Sometimes a game greets you with a kick in the teeth. Shin Megami Tensei 5, the latest in developer Atlus’ long-running RPG franchise, is one such game that invites you into an interdimensional war between heaven and hell, where the fate of humanity is at stake, but the smallest enemy is still slapping you into submission can.
Shin Megami Tensei 5 acts as an RPG, and a tough one at that. His combat is turn-based in perhaps its purest form, with little interrupting your group and the enemy demons taking turns poking and poking each other with various supernatural abilities. The combat system could rightly be described as a war of attrition, in which both sides slowly damage the other’s health and extremely powerful abilities that can annihilate a range of enemies are extremely rare.
What comes out of it is a hell of a job. If you thought modern role-playing games like Dragon Quest 11 and even Tales of Arise require constant combat by an army of enemies to level up, Shin Megami Tensei 5 is a league above that. Any regular boss encounter for a story beat is a mountain to climb, where you have to spend hours repeatedly sprinting through all the enemies you’ve been through before and slowly accumulating valuable experience points so the boss doesn’t wipe you away can do the whole team with one finger movement.
The latest RPG from Atlus actually works as a fundraising drive. In a fight with an enemy devil, the protagonist can temporarily stop the exchange of blows and engage him in a war of words, negotiating carefully to recruit the demon by his side. Here you really have to pay attention to the personality of the demon – if you are lively and optimistic, you might want to recruit him through praise, if you are stubborn and overly aggressive, you should try fire-fighting with fire and inflate your chest during negotiations.
This is an area that has had a mini upgrade since Persona 5. Atlus’ 2017 RPG, originally a spin-off from the Shin Megami Tensei series, also boasted negotiations with various demonic enemies, but the result was more of a guessing game where the personality of that demon didn’t really take into account how you look Negotiations have started. Shin Megami Tensei 5 refines this system where the tone of your responses actually matters when entering into conversations with a demon, and you will quickly become familiar with some of the more common personality traits of demons.
Collecting new and powerful demons is vital to your survival. For example, a boss might be weak against fiery elemental attacks. After absolutely defeating him and unceremoniously retired, you must roam the ruined world of Shin Megami Tensei 5 in search of demons using these fire-based attacks. Switching demons in and out of your lineup to find the perfect combination to beat up a boss is excellent, a formula that will keep you on your toes all the time, looking for ways to stack your team to give you the best chance of survival admit. There is no combination of demonic allies that will guide you through the entire game unscathed, so you will have to constantly mix and match for the best results.
As with anything produced by the Atlus RPG factory, there is a popping soundtrack that undermines the entire experience. The recently deceased Shoji Meguro isn’t actually behind the score for Shin Megami Tensei 5, but it does feature Toshiki Konishi and Ryota Kozuka, two similar veterans of the Persona and Megami Tensei franchises. Meguro’s successors do a fantastic job of giving Shin Megami Tensei 5 an extra layer of life, as humming bass lines with high-octane guitar notes underline every combat attack and careful crawl in the open world. It’s a more atmospheric soundtrack than the persona-led anthems, but “more atmospheric” is an apt description of Shin Megami Tensei compared to Atlus’ aforementioned series.
The fight is brilliant and brutal, but the rest is the lack of Shin Megami Tensei 5 mainly because there isn’t much else in this game. The beginning of Atlus’ game puts you right in the heart of modern Tokyo, positioning you as a lonely high school student quietly attending class and leading a normal life. It takes about 15 minutes before you are transported to another plane of existence and given the task of saving humanity from a devastating war between Heaven and Hell.
That’s almost enough for all of the furnishings and display details you get before hiking the RPG grind for about 10 hours. Shin Megami Tensei 5 offers the player sporadic drops of story, never a deluge, because it doesn’t really have much story to convey. “Go here, save this person and kill this villain,” the game tells you at regular intervals before it hurls you into the demonic underworld and waves you goodbye for the next dozen or so hours.
It would be helpful if Shin Megami Tensei 5 actually had characters to fight for. At the beginning of the adventure you meet a few classmates who are also trapped in the hell area, or rather, you meet people who you can only guess are your classmates, because there is no idea who these people really are are. âI’m Ichiro Dazai!â One of them quips with a feeling of familiarity – a feeling that I completely lose because I don’t know this little boy at all. Ten hours later, I still don’t really know who he is, save for a vague caricature of a struggling student seeking something meaningful in life.
I don’t really know any of the characters from Shin Megami Tensei 5 and that’s a hell of a shame. There is no downtime or opportunity in this adventure to get to know better the people you are fighting to protect. The group’s stoic honorary student, Yuzuru Atsuta, even notes at one point that he wished he had the chance to meet another character before she was kidnapped by a demon, and that happens to be a perfect reflection of my attitude towards Shin The characters of Megami Tensei 5. The role-playing game of Atlus leaves the player to be nothing more than a vague acquaintance of his allies, and thus some of the more impactful story moments that the characters of Shin Megami Tensei 5 leave with scars fall completely flat.
The fight of Shin Megami Tensei 5 is great, punishing and rewarding alike, without ever tilting the scales too much in one direction. Mixing and customizing your demon deck is great fun too, and it spurs you on to seek allies of all shapes and sizes in every corner of the ruined world. It’s all outside of the struggling and grubby soundtrack that saw Shin Megami Tensei 5 sorely miss the mark, with unanimous characters you can never get to know better and a razor-thin plot that dragged on for dozens of hours. Shin Megami Tensei 5 is a good RPG fighter, but not good at many other things.
Disclaimer: Game tested on Nintendo Switch OLED. A copy of the game was made available by the publisher.