Some of my favorite fantasy novels are based on realizing old folktalkes or mythologies. For example, the Percy Jackson series asks the question, “What if the Greek Pantheon was actually real? How would these ancient gods be incorporated into modern American society?” A clever writer can take those familiar characters and shine a new light on them, asking questions that the rest of us haven’t thought of yet.
The Shin Megami Tensei series asks the question, “What if every god was real?” And by that, I mean every god… from every tradition. In fact, it’s not just gods — the game features heroes and demons and all kinds of magical creatures. From Horus, the sun god of ancient Egypt; to Titania, the queen of fairies popularized by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And yes, they even included the Judeo-Christian God, too. Any inferior team of writers would’ve buckled under the sheer enormity of that premise; they would’ve come up with a confusing mess of a plot. But Atlus has been working with this concept for several decades now (the first Megami Tensei was released in 1987), and while this game’s story has a few disappointing gaps, Atlus has overall managed to make Shin Megami Tensei V one of the most unique turn-based RPGs on the Nintendo Switch.
A JRPG of Apocalyptic Proportions
The game begins with you taking on the role of a high school student in Tokyo. Rumors are going around about strange phenomena — people disappearing in broad daylight and such. On your way home from school you end up taking a detour through a tunnel with some other students. Suddenly the ground shakes and you fall unconscious. When you emerge from the rubble, you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. An angel — a real live flying angel — whisks away one of your classmates, and a posse of demons threatens to tear you limb from limb. Just when all hope is lost, a humanoid figure zaps the demons and offers you its aid. Figuring it’s better to take the hand of this powerful creature rather than go it alone, you accept its offer and together you become a Nahobino. You possess the Power of a demon and the Knowledge of a human, and in this world, that’s a potent union. It’s now up to you to survive in this desolated Tokyo and figure out what exactly happened.
But let’s put a pin in the story for now and get to the main reason you might want to pick up this game: the open-ended JRPG gameplay. I’m beyond impressed by Shin Megami Tensei V‘s deep and challenging mechanics all synergizing together. You’re free to roam around massive environments searching for treasures and challenging foes, similar to Dragon Quest XI and Xenoblade Chronicles. The map design is both wide and dense, with many vertical structures to maneuver through. The third area in particular with its maze-like canyons took me several hours to navigate, and several more were spent poking and prodding around for secrets.
Visually, the environments offer you different flavors of the same post-apocalyptic Tokyo. And while the design made the areas stand out from a mechanics perspective, they all blend together aesthetically. It’s ruins, ruins, and… more ruins. Some landmarks did leave a strong impression, though, like Tokyo Tower, the Fairy Village, and the Wharf, so there’s still some visual creativity within the setting. Most areas end with a dungeon that thankfully breaks up the sprawling areas with more focused environments. If you’ve played Dragon Quest XI or Xenoblade Chronicles and wanted a more challenging world to explore, then this is exactly the game for you.
If you touch an enemy, you will jump into the turn-based combat system. Think of it like a high-stakes Pokemon battle. Every creature (including yourself) has a set of elemental weaknesses and resistances. If you strike an enemy’s weakness, you’ll get a bonus action to perform on your turn — and yes, that means you can opt to attack twice. However, the enemy can do the exact same thing. It’s in your best interest to find and exploit their weaknesses before they can find and exploit yours. If you find Essences in the overworld, you can swap out your elemental strengths and weaknesses as well as learn new attacks. There are also, of course, other components to keep in mind, but the next most important is the Magatsuhi gauge, which allows you to use various “special moves” based on the demon type. Use this gauge well if you want to turn the tide of a fight. At first Shin Megami Tensei V‘s combat seems like any other turn-based JRPG, but the brilliance is in how the enemy AI smartly uses the same tactics that you do, forcing you to learn all of the combat’s ins and outs. Even though it all boils down to clicks in a menu, the fighting feels like a frantic scramble to eliminate the enemy before they eliminate you.
Speaking of menus, I cannot review this game without gushing over the artistry put into every corner of this game’s UI. Atlus has a long-running track record of making outstanding menus, and this game is no different. This time Atlus uses a “water ripple” motif — an appropriate fit for the game’s theme of choices and consequences. Coupled with the atmospheric metal / rock / synth soundtrack, you’ll be slaying these enemies in absolute style.
But you don’t have to kill every monster. If you talk to them on your turn, you’ll begin a conversation. If you answer their questions just right (and maybe make a few bribes), they’ll join your party. No one is off the table — any non-boss monster is recruitable. In fact, I recommend trying to recruit at least one of every creature you see. You never know who might be useful later on. In this aspect, the game once again feels like Pokemon, although technically the Megami Tensei series came up with the whole “monster-collecting” idea in the first place…
While the idea of talking to every demon is fascinating, I found the execution to be a mixed bag. Some of these felt like clever “puzzles” when I figured out how to best interact with them. Others felt like frustrating guessing games, and even after I managed to stumble upon the right answer, I didn’t feel like I accomplished anything. If you have the right party member, they might actually strike up a conversation with the enemy instead of you, and I ended up laughing quite a bit as I eavesdropped on their wacky dialogues.
The most compelling part of demon collecting, however, is demon fusion. Eventually every demon will struggle keeping up with the enemies you encounter, and it will be time to fuse it with another demon to make a more powerful creature. These fusions can inherit the skills of its “parents”; and if you’re clever, you can create a demon with all types of elemental attacks, or even eliminate its own weaknesses. Most of the challenge of the game, in fact, can be boiled down to making sure you create the right team for the job — having the right party members that block just the right set of enemy skills. I loved coming up with my own strategies for the bosses, and if you plan ahead well enough, you can create some monstrosities that absolutely break the combat late into the game. I enjoyed the demon building and turn-based combat so much that I actually went out of my way to fight this game’s optional “Super Boss.” And even though I lost to it several times, it was so fun optimizing just the right team until I finally took it down. I can’t really say that about every JRPG.
With a game that borrows from literally every mythology on earth, I’m impressed with the variety of demons on offer. You may exchange blows with Fionn mac Cumhaill, an ancient Celtic hero; or you may recruit the Thunderbird from Native American creation myths. Even the Mothman is in here, a Cryptid tale told right from the heart of American Appalachia. The designs range from appealing and creative to downright grotesque. You can tell Atlus did their homework and put thought into every creature’s stats, movesets, and Lore pages. Part of the fun was just anticipating who I would see next. Even as my playtime ran above 70 hours, I was still pleasantly surprised by the rotating cast of creatures coming into the game.
A Story That’s Pure Pandemonium
Speaking of cast, the story of Shin Megami Tensei V is simultaneously the game’s most unique attribute and probably the element that you’ll like the least. Once again, I have to commend Atlus for coming up with a game where super-powerful deities from more than one mythology can co-exist in a way that actually makes sense. However, lore and worldbuilding only make up a fraction of a story. And so the game ends up being about just that… a fraction of a story.
The game’s cutscenes typically follow a pattern where you will engage in a few brief story beats and then explore large stretches of the world. You can play for several hours without having any interaction from the main cast of high school students that you started out with. Because of this minimalist approach, the pacing is all over the place, and the big plot developments don’t carry the weight that they need to. Some characters inexplicably disappear, only to reappear later and carry on as if nothing happened. Even after the credits rolled, I felt like I barely knew any of these characters at all. One of my biggest drives to keep playing through a JRPG is how invested I feel in at least one character. For Xenoblade Chronicles, it was Shulk and Melia; for Dragon Quest XI, it was Sylvando and Veronica. I needed to see what happens to them. But in Shin Megami Tensei V, that attachment and fulfillment just… isn’t there.
However, Shin Megami Tensei V makes up for these stunted relationships by postulating religious and moral questions. The game’s story wildly missed when aiming for my heart, but it nailed a bullseye when aiming at my head. If you play this game, you’ll find yourself thinking: “If I were in charge of the Universe, if I could make Moral Laws however I wanted… how would I run it? Would freedom make my people happy, or would freedom only lead to misery? How could I ensure justice is carried out without becoming a tyrant?” Thankfully the game offers the player vital downtime to turn these ideas over in their head, but the rest of the story is so minimalist that these ideas can’t support the game entirely on their own.
Each Shin Megami Tensei game typically offers three different endings, each based on a different general philosophy: Order, Chaos, and Neutral. The characters in Shin Megami Tensei V do not develop in a traditional sense — instead they grapple with these big ideas and end up along one of these three paths, offering dialogue that reads more like a Philosophy 101 textbook than of how they changed as a person. As a Millenial who grew up in a high-demand religion, I’ve seen my friends and family start out with a similar set of beliefs, only to see them veer in all sorts of directions over the years — some end up as fundamentalists, some end up as radical revolutionaries, and some end up somewhere in-between. Seeing fictional characters get radicalized in a similar fashion was hard to see, but I’m also glad that other players can experience for themselves the real inner spiritual lives that real people experience. I just wish Atlus could’ve made it a bit more personable.
I know that, thanks to its theming, Shin Megami Tensei V appears like a scary anti-religious game, but it’s much more nuanced than that. Shin Megami Tensei treats the Christian tradition just like any other tradition. It doesn’t necessarily aim to criticize Christianity; it’s just taking the Bible’s rich stories and characters and making something new with it, just like the Western world has done with Greek Mythology for centuries. When I hear the name Melchizedek, a deep part of my psyche recalls specific and distressing religious imagery. But in Shin Megami Tensei V, Melchizedek is just an angel with rocket boosters for feet. I fought it and recruited it the same way I fought and recruited any other enemy in this game. It’s disarming to see Christianity treated with this detached interest. As someone who has stepped through the maelstrom that is a faith crisis and emerged with a new worldview, I find it refreshing that a video game thoroughly probes an aspect of Western culture that most developers wouldn’t ever dream of touching, let alone analyze the way Atlus has done.
This is my first time playing a mainline Megami Tensei game, and overall it was a welcome introduction! I’m looking forward to playing the other games, and I hope I can find one with a more coherent plot, better developed characters, and faster pacing. There’s a gem of a game here, but it’s chipped and scratched up a bit.
Shin Megami Tensei V can feel like an isolating, lonely experience. You’re set loose in a large, hostile world with supernatural creatures that want to discuss Platonic ideals as much as they want to decapitate you. I find myself forgiving the game’s flaws because I haven’t seen a single other JRPG even attempt what this game does. I’m so pleased to see a game that would have the guts to push uncomfortable themes and questions and actually deliver on that premise.
If you like JRPGs but want a change of pace, and you think that a strategic turn-based combat system can carry you through a lengthy campaign, then I certainly recommend you try out Shin Megami Tensei V.