It's strange that I get such hesitation to commit to a blog post these days, when these words used to so naturally flow out through me. It used to excite me to spread my toxic takes to my fellow vidja apes, but my interest often wanes in favor of YouTube or a good nap.
But, a new, mainline Shin Megami Tensei game also doesn't come out but once in a blue moon.
That I finally get to say I spent 90+ hours with Shin Megami Tensei V after so much silence and nearly 5 accumilated years since its announcement is a ginormous weight off my shoulders as an avid supporter of this franchise. I can put this sequel's New Game Plus on the backburner and ponder my experience for the sake of a few jokers who decide to read my thoughts, then move on to another time sink.
It's not hard to imagine someone enjoying something they put almost 100 hours into, which is, indeed, my general impressions of this game. Granted, by this point, it would be an honest to goodness feat for ATLUS and co to fuck up a franchise whos design doc has been as successful as it is, often times, unshakable, but this does retain that overall quality these games are known for.
It just retains it in ways I didn't expect and so well that it overshadows some obscenely glaring missteps.
There isn't a whole lot about SMTV that isn't merely a refinement or slight alteration of any one aspect included in prior games. You still take advantage of the game's Press Turn combat system by focusing on enemy weaknesses and buffs/debuffs, you still negotiate with and fuse demons to obtain more and more powerful teammates, all the things a protagonist apparently must do in this economy. What is easily most different, however, is the hub design.
I say with zero hyperbole that it was a genuine thrill to explore every nook I could for any old item or essence laid bare. Even early on, I was grinning ear to ear existing within these war torn lands, but things get pretty interesting as you continue onward. Pathfinding gets complicated and borderline puzzle-like, verticality begins to play a larger role and the sense of scale becomes immeasurable compared to Nocturne or SMTIV. This was where I was finding the generational leap that is seemingly far too rare between numbered sequels.
The very act of jogging betwixt the tight alleyways and many demons of greatly-varying sizes is exceptionally well-polished. Quite literally sliding about and jumping from 3 or 4 (or more) stories high never ceases to feel empowering.
For a considerable amount of time, this was enough to justify yet another deep dive into what was, otherwise, the same old tricks. Surgically fusing the perfect demons, soaking in the audio/visual splendor that was the brilliantly simple turn-based combat, laughing at the occasional absurdities found in negotiating, etc. This is the kind of game you can take a step back from, look at from a micro-macro perspective and feel proud to have put in the time with. Afterall, this isn't exactly a cakewalk. If you made it here, you can make it most anywhere.
It is the Dark Souls of JRPG's an incredibly satisfying journey to undertake.
What SMTV takes for granted, however, is its narrative. Or, should I say, lack thereof.
Considering what little it does with such an insanely cool concept, it's almost barely worth mentioning. With that said, it's pretty clear this game is attempting to be a psuedo-sequel to Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. Influences both big and small are everywhere, from its explicit references to "the Conception" and "an incident" at the Chiyoda Medical Ward 18 years prior to even later dungeon designs.
I found this so very fascinating. I couldn't wait to see what unfolded just around the bend! However, in the end, it merely felt like a loose jumping off point that skimped on the details. There's no grander conspiracy, there aren't necessarily any returning characters or any satisfying character arcs (something even Apocalypse, for all its faults, had), the camaraderie between your friends is played totally flat, characters often spout three lines before they unceremoniously fuck off and there are no iconic, Nocturne-esque monologues.
The most positive thing I can say about the narrative is that it at least, unlike a lot of JRPG's with similarly poor storytelling, doesn't get in the way of my enjoyment of actually playing through it. The pacing is fine, I'm not stopped every five steps for exposition dumps, the acting isn't atrocious, it has the paper thin veneer of what makes a good story without, ya know, an actual good story to tell.
To anyone who wants to jump to the game's defense and say "this isn't Persona, the story doesn't matter that much", I ask this: Why did you choose the ending(s) you did in Nocturne? Or SMTIV? You likely didn't accept them on their face because you were pro/anti-Christian, because you're for small government, etc. Those games convinced you, in no small part, through the solid writing that Law was the correct path. Or Chaos. Or neither.
Perhaps you were like me and got initially suckered into the Nihilism route in SMTIV because, by that point, I was sick of God's tyranical rule, felt powerless to stop it, but there was a quick way out that sounded nice. I realized, too late, that it was a mistake and had a genuine moment to myself to think about just how I could be so goddamn gullible.
SMTV doesn't concern itself with such nuance. Sure, it asks you to side with one demon or the other, or whether, say, you think capitalistic incentives are good or bad in a specific context, but the possible endings don't seem to correlate with said choices. Almost as though there were two entirely separate writing teams completely secluded from one another.
I will say this much, and that's that these endings aren't the usual "Law", "Chaos", or "Neutral". Some of the only grey this game offers is in that very final decision of which ending is, in your opinion, morally correct. I only wish the pretenses that, somehow, mechanically drive that sliding scale between sides of the spectrum felt as though they actually mattered in the end.
I feel as though ATLUS took Nocturne's minimalistic approach to storytelling and miscontrued that as just having little story. Nocturne, however, was a cohesive, substantive (albeit simpler) narrative package. This is not.
With that said, the actual game is such a divine treat that it's hard to dunk on the negatives for too long. Beyond appreciable balance tweaks and other very minor additions, there are some improvements that almost make a fan like me feel spoiled.
To the best of my knowledge, Reverse Demon Fusion is a new mechanic for SMTV and it is an absolute godsend. Gone is the need to keep my Notes app on my phone open with what combination of demons I need to nab from my Compendium at what level to wreck midboss ass as I now just occasionally double check through a convenient menu slide in the World of Shadows what I have lined up to fuse as I level up according to what demons I already have registered.
I barely minded that the selection of demons had been cut by about half since SMTIV, because that's fucking sick! I got almost as much out of this one new quality of life feature as I did out of the vastly improved hub design. What a power couple!
The protag is also a power top dreamboat
Shin Megami Tensei remains a unique beast in the JRPG market, despite V's shortcomings. I'll likely play it once again on Hard, I'll likely buy it once again if those PS4/PC port rumors hold water and I'll likely continue to look back on it positively.
Even if other JRPG's will topple this specific entry's story with ease, not since SMTIV has this franchise's viscerally satisfying turn-based combat been bested. Not by a long shot. You have to wonder if that says more about everyone else than it does about ATLUS, or if it just speaks to the continued validity of this style of RPG gameplay. Both? Whatever the case, shit's a blast.
And not every video game let's you polish off your enemies with this bad boy.