Sometimes a game greets you with a kick in the teeth. Shin Megami Tensei 5, the latest in the long-standing RPG franchise from developer Atlus, is one such game, beckoning you into an interdimensional war between heaven and hell, where humanity’s fate is on the line but the lowliest enemy can still beat you into submission.
Shin Megami Tensei 5 functions as an RPG, and a tough as nails one at that. Its combat is turn-based in perhaps its purest form, with barely anything interrupting your party and the enemy demons taking turns to poke and prod each other with various supernatural abilities. The combat system could be fairly described as a war of attrition, where both sides are slowly whittling down the health of one another, and supremely powerful abilities that can lay waste to a number of foes are extremely few and far between.
What this results in is one hell of a grind. If you thought modern RPGs like Dragon Quest 11 and even Tales of Arise required a steady slog through an army of enemies to boost your level, Shin Megami Tensei 5 is a league above that. Every periodic boss encounter for a story beat is a mountain to be summited, where you’ll have to spend hours repeatedly sprinting through all the foes you’ve gone through beforehand, slowly accumulating precious experience points so the boss can’t wipe away your entire team with a flick of its finger.
Atlus’s latest RPG actually functions as a collect-a-thon. When engaging with an enemy devil in battle, the protagonist can temporarily halt trading blows and engage them in a war of words, cautiously negotiating to try and recruit the demon to their side. You’ll really have to pay attention to the demon’s personality here - if they’re bubbly and optimistic, you’ll perhaps want to recruit them through praise, but if they’re headstrong and overly aggressive, you might want to try fighting fire with fire and puff out your chest in negotiations.
This is one area that’s had a mini upgrade since Persona 5. Atlus’s 2017 RPG, itself originally a spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei series, also boasted negotiations with various demonic foes, but the result was more of a guessing game where the personality of said demon didn’t really factor into how you approached negotiations. Shin Megami Tensei 5 refines this system, where the tone of your answers when entering talks with a demon actually matter, and you’ll quickly build a familiarity with some of the more common personality traits of demons.
Collecting new and powerful demons is vital to your survival. One boss might be weak to fiery elemental attacks, for example, so after taking an absolute beating from them and summarily retreating, you’ll need to prowl the ruined world of Shin Megami Tensei 5 in search of demons with said fire-based attacks. Switching demons in and out of your line up to find the perfect combination to thwack a boss is excellent, a formula which constantly keeps you on your toes and looking out for ways to stack your team to give you the best chance of survival. There’s not one combination of demon allies that’ll see you through the entire game unscathed, so you’ll have to constantly mix and match for optimal results.
As with anything produced by the Atlus RPG factory, there’s a banging soundtrack undercutting the entire experience. The recently-departed Shoji Meguro actually isn’t behind the score for Shin Megami Tensei 5, but stepping up to the plate are Toshiki Konishi and Ryota Kozuka, two similar veterans of the Persona and Megami Tensei series at large. Meguro’s successors do a fantastic job breathing an extra layer of life into Shin Megami Tensei 5, as grumbling bass lines of high-octane guitar notes punctuate every battle attack and every cautious creep around the open world. It’s a moodier soundtrack than that of Persona’s vocal-led anthems, but “moodier” is an apt way of describing Shin Megami Tensei in comparison to Atlus’s aforementioned series.
Combat is brilliant and brutal, then, but it’s the rest where Shin Megami Tensei 5 is found wanting, chiefly because there’s not actually a lot more to this game. The outset of Atlus’s game plonks you square in the heart of modern-day Tokyo, positioning you as a lonesome high schooler who quietly attends classes and lives a normal life. That continues for all of about 15 minutes, before you’re transported to another plane of existence and tasked with saving humanity from an engulfing war between heaven and hell.
That’s near enough all the set up and expositional detail you’re given before you trek for 10 or so hours through the RPG grind. Shin Megami Tensei 5 offers spoonfuls of story to the player in sporadic drips, never a deluge, because it doesn’t really have a lot of story to impart. “Go here, save this person and kill this baddie,” the game tells you at regular intervals, before thrusting you into the demonic netherworld and waving goodbye for the next dozen hours or so.
It’d help if Shin Megami Tensei 5 actually had characters worth fighting for. At the outset of the adventure you run into a few fellow classmates who’ve also been trapped in the hellish neighbourhood, or rather, you run into people you can only assume are your classmates, because there’s zero introduction to who these people actually are. “I’m Ichiro Dazai!” one of them quips with a sense of familiarity - a sense that’s completely lost on me, because I do not know this young boy at all. Tens of hours later, I still don’t really know who he is, outside of a vague caricature of a struggling student wanting for something more meaningful out of life.
I don’t really know any of Shin Megami Tensei 5’s characters, and that’s a damn shame. There’s zero downtime in this adventure, no opportunities to get to better know the people you’re fighting to protect. The stoic honours student of the group, Yuzuru Atsuta, even remarks at one point that he wishes he’d got the chance to know another character before she was kidnapped by a demon, and that’s accidentally a perfect reflection of the way I feel about Shin Megami Tensei 5’s characters. Atlus’s RPG doesn’t let the player become anything more than a vague acquaintance of their allies, and so consequently some of the more impactful story moments that leave Shin Megami Tensei 5’s characters with scars fall completely flat.
Shin Megami Tensei 5’s combat is great, punishing and rewarding in equal measure without ever tipping the scales too far in one direction. Mixing and matching your deck of demons makes for great fun as well, and spurs you to look to all corners of the ruined world for allies of all shapes and sizes. It’s everything outside of the battling and grungy soundtrack where Shin Megami Tensei 5 badly misses the mark, with one-note characters that you’re never given the chance to better know, and a paper-thin plot that feels dragged out over dozens of hours. Shin Megami Tensei 5 is a good RPG battler, but it’s not good at much else.
Disclaimer: Game tested on Nintendo Switch OLED. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.