Turn-based RPGs have gotten increasingly stronger in recent years with the likes of the Persona and Dragon Quest series, and Shin Megami Tensei V is the next big release on tap.
Shin Megami Tensei isn't as well-established as Persona, but it's a long-running, successful and traditional turn-based RPG with extremely deep systems in and out of battle.
This Nintendo Switch release from developer Atlus again tackles major themes in religion, mythology and beyond while tasking players with recruiting demons and navigating an apocalyptic setting.
Unveiled in 2017 as part of the big rollout of the Switch console, Shin Megami Tensei V has had a long route to release, and with that comes major expectations. Whether the game can match those will dictate how prominently it can stand out among a stacked overall Switch library of games.
Graphics and Gameplay
Like any major Switch release, Shin Megami Tensei V manages to catch the eye whether in docked or handheld mode.
Granted, it's operating within its own art style, so it makes use of the Switch's power to maximize the looks of the artistic flair the series is known for. Characters look great within that style, and it feels like the game goes out of its way to hit on a huge range of colors so that nothing is ever boring and the varied environments have a sense of depth to them thanks to scale, draw distance and shadow and lighting work.
The best example? It's fun to explore the post-world-ending event Tokyo early in the game. A sandy environment like that could be boring, but the game manages to make it work, with whispers of the submerged city sticking up, ready for the player to navigate.
It helps that the soundtrack is solid too. It won't blow veteran RPG players out of the water with some of the rock and other tunes that play away in the background, but the way the music crescendos as the action gets tense is splendid.
Actual in-battle presentation is exactly what JRPG players have come to expect. Some stunning summons, such as crashing a tidal wave down on to enemies, look superb. The colors and creativity of demons and all manner of monsters never fail to capture the eye, and moves generally look effective.
Besides the usual array of in-game moves players can make on a given turn, negotiating is a big part of the experience that sets apart the series from the rest. It tasks players with trying to say the right things to a certain demon to get it to join the player's party rather than attack. This can feel totally random and can backfire, though, and mechanics such as the phases of the moon can influence how these play out.
Still, it's fun to attempt to build the right team and strategy for an upcoming challenge. It's not Pokemon by any means, but it is a fun subsystem players will get better at as they progress.
Team construction can play a big role because of the expected importance of the elemental weaknesses system, which is exactly what it sounds like. Exploiting that is the key to success, never mind building a Magatsuhi gauge that lets players unleash a timely ultimate ability that will be critical for boss fights and tough encounters.
The nature of the series shines with its actual handling of turns. Successfully hitting an enemy with their weakness or scoring critical hits grants additional turns. Getting the weakness wrong or outright missing an attack, though, subtracts from turns.
This is basic in nature, but it also develops a fun momentum to combat. Just keep in mind these same rules of momentum apply to enemies—and things can go horribly wrong quickly. That's part of what makes the combat system so engaging. Defense is just as important as offense. This isn't one of those turn-based games wherein players can effectively ignore what the opponents do during their turns while hammering away on the offensive.
Shin Megami Tensei V can be brutally difficult. It's blatantly proud of its old-school RPG designs (in a laudable way), and that same approach is clear when it comes to the challenge. A group of enemies can wipe out the player's party in one single turn, sending them back to the title screen. No revives. No checkpoints. Just done.
Admittedly, it can feel overwhelming, if not unfair. The game wants players to learn from losses, though striking the balance with something like this is a balancing act most games never get right.
To its credit, Shin Megami Tensei V mostly gets it right. Players will learn what elements and such work in a certain area, only for a new enemy or area to blast them back to the title screen with a smirk. This quick understanding that a new enemy type or area can do this to the player at any time adds a pretty good sense of tension to what would otherwise be a standard-fare, grind-the-mobs JRPG experience.
Exploration is a big plus that might go unnoticed by players at first. Even in past games in the series, in true JRPG form, players would simply navigate from basic dungeon to basic dungeon. Not here. Even the game's first major area is downright gigantic and has an open-world feel to it. There are secrets to uncover and even some verticality to explore.
It helps that getting around is fun. Where other RPGs have tried things like mounts to mix up the big journeys of late, the player's character here is quick and boasts an unlimited dash. Platforming-like challenges while seeking out hidden items feel good too.
Story and More
Shin Megami Tensei V weaves a dramatic, sometimes confusing tale.
Those familiar with, say, Persona 5 from Atlus will feel right at home with the silent protagonist. But those who dislike that sort of leading character will have a hard time with this one too.
Early in the game, a tunnel collapses on the protagonist and he's inexplicably transported to another dimension, one wherein angels and demons flit around a post-apocalyptic setting. An entity fuses with the player's character, enabling it to become a Nahobino, and away they go.
That's where there's bound to be a divide for players. On one hand, the lack of info regarding pretty much anything—but primarily the reason for the world becoming a wasteland—can provide a sense of urgency or mystery. But on the other, it's also just confusing and can leave players feeling like they have missed out on information.
Character development, at least, is a massive strength of the game. Small details about characters and the world are there for the taking if players pay close attention to conversations and more. The game starts on this march upon its launch by introducing classmates and important characters and giving them some stage time and doesn't let up throughout the game—in a good way.
Over the course of the story, players will align with one side of the moral conflict. It does raise some interesting questions and focuses on topical things like unemployment, albeit with an angels vs. demons flair.
As mentioned, exploring the world is an important part of the gameplay loop, and there's a big reason as to why it's so critical: stumbling upon key items.
There aren't just health orbs and the like scattered about, as there are sidequests to tackle, abscess to clear on the maps, vendors, save points and an important detail called Miman, which are discoverable and let players build up a currency that eventually unlocks Miracles.
Miracles are a critical progression point for the player's character, as each one acts as a major buff. A simple one to point out is the buff that permits even more demons to join the player's party. These range all over the place, though, suggesting that two players could have wildly different playthroughs based on how much they explore and which buffs they choose.
Ditto for Essences, cores found on demons throughout the game that the player can fuse with their main characters or other demons in the party for buffs.
This system, by the way, takes place with an NPC named Gustave, who is a sight to behold and one of the game's most memorable characters. Let's leave it at that.
As touched upon, party construction can be critical to success. But so can taking that construction and using the fusion system to make even stronger demons. It's a trial-and-error thing for players early on but will become second nature in time. Combining upward of four demons to make a bigger, badder one is a quick way to get an advantage so long as players keep a close eye on affinities and elementals.
While we've harped on about Shin Megami Tensei V being brutally difficult at times, it's important to note that the game does a great job of slowing things down and explaining every little gameplay system. So much so that it feels like players get stuck in a tutorial for a pretty long time.
Atop that, there's a solid menu system and set of options, including different levels of difficulty if things do get too hard. The easiest mode lets players mostly just explore the story, so it's not as if the game isn't accessible to players of all skill levels.
Shin Megami Tensei V should be interesting to watch from a speedrunning perspective.
There's always room for an RPG like this to have serious legs as a speedrunning game. Persona 5, for example, has had plenty of entries near the top of the leaderboard this year, where a time hovering around the 15-hour mark is tops.
It's easy to see this game taking that long for a speedrun, and it should make for a great viewing experience simply because of the skill runners will need to juggle all of the game's intricate systems, from fusion strategies to chaining together huge turns against the biggest of bosses.
As far as tips at the game's launch go, typical ones to check off the list include skipping dialogue and cutscenes. Knowing where to go is a big part of the battle for a top time too, so making a few runs all about optimal routing is a must.
In terms of collecting and exploration, the minimal amount of mob grinding will be best, but it will also be important to properly recruit and fuse with certain elementals in order to exploit the weaknesses of a big boss who serves as a roadblock.
Organically grinding currency can also lead to purchasing items that can assist in the journey, whether it's simply loading up on heals, revives or something more complex. As with everything else here, it should be downright thrilling to see how would-be runners will manipulate all of the systems here in order to achieve the quickest possible time.
Shin Megami Tensei has always had a unique subset niche in the RPG world, so it's only right that the series gets well-represented on the Switch.
This latest offering makes for a strong onboarding point for new players to the series. Extensive love and care clearly went into explaining the gameplay systems at a player's hand, and they are truly enthralling to dive into, even if the overarching story isn't of interest.
Whether this is the offering that makes Shin Megami Tensei a breakthrough hit like Persona is hard to say given how the stories and subject matter differ. But it's a distinctive twist on RPGs and a throwback of sorts that will seriously scratch the itch of anyone looking for a classical experience in that regard.