When projects are heading straight for financial success these days, it is not only the thought of a sequel that is often not far away, sometimes the lead developer-publisher team tries to ‘exploit’ the cash cow again extensively with dedicated offshoots. At the same time, these spin-offs even manage to step out of the shadows of their big ‘siblings’ from time to time and leave a more solid impression on the existing fan base than the original game series once did. While Nintendo has in the past exemplary demonstrated with IPs around Donkey Kong, Wario or Luigi how sidekicks can justifiably play the role of the protagonist, we can also look back on offshoots such as The Sims, Forza Horizon or even Conker’s Bad Fur Day, which made the limelight quite controversial in their original versions. A similar fate awaited the Japanese role-playing game series Shin Megami Tensei, which first saw the light of day in 1987. While the franchise in this country represented its completely own Japano niche, the sub-series Persona, on the other hand, attracted significantly more attention from Western players. Persona 5 was not only able to break sales records including its extended version ‘Royal’, the entire history is peppered with success stories that were only too happy to pass the water on to their original source of inspiration. With Shin Megami Tensei V, developer Atlus is now throwing the next JRPG offspring into the western world, not least to enrich itself with the success of the sibling series. The ambitious role-playing epic relies on Nintendo Switch exclusivity and, together with its open game world and other exciting gameplay innovations, promises to break a potential family dispute from the fence. Reason enough for us to take a closer look at the Japanese carnage in role-play guise, including its ongoing family feud.
A moral discussion of the ends and the means
As an ordinary high school student in Tokyo, you start everyday school life at Jouin High School in Shin Megami Tensei V without much focus on prologue or background story. Unexpectedly, however, your routine is disrupted by mysterious incidents that are opening up all over the city and especially in the vicinity of your school. To make matters worse, on your way home you will also get between the fronts of an ongoing war between demons and angels, which are transforming the once bustling city straight into a desolate wasteland. In order to survive in the new reality suppressed by demons, a mysterious figure called Aogam offers you his help and unceremoniously merges with you to Nahobino, a much more powerful form of yourself, who is now able to fight the demonic monsters to fight back. With the new goal of uncovering the puzzling events and saving the world from its supposed doom, you are now freely crossing the post-apocalypse and facing all kinds of diabolical threats, bizarre monsters and strange dangers. Shin Megami Tensei V initially loses little time to release you into the post-apocalyptic, open game world. With its rather lifeless opening, the role play proves provocatively that not every brevity necessarily has the necessary flavor. Characters are introduced in order to initially remain pale and characterless, while the story is reduced to a minimum with a strong simplicity and focuses on common hierarchies and biblical myths for the sake of simplicity. Dissolute arguments between demons and angels? What is already established for cultural reasons does not have to be followed by a detailed explanation – it is useful but just as uninspiring. While our protagonist hardly undergoes any recognizable development within the entire narrative, we are mainly driven by the smaller moments in which the few companions appear. Together with smaller secrets, tangible character development and one or the other refreshing twist, developer Atlus creates sufficient motivation to want to continuously participate in the background story.
Shin Megami Tensei V cannot plagiarize such a rich, emotionally charged and dramaturgically elaborated narrative as it was constructed by the sibling series Persona at the time. Although the story slowly picks up speed as the game continues, it never really manages to penetrate the area of relevance, the limits of which Persona 5 once haughtily defined. The initially rather insubstantial story basis is increasingly loosened up by a simple decision-making system. In doing so, you skillfully place some moral and ethical dilemmas in the adventure so productively that you not only create the necessary depth – even if only in smaller doses – but also give the narrative a certain right to exist. Unfortunately, Atlus also largely lacks serious consequences within the framework of the decision-making system. You lose so much potential on the way to a competitive story foundation that you almost want to believe that the Japanese developer is deliberately trying to differentiate it from the sibling series, which is used to success in the west.
Open world with synergy effects
Shin Megami Tensei V undeniably puts the focus much more on the fighting than on an emotional staging. The playful concept is basically similar to the sub-series Persona, but is much more challenging and at the same time turns its back on the characteristic dungeon crawler concept. What remains is a freely accessible game world in which you compete in turn-based battles against all kinds of demons and absurdities, choosing from a pool of skills in order to ultimately identify the weaknesses of your opponents. Once you have recognized the sensitivities of your opponents, you are allowed to fall back on an additional move, the same of course also applies to your wonderfully absurd opponents – so far, so well-known and consistently solid.
On the other hand, the Magatsuhi energy crystals, which are not only accumulated with each play, but can also be found in the open game world itself, are completely virginal for the game series. Once put together, you can use them to carry out significantly more influential attacks and actions, which – if used wisely – have the potential to turn the game over in your favor. A nice addition that creates a coherent and necessary link between the already weighty open world and the actual core of Shin Megami Tensei V: strategic, turn-based fighting.
A tactical understanding is explicitly required in the demanding battles, but on a motivational level you rarely lose the fighting – not least due to the fact that you can adjust the level of difficulty individually at any time, but primarily due to the complex role-playing system and its welcome depth. So in the fifth offshoot of the main series you do not go into the battles completely autonomously but have the opportunity to stand by your side in the form of demonic peculiarities. Atlus appeals here skillfully to the collecting mania of the players. So you roam the game world in search of the most powerful Pokemo … uh demons, add unique characters to your team in order to be able to take advantage of the weaknesses of your opponents.
If you want to competently expand your team, you just throw at you with words instead of the iconic red and white balls. The concept of this verbal recruitment process turns out to be quite interesting at first glance, so you will be presented with various possible answers, which in turn require that you are able to correctly assess your counterpart. If that doesn’t work on its own, an attempt to bribe with all kinds of items or a financial incentive could also lead to the desired success. Unfortunately, the whole thing seems quite arbitrary in the long run, a flaw that Persona 5 already had to nibble on at the time. Speaking of Persona, players of the popular Dungeon Crawler series are likely to already know some of the creatures and sometimes even love them. Demons like Jack Frost, Pixie, Agathion still inspire not only with their original and curious character design, but are also quickly worked out and given individual animations that visually reveal the creatures’ specialties and peculiarities.
How to: Motivation
Three of your demonic companions can simultaneously intervene in the fighting, a strategically wise selection explicitly with a view to your opponents is necessary above all due to the merciless degree of difficulty. Anyone who cannot or does not want to follow motivationally in the rather demanding main mission should seek remedy in destroyed Tokyo. Keyword: loot and level! In tiring grinding sessions, the whole thing rarely degenerates, which is not least due to the Pokemon-esque collecting mania. After all, learned is learned! Furthermore, the depth of the role play system clearly counteracts the frustrating, uniform processing. While you automatically gain new skills by leveling up and thus expand the classic attributes such as strength, magic and stamina, you also have the opportunity to intervene more actively in the development of your fellow combatants by means of fusion. When two demons merge, not only does the strength of the end product increase, the special abilities of these can also be combined with one another. If you consistently put your bonds together in a meaningful way, you should quickly be able to counter any weakness with the appropriate, advantageous type of attack.
The concept behind “collecting monsters” gives the open game world a certain raison d’être, which is primarily based on a motivational level. This is structured quite adequately and, apart from its potential allies, has all kinds of secrets to offer. While rest areas accommodate traders and heal you for a certain surcharge, you will also find teleportation options, rare items and a variety of profitable, sometimes varied side tasks here. Your exploration tour will also be loosened up again and again with simpler platforming passages. Shin Megami Tensei V basically shows with the departure from the traditional dungeon structure how to skillfully play out your strengths by actually integrating the walk-in Tokyo into the existing game system in a meaningful way.
At the core of the main missions, Shin Megami Tensei V still seems rather stupid. Real puzzles are not to be expected here, instead you knock various bosses one after the other to “mince” in order to face the next extremely challenging antagonist shortly afterwards, who will probably drive you out into the open game world at the latest. A gameplay loop that works! Technically, Shin Megami Tensei V cuts an acceptable figure even on the outdated switch hardware.
Smaller frame rate drops as well as pop-ups cloud the gaming experience slightly and still make it clear that Nintendo’s hybrid console is reaching its limits in its current revision. Graphically, the role-playing game also operates on a rather mediocre level, but not only scores with its successful synchronization but also manages to create a consistently motivating atmosphere with its ambitious soundtrack, but never reaches the spheres that a Persona 5 has melodically created.