‘Shin Megami Tensei V’ review: an apocalyptic rave through a sadistic RPG masterclass

Shin Megami Tensei V. Credit: Atlus.

God is dead. The tyrant Judeo-Christian God that many of us here in the UK would have been raised to fear has been banished. In His wake, there is a void. His throne sits empty. Humans – once upon a time spurred on by demons to eat the apples of Eden and gain forbidden knowledge – have the potential to shape this vacant vacuum. And the pantheon of deities the world over that never got the chance to be the supreme ruler are plotting their paths to ascension. But because God – our God – stripped them of their knowledge long ago, they need to move through you. Welcome to the convoluted, incredible and bleak world of Shin Megami Tensei V. You’re probably going to die.

The development staff at Atlus are sadists. From its rudimentary dungeon-crawling days in the 80s to the tightly-produced, one-two punch of Shin Megami Tensei IV and Apocalypse on the 3DS in the 2010s, the series has been something of a temple for gaming masochists to pray at. Its combat is tough, its map design is a surrealist nightmare, and its puzzle-lead approach to offing bosses can grind even the most hardened RPG player to a halt if they’re unprepared.

If you’re a certain kind of player – the sort that revels in the need to solve quick sums before committing to attacks, gets a rush from sifting through your inventory to see what items can pluck holes in defenses – you’ll like MegaTen. More specifically, you’ll like Shin Megami Tensei V. Frequent, skill-checking boss battles punctuate some fairly uninspired world design at just the right cadence to catch your attention when it’s beginning to wane, and figuring out which local demons need to be placated, coerced or fused to better smash through whatever demon-shaped wall is blocking your path is a delight that never dulls.

Shin Megami Tensei V
Shin Megami Tensei V. Credit: Atlus

Because the bosses are so hard, and force you to make use of the series’ trademark Press Turn system with such brutal efficiency, there’s an almost-depleting satisfaction that comes with watching your myriad nemeses fade to ash once you’ve dispatched them. Whether you’re punching holes in the long list of side quests and mega-bosses that populate Da’at or soldering on (probably under-leveled) through the story, every single victory feels meaningful to you. Simply because the game is only ever one lucky blow from finishing you off.

The aforementioned Press Turns basically let you attack per the number of allies you have (up to four). Score a critical hit, or hit an enemy’s weakness, and you get another turn. But mess up and miss an attack or play to an opponent’s strengths, and you sacrifice two turns. This simple foundation allows for an incredibly dense and intricate ecosystem of moves that does risk/reward play better than – dare I say – any other active RPG series out there. It’s turn-based battling at its tightest, refined to burn bright and clean in practically all of Shin Megami Tensei V’s encounters (and, by the grace of God, there’s a lot of them).

This unforgiving, Sisyphean trek towards the end-game is punctuated by long-winded and frankly under-populated jaunts through a vision of Tokyo’s post-apocalyptic counterpart, Da’at. Previous MegaTen games have been more than happy to have you play as an unadventurous manikin that’d be baffled by the smallest of ledges or undone by the smallest of gaps. The latest RPG refinement lets you jump, clock demons moving in real-time on the map, and swing your fancy armblades to instigate combat. Dashing through the glittery sand, smacking a demon on the nose, and using all four Press Turns to remove it from the mortal coil before it even gets a hit in? That’s a power fantasy, right there.

Shin Megami Tensei V. Credit: Atlus
Shin Megami Tensei V. Credit: Atlus

Though previous entries have flirted with 3D, this is the first to really open up all three planes of movement to you. Luckily, none of that confusing-as-hell, sadistic level design that proliferated in past games has been lost, making for some genuinely impressive House of Leaves-like level design that’ll have you scratching your head until something clicks and you figure out how to proceed. Mirroring the combat, that rhythm of challenge-into-satisfaction hits like a bunch of dopamine at just the right cadence to stop you from ever getting too irritated.

In Shin Megami Tensei V, any narrative subtlety or subtext that the series has flirted with before is gone. This game is about deicide: there are no allusions or allegories, or weird Da Vinci Code-esque conspiracies to unfurl. No, from the off, this game pits you as a forbidden being with the knowledge of humanity and the power of demons. Nothing is off the table and you can shape the world as you see fit (as long as your vision aligns vaguely with the spectrum of order versus chaos and good versus evil).

This is no surprise for MegaTen veterans, but if you’ve been coddled by the personality-lead charisma of Persona and led here by the promise of social links and underage romance, jog on. This is a systems-driven game that indulges in a much more violent relationship with its players: mainline MegaTen is 3am in Berlin BDSM club, Persona is brunch with your nan.

If your protagonist dies, it’s all over: an unfortunate critical from even the weakest roaming henchman can end your game at any given time, and that incessant low-level threat never really goes away. This is a game designed to give you anxiety, forcing you to medicate yourself by using aggression as the best form of defense and constantly thrashing at the world so you, too, are not dragged down into a sandy tomb.

Safe to say, we enjoyed Shin Megami Tensei V. It’s not an elegant game, and it lacks some of the creature comforts other RPGs have picked up over the years. The world design is bare, story beats are few and far between, and memorable characters take a backseat to vague overarching plots. But that doesn’t matter. Because Shin Megami Tensei V is doesn’t compromise on being a tough, hardcore role-playing game that goes out of its way to reward you when – and only when – you deserve to be rewarded. It punishes you, tests you, and goads you into making dumb mistakes. But if you endure, resist, and overcome, it makes you feel like a God.

Shin Megami Tensei V is now available on Nintendo Switch. This review is based on a code provided by the publisher, played on a Nintendo Switch OLED.

Shin Megami Tensei V. Credit: Atlus
Shin Megami Tensei V. Credit: Atlus

The Verdict

Shin Megami Tensei V wants you to become a God, and throws everything it’s got at you to test your mettle. At times rebellious and stubborn, Atlus’ artisanal approach to RPG craft makes up for any shortcomings. Those possessed of a dedication to weather its sand-blasted, ruined world will uncover a treasure that’ll lodge in their minds like a revelation. This is hardcore role-playing at its most efficient, dressed up in a bleak, nihilistic story and given life by a compendium of demons that make Pokemon look amateurish. God only knows how a follow-up could top this.

Pros

  • Lovely movement in the world, keeps movement engaging
  • Best turn-based battle system in a generation
  • Top-notch soundtrack, lovely art style, great production

Cons

  • Exploration pacing can be a drag
  • Narrative beats tend to be vague

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