Atlus announced Shin Megami Tensei V (SMT5) for Nintendo Switch before the console had even launched, and more than four years later, the game is finally almost here. Has this long-anticipated follow-up to Shin Megami Tensei IV and IV Apocalypse from Nintendo 3DS been worth the wait? Well, so far — you betcha. I’ve been playing the game for a while now, and although I’m only allowed to talk about the first hour or two of Shin Megami Tensei V for this preview, this is shaping up to be a serious contender for the best entry in the franchise.
Welcome back to the apocalypse
Like with most SMT games, the story begins in Tokyo, and you’re a high school student whom you get to name. You meet a few other well-voiced students, all of whom feel more like friendly acquaintances than actual friends, (Maybe you’re a loner?) and you are instructed to travel home in groups after school because there have been a lot of mysterious, violent incidents lately. In fact, you have to find an alternate way home when a murder shuts down your usual route back. You and a few others ultimately wind up in a tunnel, which suddenly starts to collapse and somehow transports you to another world, where the meat of gameplay actually begins.
This desert Netherworld (which Atlus has already revealed is actually called Da’at) looks just like a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, immediately creating a mystery about its origins, and there are demons everywhere. You are soon attacked, but before you can get yourself killed, a powerful entity known as Aogami merges with you, giving you awesome powers and turning you into what is called a “Nahobino.” It all feels like a surprisingly direct send-up on Japan’s iconic Ultraman, where a foreign being merges with a human to create a powerful hero. You even kind of look like a superhero.
What makes it a surprising tonal decision is that, otherwise, Shin Megami Tensei V still feels SMT-ish through and through in preview. Atlus has not adopted any of the more commercial Persona elements in the hopes of boosting sales; this is still a game about apocalypse and dumping a ton of religion and mythology in a blender. Series veterans will feel completely at home, but the battle system still retains enough ties with Persona (especially in shared enemy types and character skills) that players arriving from that franchise will acclimate quickly as well.
Shin Megami Tensei V brings genuine adventure to the franchise
The opening slice of Da’at played for this Shin Megami Tensei V preview is quite small and overall linear, but compared to any past game in the franchise, this slice feels large and adventurous. One of my main grievances with Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster, though less so with IV and IV Apocalypse, is that the dungeons were often just modular mazes that could sometimes stretch on too long, becoming monotonous after a while. But Da’at throws that out the window!
The large, not-quite-open world is itself the dungeon, with demons roaming around in plain sight to initiate battle encounters. The presence of sand hills or toppled buildings that you can sometimes run on top of or jump inside of introduces a sense of verticality to exploration that is brand new for the SMT franchise. For the first time, I’m not just exploring in the hopes of finding a cool item. I’m exploring because it’s just fun.
That being said, Shin Megami Tensei V still provides several clear and excellent incentives to take your time looking around. For starters, yes, there are items to find, as well as various sidequests. But there are also 200 “Miman” hidden across the world, little red guys who give you a currency called “glory” every time you find them. Glory is used to unlock Miracles, which constitute a wide variety of important boons to gameplay. Examples of Miracles include expanding how many skills Nahobino or your demons can keep equipped, expanding how many demons you can keep in your party, and improving your proficiency with specific types of skills. You gain more Miracles for purchase by destroying “Abscesses,” giant abstract objects that obfuscate your navigation map and provide straightforward mini-bosses.
Lastly, there are green, yellow, and red glowing orbs at set locations all over the environment that respawn over time, which can restore HP, restore MP, and increase your Magatsuhi gauge respectively. (Having a full Magatsuhi gauge in combat allows you to activate an ultimate ability, such as Omagatoki, which guarantees all your landed attacks that turn will be critical hits.) These orbs basically ensure you will never run out of resources and face a no-win situation, which is surprisingly kind of SMT. You can also outright purchase party recovery at save points, though that’s too pricy to be practical at the start of the game.
There are other things you can do at save points, such as purchase the aforementioned Miracles. You can also purchase regular items from a vendor, turn in Miman to that vendor to receive rewards, teleport freely to any other save spot, or use demon “Essence” you found during exploration to teach Nahobino or your demons new skills. Incidentally, this is also where you would fuse collected demons to create new ones, but I’m not allowed to talk about that because demon fusion doesn’t appear until after the end of the designated Shin Megami Tensei V preview area. But suffice to say, demon fusion works well and uses accessible UI.
Speaking of which, the menus in the game feel complex at first, but ironically, it’s only because it wants to give you as many options as possible for viewing all of the information. The game throws a lot of data at you, but before long, you’ll be navigating it like a champ because so much thought was put into the menu design. It’s not perfect, but it’s a darn good effort. The game even defaults to including your character stats on screen during exploration, (It can be turned off if you prefer.) to keep you abreast of how fit you are for combat.
A deal with the demon
Turn-based battles and character stats in Shin Megami Tensei V are extremely similar to how they were in IV Apocalypse, except with some tweaks that are pretty unanimously good changes. The Press Turn Battle System returns, where exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses or landing critical hits grants you bonus turns, while using skills your opponent is immune to or missing your attacks subtracts from your turns. However, guns and “Smirks” from IV are gone, simplifying things. There is also the aforementioned Magatsuhi system for delivering ultimate abilities. (Enemies also make use of it.) Without getting into the weeds discussing granular differences, it feels like changes have been made to make things more lenient for the player, but never to such an extent that the game feels easy on Normal. (The game has three difficulties, with a fourth, super easy difficulty arriving for launch.)
You still create your party by negotiating with demons during battle, trying to say the right things (and offer them free stuff) to make them join you instead of fight you. It’s the same old game of trial and error, feeling as frustratingly random as ever. I honestly kind of hate it. That being said, the mechanic feels slightly more lenient here overall than it has in past entries. In any case, like in IV Apocalypse, demons are inherently better or worse at using certain types of skills, and they also have clear strengths and weaknesses. Strategy comes in bringing the right party to the right situation, but I can’t speak much to it right now because the Shin Megami Tensei V preview area has just one Abscess and only simple initial battles.
Outside of battle and menu mechanics, Shin Megami Tensei V seems to have more in common with III than IV, which makes the III HD remaster suddenly seem like an even smarter move from Atlus. It even brings back phases of the moon, though it seems to have much less effect on actual gameplay in this game. Regardless, Shin Megami Tensei V feels like a nice hybrid of what came before it, but it also feels like a fantastic expansion of what the franchise can be thanks to its new fun exploration elements. So far, this is looking like it might be one of the best RPGs in the Nintendo Switch library.