Shin Megami Tensei V

I was planning to give up on the series after the disaster that was SMT4, but then I read some spoilers for this game that actually piqued my interest: The premise is that YHVH is actualfax, for-realsies, and-this-time-we-mean-it, no-take-backsies dead. Thus, no matter how bad the plot is, at the very least it has to be differently bad. The writers have voluntarily relinquished their ability to fall back on their standard plot with its standard cardboard villain. No hijacking by Ganon, no “Somehow, Palpatine returned.” I demanded these hacks write a different story for once and credit to them, they actually did.

Unfortunately, they did so by writing the absolute minimum. To give you an idea: The compilation of all story cutscenes for SMT4A is 18 hours. For SMT5, it’s 6, and that’s including a full recording of the final boss fight. Did they at least use what little time they had to tell a decent story? No, of course not, the plot is even more backloaded than usual and a shameless rehash of SMT3’s premise but now with the standard choice of “Which flavor of fascism do you prefer?” I deeply regret wasting my time on this garbage.



In the interest of a balanced review, let’s talk about the polish before we talk about the turd. First impressions: The UI is garbage. Just as with Pokemon, the designers perfected the UI with the DS (which is just utterly perfect for RPGs), then lost their minds when they had to go back to a single screen. Yes, they did gleefully ignore the first lesson of Graphic Design 101, “Don’t make your font require a magnifying glass to read.” Yes, they also ignored the second lesson of Graphic Design 101, “Don’t make HUD elements the same color as the background.” (Twice, even — in the command menu and the active character highlight, which for some reason is the same green as the HP bar.) Also, I hate the glare effect on the element icons. And still images don’t even show the worst part, which is that the camera flies all over the place during battles and uses canted camera like it’s going out of style. When I say this game hurts to look at, that is not hyperbole; I can’t play for too long without suffering from eye strain.

(You can, at least, turn off the party overlay, minimap, and button guides in the settings, not that the game gives you any indication of this.)

But this isn’t even the single screen’s fault, because look at these screenshots of SMT3 — a game they remastered for the Switch, even. It looks fine! Look at that nice, unobtrusive menu background and that beautiful, beautiful contrast! Look at the competence in realizing that if they wanted the highlight color to be green, HP had to be a different color! Somehow, after 20 years of technological advancement, UI design got worse.

I’m genuinely baffled how this happened. I wasn’t entirely joking when I said I think trying to improve upon the perfection of the DS made the graphic designers go a little insane. Farla says the UI specifically reminds her of gacha games, so it’s possible gacha garbage has so thoroughly permeated the market even big games are copying it. However it happened, I desperately want it to stop.

After my eyes adjusted to this assault, I noticed something else that’s less objectionable but still odd: The art style for the models is weirdly… shiny? You can sort of see it by comparing with the SMT3 screenshots here, but it’s clearest in motion, if you want to look up clips on YouTube. It’s not exactly plasticy the way overly shiny models usually are, it’s more like… the lighting looks like it has a physical weight, like it’s dripping off the models almost. Probably what literally happened is they cranked the light up way too high, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it and it looks really weird, and really artificial. Do not like.

While we’re on the subject, more petty graphical grievances: The death animations from SMT4 are retained, but somehow they feel a lot less impactful even though the jump to 3D should have been the opposite. Frozen enemies just sort of collapse instead of exploding, and instead of disintegrating the target death spells just make them melt in a really artificial, obviously-computer-modeled way. There’s also no special animation for death by physical skills, so battles are now literally bloodless. Like, they tried, I guess, but they really phoned it in. (I can’t say the same for the sleeping animations, or that is to say, the complete lack thereof. This is especially egregious because SMT4 did make separate sprites with closed eyes for sleeping enemies. It occurs to me the exact same thing happened in Pokemon — seriously, gamedevs, if 3D requires you to make the graphics worse, you can stick with 2D, please, I am begging you.)

And speaking of Pokemon, the game also has a lag problem. It’s not anywhere near as bad as Scarlet & Violet — I’m sure that would have taken effort — but it’s definitely noticeable, and the game is nowhere near as smooth as SMT3 HD. It looks like they got overzealous about peppering maps with lots of tiny objects, especially all that very shiny sand.

 

In better news: sexy BDSM angel finally got replaced with this cool new design! The other angels unfortunately didn’t get redesigned to match the creepy mask theme, but I’m so happy I don’t have to look at BDSM angel anymore I don’t mind. (Jailbait mermaid is unfortunately still in and looks even creepier in 3D, alas — can’t have everything.)

And on the more amusing side of graphical mishaps, Lucifer is introduced crotch-first, the better to demonstrate they aren’t even trying to pretend his modesty ribbon is covering anything. I honestly don’t know why they’re still keeping it around; it worked in 2D, but in 3D it just looks like he’s got some toilet paper hanging off him. I think we all know going full dick out is more in-character for Lucifer, anyway.

The gameplay itself suffers from… similar problems. Like with the graphics, they tried to improve upon perfection and ended up in a ditch. The elegant demon whisper system for learning new skills has been abandoned, and they went back to SJ’s demon sources instead. It’s definitely a more refined and convenient revision of the system: You can fuse demon essences onto people at any time, and they’re also a lot easier to get, including being sold in shops. They’re still not as cool as the whisper system and I’m not entirely sure why they changed it. (It also makes magic builds less viable again, since opportunities to learn skills are rarer.)

The one interesting thing this system does bring to the table is that you can also use it to change affinities, not just skills… only on the main character, though. It’s a cool idea, but very awkward in practice due to the fact you can’t stockpile demon essences; changing resistances makes sense for a single fight, but then you’re stuck with it until you can get a different essence, and if you change out of a good set of resistances it really sucks to have to wait for it to show up again. Maybe this was the point, to force you to think more long-term instead of swapping out equipment willy-nilly, but sorry, I don’t think that works for this kind of game. The magatama in SMT3 and the armors in SJ show that you can make this kind of thing a nuanced decision with meaningful tradeoffs without demanding a heavy resource tax every time we want to change our armor. (At the very least, this does create the interesting corollary that all demons must have at least one weakness since you can steal their affinities — no bosses who resist everything anymore.)

This is especially bad because they brought back the protagonist death = instant game over mechanic after blessedly removing it in SMT4. Why. Who asked for this. It’s not like they brought back the row system from the SNES games either, so it doesn’t even add a strategic element, it just arbitrarily punishes you if an enemy randomly decides to focus fire the protagonist. At least instant death spells only work if you’re weak to them now.

All of this gets compounded by a pair of decisions so supremely stupid I genuinely don’t understand how they passed review: The game is now open world, with fixed levels for all encounters, and level trumps all other factors in the damage formula by an order of magnitude. If you are 5 levels below the enemy, the fight is a Herculean struggle; if you are 10 levels below the enemy, you may as well give up. This despite the fact that dungeons are gone and replaced with massive, sprawling overworlds peppered with surprise optional bosses that can be upwards of 20 levels higher than the regular encounters. (And of course level factors into the escape formula too, so if you run into one of these landmines and don’t have a Smoke Ball, you might as well reset.)

The difficulty felt a lot harder than previous games in general, actually. Enemies frequently take off half a demon’s HP with just their regular attacks, and suffering a weakness typically brings you down to single-digit HP from full health if it’s not an outright oneshot. Combined with the mechanic of enemies acting all at once and the press turn system compounding any setback, it’s extremely hard to keep characters from dying. Maybe that’s a good thing, it encourages you to actually use your full stock? But it’s not like they made the protagonist significantly tankier than the demons, so it mostly just makes battles come down to luck.

Maybe I’ve just gotten tired of the series, but I spent most of the game ignoring fights entirely (thank you, pre-existing encounters) and just exploring. The gameplay just doesn’t offer much complexity beyond the standard jRPG strategy of spam weakpoints and heal when necessary ad nauseam; as I forewarned in my SMT3 review, the Press Turn system alone isn’t enough to fix that because it only further incentivizes whatever is already optimal. The one new mechanic is a limit break system that is hilariously unbalanced to the point I suspect they added it at the very end of development, because it was clearly not balance tested — they’re tied to demon races and slowly unlocked by doing sidequests, except they’re almost all worse than the default limit break you start with, which is gamebreaking. Enemies also only ever use the default limit break, which is easily countered because they telegraph it beforehand.

I guess they did at least make bosses susceptible to status effects, which is something? This, however, was also not balance tested, because their AI does not adjust when under Seal, so they just repeatedly attempt to use sealed skills and waste all their turns. It is extremely easy to do this because one of the aforementioned limit break skills inflicts an ailment guaranteed.

I also found myself fusing off a lot of my demons without ever even using them, so the mons element wasn’t terribly engaging either. I wonder if that’s a content creep issue, where by this point there are just so many demons that every level unlocks more fusion options than you can feasibly keep up with. This could maybe be solved with a leveling scale more like in wRPGs where levels are much more infrequent, but alas, that’s not what we get.

The designers made up for their lack of innovation in the core gameplay by overhauling the overworld: the game is now a platformer where you can jump freely (and fall off cliffs). I really don’t think this was necessary; I’m sure the level designers had fun with the added verticality, but it makes the map less useful, makes it harder to be sure you’ve explored everywhere, and exacerbates my eye strain by forcing me to move the camera up and down all the time. The glaring light filters they love to place over environments don’t help. I would frequently get confused about how I was supposed to progress through an area, or how to get back to where I was after jumping from a high location. And as I noted in Tears of the Kingdom, it also makes the 2D map nigh-useless. Sometimes less is more, gamedevs!

But alright, it’s an RPG, we all know we’re not here for the gameplay. What’s the promised plot, now that God is dead?

So. When I heard the premise combined with knowing you kill God in SMT4A, I assumed this would be a direct sequel based on the results of your actions in the previous game. That would have been pretty interesting, because probably the biggest thing holding the series back is its refusal to commit to any sort of continuity. Every game ends with you making huge, world-reshaping choices (unless you’re a loser and do the neutral route)… and then the next game resets everything so you can do it again. It always stops just short of actually letting us engage with the consequences of our actions, to let us truly live in the new world we create. The only game to break this rule was SMT2, which did a terrible job of it by completely invalidating the player’s decisions in SMT1. (Though at least it managed to cough out a criticism of the neutral route, which no game has managed since unless you count SJRedux and its very, very stupid criticism.)

So of course they don’t do that, because why would a long-running series want to revisit its one good idea. No, in one of the very first scenes it turns out Lucifer killed God and the previous player avatars had nothing to do with it, because why have continuity in your long-running series when you can invalidate your players’ decisions at every opportunity instead.

But okay, okay, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, God being dead at all is still a big improvement. The opening of the game is actually quite good: You start off doing the standard ordinary high school student thing, you hear rumors of spooky attacks that are obviously demons, then BAM suddenly you’re in the demon world. No wasted time, we cut right to the chase.

Even more lovely, it’s followed by delicious transhumanism, as in order to survive you fuse with a god to become a higher being. This transhumanism comes with a bonus helping of transgender, because, well…

From left to right: The protagonist, the god he fuses with, and their fused form. Despite the god supposedly being responsible for the more fantastic elements of the fusion, you may notice he does not have ankle-length hair, stilettos, or a waifish figure. The extremely androgynous male protagonist just happens to develop these traits the moment they get the chance to remake their body, For Some Reason.

Just going off of promotional images and clips, I thought the protagonist was female and was genuinely shocked to discover that wasn’t the case. I am dead certain Aogami was originally supposed to be a goddess, which incidentally would make the protagonist the reincarnation of a goddess. They must have changed it for misogynistic or transphobic reasons or both. That, or the three characters were all designed by separate people who didn’t communicate beyond the basic premise of “human fused with god”; we shouldn’t assume malice where incompetence could suffice, I suppose. It’s a real shame, a trans or bigender protagonist would have been rad and highly relevant to the themes of breaking or adhering to established order.

Once the game starts proper, I discovered the game has doubled down on SMT4A’s decision to make Dark demons recruitable right out of the gate. This is now not only a gameplay element but a worldbuilding one: you can encounter a Slime NPC that explicitly brings it up, explaining that they’ve learned how to speak over the past few decades and they’re sad people still don’t bother talking to them! That’s right, SMT finally figured out how to neatly exposit both gameplay and story information at the same time. There are actually a lot of subtle and genuinely clever references to previous game mechanics; one negotiation branch directly mocks the ridiculously evil and trigger-happy responses demons had in previous games, which genuinely made me laugh out loud after having experienced that myself so very many times in the SNES games.

You in fact get to talk to a lot of demon NPCs, even more than in SMT3. Their dialogue is impressively nuanced and interesting, with many sidequest subplots seriously engaging with demons as people and the societies they’ve built. It’s the first time in the entire series that the world has felt like a true ecosystem that functions beyond what’s relevant for the plot. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but I felt this dovetailed really well with the guiding ethos of God being dead; we get to see so many demons who existed only to be cackling evil in the previous games get chances at growth, reinvention, and redemption. God is dead and so is his black-and-white morality; even the most vile of demons can be your friend if you give them a chance.

Things become more interesting when you notice the demon world looks an awful lot like a post-apocalyptic human world, and NPCs quickly confirm that this is indeed the case: the final battle between God and Lucifer happened 20 years ago, and Tokyo was destroyed in the conflict. Your only lead for how to fix this mess is an angel that shows up to kidnap one of your human classmates, who claims the angels are maintaining a sanctuary for humans.

At this point, I reasonably assumed that we did not in fact enter the demon world; instead, we time traveled into the future, after the demons had taken over the world. The world as we knew it is irrevocably gone, and all we can do now is cling to the remnants of the past like the angels or embrace the new world order like the demons.

I really should have known better. SMT never saw a cool premise it didn’t botch, and this time is no exception. Turns out that actually you didn’t time travel, the Tokyo you grew up in is a pocket dimension (?) God created to preserve humanity after the demons attacked, and actually you have to go back there and live your boring normal life as a student while moonlighting as a demon hunter.

I can’t help but feel baited-and-switched by this. The SMT series has had a consistent theme that the past cannot be taken back (except SMT3, which was deliberately trying to be different). An apocalypse shatters the world irrevocably and you have to figure out how to move forward rather than looking back. Even the neutral endings, as annoyingly centrist as they are, typically change the world in major ways. But this time, not only is the old status quo still present, you are railroaded into preserving it from the very beginning.

The plot then proceeds to trudge forward at a glacial pace. The gameplay-to-story ratio in this is genuinely unbelievable to me — I would estimate maybe 5% of playtime, if that, is spent in cutscenes. Every leg of the game requires you to spend hours upon hours upon hours trudging through massive, sprawling, confusing environments for a few minutes of cutscenes. You could cut out everything but the very beginning and very end of each area and almost nothing would be lost.

This is honestly bizarre. For all the series’ many, many, many writing faults, lack of content has not been one of them. Even SMT3 did have stuff happen at a fairly consistent rate, even if it was a trickle and most of the it ended up not mattering. Now there’s just nothing.

Well, almost nothing. They managed to squeeze in a victim-blaming anti-bullying message because the writers keep forgetting SMT If happened. As soon as we go back to high school somehow having equal importance to demon hunting, we get a plot about a bullied student’s emotions accidentally summoning a demon to terrorize the school. Supposedly, she’s one of our friends’ best friend, so of course this is the first time we see her or hear anything about this situation, because the writers continue to not understand you need to develop characters before you can use them for pathos. Unsurprisingly, this ends with her fusing with the demon and forcing you to put her down for the greater good.

It’s at least portrayed as a tragedy rather than her getting what she deserves, but wow it sure is interesting how there’s just no way to save a girl who actively rejected her demon patron and begged you to save her at every opportunity but a boy who wholeheartedly chose to torture-murder his entire school got a whole secret ending where you move mountains to save him. (What I find especially galling about this is that you are given multiple opportunities to declare whether or not you want to save the bullied student, but none of them change the result. Your Choices Matter, except when they don’t.)

Honestly, it’s a big plot hole that the high school doesn’t have a stronger anti-bullying policy when bullying is known to be demon catnip. The situation is portrayed just like a regular high school, where bullying is rampant and teachers require mountains of evidence before they even grudgingly lift a finger for anyone, even though the government is run by demon hunters supposedly dedicating all their resources to defending the last bastion of humanity against demonic incursions. The writers want the fantastic premise without the slightest consideration for how it would change things.

Oh, and this also results in another female character sacrificing herself to save you, which you repay by immediately killing her friend, because we can’t give women happy endings in a series called “Resurrection of the Goddess”. (She later comes back as a literal ressurection of a goddess… from which point on she displays no free will or agency beyond cheerleading you.)

Then after about 20 hours more of filler you finally get to the route split. Turns out the reason God was so powerful was because he had a magic throne that lets the wielder control the universe, and now that he’s dead it’s up for grabs. Your choices are:

  • Your boss reveals he’s actually a Japanese god who, despite the rest of the world being safe now that the demons are defeated, wants to immediately spark a brand-new war against the angels for the sake of Tokyo. Not even Japan, Tokyo. The world must burn for the sake of a single city. For some reason the only objection anyone has to this is “Why are you betraying the angels, they’re so nice :(” and not that this is monstrously selfish. For some other reason this requires taking the throne and remaking all of creation, wherupon he will totally be a nice absolute monarch and treat all gods fairly, because that is definitely a thing Japanese gods would do.
  • Loser boy decides to simp for a hot angel lady to uphold God’s will, because the angels remain convinced against all evidence that Daddy is still alive and we just need to keep the throne warm for him until he comes back. (This of course results in hot angel lady getting a sexy evil makeover.)
  • A fascist cop wants to destroy the throne, which will somehow help humanity, but also he wants to kill tons of humans too because he’s a fascist cop.
  • An ancient mother goddess wants to use the throne to separate the human and demon worlds for some reason.

Or put another way, your choices are fascism, fascism, fascism, or The Magic Goes Away. I guess I kind of appreciate they’ve stopped pretending Neutral is any better than the other sides, at least? They’ve also stopped pretending “chaos” is anti-authoritarian in any meaningful way — they’re just as authoritarian as Law, just mad they’re not the ones doing the stomping — but Apocalypse already did that in a much smarter and more explicit way, so I’m not giving them points for that.

The only option here that seems like a remotely good idea is destroying the throne (fortunately Fascist Cop gets taken out early so you don’t have to carry out his purges), but the writers can’t stand the thought of players picking anything but the True Ending so the epilogue reel tells us this inexplicably results in even more war even though we destroyed the gods’ only motivation for fighting. So of course the only real option is The Magic Goes Away, also known as why are you writing fantasy if you hate it so goddamn much you pathetic hacks.

Is this a cry for help? Do the writers want this franchise to die but the execs keep demanding more? I’d like to hope that the finality of the true ending means this really is the end of the series, but I’m sure capitalism will find a way to reanimate its bloated corpse once again.

But if it does, I won’t spare it any thought. We’re done with SMT. I chose to gave it one last chance and boy howdy that is not a mistake I will be repeating.

2 Comments

  1. Seed of Bismuth says:

    “why are you writing fantasy if you hate it so goddamn much you pathetic hacks.”

    Because if you try to change anything you’ll only make it worse, better to find joy in the fleeting moments of a simple life. So stop playing video games and Be a good little working drone and die on the job like your father did japanese millennials.

  2. CC says:

    I also thought we time-traveled and was deeply disappointed that we hadn’t. (And also-also pissed about being unable to save the girl. I level-grinded just to be able to kick the other naho’s ass easily only to be browbeat by a bout of Cutscene Incompetence! Grrr!)

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