God Is Dead: A Review Of Shin Megami Tensei V
Let’s go back to January of 2017. Nintendo was in a rough spot. The Wii U was a failure and they were holding on by the thread that was the 3DS. A few months prior they had revealed their handheld/home console hybrid called the “Nintendo Switch” but we still weren’t sure if it was going to save the company. A press conference was scheduled for later that night and I had the day off so I decided to check it out. During this conference big name executives at Nintendo started showing off what exactly the Switch could do, and in between tech expositions and talk about screen resolution they showed off some new games. Various publisher reps sauntered onto the stage showing off this and that, but the game that took me by surprise was Atlus’ new game in the Shin Megami Tensei series. We didn’t get anything in the form of gameplay but the proof of concept alone was enough to pique my interest.
We’d get another trailer later that year with the official title but after that we’d be left in the dark indefinitely.
For years I kept that game in the back corner of my mind like a tight shirt in the closet. I didn’t think about it too much, but I still wanted to wear it one day. Cut to 2020 and while I was panicking about the future and mulling over the present I would look forward to Nintendo’s quick “Mini Directs”- where they would show off a couple new games coming out in the next year or so. One game was a remaster of the 2003 cult hit “Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne”- a game that many consider to be the best in the series. I was thoroughly excited because while I did play the game in 2009 for PS2 I never finished it. This would be a great opportunity to give it another go. Immediately after the trailer for SMT3 we would be met with another short trailer for a new game. . . .
Three years later and we finally have a new trailer for SMT5. With the promise of a simultaneous worldwide release in 2021 I was beaming with anticipation. In June of 2021 we’d not only get a trailer showing actual gameplay, but we’d get several trailers, gameplay streams, Japanese TV Ads, Daily Vlogs, and a cover spread in “Weekly Famitsu” magazine. The media blitz had begun, and I was dipped right into the sauce that is corporate-manufactured hype.
With the game set to release on November 12th I took a break from my other games and dedicated my full attention to SMTV. Once the clock struck….2:15AM that Friday morning(digital releases are wildly inconsistent when it comes to launch time) I sat in bed and got started. I got maybe an hour into the game before falling asleep, but for a little over a month I played that game like it was my job. I drank it down like a cold beer after work.
60 hours, several late nights, and one broken control stick later….I have finished Shin Megami Tensei V. I have a lot to say so for brevity’s sake I’ve decided to split my review into two parts. The first part you’re currently reading will be over the gameplay, visuals, and music, and the second part will be over the story, world, characters, and conversations you have with them. Be warned that the second part of this review will contain not only spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei V, but also light spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei III and IV.
PART ONE: TO BE A DEMON
Without further ado, let’s dive into the meat of the game….the battle system.
Press Turn Battle System and You: A Look at Resistances and Weaknesses
The star of SMT5’s gameplay is both the demon negotiation system and the “press turn” battle system. We’ll talk a bit about talking to demons in part 2 so for now let’s discuss the core components of combat. nearly everyone in the game, including yourself has strengths and weaknesses to different flavors of damage. One demon might be weak to fire but can also block wind, or perhaps a boss can resist basic physical attacks but can only cast ice spells. When going into battle you want to set your team up with demons that can either block an enemy’s attack or exploit their weaknesses. I want to talk about the latter for a second.
If you take a look at the top right of the screen you can see three icons. Those represent how many actions you have. Perform an action (attack, heal, item, etc) and you naturally use it up. If you can cast a spell that exploits an enemy’s weakness or if you can perform a critical attack then you “press” on and essentially get a bonus action for the party. In this screenshot you can see that I have three actions but with four characters you start each battle with four actions. I just used one. Apologies in advance for the confusion. If each character can press an action then you can have up to eight actions per turn. Sounds difficult right? Well thankfully for you i’m just bad at explaining these things. The game itself does a relatively good job at laying the groundwork for you and by the 6 hour mark you should already have the game down to a science.
At the end of your turn the enemy will advance and start theirs, and the same rules apply to them. If they happen to land a crit or exploit your weakness then it could mean certain death for your party. Make sure to save as much as possible so that you don’t lose too much progress. For most boss battles you’ll be toying with different decks of demons to use so don’t get too attached to lesser allies. Learn to let go and make use of the demon fusion system. Basically what you do is take 2–3 demons, throw them in a metaphorical microwave, and in pops out a shiny new monster. It’s fun, and if you’re a real maven you can learn exactly what types of demons you’ll get out of what you’re fusing together.
If we go back to battles you’ll be introduced to the “Magatsuhi” gauge. New to SMT5, this party-wide limit break starts as a basic skill that will give all your demons a 100 percent critical hit rate, allowing you to deal massive damage while also giving you four extra actions in your turn. The kicker is that enemy parties also have the gauge, except you’ll only know when there’s is full right before they use it. Once their gauge is filled you have 4–8 actions to prepare. You can heal your party, try to take their party out before the turn ends, defend yourself with spells, or do what I do and simply escape from the battle. As you progress through the various side content in the game you’ll be given talismans based on the different tribes of demons in the game. With these demons of the corresponding tribe now use unique magatsuhi skills. These skills can either be buffs to your party, huge damage spells, or full heals.
It’s acceptable to run away in the game, and in a lot of cases it’s outright necessary if you don’t want to die and start over from your last save. Choosing “escape” in the menu doesn’t always guarantee success so make sure to have the spell “Trafuri” on hand or the smokeball item as they will let you flee without fail. Another item to have on hand is spyglass to scan enemies for their strengths and weaknesses. One particular enemy- the Mitama, choose a weakness at random at the start of the battle and block literally everything else.
I could probably write a whole thing on SMT’s battle mechanics but that leaves all the fun out of the discovery so for now let’s talk about what you’ll be doing outside of battles.
Miman, Treasure, and Vending Machines: How Atlus adopted the “Open Air” format of the modern open world genre
When you’re not smacking around demons or talking them into being your friend you’ll either be in a quick cutscene so the writers can throw more of the story at you, or you’ll be in the vast, desolate sectors of the game’s world. Towards the latter half of the game I found myself spending most of the time dodging enemies on the map, grabbing items from abandoned vending machines to sell later on, snagging treasure from giant glowing icosahedrons, and discovering little freaks called Miman spewed all over the map.
I love these dudes.
They’re Atlus’ answer to Breath of the Wild’s weirdo collectibles. Thankfully there’s only 200 of these bad boys in the game as opposed to Zelda’s disgustingly abundant 900 koroks, and in lieu of a simple puzzle followed by “YAHAHA! YOU FOUND ME!” Miman actually have personality. Each little guy has their own unique dialog, and let me tell you that these friendly monstrosities love the Japanese public transportation system. Half of them will be like “Hey did you know about this train? It’s pretty cool” and then they’ll vaporize into the smelly ether.
Here’s the “game”to Miman. You find one, they talk about a train or something, give you some currency to spend on upgrades, then they leave. For every 5 you find you get a little gift at the shop, and each one is usually hidden pretty well. They don’t appear on the map at first, but in each of the zones of the game you can pay a fox spirit an exuberant amount of cash to slap little Miman icons on your map, that way you can see exactly where they are. That doesn’t make it any less difficult most of the time however, because sometimes getting to a Miman can be tedious to the point of exhaustion. I spent roughly 40 minutes looking for one on my map only to realize that they were below me, underground. The game’s map system isn’t the best at showing depth, so I had to run around for a while until I could find a tunnel that eventually led me to the dude.
While I’m talking about it let me go on about how this game’s map might be what lead me to collecting as much extra stuff in the game as I did.
What’s that red splotchy stuff on the map you ask? It’s called an Absess, and in game their purpose is almost akin to most modern open world games’ “towers”. Instead of climbing something you usually just run up to the area with the absess and get ready to run for it because as soon as you’re close enough the glowing beacon will start rapidly summoning demons to kill you. If you get hit it’ll initiate battle (as all demon attacks on the world map do), but escaping is harder and the monsters are a tad stronger compared to others of the same kin. Dodging disastrous demons in an absess zone almost feels like making a run for a touchdown, and when you finally make it to the absess you’re met with a battle and a unique battle track. Think of them as minibosses.
There’s over 20 absesses in game, and each one feels a bit like a puzzle in some regard. For instance there’s one battle where you have to kill demons in specific order because one demon can heal another, and so on and so forth. Once you clear an absess of it’s demons the map will become clear, and you’ll discover new upgrades to purchase. I don’t want to talk too much about upgrades in the game but you’re going to want to clear every absess because some upgrades are almost necessary in the long run.
Once the map is finally visible you’re met with icons, icons and icons.
When playing a videogame there was a time where I didn’t pay too much attention to the map at all. Two games in recent memory have changed my views on maps for the better. Those games are The Witcher III and Resident Evil 2 (2019). The Witcher in particular has bright, visible icons all over the map, and my brain can’t help but focus on clearing every possible thing in the area before I can even think of moving on. This loop of “find treasure, start quest, finish quest, find treasure” bled into last year’s “Ghost of Tsushima” and here we are again spending hours clearing up the map in Shin Megami Tensei V. One such icon that I didn’t expect to care about in the game however was the humble dialog box (displayed as a small white speech bubble on the map).
Talking to NPCs in most games usually just aids in your immersion, and that isn’t different for this game, but in SMTV talking to NPCs feels like a checklist. After a big story beat I’ll notice that there’s new speech bubbles in zones from way earlier in game. I trek back to the area. It’s a new non-hostile demon. He has a quest. It’s worth noting that new quests in game are labeled as such on the map, but this particular quest was only found out because I wanted to see what this person had to say. From then on I made sure to talk to literally everyone. Some people give you items, or tell you about something interesting. Some just comment on something you did earlier in the game.
By the end of the game I checked off nearly every quest, cleared every absess, collected all 200 Miman, and collected every treasure chest in game. In doing so I didn’t have to grind for EXP once, so it’s safe to say (on normal difficulty at least) that clearing the game’s side content is almost required to have a full experience in the game. Grinding in JRPGs is a tool of it’s time. It was used to make short games longer, thus making them “worth more”. These days if your game has boring, grindy sections it’s because you weren’t confident in the product’s longevity. My biggest fear going into SMTV was having to spend hours battling monsters just to feel confident in killing the boss of the area. Now it feels like Atlus truly perfected what it feels like to play a JRPG in 2021.
But even then…..if you’re having trouble with a game, and the option is there….play it on easy!
Who cares what people think! You play a game to have an experience, and if that experience is hindered by difficulty then by all means change it. There’ s a downloadable option called “Safety” that completely removes all grains of difficulty from the game, so if you just want to look for Miman and talk to some demons be my guest and play the game however you want. Personally I like a little challenge to my videogames, but I killed a boss in this game only to die later on before saving- leaving me with a solid ten minute boss fight to redo. I’ve already proved that I could kill the dude, I switched to safety mode just for the battle and literally wiped that boss out in one turn. Play games however you want. If some weirdo with a dumb name on youtube like “The CPAP Gamer” wants to cry about how games are too easy let them cry. Have fun with your games. Don’t worry about others.
THE VITA LIVES ON: Graphical Fidelity and Hardware That Hinders Brilliance
Visually-speaking Shin Megami Tensei V looks like a Playstation Vita sometimes. Let’s get this out of the way, I played this game exclusively handheld on my Nintendo Switch. Playing while docked to a TV will add a little more fidelity to the game but heed my words:
This game struggles to run at a steady framerate nearly one hundred percent of the time.
This is Atlus’ first game to use Unreal Engine, and while I didn’t think the game would look as good as Square’s Switch port of Dragon Quest XI, Shin Megami Tensei V is a testament to the nearly 5 year old console’s struggle to stay afloat visually. If you don’t care about resolution or framerate then dive right into SMTV on Switch. If you want a better visual experience then you were probably never going to buy the game on this hardware anyway but I’ll just say to wait until the inevitable ports to PC and PS4/5. I don’t take many rumors seriously but according to a somewhat reputable source a PC port is in the cards, and since the game was built in Unreal I can see it happening sooner rather than later. Some people have turned to emulation to play SMTV at higher framerates but as of writing the results aren’t consistent enough to recommend.
Visual flaws aside the game looks great. Some of the lighting on character models give off a “2015 unreal engine demo” vibe. You know the one. They’ll drop Mario or Kirby into a photo-realistic forest and half the comments are “Nintendo should hire this person!” when in reality they did the bare minimum to get the results you see in the demo. I’m not saying SMTV’s work is lazy, but it has this uncanny wax figure look to everything. I’d even say it works in the atmosphere’s favor, because as you’ll learn in part 2 of this review being unsettled is what this game’s world is aiming for. When you’re not looking at mostly static demons in battle you’re seeing them fight, and the unique attacks that certain allies and enemies have are a sight to behold. When an enemy dies they usually fizzle into a kaleidoscope of lights, but if you kill an enemy with an elemental attack they’ll perish according to the final blow’s affinity. Take out a baddie with an ice spell and they’ll freeze solid right before shattering over the ground, or they’ll engulf in flames after you administer the coup de grace in the form of a fireball. Shin Megami Tensei IV had a similar effect but it wasn’t as flashy. SMT4’s battles consisted of 2D sprites, and when you would kill an enemy in a unique way (let’s say through a wind spell for instance) the enemy would literally fly off screen like a paper plane in a turbine.
Speaking of Shin Megami Tensei IV, it’s worth noting that SMTV has 220 demons in game compared to SMTIV’s 400. 2D sprites are easier to make than fully-rigged 3D models in Unreal Engine, so it just makes sense that this new game would have nearly half of the roster cut out. Almost reminds me of Gamefreak’s decision to leave a chunk of Pokemon out of their Sword and Shield games, only this time I never once saw an SMT fan cry about it on twitter. Food for thought.
THE BEST INDUSTRIAL ALBUM OF 2021: A LOOK AT THE SOUND DESIGN OF SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI
What you’re listening to is the battle theme for Shin Megami Tensei’s PlayStation port.
The Megami Tensei series has had various composers over the years, from Shoji Meguro to Takami Asano to Atsuhi Kitajo, and finally starting with Shin Megami Tensei IV Ryota Kozuka has taken on the role of the main series composer. He had done a few tracks for the franchise beginning all the way back in 2008 but in 2013 he had been given full reign on the series. I want to talk about his battle themes for a moment.
Here’s the battle theme for the first main area of the game. It’s a chill track that evokes this mysterious, ethereal, almost windy feeling that I think accompanies the game fairly well. About 5 or so hours in you leave the first area of the game and you get a new battle theme to enjoy. Let’s listen:
This is Kozuka coming into his own while still summoning forth the pure, raw energy of the composers before him. You can feel the SMT1 battle theme deep within this explosive piece of music. It sounds like razor wire wrapped around a metal bat. Before we move on to SMTV’s main battle theme I want to talk about everything before you fight.
When combat initiates on the world map you’re met with three possible outcomes:
Demon starts combat first
Demon extorts you for cash in exchange for your life
You start combat first
In the latter of the three you start by…not fighting at all. This is what I like to call the “Standoff phase”. Here you’re met with eerie siren-like music while you decide what your first action will be. You can start by attacking, maybe cast a healing spell on yourself, or use an item. Those few seconds before battle are what make SMTV’s combat so fun. In lieu of fighting you can even start by just…talking to them. I promised to get into demon negotiations later in the review so for now I’ll just talk about the music that plays during conversations.
What’s this 90’s after school anti-drug video music doing in SMT? I don’t quite know, but I love it. This track plays on a loop while you talk to these creatures so you’re guaranteed good vibes while Mothman begs you for cash in exchange for his friendship. If things go south during negotiations then you’re thrown straight into battle, and let’s just say that this next track is a certified Privately Attack Classic:
This track was featured in the game’s big gameplay reveal during E3 2021 and I just knew that it was the main battle theme. For months I laid in wait for the full track to hit youtube, but thankfully clever fans had something up their sleeve.
Shortly after the game was shown last summer talented musicians got to work on splicing together whatever parts of the battle theme they could hear and they tried their absolute best to make something worth listening to. I can’t find it anymore but one track took clips from trailers and livestreams to reanimate the battle theme, even to the point where demon screams from a trailer were left in the track. Before the recreation above you had to hear “CAW CAW” while you listened to the battle music on youtube. KumoriLeaksOST remade the battle theme essentially from scratch, and a couple months later another fan made a (now deleted) recreation of the battle theme using SMT1’s soundfont from the GBA version of the game. People were making covers of a song that wasn’t even fully available yet. That’s incredible.
You’re going to be hearing Shin Megami Tensei V’s battle theme a lot. Unlike it’s predecessor SMTV has but one track throughout the game, aside from two instances towards the latter half of the story. That being said boss battles, quest battles, absess battles, etc all have different themes, it’s just the normal fights that have this music. Not that I really mind though, because in the 60 or so hours of time spent playing the game I didn’t get sick of this song once. There’s enough variety throughout the track that you’ll be humming and chanting along to it in no time. At the 1 minute mark of the track you’ll hear the game’s main theme in the form of a little leitmotif, while the track chills out a bit and fills the air with distant sirens. It’s almost like a Bjork or SOPHIE track in this regard. At the 90 second mark you get low Gregorian chanting paired with a sick bass lick and back-masked moaning. The drums start to kick back in a bit and at the 1:45 mark Kozuka channels his inner Phil Collins and you get a strong, abrupt drum beat that cycles back to the beginning of the song. After the first loop the song does have a little extra piece to it but for the most part this track is designed to play during the duration of the battle.
In the event that the battle granted you enough EXP for you or your demons to level up, you’re met with this delicious, wonderfully executed little trap beat. There’s going to be several instances in the game where multiple demons will level up at once, so hearing this music while each monster gets a little stronger gives off this feeling that you did something cool and deserve cool music to go along with it.
There’s a lot of music in this game, but alongside the ambient world map music or the shredding battle themes there’s also another type of treatment your ears get when playing SMTV.
The voice acting.
(Spoilers for endgame abilities.)
The main protagonist of the game doesn’t have any spoken dialog outside of battle, but he does have some pretty cool abilities that he uses when fighting monsters. Kouhei Yanagi Is somewhat new to the industry but his chants and yells give a breath of life into the mostly silent protagonist.
In English we have Casey Mongillo, who’s been around the block since the early 00’s, and they were a great choice. I’ve been a big fan of their work as Shinji Ikari in the Netflix dub of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and to see them working on one of my favorite franchises warms my cold, ham-textured heart.
The rest of the cast does a great job, and while I’ll admit some parts get a little “90’s anime OVA” everyone sounds great. It’s not just spoken dialog that gets me going either. The yells and screams from monsters in this game are just so cool. Angels in particular have this robotic filter over their voices that make them feel separated from the other creatures. The sound design team as a whole needs to take a bow in just how creative all the sound effects are in the game. The sound of holy magic killing a demon is literally someone running their hand over the fret of an electric guitar. Telling you about this is a spoiler enough but I won’t share it. You’re gonna have to hear for yourself.
THUS ENDS PART ONE
I’ve decided to fully divorce this portion of the review from the story discussion. I’ve done my best to keep any major spoilers out of my writing thus far but I’m gonna have to get into some deep stuff for the second part. I’m going to attempt to be clever and publish part one and two on 11:30PM December 31st and 12:00AM January 1st respectively. Shin Megami Tensei V’s review simultaneously being the first and last of a given year’s writing only makes sense. It’s the Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. The slippery oroboros eating itself.