Shin Megami Tensei V pulls no punches. Except, of course, for your punches. The turn-based role-playing game must have looked at the recently re-released SMTIII: Nocturne and decided “Yeah, physical attacks were too strong in this game from nearly 20 years ago.” So we’re left with a brutal seesaw — one where you might be expecting some give and take, while the other side is a 10-ton boulder. But god, I do love the challenge…
God doesn’t care much about what I like, of course. Not in SMTV. The series continues its long tradition of angels and demons duking it out over ideology. Collateral damage be damned. Amid that crossfire are other monsters: mythological heroes, deities, saints, the devil himself, and a bored ogre astride a giant toilet.
It doesn’t matter. These legends all boil down to “demons” for you to wield (even the angels). Then you, the protagonist, bring them into battle to fight more and bigger monsters. It’s like Fate — that anime and mobile game franchise about summoning Leonardo da Vinci and King Arthur, but with big anime titties — but has somehow mostly resisted the pull of redesigning everyone into conventionally attractive feminine avatars.
This is probably, at least partially, why Shin Megami Tensei still feels “niche.” Despite spawning the massively successful Persona spinoffs, of course. Potty Shrek and the brutal, unrelenting difficulty probably don’t make for the greatest mass appeal. Yet I still thought this game might hew more closely in that direction. Persona 5 alone feels like an institution at this point: spawning multiple spinoffs and TV series of its own. I thought this time the so-called main games would follow suit.
So, like an idiot, I started SMTV on the hardest difficulty. My beautiful protagonist with an absolutely stunning school uniform kicked things off by chasing rumors of a monster murdering commuters in Tokyo (where the game starts), before tumbling into a blasted wasteland. Naturally, they immediately fused with the first hunk they saw, transforming Magical Girl-like into a long-haired little twink with lightsaber nail polish.
This is hilariously similar to Nocturne in some ways. That game started with your adorably empty-headed hero being saved by Lucifer and fed a nasty, magical centipede that gave him demon powers. SMTV just swaps the “nasty, magical centipede” for a hot guy who falls out of space. The game somehow harkens back to that gloomy game, sort of tries to sexy it up for modern tastes, and stops just short in a way that’s… really endearing, actually. It feels off-kilter, like Nocturne, but adds up in a way that remains very much its own thing. Whereas it could have just been a weak attempt to recapture the cult status of its PlayStation 2 predecessor.
“Endearing” isn’t the same as “welcoming.” SMTV has no checkpoints, no auto-saves, and no retries. What are you gonna do with that big bat-demon? Gonna hit that Celtic folk hero? Better make it count. Better make it hurt. Better kill him in one shot, or else it’s back to the title screen while hoping, frantically, that you actually saved the last time you hit a fast travel point.
I don’t always save. Unlike my disposable allies, I’m only human. I forget sometimes! And that might mean entire side quests and not-terribly-short platforming puzzles that need redoing.
Yes, platforming. SMTV is a lot more vertical than the series has been until now. The wasteland Tokyo you traverse is chock full of dunes to slide down like a snowboarder and shipping containers to shipping containers to jump between in search of divine juices. It’s actually one of the primary ways to bulk up and battle the laughably challenging bosses. You can find deposits of “Glory” hidden in the strangest places. Then you turn these skill points in for permanent, passive upgrades — like bonus damage to fire attacks or regenerating health and mana.
It’s basically identical to the “App Point” upgrades from the somewhat maligned SMTIV and its better received follow-up, SMTIV: Apocalypse. As in those games, the upgrades also mean you’re not completely screwed if you breed your demons incorrectly. The fusion system, which lets you combine those creatures into more powerful allies with inherited spells, is unsurprisingly back. It also ought to be familiar to anyone who’s played the previously mentioned SMT games, Persona, Devil Summoner, Devil Survivor, Strange Journey, or… Y’know, most other games in the series at this point.
There’s also a new type of item called “Essences,” which lets you transfer any skill from any demon to any other pretty much at any time. In this way the game is actually much less punishing long-term. You can customize your beasties and yourself pretty much on a whim.
The thing is that SMTV actually wants you to engage with all these systems — not to mention use myriad healing items and the like that you might take for granted in other JRPGs. The game is challenging because enemies hit hard, hit often, and don’t seem to care as much when you hit them. Not unless you target specific elemental weaknesses, thereby gaining extra turns to thin herds of foes in the wild or outpace bosses. But actually thinking about your arsenal makes these fights surmountable. SMTV doesn’t (often) feel cheap; it feels demanding.
I personally like to think up and ration out ways around these demands. Long-established genres like JRPGs tend to build up cruft over time. Cruft like consumables you never use. Cruft like upgrades you don’t need, NPCs you don’t need to speak with, or side quests that aren’t worth doing. They’re there because they’re expected. In SMTV, however, most of these things serve a pretty critical purpose. It’s just up to you to figure out what that is.
Your patience for that sort of thing might be very different from mine. But the game is launching with an extra easy “Mercy” difficulty mode as DLC for those who just want to experience its stilted world. For everyone else… I’d still play on Normal. The game punched me right back down from Hard after just a couple of normal encounters with wandering enemies. I can’t imagine fighting a boss — much less the gigantic, optional creatures that guard parts of the semi-open world — if they had even more health and damage.
But I can think up ways to overcome them right now. I can use a Wind Dampener to trick a foe into wasting its turn, freeing me to land two rounds’ worth of blows with unique items. With the right upgrades, my demons can use my equipment, too, saving themselves mana to use on even bigger hits down the line. Little maneuvers like that add up to make SMTV more fulfilling than frustrating. And that’s all I really need on the road through its still-weird world.