Shin Megami Tensei V Second Opinion
Tokyo’s Gone to Hell
All worlds must eventually come to an end. That is the eternal message of the Shin Megami Tensei series and its record for pre-, post-, and inter-apocalyptic scenarios. By that standard, Shin Megami Tensei V has an abnormally normal beginning with a new start at a new school, with normal friends and no trace of anything out of the ordinary — except for the random murders and strange sightings and the protagonist’s sudden fall through the cracks in reality. As it turns out, the present façade of near-future Tokyo hides the ruinous truth of a war between Heaven and Hell where there were no winners, but a clear set of losers in the population of Tokyo. The world the protagonist knows is a metaphysical bandage over the wound in reality left by the conflict of eighteen years ago, and it is slowly coming apart at the edges. Soon the apocalypse shall begin anew.
It’s an excellent setup that is well-supported by one character in particular, and that is the City of Tokyo, eighteen years gone to literal Hell and amazing in its ravaged glory. There is no over-map to connect the dots; rather, the municipal wards of central Tokyo are presented as a broad and open zones to traverse and explore. Each ward is larger and more complicated than the last, filled with nooks and crevices wherein treasure and danger are hidden. Powerful demons roam freely, and scattered throughout the city are two hundred Miman, minions of Gustav the item-shop corpse, whom the hero can find to redeem for rewards. Simply getting from point A to point B can be a trial of platforming and pathfinding that provides more a interesting challenge than the game’s bosses. That said, the general progression of the game is highly linear, with a single obvious direction to aim for no matter how twisty the actual path ends up. The last ward of Tokyo changes this up with a huge open area and multiple objectives, but it would have been nicer to see something like this sooner.
However, while the setting is strong, the pacing is weak. Shin Megami Tensei V maintains the series’ tradition of strange twists and philosophical tangents, but it regularly fails to go anywhere with them. There is little true intersection or interaction between any of the narrative factions, even late in the game when five different pantheons are all nominally at each other’s throats. Even the final moral decision presents itself with the bare minimum of supporting scenes featuring the game’s Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral counter-protagonists. The basic concept of alignment, so crucial to earlier games in the series, has no mechanical purpose here beyond granting a reward to the player for following through with it at the moment of the big choice. The game’s demon factions can be roughly divided into at least nine pantheons or loose organizations, but few quests take advantage of this or the inherent conflict the groups present. As for the semi-mortal counter-protagonists, the game could have done with twice as many of them. In fact, there are two named characters who could serve in such roles, only they were left behind in narrative limbo. The game’s plot is simply not spread large enough to support its themes, in spite of the occasional inspired scene.
The demon compendium also feels like it is full of gaps. There is a notable lack of variety in the generic demon types populating the city, and several common categories from previous games are simply not included. On the other hand, the compendium is top-heavy with the big-name demons, the greater spirits and deities who might have had more relevance if their pantheon factions had more to do with the plot. As it is, even demons of minor plot importance end up as generic mobs later in the game, as high-level generic demons become rarer.
The demons are amazing to behold, at least. Shin Megami Tensei V has brought its compendium into full, high-quality 3D, with individual animations and special abilities, and even outside of battle the player can see demons hanging about and doing random tasks in the sands of ruined Tokyo. The extent of the model quality helps explain the relative dearth of demon types, so one might hope that future games will be more expansive. As it is, the game grows tedious later on, when the special becomes the generic and the non-Tokyo levels are limited to a mere handful of enemies to encounter.
Combat builds upon the series’ standard Press-Turn System, where the player’s roster of demons faces off against the foe in offensive/defensive phases. The attacking side in each phase gets a certain number of turns to spend on actions. A strike upon an enemy’s weakness wins the attacker an extra half-turn to attack some more. In addition, evasions or blocked attacks cost the attacker turns, while an absorbed or reflected hit can end an attack phase completely. Since the phase setup means the entire party takes their turns, followed by the enemy, these penalties eventually render most hit-all spells too hazardous to rely on, given the odds that at least one enemy in any group will be able to evade, nullify, or absorb it. Likewise, it’s possible to deny even major bosses the better part of each turn phase by keeping just one demon with the appropriate defenses handy. Between this and the general alternating phase structure in combat, battles eventually devolve into long sequences of everyone using the same single-hit elemental spells or items to maximize turn numbers and damage, with few gimmicks or tactical variations available to keep things fresh.
The soundtrack for this game is high-octane, with plenty of rock, metal, or techno elements throughout. But, while some individual tracks have specific elements to make them stand out, the soundtrack as a whole blends together between the ears. There is little variety to be had, as the majority of the auditory experience is based on electric guitar, voluminous echoes, and percussion beats, with the occasional esoteric vocalizations. The ending theme gets funky with atonal wind chimes, lending an otherworldly quality to the game’s final planetary alignment adjustments, but even that’s in a style to match the overall sound.
While I can say that I enjoyed my time with Shin Megami Tensei V, it was the exploration of ruined Tokyo that kept my attention. Once the last big map was filled in, the last treasures claimed, and the last little red dude returned to the item shop’s master, the game quickly lost its luster. The plot scenes were too disconnected to hold me, and the battle system turned boring as the battles against the big boss hit-point blocks pressed on. This was a game with a strong foundation but only the barest of construction upon it. There are things to laud, especially in the graphical design of the demons and the open areas, but it needed more than that.
Disclosure: This review is based on a Japanese copy of the game. Your experience may vary.
For a different opinion, check out Jervon Perkins’ review of the game here.
Expansive environment of desolate Tokyo
Interesting plot beats
Highly linear progression for 75% of the game
Actual plot sporadic
Needed more demon variety