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Shin Megami Tensei 5 Will Punish You Hard, And You’ll Love It
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Genre: JRPG with demon summoning & hardcore difficulty
Let me paint a picture of the Shin Megami Tensei 5 JRPG experience for you:Â You decide to pick up a harmless fetch quest. Just walk around and gather some items, it tells you – no big deal, right? You follow the questline and embark to different points on the map, fighting monsters, leveling up, and collecting items on your path.
You return to your quest giver with the items they want, but all of a sudden, your kind and innocuous gesture triggers an inescapable battle. Catching you off guard, the powerful enemy demon exploits your weakness, which immediately kills you before you can even attempt to recover.
Next thing you know, the game’s title screen crawls into view, signalling yet another game over, this time wiping an hour of your progress. Your error? Attempting to complete your quest before saving.
Experiences like this paint the picture for the kind of game Shin Megami Tensei 5 is. It is unforgiving when it comes to tiny mistakes, and will ruthlessly punish players for allowing small slip-ups in the first place.
The game begins with a familiar premise, as you’re placed in the shoes of a silent high school protagonist. Rumours of monster attacks have been plaguing Tokyo lately, with cases escalating as time passes. You stumble upon the aftermath of one such incident, and as you search for your school acquaintance amidst the commotion, a sudden earthquake loses you of your senses.
When you awaken, you find yourself in a ruined Tokyo that’s overrun by demons. Before one can skewer you alive, however, you’re saved by a mysterious Proto-Fiend named Aogami. You fuse with Aogami to become a human and demon hybrid called a Nahobino, which grants you the latent powers necessary to survive the hellscape you’re stranded in.
Before you can confront the horde of demons that awaits, the Nahobino must enlist a party of demonic allies to even out the playing field. As is Shin Megami Tensei tradition, these demons are recruited either through fusion or negotiation, with the latter being your main bread and butter.
Negotiations are, for the most part, an exercise in trial and error. Demons will ask you questions or act oddly, and it’s up to you to reply in ways that appeal to them. The possible avenues that a conversation can go are endless, and with demons being predisposed to coming up with illogical reactions more often than not, getting a demon to join your cause sometimes isn’t easy.
Even after successfully bantering with a demon, they will often ask you to fork out items, money, some MP, and even HP to seal the deal of them joining you. At times, the game compares whether a particular stat of yours exceeds the demon’s. If you’re missing any of these, tough luck. Failure to appeal to a demon may result in them leaving, or open yourself up to an attack. Or maybe you’ll think you’ve succeeded, and they’ll choose to leave you in the dust anyway – sucker.
To some extent, the unpredictability of demon negotiation makes for a frustrating experience. However, this is also made bearable through the breadth of personalities in the demons, as conversations are often filled with ridiculous quips and amusing jokes that at times even break the fourth wall.
Success rates can be manipulated to some extent, at least, through unlocking certain passive skills, or by attempting a negotiation during certain in-game moon phases, such as right before a New or Full Moon.
Demon recruitment is only half the battle, however, as demon encounters also become the bulk of how you progress in this game. Like previous Shin Megami Tensei titles, SMT5 utilizes the series’ staple Press Turn system. By taking advantage of an enemy’s weakness or landing a critical hit, you can earn a new turn up to a maximum of four. However, if your attack misses or is nullified, you lose two turns.
With this, the Press Turn system is as dynamic as ever, in which well-planned sequences can allow for a powerful series of attacks, or to have buffs, debuffs, or status ailments up before your enemy becomes a problem. Is your demon weak against a potential incoming attack? By earning enough turns, you can command that demon to put its guard up before the enemy acts.
Of course, Press Turn also acts as a double-edged sword, as enemy demons also gain full advantage of everything the system has to offer. Being on the losing end of this system is often devastating, at times spelling doom for even a completely healthy party as your opponent throws one attack at you after another without any option for retaliation.
Which is why risk mitigation is the name of the game in Shin Megami Tensei 5. Running a roster of demons with the right stats, skills, and affinities for a particular fight is extremely key, often making all the difference in drawn-out fights. Finding the best combinations to completely counter an enemy demon is satisfying, and a valid route to victory besides the traditional route of levelling up.
SMT5 also introduces a new type of mechanic called Magatsuhi skills. As you engage in battle, a Magatsuhi gauge fills up over time. Once fully charged, the Nahobino and his allies are then capable of activating skills with powerful and different effects.
For instance, the Omagatoki: Critical skill guarantees a critical hit for the entire party, thus enabling them to abuse the Press Turn system to their heart’s content. Meanwhile, the Big Bang skill deals Severe Almighty damage to all enemies, making it useful for clearing a pack of demons ASAP.
Certain types of skills are limited to only certain races of demons, adding to the decision-making process of who to bring to any one fight. Additionally, like the Press Turn system, Magatsuhi skills can also be used by enemies, opening up a new layer of strategy that spices up the tension of battles.
Demon Fusion and the compendium will no doubt be familiar to SMT fans, but are perhaps the most accessible they have ever been through their decades of iterations. You can create new demons from a combination of two demons through the Dyad Fusion, and you are provided with a simple preview of the resulting demon before you make your attempt, with the choice of inherited skills being as simple as toggling them on the preview screen.
If that seems too limited for you, Reverse Fusion lists down all of the possible combinations of demons that you can obtain with your existing roster. Furthermore, the Reverse Compendium Fusion does the same but bundles all of the demons you’ve recruited before (even if they’re not in your party) into your possible fusion results, with prices for summoning also included. These options offer a birds-eye view for your possible fusion options, which improves on the decision-making process in an exceedingly complex system.
Overall, a lot of effort was clearly made into making the initially-daunting Demon Fusion much more seamless as a feature. This works out well for team building and strategy, as much less time is spent on memorizing demon combinations or price calculation, and you can instead jump straight into which demons are best-suited for the upcoming challenge and how you can spend your scarce resources to obtain them.
Adding to quality-of-life features in SMT5 are new items called Essence Fusions. These are essentially skill books, which you can obtain from demons or collection points on the map. Just about every demon has its own Essence Fusion, of which you can teach the skills from these Essence Fusions to any of your own demons. Likewise, your Nahobino is also capable of consuming these items to change his weaknesses and resistances, broadening your strategic options without an extensive time investment.
The formula for exploration has been shaken up quite a bit from previous entries in the series. SMTV boasts open-world regions for you to explore, which seem to replace the more classic yet claustrophobic dungeon-crawling layouts of old.
An important thing to note, however, is that SMTV’s open-world is moreso a collection of interconnected zones than it is a sprawling landscape without restrictions. The devastated ruins of Tokyo are ripe with secrets and collectables, but you’ll also have to defeat increasingly stronger enemies as you slowly unveil the map. As the Nahobino, you can jump and sprint about freely and in fluid motions, which feels good considering the amount of exploration that is expected of you.
Instead of random encounters, demons roam the world in their entirety, giving you the option to either engage or skirt past them completely with your character’s agility. While usually avoidable, demons often also come in packs, are quick, and are at times tough to even ambush, which evens out the playing field.
Meanwhile, exploration is rewarded with Glory to improve certain passive skills, unique items that unlock new abilities, as well as plenty of EXP, guaranteeing that less time is spent on levelling or grinding for materials through battles.
Along the way, you’ll run into various side quests, many of which serve to introduce new areas or points of interest rather than force backtracking. While some may present you with sudden mini-boss fights, others can be quirky and sometimes even shed insight on the lore behind certain demons.
Though the dystopian look in the game’s environments do eventually get a bit bland, the demon NPCs spread across the world of SMT5 help bring a sense of personality to an otherwise desolate world.
The focus on open exploration does rear its head at some point, as the story takes a noticeable backseat whenever you hop into a new region. The premise itself focuses on a secret war between Gods and Demons, but whatever intrigue this story offers is only glimpsed in short bursts after you’ve spent hours scouring the map.
Storytelling remains sparse until you touch the next main quest marker, and the required levels for the main story basically necessitate that you grind a little bit via exploration or battles before you can comfortably progress.
The characters introduced throughout the story are also fairly one-note. Though SMT characters tend to also be abstracts of the series’ classic Law, Chaos, and Neutral alignments, characterization still feels undercooked as story exposition and dialogue leans toward, and continually remain, on the light side.
Shin Megami Tensei 5 is an enormously challenging yet addictive RPG that thrives on its complex yet effective combat, featuring clever design choices that serve to trim the fat on the series’ traditionally-perceived hurdles.
In terms of presentation, SMT5 boasts probably the highest of quality from developer Atlus, with the company investing back the fruits of some of its recent successes into more polished animations, effects, and general content. While the soundtrack is hardly bombastic, the moodiness of the tunes are as atmospheric as can be to drive in that feeling of loneliness amidst a ruined, demon-infested Tokyo.Â
The lack of a compelling story can be a downer to folks diving in from the Persona franchise, and the shift to fewer dungeons may not satisfy the most hardcore of players. However, the core combat – a key appeal of Shin Megami Tensei – should nonetheless feel familiar, if not more engrossing than it ever has been thanks to streamlined mechanics and a larger emphasis on smart decision-making.
Review copy provided by Atlus.
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