I was actually kind of excited to play Shin Megami Tensei V. I’d never played any of the mainline SMT games but heard that they are darker, deal with the sort of philosophical choices, much harder and more intense than, say, Persona games. What’s not to like?! After pouring more than 60 hours into SMT V I have to say that this particular game was quite a disappointment.
There are various reasons why I like this or that JRPG. They can have great characters and dialogues (Trails games), amazing polished gameplay (Valkyrie Profile) or can be just ridiculously charming (Ni No Kuni). SMT V somehow doesn’t have any of that. Its plot and pacing are nonsensical — you have a brief introduction, meet a few characters who you think will be important later on, only to be thrown into a desert where you spend the next 10-12 hours without any particular goal. “Run from point A to point B and defeat a big demon. Run from point B to point C and defeat another demon”. Rinse, repeat. And it’s not just a problem with the first chapter, the entire game is like that! You simply have to go from one boss to another because… reasons. Once every 10 or so hours you get tiny bits of information about the world, information I, personally, couldn’t care less about, provided by the characters I couldn’t care less about either. Even better, there are characters who disappear without any trace and are never mentioned again. Why the fuck were they introduced in the first place? Because you so rarely have to interact with anyone and the conversations usually are absolutely pointless, it’s just ridiculous sometimes when you’re asked here and there “Oh, do you agree with his views?” How the hell can I know if I agree with his views? Those views were briefly mentioned 25 hours ago, I have neither ability nor desire to remember what they were. Whereas the main plot is bad the side-quests are even worse. 95% of them are nothing more but to give an item or to kill some demon, for poorly explained reasons. There are some quests which imply a choice and when I got my first one like that I actually thought I’d have to think carefully, because I hoped that these choices would affect the ending. “Your choices matter”. Ha. It was pretty naive thinking. No matter what you’ve been choosing, in the end you can side with any faction you want. A fair warning, it’ll be difficult to decide, because, again, you barely spend any time with any of the characters, have very vague understanding of their motivation and have no particular reason to help any of them.
The next thing I want to write about is exploration. A lot of people praise the more open locations of SMT V but I found them to be, frankly, more annoying than anything. Not only a herd of the Nekomatas or 50 Narcissus hanging out together look super weird, the locations themselves are painfully boring and all look and feel the same. The first location is a yellow desert, the second is an orange desert, the third is a grey desert and so on. There’s absolutely nothing to remember landmarks-wise after my playthrough, I just got sick and tired of the desert, abandoned highways and ruined buildings. I frankly was thinking about giving up on the game somewhere during the 3rd chapter, when you need to disable 7 or so devices before fighting Ishtar, it was just such a pain to find all of them in that bleak world where nothing catches your eye — even though the devices were marked on the map! SMT V also features whooping two dungeons, and for a series that was pretty much a dungeon-crawler before, these levels were also underwhelming.
If the plot and exploration are so-so, maybe the gameplay is great? Unfortunately, it’s also hit and miss. The combat system itself is good, the demon fusion is decent but there’s an elephant in the room. Well, two elephants. The first one is that the game has an odd level-scaling system. What I mean is that not only your stats are taken into account when calculating damage and so on, the difference in levels affects that as well. Meaning — you’ll have to grind. Especially in the last location. You arrive there when Hahobino is around level 55 and all the bosses there are level 72. Good luck fighting them even if you have great stats. Also SMT V nudges you to fuse new demons whether you want it or not, because the amount of experience they have to obtain to level up raises as a very sharp exponent. After the first 5-7 levels-ups Grimoires is probably your only hope to keep a demon useful. The second elephant I mentioned is that the game is not especially difficult. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never see the Game Over screen, you will and quite a few times. I just mean that you don’t have to come up with elaborate strategies to defeat enemies, most of the time simple buffing/debuffing will be enough. The bosses always use the same Magatsuhi attacks, probably the only ones you’ll need to keep an eye on, so every big fight boils down to you trying to guess what critical attack the boss is going to smash you with and if you guessed poorly — well, now you know the dampener you’ll need to use the next time. Closer to the end of the game everything becomes even easier considering how many elements you can block or even repel via essences. I think I enjoyed only two boss fights, one with the “true” version of Lahmu — his first phase was quite annoying and did require some planning; the other one was against Shohei Yakumo or whatever his name was, he had a lot of strong physical attacks and it was probably the only time I had to use a tank. Overall the combat was fine but I definitely would enjoy it much more if other components of the game were better.
So yeah, I know it was hard to notice but Shin Megami Tensei V didn’t exactly live up to my expectations =) It’s a long, boring, plotless, faceless JRPG with good but having some issues combat system. While I was playing it I discovered videos on SMTIII: Nocturne though. These videos simultaneously attract me and scare me to death =) So maybe I will give SMT another try soon, this time with the game from the PS2 era heh, what can possibly go wrong.