The game I’m about to review is, in fact, not Persona. Still, that won’t stop me from comparing it to the Persona series here and there, because it’s my only frame of reference for a Shin Megami Tensei title. Persona 5 Royal is one of my favorite games in recent years, so it was hard not to let that color my expectations for Shin Megami Tensei V.
Whereas Persona 5 is dripping with style and filled to the brim with a rich story, Shin Megami Tensei V is much more somber and subdued. Its tone is darker, and absent are the fun cast of characters to uplift the mood. Instead, your ragtag team of high school students fights a holy war to protect their world and everything they hold dear. While Persona 5 certainly deals with some dark and difficult topics, it remains lighthearted through its life sim/dating sim mechanics. With the absence of a lot of this gameplay, the stakes feel much higher in Shin Megami Tensei V.
This difference in tone is reflected in the sheer amount of combat there is. SMT V is so much more combat-heavy, almost to a fault. You’re nearly immediately tossed into the Netherworld, ready to start fighting demons at a moment’s notice. I appreciate that SMT V isn’t trying to hold my hand every step of the way or explaining mechanics over and over, but it is a little jarring how little exposition there really is. I spent my first 10 hours in the game fighting demon after demon, slowly grinding my way to the next level to fight ever-stronger enemies.
Almost all of the gameplay could be described the same way. While I don’t mind grind-heavy games, I wish these long stretches of combat were broken up with different gameplay or story beats. There are a few side quests here and there, but most of my motivation for progression comes from simply reaching the next level. Over and over again, I’d fight the same set of demons in order to increase my level and challenge the next set of demons, or I’d reach a new area just to do the same thing. These small milestones keep me motivated for a time, but after a while, I longed for something more.
What story there is involves a few uninteresting high school students fighting alongside angels to protect the world from a demon invasion. It’s pretty intense stuff, but I don’t feel like I was given much chance to care about the people I’m supposed to be protecting. You’re immediately dropped into this uncanny world; the familiar sights of Tokyo’s city life in ruins, now entirely unrecognizable. It’s become a desert, completely desolate and devoid of human life. Only demons remain as they overrun the city you once knew. The music swells with this ethereal sound, establishing the feeling of being in a foreign place that’s not quite reality.
As you traverse the sand-covered streets of a ruined Tokyo, your beautiful, long blue hair flowing in the wind, demons will stand in your way. Their presence gradually grows until you can’t move without being bombarded with enemies. That’s all there is to do most of the time: fight demons.
Although to be fair, you can also recruit demons to your cause. Your party members in combat are not a bunch of high school students like in Persona 5; instead, they’re a bunch of random demons you picked up off the street. You’ll negotiate with demons to try to convince them to join you, though it isn’t always easy. Say one wrong thing, and they’ll start attacking your party with everything they’ve got. Shin Megami Tensei V‘s moon phase systems aid in this: when the phase reaches a full moon, it can often result in encountering demons in high spirits, and in turn, a quicker and easier negotiation.
Once a demon joins your party, you can fuse them with other demons to create even stronger allies, imbuing them with new abilities to meet your needs. I had some of the most fun with the demon fusion, crafting an ideal party to match my playstyle, covering a wide array of affinities to different elements.
I do miss talking with my teammates, though. There’s no real characterization of your allies, and you don’t get a chance to grow close to them when you constantly replace them with new party members. Sure, each demon has its own personality, but I’m missing the camaraderie and the storytelling you get from having a team of wacky high school kids fighting evil. Some demons do seem eager to help you, others very eager to harm you, and each has a unique personality. Some are very weak and small, while others have a strong and commanding presence, though they all help tell the story and explore the game’s themes.
Those allies at your back are ghosts, legends, mythological beings, and religious figures. The Shin Megami Tensei series regularly makes use of creatures from mythologies and religions from around the world to explore human nature in all its facets. SMT V in particular asks what makes good people do bad things, and if vengeance is just, or even acceptable. It asks you to choose between chaos and order when neither choice sounds all that appealing on its own. Order seems like an obvious first choice, but an obsession with order only leads to authoritarianism. Chaos may seem fun, but anarchy could breed violence and harm. It’s a classic question that can’t be answered, no matter how many SMT games try to tackle it.
To me, there has to be a balance of both. Of course, finding that balance is the most difficult part — almost like finding the balance between combat and storytelling in a video game (ba dum tss). These themes are so interesting to explore; I just wish there was more of it. The turn-based combat and depictions of these demons can help tell the story, but I can only grind and level up for so long before I need something else to keep me going. I don’t need Shin Megami Tensei V to be a dating sim — I’d just prefer even a crumb of storytelling and character development to keep me engaged.
Unfortunately, one of my biggest issues with Shin Megami Tensei V isn’t even with the game itself, but the console it runs on. The in-game performance could be so much better, and I’m not typically very sensitive to framerate issues. The screen transitions and some cutscenes get really choppy, and the game just doesn’t look as good as I know it has the potential to. Honestly, it could pass for a PlayStation 3 game. That’s not something I can actually fault the game for, but I do think it would have been a more enjoyable experience on any other platform. I love the Nintendo Switch, and I love playing games in handheld mode, but it’s a shame that it can’t compete with the performance of other consoles of this generation.
Regardless of these issues, I genuinely enjoyed my time with Shin Megami Tensei V. Although I could really only handle playing for a short period of time before I got bored of grinding and hearing the same exact song over and over, as I fought the same enemies for the hundredth time. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a solid JRPG that explores some really neat ideas, but ultimately, it doesn’t do enough for me. Fans of the series will find a lot to love in Shin Megami Tensei V, but if you’re looking for the next Persona 5, look elsewhere.
It's not winning any awards for graphics, but Shin Megami Tensei V is a well-designed JRPG that has just a little too much combat. Even with such an interesting story and themes to explore, it instead focuses on grinding and fighting the same enemies over and over.