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Saturday, June 11, 2022

Shin Megami Tensei V

After a number of spinoffs, side-games and remasters of varying quality, Shin Megami Tensei V marked a return for the mainline franchise, going back to its dungeon crawling, demon-recruiting roots.  But does Shin Megami Tensei's fifth numbered entry capture what made the series great to begin with, or is this just another gimmicky, overdone flop?

Atlus is a company with a long history and a definite place in RPG fandom.  Fittingly, Shin Megami Tensei is a series with appeal for fans of tech-heads with its focus on high difficulty and character management, but it also has enough spinoffs and side-games to make it appeal to almost any type of RPG fan.  Whether for those who enjoy action games with a slight RPG bent (Raidou Kuzunoha), school-life/dating sims mixed in with the dungeon crawling element (Persona) or even turn-based tactical combat (Devil Survivor).  Even within each of those branches they've experimented quite a bit, though for a while I felt they had a lot more misses than hits; whether due to overreliance on DLC and having to purchase features that came standard in earlier games (SMTIV), a premise that mostly just grated on me (Persona 5) or just generally mediocre design (Tokyo Mirage Sessions).

So, Shin Megami Tensei V became the first game in the series I picked up in nearly seven years, hoping that Atlus had finally gotten their game together and not just turned into another soulless shlock factory after being bought out by Sega as I'd long feared.  Within only minutes of starting it's clear that V is trying very hard to run things back to their early games - the overworld uses the same pegs-on-a-map art style as the Super Famicom games, and it wastes little time jumping right into the dungeon crawling experience - in fact, right after the intro (and some tutorials) end, it's almost all business.  You're in an enormous 'dungeon', surrounded by demons, managing scarce resources and forging alliances with demons through negotiation to give yourself a chance to survive.

In terms of design, SMTV mostly draws from Nocturne, working in a few elements from Persona and SMTIV (though fortunately, none of the terrible ones that drove me away from that game).  Heavy focus is placed on elemental strengths and weaknesses, and the Press Turn system returns once again - basically, you get one turn pip for each character in your party (up to four), and getting a critical hit or striking a weakness turns it into a flashing pip, which effectively grants another action before your turn ends.  Using this to your advantage, you can effectively get up to double the amount of actions per turn by making good use of elemental spells and/or attack items.  However, the opposite is also true - missing an attack or having it blocked costs you a pip in addition to the one you would have normally spent, and an attack being absorbed or reflected causes you to lose ALL of your remaining pips, ending your turn immediately.  Enemies can also just as easily exploit Press Turns by hitting your allies' weak points or getting criticals, which can quickly turn the fight in their favor if you come unprepared.  Having the right team setup for whatever area you're going into, as well as whatever bosses you're facing, is essential to victory.

You can do some things to offset glaring weak points in your team, though.  The aforementioned items are one - you can use them to block attacks of a particular element or exploit an enemy's weakness, though as they're relatively tough to come by in the field and expensive to purchase, this option is best used sparingly.  Another option is blocking, borrowed from Persona 4 - this uses a full turn pip, but puts one of your characters into a defensive stance, letting them withstand one attack without it counting as hitting their weak point; you'll still take damage from it, of course, but it's a better option than giving your enemy more turns to wreak havoc with.  Managing one's turns efficiently helps greatly too - if a demon's going to be a liability in a fight, it's often a good idea to switch in one without their particular weaknesses, even at the cost of a turn pip and maybe bringing in a weaker monster.  It's a good idea to never let enemies get the jump on you - landing the first strike before the fight even starts (borrowed from IV, as well as the Persona games) will give you a much better chance of getting a free turn, or at the very least, starting the fight on even footing with your opponent.  And of course, if all else fails, there's no shame in running - better to cut your losses and survive than to risk losing a big chunk of progress.  The game also helpfully shows a percentage chance of your team successfully running from the fight you're in - something I wish more RPGs would do!  Encounters are also visible on the map as in SMTIV, giving you a chance to avoid them if you don't wish to fight at that time.

Something else that can help turn the tide in a fight is Magatsuhi - a plot point in Nocturne, but here it also plays a role as an in-game mechanic, somewhat similar to limit breaks from Final Fantasy or the Pep Skills from Dragon Quest XI.  As you make your way through battles, you'll see a meter labeled "Magatsuhi" on the screen gradually fill; once it does, you can spend it to perform many different effects.  The one you start with and keep throughout the game is "Omagatoki: Critical", which turns every hit made that turn into a critical strike, letting you dish out heavy damage.  Others, unlocked later and often tied to a specific Demon's race, include buffing up the party for a turn, earning extra Experience and Macca from that battle, making all attacks Pierce (ignore defenses) for a turn, or even restoring some MP to the entire party.  Demons can likewise use Magatsuhi buffs, though, so it's best to end the fight quickly (or prepare to defend against a heavy onslaught) when they're about to use one.

As in most SMT games, there is a heavy focus on resource management in this one.  Item drops from battle are somewhat uncommon, enemies give fairly little macha (Cash) as well, and healing is quite expensive (charged by the point), so even staying topped up is a bit of a struggle.  Your main source of income this time are Relics - otherwise-useless items generally found by searching vending machines.  They also seem to replenish themselves after a time, so it's often worth it to fast-travel around the maps and search all the vending machines again if you need some quick cash.  Items can of course be used to heal or attack, but their main use is in demon negotiations - talking to various monsters mid-fight and trying to convince them to join you; often requiring that you answer questions correctly and pay them money, items or some of your HP or MP first.  Demons themselves can level up in battle and even earn some new skills, but they rarely gain much beyond their first few levels other than some minute stat boosts.  So once a demon starts to fall behind, it's best to make use of another iconic series mechanic, demon fusion - combining two or more demons together into a new powerful form, carrying over some of their attributes and abilities to a fused, say, Angel is much more useful than one you could just recruit in the wild.

A new strategic bent here is Skill Potentials - how well-attuned a demon is to a particular element.  Those attuned to it will get a bonus to any spells of that element (shown with a +1/+2/etc. by the spell name), while those who are attuned against it will similarly get penalties (with a minus sign before it); you can still learn those spells and cast them without issue, but they'll be significantly weaker than normal.  These can be improved on the protagonist by purchasing Miracles, while on demons they are largely fixed; however, one can also acquire rare items called Sutras that will improve a Potential by one tier, up to a maximum of +9.

Another new one is Essences - items that work on a similar principle to demon fusions, letting you take the 'essence' of a demon and apply it to another, earning some skills or, for the protagonist, adopting their elemental strengths and weaknesses for himself.  You can pick and choose whatever skills you like from these, but elemental strengths and weaknesses are a package deal, so once again, consider carefully before you use one in this manner.

Some more distinctly "JRPG-ish" elements show through too.  One that caught my eye right away was a game-spanning collectible sidequest in the form of Mimans; somewhat similar to the Tiny Medals from the Dragon Quest series, collecting enough of these and returning to the in-game shop will earn you free items, many of which are difficult to come by otherwise.  A pretty clever, if somewhat cheesy, way to encourage the player to search every nook and cranny for goodies.  Finding Mimans earns you a small bit of Glory - a currency you can spend at the Dark temple to unlock Miracles, which give you all sorts of useful bonuses and new abilities - more Magatsuhi gains, slow HP/MP regeneration when the Magatsuhi meter is full, gaining stat bonuses on fused demons, more skill slots on your protagonist and his demons, and Potential boosts, to name just a few.  Glory is a fairly scarce resource to come by (otherwise mostly just found in limited quantities from scattered containers throughout the game), but you can also farm it by by defeating rare, fleeing-prone enemies called "Nigi Mitamas" with randomized weaknesses; not dissimilar to Metal Slimes and similar monsters in many JRPGs.  There is also an optional DLC that causes Mitamas to spawn slightly more frequently, to the point where it's basically pay-to-win DLC; I'd highly recommend skipping that if you don't want to make a complete mockery of the entire gameplay loop.

SMTV also looks and sounds quite good, though I felt a bit more polish could have been dedicated to it in this regard.  Graphically it's very clean, sharp and stylish per series standards, though the game's framerate does dip a bit at times; particularly in wide-open areas with a lot of monsters around or during some of the flashier screen transitions and spell effects.  The audio mixing is also a bit off - voices and sound effects seem excessively loud by default - though you can tweak every aspect of this to your comfort level.  It also made my Switch run quite hot - the fan was blasting almost the entire time I played - so I ended up taking a break every couple hours or so hoping it wouldn't damage my system.

So, with Shin Megami Tensei V, has the series finally come around full-circle and become good again?  For the most part, I'd say it has.  It's a quintessential return for the core SMT franchise, with a fairly minimal story but heavy focus on dungeon crawling and party management, and mechanically, it's polished and fun to play.  The punishing difficulty of the early games is there if you want it, but there's also an easier option for more casual players (and an even easier "Safety Difficulty" available as free DLC for newcomers).  The lousy design choices in 4 have almost all been cast out, and the DLC this time mostly makes sense - giving you better odds of finding rare money/glory/XP-tank foes rather than just handing them to you as a pay-to-win feature, as well as providing new combat challenges and powerful demons for the most dedicated players.  All in all, a game that I'd recommend for those in search of a fun, well made dungeon-crawling challenge.

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus, Sega, Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Released: 2021
Recommended Version:  N/A