles so you can playthrough the story relatively ok.
I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy this game, I like the level of challenge but when the difficulty does spike, it is a good time to put it down and visit my Animal Crossing Island to unwind before trying again.