What I'm Playing - No. 148
Welcome back to another weekly wrap-up of the games I’ve been playing over the past week!
Be warned, minor spoilers may be contained within. Generally, I do try to keep things spoiler-free but this isn’t always possible/practical! If you want to totally avoid all potential spoilers so you can play these games yourself in a blind run, you shouldn’t continue reading! Click a title to skip to that section. Games contained within this post:
Shin Megami Tensei V (Switch)
In 2017, Atlus revealed Shin Megami Tensei V in the first set of teaser trailers. 4 years later, the game is out, and over the past few weeks I made my way through its demon-infested Tokyo. What did I think of it? I won’t mince words here. This might not mean much coming from someone who only played 4 games released in 2021, but Shin Megami Tensei V is Game of the Year for me.
The game begins similarly to several other entries in the series, putting you in the shoes of an ordinary Japanese high school student. While walking home one day, you and a few other classmates are caught in a bridge collapse. When you wake up, you find yourself in the Netherworld, a strange apocalyptic wasteland version of Tokyo inhabited by angels and demons, and just when you’re about to become demon food, Aogami appears. You take his hand and fuse with him to become a Nahobino, a forbidden being that is neither god nor man. That’s the entire intro more or less, and after that you’re thrust into the gameplay proper, though there are naturally some tutorials sprinkled through the opening hours of the game. Still, the short intros are something I’ve always respected the series for. These games get you into the action pretty quickly, and Shin Megami Tensei V is no exception.
One thing to note before we move on, I wasn’t able to capture any of my own gameplay footage for this game, because the Switch’s built-in video capture is disabled. This is no doubt done to squeeze as much performance out of the hardware as possible (something it could have used even more of sometimes, the framerate definitely struggles at times), but I wanted to bring it up now because it means I had to source video from trailers and other official sources like that, and any of my own gameplay is going to be limited to screenshots. I took a ton of those, by the way! With that out of the way, let’s get into it!
The iconic Press Turn battle system returns, and it’s just as incredibly fun as it always is. You gain extra actions on your turn by hitting the enemy’s weakness or landing a critical hit, and you get to keep attacking until you’ve used up all your actions. I think there are some small tweaks, but it’s very similar to the system that began in Nocturne. One thing that’s different in this game compared to previous ones is how buffs work. In the early game, skills for buffs and debuffs only target a single enemy, and the ones that target the entire party are available later in the game and cost more SP. They can also only stack up to 2 times, and wear off after 3 turns. This actually makes buffs and debuffs function more like how they do in Persona 5, which I was a little weirded out by at first since I enjoyed how buffs worked in SMT IV. But after I got used to it, I didn’t mind the changes. The battle system is still fantastic, and features some challenging fights. I was playing on Normal difficulty, and I got several Game Overs throughout my playthrough, both to some particularly deadly regular enemies, and some strong bosses. Each loss was an opportunity to re-evaluate my strategy, and potentially dive back in the World of Shadows to adjust my party, and I loved it!
Of course, another thing that helps makes battles and the rest of the game even better is the music. The way the battle theme comes in once you launch the first attack of a battle is sublime. The OST ranges all the way from atmospheric tracks that help set the tone of the Netherworld, to fast-paced rock that sets the stage for your battle for survival. I’m a big fan of this OST, I’ve been listening to it a lot, especially while writing this script, and I’ve only come to like it even more.
Exploration is pretty different from past games in the series. The Netherworld is split into several semi-open-world areas with plenty to see and do. For most of the game, there aren’t any traditional dungeons, but the Netherworld exploration totally makes up for it. The first Netherworld area is pretty straightforward, but later areas are more involved, with more verticality and complex paths. I found myself having to check the map to figure out how to get to some collectibles and areas, and felt the same sort of dungeon-crawling feeling I’ve come to know and love from SMT!
The dungeon-crawling feeling also continues with how the game handles save points. You can only save at these glowing blue columns of light, called leyline founts. These are also where you recover your health, access the shop, fast travel to other leyline founts you’ve discovered, and access the World of Shadows to fuse demons and learn new abilities. I found myself retreating to these to heal at regular intervals while exploring a new area, as I couldn’t always make it to the next save point before battles wore my team down too much. Pretty early on, you gain the ability to instantly teleport back to the last leyline fount you used, which is really nice. In this way, exploring the Netherworld feels very much like making your way through a dungeon in a classic dungeon-crawler. But there’s a lot more to the Netherworld than that!
Continuing the trend started by SMT IV, SMT V does away with random encounters and instead has enemies appear in the overworld. But for the first time in the series, the enemies you see in the overworld are the enemies you’ll be fighting! This is such a cool feature. Other JRPGs have done this in the past, but it’s great to see it come to the SMT series. Seeing demons in the Netherworld wasteland as you explore makes it feel so much more alive. They mostly just hang out in small groups and chase after you if you get too close, but some of them will be sitting down and relaxing until you approach them, and little details like that make the experience even better.
Not all the demons you come across are hostile though. Most of the NPCs you encounter in the game are demons, and a number of them have side quests for you to take on if you want to. Some of these are your basic fetch quests, where a demon will ask you to gather some item for them, but many of the side quests were mini-boss battles instead. As a MegaTen fan, these were really cool because they either involved demons I was familiar with, new demons, or demons that hadn’t appeared in 3D in a mainline game before, and it was really exciting to see all of these!
In addition to demons and side quests, the Netherworld is also full of little creatures called Miman. Finding them is entirely optional, and not tied to any side quests or anything, but the shopkeer will reward you for every 5 Miman you find. None of the rewards are anything ground-breaking, just extra items and things like that. Still, Miman are a nice collectible, and it was fun grabbing the ones I saw while running around the Netherworld. Some are in pretty interesting locations too, like at the top of a hill that you can’t climb from the bottom, so you have to find even higher ground and fall onto it from above. There are a ton of them in each area, many of which are off the beaten path or hidden pretty well, and it’s a nice way to reward players who enjoy exploring every inch of the world.
One area where Shin Megami Tensei V doesn’t shine as brightly is its story. There are some really memorable moments spread throughout. Some of the things that happen have me itching to replay the game so I can experience those moments again. It’s just that other aspects of the story can feel pretty underdeveloped, and the pacing is uneven at times. Some characters really don’t have much of an impact on the story either, and it seems like they could have been cut from the game entirely without any major changes. I think the biggest example of this is Hayataro. He’s on the cover, he was in the trailers, and when he’s introduced early in the game, you might think to yourself, “Oh, this guy, I wonder what his role will be.” Well, I’ll just say that I forgot he was in the game 95% of the time, and leave it at that.
I still really, really enjoyed the game, despite its flaws. There’s so much in this game that I haven’t mentioned, and I feel like I could gush about it all day without really doing it justice. Like I said at the beginning, this is Game of the Year 2021 for me. I’m definitely going to replay it at some point to do a New Game+ run, get a different ending, and probably try to complete the Compendium too. If you like RPGs, SMT V is a must play Switch game in my book, as long as you’re okay with the experience being carried by the gameplay rather than the story. My final playtime was 60:26.