The Shin Megami Tensei series has long occupied a unique niche within the JRPG genre. While other franchises may feature monster collecting and explore darker settings or complex moral themes, no other game combines these elements in quite the same way. Now, with Persona 5 expanding the larger franchise's reach and introducing new fans to its compendium of cute, weird and terrifying demons, it is SMT's turn in the spotlight.
To that end, Shin Megami Tensei V could be the game that brings the series the mainstream audience it has always deserved. Maintaining the style and basic gameplay elements fans love while introducing quality-of-life improvements and new mechanics, SMTV feels both familiar and fresh, appealing to series veterans while holding the door open for new players.
Like past games in the series, Shin Megami Tensei V starts out with its protagonist, this time a high school student, living in Tokyo. While it's immediately clear that something strange is going on, an incident plunges the young man and one of his classmates into another version of Toyko called Da'at, which is said to have fallen nearly 20 years ago and is now filled with demons. After fusing with the mysterious Aogami, the protagonist becomes the Nahobino -- a being who is neither human nor demon -- and gains powerful abilities.
From there, the protagonist allies himself with Bethel Japan, a branch of an international organization that works to protect humans from the war between angels and demons. Along with his friends, who are trained to summon and battle with demons, the Nahobino must fight in the war and -- in true Shin Megami Tensei fashion -- ultimately shape what becomes of the world as it's rebuilt.
Having most of the game's human cast consist of high school students may sound on the surface like an appeal to Persona fans, but SMTV never veers too far into its sister series' lane. For one, while you will visit the school and the dorms at various points throughout the story, it's definitely not the focus, and the game lacks the social and relationship-building elements that define the Persona games. Still, the setting offers story opportunities that make some of the characters more compelling.
While this is still a fantastical game about befriending and fighting demons, certain characters have arcs that are widely relatable, touching on themes of bullying, low self-esteem and power. Blending the game's larger-than-life challenges with truly human problems raises the stakes for the characters and the player, though in a distinctly Shin Megami Tensei way.
However, with the story and certain arcs being so intriguing and relatable, it is then disappointing that some characters go woefully underused. For each character who reveals hidden depths or learns what they are willing to fight for, there are others who are introduced, then largely forgotten. Ultimately, this doesn't prevent the game from being enjoyable or make the story weaker as a whole, but it still would have been interesting to see certain supporting characters get a little more time to shine.
Between story beats, players will get stronger by exploring the wide open areas of the Netherworld, which is full of demons to fight, items to collect and secrets to uncover. Series staples like demon negotiation and the press-turn battle system are back, and the protagonist and demons are more customizable than ever thanks to Essences, which can be used to teach new moves or change the Nahobino's affinities. Not all of SMTV's improvements are completely new to the series, but everything is more user-friendly that ever.
All of this gets to what makes Shin Megami Tensei V such a great game for those who already love the series and those who are curious to see what it's all about. SMTV doesn't hold back where it matters. Its story and world are grim, yet compelling like returning fans expect, and its gameplay is challenging, requiring players to think about their moves and how they prepare for boss battles. The press-turn battle system is still just as likely to let you dominate an unfamiliar enemy as it is to get you wiped out by them, but the game also makes its systems easier to learn and features lower difficulty options (including a Safety mode that wasn't available pre-release) that those who are coming from the Persona games or entirely unfamiliar with the franchise can use if they so choose.
2021 has been kind to Atlus fans between the Western releases of Persona 5 Strikers and Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne earlier this year and, now, Shin Megami Tensei V. However, while Strikers was a spinoff that also served as a direct plot continuation to the original Persona 5 and Nocturne was a faithful remaster of a classic, albeit one that's showing its age nearly two decades after its launch, SMTV is instead something fresh, polished and newcomer friendly.
The game doesn't try to reinvent the wheel or introduce a brand new take on the franchise, but it also doesn't have to. Without losing its identity as a challenging, dark series that asks players to consider difficult topics and make tough choices, Shin Megami Tensei V also serves as a good starting point for those who have never picked up a Megami Tensei game before.
Developed by Atlus and published by Sega, Shin Megami Tensei V will release for Nintendo Switch on November 12. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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