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The protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei V, a blue-haired warrior with demonic powers

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Shin Megami Tensei 5 brings familiar pain, new pleasures

Atlus’ latest JRPG is worth the wait

Image: Atlus via Polygon

While I was roaming the Netherworld of Shin Megami Tensei 5, I encountered a Mandrake. This demon was not registered in my collection, so I tried to recruit them. My outstretched hand led to a match of rock, paper, scissors — during which the Mandrake wondered how my character’s Luck stat would play into it. Turns out, it wasn’t on my side. “Too bad!” the Mandrake exclaimed. “Now I get to kill you.”

I experienced dozens of encounters like this in my time with Shin Megami Tensei 5, the newest entry in Atlus’ sprawling JRPG series. I helped Black Frost to secure booze for a “hee-high-end” underground club in Ginza. Kelpie, an eerie floating horse, challenged me to a texting competition to see who could type faster (which, alas, I also lost). A particular standout came from an Oni, who said he had a “big question” for me: “top or bottom?” Between the “top”, “middle” and “bottom” choices, I went for the first. “So you like to set your sights high, do ya?” Oni said. “I like that.”

More often than not, it was impossible to predict what the demons in Shin Megami Tensei 5 would come up with next during conversations. Some exchanges were frankly hilarious, while others were unexpectedly horny or oddly sentimental. These moments gave me a brief respite from the constant hostility of the Netherworld. The overall experience of playing SMT 5 was bleak, oppressive, and ruthless. And any time I got too comfy, the game would remind me of my place in this realm: The main character may sound important on paper, but he’s just another unwanted visitor in a demonically twisted version of our world. Around the decaying ruins of a Tokyo long gone, demons won’t think twice to chew him out and leave him to rot in the streets.

The dilapidated, demonic version of Tokyo from Shin Megami Tensei 5 Image: Atlus via Polygon

It’s been a long time since Atlus has revisited this world — five years since the release of Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse, a sequel to the last main entry in the SMT series in 2013. SMT 5’s arrival also comes after a long period without teasers or relevant development updates since its reveal as a Switch exclusive — a time during which Persona 5 became a massive sensation that pushed the franchise into the mainstream.

I’m someone who has ventured into both series. I enjoyed spending more than 100 hours in the latest Persona games, in addition to logging a ridiculous playtime across all three rhythm game spin-offs. But the memory of jumping into Shin Megami Tensei 4 without any prior knowledge, away from the big screen and flashy menu screens of Persona, to a more simplified yet smartly integrated experience in the 3DS, is one I still hold dear. I had high hopes for SMT 5, and despite a few shortcomings, it’s been worth the wait.

If you’re also a newcomer like I used to be back then, let me break it down for you. In the Persona series, there is always a turning point in the story — an otherworldly catastrophe that turns the world upside down. After this, the game ramps up to its climactic fight against god, as is the case in most JRPGs. Except, by then you have already gotten used to the company of the characters around you, growing stronger alongside them month after month on the calendar. Shin Megami Tensei games also kick off with a similar catastrophe, but instead of giving you a couple dozen hours to save humanity, you’re forced to inhabit the chaos for way longer.

As a result, the experience is much darker, but it’s also free from the shackles of having to portray the main character’s ordinary student life in a modern-day setting. In SMT games, there’s a clear tonal shift from the beginning. While in Persona the act of fighting shadows is usually an evening activity, in Shin Megami Tensei, it’s your whole routine.

The protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei 5 is an ordinary student, at first Image: Atlus via Polygon

This new entry puts you in the uniform of yet another regular student who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and suddenly he finds himself in an alternate Tokyo. There, sights such as the Tokyo Tower are not landmarks but mere remnants of a past civilization. Angels and demons took part in a massive war years ago, and the conflict rages on. An unknown being prevents an attack on the main character, encouraging him to accept aid if he wants to make it out alive. Both characters are fused into a Nahobino, a being that is neither angel nor demon, but it does have extremely good hair.

After a brief tutorial, you’re thrown into the world. The location for the next step is always signaled on the map (this also applies to side quests, which makes for a departure from the rather enigmatic objectives in past SMT games), and you’re free to head there at any point. You get to explore areas in full 3D in SMT 5, instead of switching back and forth from the overworld view, with only a few exceptions during certain sequences. Dashing through city ruins and big, sprawling areas with full control of the character is a welcome change.

Combat remains largely the same as previous SMT games, focused on turn-based encounters with an attention towards exploiting enemy weaknesses to chain additional turns (which is something that enemies can do with you as well). There are also the aforementioned demon negotiations, which allow you to recruit enemies to fight alongside you. SMT 5 introduces some interesting tweaks on this system. If you happen to successfully negotiate with a demon who is a higher level than you, they’ll remember this in the next conversation after you’ve finally matched their level, which is both helpful in practice and smart in a narrative sense.

The protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei 5 prepares for battle Image: Atlus via Polygon

SMT 5’s standout battle feature is the introduction of Magatsuhi skills, which are powerful additional attacks that can be performed once a gauge bar is filled (either by letting turns pass, or after obtaining upgrades by performing certain actions). It adds another strategic layer to combat, as figuring out the right time to use it is key — especially considering that enemies can make use of these skills as well, turning encounters around if you’re not careful.

There are more quality-of-life updates that go beyond combat. While roaming through areas, you will now stumble upon orbs that can recharge your health, SP (mana for magic attacks), or Magatsuhi gauge. The return pillar allows you to return to the last checkpoint you interacted with on a whim without any penalization (perfect to save your game, restore health to your party for a small fee, visit the merchant, or fuse demons). Loot is fairly generous as well; a companion character who follows you around pinpoints item spots that sometimes lead to fights, but more often than not just grants you an item.

Some of these additions do end up streamlining the experience. Players who come from Persona will most likely embrace them, but the enigmatic nature of past SMT entries has been lost a bit in the process. I welcomed all of these updates; instead, my biggest gripe with Shin Megami Tensei 5 comes with the platform. As I mentioned earlier, SMT 4 made excellent use of the 3DS; its UI was so well integrated that holding the console felt like an extension of the in-game menus. In SMT 5, while I did find the new interface compelling, it’s far more generic. Coupled with the fact that the Switch constantly struggles to keep up in terms of performance, it ended up feeling more like a port than a game built with the Switch in mind. SMT 5 still manages to be a gorgeous showcase of Unreal Engine 4, particularly around animations, and it’s a shame that the hardware has the tendency to hold it back. It’s not unplayable by any means, but frame drops and slow texture loading were noticeable enough to become bothersome.

Some demonic enemies with pitchforks in Shin Megami Tensei 5 Image: Atlus via Polygon

As a new entry in the series, Shin Megami Tensei 5 goes all in with a new story that continues the out-of-bounds nature of past entries. The combat has just enough additions to feel fresh while retaining the ever-inviting foundation that is hard to abandon. All the while, the soundtrack is relentless, unafraid of pumping battles up with fast drums and heavy riffs.

But it’s the way demons inhabit this world that left its biggest mark on me. Despite the performance issues, the bigger areas and new engine allow for some creatures to be truly breathtaking and terrifying. I never got tired of witnessing smaller character details, such as demons sitting on the sand, acting like bats inside caves, or swinging on traffic lights like monkeys. It empowers the idea that this is their home, and I’m the one trespassing.

Despite that I was playing as a Nahobino, I rarely felt almighty. My small victories granted me satisfaction — guessing weaknesses, anticipating an attack that would have otherwise wiped my entire party — because whenever I entered a new area, I knew enemies wouldn’t go easy on me. If I was lucky, they would offer to spare me in exchange for items or money. But alas, this is not a world where luck is on my side.

Yet it’s one I couldn’t wait to get back to — and I don’t want to leave any time soon.

Shin Megami Tensei 5 will be released Nov. 11 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Atlus. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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