JRPG Review

Shin Megami Tensei 5 – Review | This Ain’t Pokémon

Shin Megami Tensei is a series of games that has grown in popularity at an alarming rate. Whether it was the excellent Nocturne/Lucifer’s Call on PS2, the stellar Persona 4 on Vita, or wonderful spinoffs like Strange Journey on DS, the series has gone from strength to strength. Of course, I will mention Persona 5, widely believed to be one of the greatest JRPGs of all time. So what about Shin Megami Tensei 5?

Shin Megami Tensei Is Back

Shin Megami Tensei 5 is the first title in the mainline series since 2016, so naturally, expectations are high. Expectations are as vapid as unrealized potential, however, so how does Shin Megami Tensei 5 hold up? Does the Nahobino usher in a new age of prosperity, or does he bring naught but disappointment?

First things first, the story. Shin Megami Tensei 5 has a story – somewhere. I promise you it exists, but it is so well hidden, you might actually forget why you are anywhere, and the reason you are doing anything. As is typical in these games, you play as a Japanese kid who, by some seriously unfortunate turn of fate, ends up in the Netherworld. 

Shortly after that, you fuse with the Proto-Fiend, Aogami, who turns you into a vessel that could one day become God and allow you to bend creation to will. There might not be much in terms of story, but going into anything beyond this would venture into spoiler territory. For what it’s worth when the story crops up every 10 hours or so, it’s actually pretty good. It’s just contained in extreme bursts of intrigue separated by vast nothingness. At least the story has multiple endings, which gives it some staying power once the credits roll.

Shin Megami Tensei 5 - Combat

Themes Over Narrative

This might actually be the point since this is the apocalypse we are talking about here. Shin Megami Tensei has always focused on themes, and concepts over straight-up storytelling, and the same is true here. The complex mythos, the morally corrupt nature of omniscience, the idea that someone’s will can bend reality, or simply the crushing emptiness of the end-times. It’s all here, and at times the weight of the world can be palpable.

These ideas are pushed perfectly thanks to the outstanding soundtrack – possibly one of the best soundtracks to ever grace the genre. So much of it is atmospheric, alien, and almost harrowing. It’s a constant reminder that the world is truly fucked up, and you don’t really belong here – not yet. There are some fantastic rock pieces, specifically in the battle music, but even these tracks start with an eerie silence. 

Like the explored duality of Man and Demon, Shin Megami Tensei 5 manages to exist in two distinct states. The game will periodically switch between being the greatest JRPG the world has ever seen, and simply being average. It struggles to maintain its transcendent splendor for the duration, and honestly, it can become an absolute slog to play at times. When it’s good, it’s unfathomable, when it’s bad, it’s almost unbearable.

Open World Done Wrong

This is, in part, due to the open-world Shin Megami Tensei 5 operates in. The novelty of exploring a barren hellscape quickly wears thin. There’s plenty of things to find, and those things are definitely worth finding, but it ends up being a really wide corridor. Looking at any map of any area you’ve explored immediately reveals this. You are ferried in a mostly straight, sometimes bending, line from start to finish.

It made me ask the question: Why is this here? What does this bring? The answer to both is padding. The reason there are 10 hours between practically every story segment is that you are being carted around this visually stunning, yet mechanically vacuous playspace for no real reason. The open-world segments function as painfully drawn out dungeons filled with ‘go here’, ‘fetch this’, ‘kill these’ quests. 

Whilst the game doesn’t force you to explore, so much of your progression is locked to the side activities you do. If side activities, such as finding Minams, treasure cubes, Petrified Demons, and Quests have so much value to the player, they stop being optional – they become mandatory with the thin veil of choice clouding their true purpose. It’s so pivotal, that an entire system would be unusable without frequent ventures off the beaten track. 

It’s Not All Bad!

The weird thing is, the game has actual dungeons – and these are all brilliant. The designs are interesting, exploring every nook and cranny is fun, and there is plenty of gubbins to be grabbed. They also don’t take 10 hours to bloody complete, typically have major narrative set pieces, and are actually well designed. It’s a shame the focus leans so heavily on the open world.

The final nail in the game’s exploration loop is the performance. The game looks stunning at times – a true visual spectacle with some gorgeous enemy designs that are begging to be appreciated. The Switch simply doesn’t have the chops to run it well. The game tries to maintain 30FPS, but it fails more or less constantly. I found it fairly uncomfortable to play at first, but as the hours passed, I noticed it less and less. Still, this game would have benefited greatly by being on literally any other console.

So why play Shin Megami Tensei 5? The game is light on story and the open world aspect is drawn out, what makes it worth playing? The combat. Simply put, this is some of the best combat we’ve seen in a JRPG – possibly ever. The sheer depth, difficulty, and satisfaction gained from interacting with every system that ties into combat is staggering. If you don’t want to engage so heavily in those aspects, the game even comes with a ‘Story’ difficulty, which is a nice touch.

Shin Megami Tensei 5 - Shop

Gotta Enslave ‘Em All!

At its heart, Shin Megami Tensei is about collecting demons to form a battle party, and using those demons in 4-man teams to kick the snot out of other demons. This ain’t Pokemon, however. You don’t catch demons, you bribe, threaten, seduce, and convince demons to join your party. There is a fair amount of RNG involved in whether or not your negotiations will be successful, but there are a lot of demons to find, and each one is pretty darn unique.

Every demon has a list of Weaknesses and Resistances. You want to leverage the right demons at the right time so your party is never going into a disadvantageous brawl. If a demon you own is hit by an attack they are weak against, then the enemy will get a bonus turn to potentially attack again. In big scraps, this could lead to a complete party wipe as the enemy makes huge combo chains by exploiting your weak links.

On the flip side, of course, you can exploit their weaknesses too. Every demon has several attack types at its disposal, and if you smack a lightning-weak enemy with a lightning attack, you get a bonus turn too. There is a real satisfaction of bringing the right tool for the job and destroying hordes of demons before they even get a chance to activate.

Shin Megami Tensei 5 - Open World

Combat Keeps On Getting Deeper

Magatsuhi, demon magic stuff, is gained over time for both you and your enemies. Once enough have been gathered, special abilities can be activated. At standard, this is a turn of guaranteed Critical Hits, which is a serious increase in damage. Oh, and they also grant bonus turns similar to when you exploit weaknesses. You want to be wary when an enemy is gearing up for a big Magatsuhi turn, and you want to use yours to get out of a bind.

Unique to this series is the idea that leveling up your demons is woefully ineffective. They gain plenty of EXP, but the amount of EXP required to level up is shockingly high. This is by design, as your main character, Nahobino, levels up at a pretty speedy pace in comparison. This is because the game doesn’t want you to stick to the same party. The game doesn’t want you to grow attached,

Attachment in Shin Megami Tensei 5 is a path to nothing but pain. Demons have a life cycle. You obtain them, you use them until it becomes apparent they are no longer pulling their weight (usually pretty quickly), and then you dispose of them like the worthless slaves they really are. Throw away might not be the most accurate of terms, however.

Sacrifice might be better. Shin Megami Tensei 5 has a wonderfully in-depth Fusion system that lets you fuse two weak demons together to form a substantially more powerful demon. Why would you ever grind a level 5 demon to level 10, when you could simply murder them along with their mate, and get a level 10 demon instantly. As odd as it sounds, this is the reward cycle.

Shin Megami Tensei 5 - Fusion

Addictive Reward Cycle

Every level Nahobino gains unlocks new demons for you to Fuse and summon. There is always a reason to check what new monster you can create on level up, and the game is really balanced around you doing this. But don’t worry, the time invested in your old demons never goes to waste, because when you fuse demons, you can inherit skills from the parts that created them.

The depth this seemingly simple mechanic has is mind-boggling. You can give demons skills that they otherwise would not be able to obtain. You could make a true jack-of-all-trades casting monster, you could create a hybrid-melee-magic demon or anything your heart desires. You could even remove all of a demon’s weaknesses if you carefully plan your fusions.

This ties into the Essence system too, which allows you to fuse the essence of a demon, into another. If you don’t want to remove, say High Pixie from your team yet, but you want to utilize her high Magic stat, why not fuse the essence of a demon with her, and give her new abilities whilst retaining her physical form.

Bottomless Potential

Essence Fusion takes on a whole new meaning when applied to Nahobino. Nahobino doesn’t gain abilities naturally, and instead, must rely on Essence Fusion to gain more powerful attacks. This makes Nahobino fully customizable. No two Nahobino’s will be the same, as he is truly modular. You can change up his skillset almost at will. 

He also gains the ability to change his weaknesses through essence too. This allows you to tailor your Nahobino to every area, enemy, or even boss, providing you plan ahead. If a boss is primarily going to attack using Force damage, then absorb the essence of a Force demon and become functionally immortal. This is extra important since the game ends when Nahobino dies. Oh, and there are no checkpoints, so save often and plan well.

Throw in game-changing abilities through the Miracle system, new Magatsuhi attacks via talismans and the beautifully situational nature of the Item system, and Shin Megami Tensei 5 delivers a truly compelling system that carries the game almost in its entirety. This is just against standard enemies too.

Stellar Boss Battles

When it comes to bosses, the game’s mechanics shine brighter than a supernova. Boss fights are seriously tough encounters that all require a full understanding of how the game works – and not just the combat stuff. You need to understand fusion, you need to understand items, and essence, and weaknesses – all of it. If you don’t you will die. The game will mercilessly kill you until you learn. 

Because there are so many ways to gain power in Shin Megami Tensei 5, grinding is never required. You can grind, but doing so is just an inefficient use of your time. There are countless ways you could gain power, and all of them require you to use your head – not your patience. That is until the very late game, where you can find yourself fall under the curve seemingly out of nowhere. Thankfully, you only ever need to level up Nahobino, and there are items to expedite the process if needed.


Shin Megami Tensei 5 is a bastard to rate. What we have here is a game that, when everything is working in tandem, is possibly the greatest JRPG of all time. The depth, the mechanics, the loop – it’s perfect. The things it fumbles, however, makes getting to that greatness a chore at times, and it does serious damage to the overall experience. This is a 10/10 game, trapped in an 8/10 body – which is a real shame.


Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Purchase: Nintendo Store

If you would like to see more JRPGs, you may be interested in our review of Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster or Persona 5 Royal.

Many thanks go to Nintendo for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.

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