Mere minutes into Shin Megami Tensei V, my half-teenager and half-demon character looks out over the arid desert of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where buildings have crumbled and sunk into the sand and cars appear weathered and distraught. Their blue hair flows down to the backs of their knees, moving softly with the wind and each movement. High above, the demonic forces of heaven and hell are locked in combat, the grotesque creatures of either side hurtling towards each other, trying to claim this world.
Then, in the sky, as a gloomy cloud crawls towards the fight, a gargantuan figure of the winged demon-lord himself, Lucifer, breaks through the sky slowly and descends with a menacing, authoritative presence. Meanwhile, this all plays out while the soundtrack blasts ominous, ethereal soundscapes with a guitar solo cutting through the noise. Shin Megami Tensei V takes itself very seriously, and I absolutely love it.
Originally announced in 2017, Shin Megami Tensei V is finally here on Nintendo Switch. The latest entry in this over 30-year-old series stands true to the classic turn-based JRPG elements that fans know and love while adding some interesting elements that shake up the formula. But one element is as true as ever, this is a really, really tough game.
As a quick disclaimer, this is my first Shin Megami Tensei game. I’ve played Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth on my 3DS (and loved it) but that is the furthest I’ve dipped my toes in any Atlus RPG until now. I am an ardent JRPG fan though, especially on Nintendo Switch, so I felt like it was finally time to dive in.
SMTV throws your character, an unassuming teenager who was attending high school with their friends, into a netherworld completely devoid of human life, now infested with demons both good and bad. After fusing with a demon to survive, you take on the form of the Nahobino, a new body that has several feet long bright blue hair and an energy sword available to summon at any point.
It’s up to the Nahobino to explore this world, you must try and find your lost classmates, and investigate what is causing both this barren world to exist, and the war between both celestial armies. It’s heavy stuff, and frankly, ATLUS does it justice by leaning into it. It’s still balanced with occasional trips to ‘normal’ Tokyo, as well as the youthful energy of your classmate friends, but the story, dialogue, and enemies are all presented with a knowing level of both depth and seriousness. This game is pretty metal, and it works.
For the uninitiated, the Shin Megami Tensei series is (very reductively) a bit like demon Pokémon, but there are a lot of significant differences. While you build your typical JRPG team out of monsters you find, these creatures are based on gods, myths, and cryptids of several different cultures. Mothman can stand next to a Pixie, or fill your team with a Basilisk, the Egyptian god Thoth, and an Archangel. The creatures here are a fascinating and really creepy mixture that makes it so exciting to constantly build my team.
While your party levels up normally, the biggest difference is that you can fuse your demons to create even more powerful creatures. The new forms take on different attributes and stats, though you can inherit some moves as you combine them. You can also pick up Demon Essence, and use that to convey new moves without changing your demon. There’s a huge scope here for strategy here, with each member of your party able to have such a diverse and powerful moveset.
When in battle, there are seven elements to pay attention to, and understanding your weaknesses and resistances is the key to victory. You start out each battle with four moves, one from each party member, but if you successfully hit an opponent with an attack they’re weak to, you bank another move, up to eight. So every party member can gain an extra move in one turn if you successfully target weaknesses. If the opponent is resistant to the elemental move, or if it misses, you lose two of your banked moves.
Then there’s the Magatsuhi Gauge, which fills over time when you give and receive attacks, and when filled allows you to use special abilities. These abilities can ensure every move in your next turn is critical, or you can use elemental special attacks available with each different demon. But importantly, your opponent can also make use of these, so you need to keep a close eye on when they build up Magatsuhi energy and prepare accordingly. It’s a risk and reward system that can very quickly turn against you, but is immensely satisfying to grasp.
It’s also something you’re going to have to understand quickly, as this game is tough. I’ve moved between casual and normal difficulty in my time with the game and found that pretty demanding, so old-school JRPG fanatics will no doubt have a blast with the higher difficulties. It never feels unfair, it just rewards an understanding of the mechanics, and means that building a team with a smart spread of moves and resistances is utterly essential. Especially during the game’s brutal boss fights.
There wasn’t a single boss fight I beat the first time, but that made it all the sweeter to come back with a better idea of my strategy and smoke them after a few attempts. The boss battles are huge, epic encounters that perfectly match the tone of the story and world, and each one made me even more invested in the real macabre feel of the game. Even the Hydra, the very first boss, is a huge mass of sprawling tentacles and Giger-esque teeth and features. The creature design is just stellar throughout, but never is it more awesome than with the bosses.
What might disappoint you though (especially if you’re trying the series for the first time) is the game’s commitment to old-school JRPG mechanics. Even with the ability to skip battle animations, and automate attacks, this is a slower-paced RPG than many, and if you’re struggling to grind, it can occasionally feel gruelling. The auto-battle also has zero options outside of using your most basic attack, so if you were hoping for something with the complexity of Dragon Quest XI’s battle options, it won’t be found here.
the battle system you do have here is so immensely rewarding and rich
There’s no auto-save either, nor do you retain experience if you die. If you’re out exploring for an hour and a tough enemy beats you, that’s an hour of progress lost. Even recovering HP and MP costs currency, and occasionally a demon fusion is unsuccessful. It’s not the end of the world, as you can summon any captured demon instantly from a compendium, but it costs a significant amount of money, so a failed fusion is still a stinging defeat.
Even the way you recruit enemies is tough, as you must barter with them, answering their riddles and questions before making an offering. They can ask for money, HP, MP, and sometimes they can simply run away because they feel like it. The dialogue is hilarious, and it made these encounters a really fun twist, especially seeing the personality of each demon, and how they want to be treated. Don’t expect to catch them the first time though.
Personally, I like the old-school brutality of the game, and while I would like some modern conveniences, such as the ability to speed up battles more and choose how I automatically attack, it was all very minor, and the battle system you do have here is so immensely rewarding and rich, it’s hard to critique it for sticking to its guns.
Of course, there’s a world to explore outside of battles, and the first thing you notice is how large the explorable world is. This dystopian Tokyo may be deserted of human life, but it’s packed full of demons and things to discover in every corner. With huge skyscrapers falling to pieces, crumbling highways littered around, and evidence of the apocalypse everywhere. This is all useful terrain to explore, as your character has a few platforming abilities to reach the world’s many secrets.
You can find small red demons called Miman hidden everywhere (which act as this game’s Korok seeds), and these reward you with an important resource called Glory. The Miman are fun to find, and you get rewards both for how many you find, but also the accumulative Glory they give you. Glory can be spent to improve the Nahobino’s abilities with skills called Miracles, including things like how many moves your team can learn, how many demons you can carry, and reducing the costs of both items and recovery.
These Miracles add another layer of depth and strategy to battles, while also giving you an extra sense of satisfaction to exploring the world. Alongside standard levelling up from combat, it means there wasn’t a single moment of this game that dragged. You can also find large clusters of Glory in hard-to-reach spots, as well as huge yellow orbs of energy that reveal items when hit, and ancient vending machines where you can purchase relics like ‘Soda’ that you can sell to a demon for cash. Not to mention, on your hunt for more demon team-mates, you want to explore every inch of the map to find the rarest ones possible.
The story also moves at a decent clip, giving you different areas to explore often enough to keep things fresh, and delivering huge reveals and character moments regularly through the run time. The story also goes to some dark places I wasn’t expecting and tested my emotional attachment to the loveable characters I met along the way. The game’s lofty themes build to an epic crescendo, and this is a journey you will want to see through to the bitter end.
Along with the many quests littered around, the overworld reminds me of games like Xenoblade Chronicles. These daunting, awe-inspiring backdrops are constantly visible, but a world that could be boring to navigate is given ample meaning with discoverable elements absolutely everywhere, and cleverly hidden routes found by climbing the rotten world. There are so many secret caves, rooftops, and tiny little paths hidden everywhere, and every time I discovered one, I was rewarded with something meaningful.
The most satisfying of these were the side-quests where I would discover a cave or area full of NPC demons, and the tasks they gave me added even more dark humour and colour to the story and world. If you want to blitz through this game, you might be able to do it in 50 or 60 hours, but I don’t recommend it. It’s more fun strolling around and exploring, and you even get experience for completing quests, so finding side-quests is actually one of the easiest ways to improve your team.
I want to mention the overall presentation of Shin Megami Tensei V, which is absolutely stunning. This game immediately enters the pantheon of best visual showcases on the Switch, as these large, but still fairly self-contained worlds, each offer a huge vista to explore filled with dynamic shadows, light seeping beautifully through the clouds, and an awesome sense of scale from both the huge decaying buildings and the many monsters you find.
The demons themselves are given extra macabre detail with the game’s visual prowess, and while you start out with simplistic imps and ooze monsters, the later intimidating entities become more visually impressive by the minute. Your late game team is a thing of beauty, no matter what you find or fuse, and especially if you make use of the Special Fusion technique to create uniquely powerful monsters.
This game immediately enters the pantheon of best visual showcases on the Switch
Finally, there’s the audio presentation, which is phenomenal. The soundtrack balances the ethereal and ominous tone with a driving urgency thanks to distorted guitars and a bombastic sound design. This is a game with heavy themes, and they’re given suitable weight thanks to the incredible music in every moment. The only wrinkle is the voice cast, which, while mostly amazing, has a couple of characters that sound slightly uninterested. While monsters and demons are given truly heinous noises to unsettle you, the main cast has a few characters that impress, and a few that feel phoned in. It didn’t take me out of the action, but given the commitment to the grandiose and the thematic weight of the story, the human characters occasionally stuck out to me.
Shin Megami Tensei V isn’t for everyone, it’s a brutal game that dares you to make mistakes, and punishes you with zero sympathy when you do. But there’s also an immensely rewarding battle system at play here, with an absurd and wonderful cast of unlockable characters, and a vicious set of bosses gleefully waiting to decimate them. The game’s dramatic themes are given suitable sincerity, and I found myself sucked into this morbid world within moments.
Ultimately, SMTV is a dense, dour, and incredibly rich RPG, with about a 60-hour story full of momentous battles and awe-inspiring visuals. It’s a visual powerhouse on the Switch, even in the most gloomy environments, and the sound design is phenomenal throughout. This is still a very traditional RPG though, and whether you have the patience for that is entirely up to you. Fans of the series and genre will find that Shin Megami Tensei V is one of the best RPGs on the system, and a worthy entry in the series decidedly worth the long wait.