Shin Megami Tensei 5 review: Becoming godlike

Shin Megami Tensei 5 is one of the best JRPGs of the year and an excellent introduction to the series on Switch.

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Since the early 1990s, the Shin Megami Tensei series has not only been one of the most significant titles in Atlus’ library, but an incredible influence on the role-playing genre. Eight years after the last numbered entry, Shin Megami Tensei 5 is bringing a new adventure to the Nintendo Switch. The highly-anticipated sequel delivers on what fans of the franchise love the most, while doing enough to differentiate itself and feel distinct from what came before it.

Unexpected beginnings

Shin Megami Tensei 5 opens up with the protagonist walking home from school when their regular commute is disrupted by the scene of a violent murder. Forced to take an alternate route home, things quickly go south and the player falls unconscious. They wake up what feels like moments later, but it turns out that a considerable amount of time has passed and the city of Tokyo is nothing like they remember. A war between Angels and Demons has turned the world into a post-apocalyptic wasteland now known as Da’at.

The player is rescued by a powerful ally that’s neither Angel nor Demon and they fuse together to become a Nahobino. Still wanting answers, players will come face to face with dangerous enemies as they learn more about what happened to the life they once had.

The story in SMT5 is quite dark, as evident by the tragedy and adult themes featured throughout. It’s a trait that the series has become known for, and it keeps with the tradition in its latest entry. I appreciated the mature take, and really took to the themes of loss and identity.

Never say Netherworld

As players make their way through Da’at, they’ll slowly unravel more about the mysterious land. I enjoyed exploring the world, mainly due to how well the game executes on environmental storytelling. Without giving much away, there are different landmarks and areas that clue the player into the history of Da’at and the battle between Angels and Demons. It’s almost presented like a mystery, with the narrative being a puzzle that you piece together over time.

I loved how much Shin Megami Tensei 5 was steeped in real-world Japanese lore, with a lot of the Demons inspired by actual figures from actual folklore. For example, the Ippon-Datara, which is directly based on a ghostly creature of the same name said to roam the mountains of Japan

In Da’at, players will come across Leyline Founts, which are small beams of energy that serve as a hub/checkpoint. At Leyline Founts, players can spend Macca (currency) to recover HP and Mana Points, buy and sell items at Cadaver’s Hallow, perform Demon Fusions, and save their progress. There’s also an option to fast travel between Leyline Founts that you have discovered.

There’s a lot to discover in Da’at, from valuable treasure chests to hidden characters that will allow players to acquire special boosts and abilities. Several of the non-hostile characters in the overworld will offer players subquests. These side missions typically task players with collecting items, defeating Demons, or going to meet other characters. Subquests are usually unrelated to the main quests, but still feel attached to the overall story and contribute to world-building.

Unfortunately, with so much going on, Shin Megami Tensei 5’s map can feel cluttered to the point of confusion. There were times where I wasn’t exactly sure if I was in the right spot because there were so many icons and indicators on my map.

Honing your skills

In Shin Megami Tensei 5, players will face-off with the evil Demons that call Da’at home. The combat revolves around a press turn system, where the initiative is dynamic rather than fixed. Striking an enemy's weakness will reward the player with additional turns. This also works the other way around, as enemies can exploit the weaknesses of the party in order to turn the tides of a battle.

Each skill is tied to one of seven different element types: Physical, Fire, Ice, Electric, Force, Light, and Dark. Every character has elements that it’s weak to and resistant to. However, this information is unknown when fighting a species for the first time. As you try new skills, you’ll learn what skills are most effective against different enemies.

The Nahobino as well as all the Demons have their own unique stat pools, from HP and Mana Points to Strength, Vitality, Magic, Agility, and Luck. As players level up, they’ll unlock new skills and determine which stats they want to raise. Demons also have their own skills that they gain through leveling.

As battles go on, the party will fill up the Magatsuhi Gauge by performing different actions. Once filled, either a player or Demon can unleash their Magatsuhi Skill, which offers major boosts or unleashes a powerful attack. I used my support characters’ Magatsuhi Skill to activate automatic critical hits so that my attackers could quickly sweep the enemy squad before they had a chance to strike back. I liked how my Magatsuhi Gauge carried over between battles, allowing me to save it for more challenging encounters.

As players visit more locations and meet more characters, they’ll gain Essences. These spiritual cores are imbued with the power of Demons, and players can fuse with the Essence to gain skills and attributes from that Demon that they wouldn’t usually learn. This can also be done with other Demons in your party. The game’s skill and stat building allows for a wide range of possibilities and encourages experimentation.

The combat in SMT5 is incredibly robust and refreshing. Battles are truly challenging, with enemies throwing unexpected curveballs and having their own unique strategies. Even when fighting weaker enemies, simply clicking through your commands and spamming attacks won’t always be enough to get away unscathed.

One of my key frustrations with Shin Megami Tensei 5 is that it falls into the JRPG trope of being incredibly grindy in its difficulty pacing. From area to area, there are often massive spikes in difficulty that don't usually align with your natural progression. You will constantly need to stop and farm enemies in an area in order to rack up experience and put yourself on par with the latest adversaries.

Though I don’t mind a challenge in my JRPG, it was a bit annoying that every time I died, the game kicked me back to the title screen, rather than just loading my latest save. It felt like I was forced to take more steps than necessary and sit through an extra loading screen.

Demon time

In addition to the player, Demons will fill out the rest of your party. Players can recruit Demons by talking to them during combat scenarios. Not only is this a peaceful way to go about an encounter, but it can allow you to grow your ranks and get access to more powerful abilities. When talking to a Demon, you’ll have to fulfill certain needs and not upset them in order for them to agree to join you. Some Demons may want Macca, others might even ask for a share of your HP. In a couple instances, I gave the Demon what they wanted, and they still decided not to join me because I was a lower level than them, so they had little respect for me.

Even when you fail to recruit a Demon, that isn’t the end of the story. Returning to the area and encountering the species again, there will be new dialogue where the Demon remembers the player, wondering if they’re ready to meet the requirements. After leveling up a few times, I went back to the Demon that turned me away for being too weak and they decided to join me without asking for any more sacrifices.

I expected it to be shallow, but was really impressed with how much variation there is between the Demons and my interactions with them in Shin Megami Tensei 5. They each have distinct personalities, making them feel like unique individuals, rather than just one of a hundred different identical members of a species. Properly navigating my conversations with them and trying to recruit them also proved to be a puzzle in its own right, adding another layer of strategy to a game that’s rich with it.

Once a Demon has joined your party, they’ll fight alongside you in battle. Players can order them to use different abilities, and Demons will earn experience and level up, unlocking new moves and stat boosts just as you do. I made sure to design my team in such a way that my Demon companions could cover my own weaknesses, and vice versa.

Demon Fusions are a big part of SMT5 and are another way to build out your party strength. Through the World of Shadows, characters will be able to combine between 2 to 4 Demons to create a new Demon. One with a brand new look, as well as some improved stats and new abilities to boot. In order to successfully complete a fusion, the player must be at least the same level of the Demon they are trying to create, and will also need to pay some Macca as well.

Demon Fusions are incredibly robust and a lot of fun to tinker around with. Once I had recruited a good squad of Demons, I spent a lot of time just mixing and matching different combinations in the World of Shadows, seeing what stat rolls and abilities I could get by combining my companions. Fusions also help to make weaker Demons much more capable. Early on, I had a Fairy Demon in my party that was a great support, but had barely any HP, easily getting K.O.’d by any super-effective attack. Combining her with a Onmoraki, a much more powerful Demon, produced the Angel, a creature that could still give heals and buffs, but could also hold their own in combat.

Old dog, new tricks

Built on Unreal Engine 4, I was impressed with how Shin Megami Tensei 5 ran in both handheld and docked mode on my Nintendo Switch. The game is gorgeous, with each environment feeling deep and rich. I was also surprised that I experienced very few framerate drops, an issue that even some first-party Nintendo titles can’t get past.

Like many of the other more intense games on Switch, SMT5 can be a battery drain, so longer sessions were best enjoyed when playing in docked mode. I also found that docked mode was better for parsing all of the information that the game throws at you and displays on screen.

The game’s score is about as amazing as you would expect from a JRPG of this caliber. It perfectly captures the scope of the game, giving each location and major battle its own identity. It’s one where it’s easy to not even notice at times because of how well it blends into what’s happening on-screen.

A new classic

The Shin Megami Tensei games have often been some of the most mechanically inventive and unique, and that remains the case with SMT5. Combat is challenges and dynamic, and the party-building options are limitless. My only issues with the game boiled down to JRPG tropes that likely won’t bother hardcore fans. It’s not only an excellent JRPG, but a wonderful new entry in one of the genre’s most influential games.


This review is based on a digital eShop code provided by the publisher. Shin Megami Tensei 5 releases on November 11, 2021 on the Nintendo Switch for $59.99 USD.

News Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Star Wars nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

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Pros
  • Robust combat system
  • Demon Fusions are an excellent way to build party members
  • Compelling narrative from the very start
  • Wide variety of unique Demon personalities
Cons
  • Incredibly grindy
  • Map can get cluttered
  • Dying kicks you back to the title screen
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