It’s far too easy for a game to be announced too early, receive too much hype, and ultimately disappoint at launch. That makes it all the more impressive that Shin Megami Tensei V (SMT5), announced by Atlus two months before the Nintendo Switch console had even launched, has somehow greatly exceeded my expectations in this review. SMT5 introduces a spectacular new adventure element that directly complements the existing stellar turn-based combat system, and the result is easily one of the best games of 2021 and one of the best games on Nintendo Switch in general.
The apocalypse has never been this much fun
Our preview covered the opening of the game in depth, but in short, Shin Megami Tensei V begins with your Tokyo high schooler protagonist somehow being transported to another world, called Da’at, where he gets transformed into a god-like being called a Nahobino. Da’at looks just like a post-apocalyptic version of Tokyo, with vast sand dunes and myriad toppled buildings littering the landscape, creating a mystery of where this world came from. Without getting into spoilers, the narrative eventually involves a war between angels and demons and a struggle to protect Tokyo from outside invaders.
However, Shin Megami Tensei V ultimately has even less story than Shin Megami Tensei III, which itself was a pretty story-thin game. Compelling characters are introduced and then not seen again for several hours, if you’re lucky. This is surprising considering Shin Megami Tensei IV and IV Apocalypse on Nintendo 3DS crafted slightly more involved narratives. However, this decision serves a purpose. In a comparison I was absolutely not expecting to make prior to this review — Shin Megami Tensei V reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in that the narrative takes a backseat specifically to leave more room for adventure.
To be clear, SMT5 is not an open-world game, but the sense of exploration is equally as inviting. Across the course of the game, you will play through four self-contained sections of Da’at, and each section is huge, comprising its own distinct wide variety of landmarks with clear visual identities. The world is meticulously crafted such that just finding your way from point A to point B sometimes becomes an unorthodox maze of its own, and there’s a ceaseless sense of wonder in how much vertical exploration has been cooked into the journey. Series purists may be disappointed that traditional maze-like dungeons are mostly absent in this game, but it’s hard to get too upset when the world itself has become such an engaging dungeon.
And even more importantly, the new adventure elements of Shin Megami Tensei V perfectly complement the existing hardcore RPG combat system. The world of Da’at is packed with things to find that directly enhance your ability to fight. For starters, there are regular items to find and assorted sidequests to take up. Sidequests often involve going somewhere to engage in a mini-boss fight, which is fun and sometimes unlocks new demons to fuse for your party.
There are also 200 hidden Miman to find, cute little red guys who are scattered in groups of 50 across the four Da’at maps, and they give you a currency called “glory.” (Glory can also be found as its own specially marked treasure.) Glory lets you purchase Miracles, which are power-ups with a wide variety of important functions, such as expanding how many demons you can have in your party or enhancing your effectiveness at using certain types of skills.
On top of all that, you can also find demon “Essences” in treasures or by receiving them directly from your demons. An Essence is a copy of all the skills and also resistances and weaknesses of a given demon, and you can have one Essence per each type of demon at a time. You can use an Essence to teach Nahobino or one of your demons powerful new skills, or for Nahobino specifically, you can use an Essence to give him that demon’s resistances and weaknesses, such as immunity to fire and weakness to ice. Shin Megami Tensei V presents a huge amount of strategy regarding which skills, resistances, and weaknesses you maintain in your party. Crafting a well-balanced party with versatile skills is critical.
And finally, Da’at is covered with regenerating green, yellow, and red orbs that restore your HP, restore your MP, and increase your Magatsuhi gauge, which is a combat feature, respectively. They make it so that you do not constantly have to retreat to a save point to purchase restoration after a few fights — yet another way that SMT5 keeps you focused on adventure.
Nonetheless, early on in the game, you receive an item that lets you instantly warp back to your most recent save point whenever you want. Plus, every save point can teleport you to every other save point. And when you teleport between areas in the same vast region of Da’at, the load times are nonexistent. In fact, the load times are often fantastic in general. Almost nothing ever gets in the way of the spectacular pace of your journey.
Truly, the only mild bummer about the exploration in Shin Megami Tensei V is that the soundtrack felt pretty subdued to me until somewhat late in the game, when it finally started to make itself a little more prominent. It’s easily forgiven though.
Shin Megami Tensei V will make a Nahobino out of you
The battle system of SMT5 uses Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse as its base, in that demons are inherently more effective at using specific types of skills than others. The Press Turn Battle System returns too, where exploiting your enemies’ weaknesses or landing critical hits grants you bonus turns, while using skills your enemies are immune to or missing your attacks takes away your turns. Guns and Smirks are gone though, and there is no gear to equip either. Nahobino and demons just have Strength, Vitality, Magic, Speed, and Luck stats that grow when they level up, and for Nahobino specifically, you can customize his stat growth.
You gain more demons for your party by fusing two or more demons into one stronger new demon or by convincing a demon in a battle to join you. SMT5 provides multiple different ways of sorting what types of new demons are available to fuse, which is extremely helpful because the process can become pretty complex. In fact, the game has some complex systems in general, but the UI does an excellent job of providing intuitive ways to absorb the vast amounts of data.
The major new combat mechanic in Shin Megami Tensei V is the Magatsuhi gauge, which when filled up lets you use a special super ability. The first and easily most useful ability is one that guarantees all your attacks for the round will be critical hits (though it doesn’t guarantee perfect accuracy), and all enemies in the game can also use this same Magatsuhi ability. As such, basically all boss battles (and the occasional tense normal battle) revolve around exploiting Magatsuhi skills to deal as much damage as possible, while also preparing to mitigate the danger when bosses use that same strategy on you.
In classic SMT fashion, the result is a lot of nerve-wracking, challenging boss battles. For at least the first half of the game, it feels like each story boss makes the boss that preceded it feel easy by comparison. Achieving victory is supremely satisfying in those situations. Late in the game, with some notable exceptions, the challenge subsided for me, but it was because I’d succeeded in fusing powerful demons and crafting a Nahobino that could withstand many situations. That’s the point of the game, and my victory lap felt earned (after 90+ hours of gameplay).
Beyond boss fights, regular battles are manageable as long as you don’t get careless. Demons roam Da’at openly, and since you run fast, it’s easy to choose to fight or flee. Occasionally, you will run into Abscesses, giant red abstract structures that obfuscate your map and summon lots of demons when you get too close. Attacking Abscesses triggers a mini-boss fight with demons, and winning destroys the Abscess and unlocks new Miracles for purchase. Destroying Abscesses is often optional but extremely worth it.
If the default difficulty isn’t to your liking, SMT5 also offers easy and hard modes. Day-one free DLC will further add a “Safety” mode that makes the game even easier. And when you finish the game, Shin Megami Tensei V offers two separate types of New Game+ that cater to hardcore and casual appetites, which is an excellent touch.
An incredible step forward for the franchise
Shin Megami Tensei V on Nintendo Switch retains all the strategic combat elements the Atlus franchise is known for, all while radically revolutionizing its world design to create an adventure that is completely addicting and flawlessly complements the battle system. It’s a truly remarkable achievement. In fact, while some people think SMT should borrow more from its spinoff Persona franchise, Shin Megami Tensei V makes me wonder if maybe Persona could learn a thing or two from its older brother.
A Nintendo Switch review code for Shin Megami Tensei V was provided by the publisher.