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As I walk through its post-apocalyptic world, I feel myself grow more enraptured by Shin Megami Tensei V. Demons run amok, demanding blood, money or whatever else the protagonist has that they desire. A fight breaks out when I’m ambushed by a Bicorn, a creepy looking horse with two horns protruding from its head. Blows are exchanged: some physical, some magical. Not every attack connects, adding relief or tension depending on which side misfires.
Victory is eventually mine. The turn-based exchange leaves me hurt but stronger, as I now have not just more experience points, but a new demon in my party thanks to making a persuasive argument. You see, I was able to settle some of our differences through talking, and now the Bicorn is our friend. This is the classic Shin Megami Tensei experience we know, and this new instalment is a remarkable example of what the series can do.
See the trailer for Shin Megami Tensei V here
Shin Megami Tensei V feels very similar to previous titles in the series, such as Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster. You start as a teenage schoolboy in Tokyo, Japan, and things very quickly take a turn. The hazy, uncanny world we are first introduced to is replaced by the murky-yet-striking Netherworld. This new reality is what became of Tokyo following an epic clash of gods and demons, and our hero must find a way to survive this treacherous plane.
To do this, you as the player will need to face a seemingly endless array of demons. As previously mentioned, SMT5 uses a turn-based combat system. Usually, you’ll begin a battle with a turn for each of your party (maximum of four). If you hit an enemy’s weakness, or dish out a critical hit, you’ll earn an extra turn for that party member. This effect won’t go on forever, but the ability to earn additional moves is a huge boon when done right.
However, your opponents can also wield this ability, and this can be used to your despair in brutal ways. There are times where you can be decimated before you even take a turn of your own. A battle starts when you approach an enemy, but it can also begin when they are adjudged to have accosted you. If you’re ambushed, and they hit with weakness-affecting or critical strikes, you could be headed straight for the title screen.
That’s right, Shin Megami Tensei V sends you back to the opening menu when you die. There’s no autosave feature to spare you, even on the ‘Casual’ difficulty. This is an old-school gaming mechanic brought to the modern day, and you either love it or hate it. It’s nothing new for players of other punishing games, such as the Dark Souls series, but there are many who consider this kind of behaviour to be an affront to all we hold dear in modern convenience.
The thing is, it works well here in Shin Megami Tensei V, just as it does in Soulsborne titles. This raising of the stakes is a key part of the punishing, masochistic experience of SMT. You don’t just try again when you lose, you are forced to take time to reflect on why you lost. You are made to take a metaphorical cold shower as you wait for the game to load back to a previous save, which could be 10-15 minutes away from where you perished.
While this may seem frustrating - and it is at times - it’s a core method of improving at Shin Megami Tensei V. You have to think about your opponents in detail if you want to triumph over them. You have to swap your party members. You have to change your protagonist’s moveset, strengths and weaknesses, all of which can be done by earning essences and applying them. SMT5 demands perfection, and that’s why your big victories feel so good.
As I mentioned, there are different difficulty settings, and you can change between them whenever you like. At time of review, those options are ‘Normal’ and ‘Casual’. The former is the typical SMT experience. Many a fight could be your last if you aren’t mindful of your actions, or if you’re just plain unlucky. Luck is literally one of your character’s stats by the way, so make of that what you will. As for ‘Casual’, it may feel easier in terms of enemy difficulty, but it’s still packed with challenging fights. Honestly, it’s not a game for anyone who doesn’t like to work for their success.
Having said that, there will be a ‘Safety Mode’ added as day one DLC. While I’ve yet to experience this mode, it’s safe (hehe, pun) to assume it will offer less challenge than ‘Casual’. Speculation aside, it’s interesting that the game’s developer Atlus hasn’t made this option available for the review process. Perhaps they don’t consider it to align with the core Shin Megami Tensei V experience?
I could say a lot more about Shin Megami Tensei V, but I’ll keep it short. I’m in awe of its aesthetic, particularly the protagonist and his long, blue hair. I love the intense, nu-rock soundtrack that plays during a typical fight, and I could spend hours vibing to the jazzy score that accompanies you when walking through the school. The variety of demons is fantastic. The characters are unique yet reminiscent of ones who’ve come before. It’s a game I could play for hours, even with multiple deaths halting my progress at what always feels like the worst possible moment.
I adore this game. This grueling, beautiful, challenging, endlessly playable, punishing, masterful, rage-inducing game.
Pros: Beautiful visuals, satisfying gameplay, excellent OST
Cons: Can sometimes feel unfair, no autosave (these are both highly subjective)
For fans of: Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona series, Dragon Quest XI
Shin Megami Tensei V releases worldwide November 12, 2021 for Nintendo Switch. Game tested with code provided by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo
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