As a Persona player, Shin Megami Tensei 5 felt dark, challenging, and intriguing

Shin Megami Tensei 5 is the latest entry in Atlus’ JRPG series where you fight and recruit demons. The franchise is known for a complex turn-based combat system where you’re able to negotiate with your foes — just like in Atlus’ other series, Persona. SMT5 starts when a stoic, bookish high schooler gets suddenly transported to a post-apocalyptic Tokyo and fuses with a demon to fight off monsters crawling across the city.

I’ve had my eye on the Shin Megami Tensei series for a while now. Persona 5 Royal, which has a lot in common with SMT, became a staple of my early pandemic days. I also knew that the series inspired the cult indie of a generation, Undertale. So when I saw both the remake, Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne, and a new title, I decided it was finally time for me to sink my teeth into the series. I played a preview of the game on my Switch, which covered the first few hours of the game. While I spent the game fighting and training my monsters, I found myself missing some of the more social aspects of Atlus’ other games.

SMT5 spins a tale of biblical proportions. Upon entering its world, the first thing I hear is a dark, ominous voice, whose echoes give off a God-like omnipotence. The narrator weaves an Adam and Eve-like tale about a tree that’s the source of knowledge. This is a far cry from the silly high school antics of the Phantom Thieves in P5R, where the player talks to school principals and jocks to solve problems. Sure, SMT5 also follows a normal high school boy. But the stakes and setting are totally different as players are pulled off into a post-apocalyptic Tokyo filled with angels, demons, and glittering sand.

Despite these initial differences, a lot of the actual play feels familiar to other Atlus games. Much of the battle mechanics largely remain the same — jumping in, I see a recognizable cast of monsters like Pixie (a fairy who has healing powers) and Slime (a giant pile of slime). The elemental system remains the same as Persona as well; you can use attacks like Dia to heal, Zio to inflict lightning damage, and so on.

These fights are difficult; you need to collect monsters quickly and use them liberally. You can bring up to three with you in a fight, making for a total of four fighters when you include the main character. Negotiating is fun, but stressful; at one point I said the correct thing three rounds in a row only for the monster to backstab me and do a surprise attack.

Image: Atlus

Because of this focus on battles, the SMT5 preview felt like a stripped-down version of P5R. And while it felt more accessible to play, I did find myself missing certain P5R elements. When I played P5R, I kept a notebook with me because there was just so much to learn as a player new to the series. You date people, keep track of your own relationships, and manage the protagonist’s own characteristics. The list of what you need to know to play the game goes on. You can even go and get a job, for crying out loud. And this is all in addition to catching, training, and fusing monsters. It gets to be a lot.

In contrast, I spent most of my time playing SMT5 gritting my teeth in battles, making decisions that may impact the story in ways I don’t know yet. The fights are hard, but when you’re done with them, you won’t need to think about all the other stuff. This makes SMT5 a potentially easier entry point to what Atlus’ games are about, rather than the Persona games which are dense with lore and relationship management. It’s a standalone game that doesn’t connect to a previous story, and it introduces a lot of elements of Atlus’ JRPGs in a more digestible way.

Personally, I missed many of the aspects of P5R. It’s fun to date and hang out with friends in the game! I like silly little side missions where I go try to make Joker eat a burger larger than his head. Even if it means I need to keep track of and learn new game systems, that complexity adds fun breaks between dungeons. SMT5 does have a full cast of high schoolers that players will get to know better. But this game is more serious, and brutal — that’s reflected in its battles. That said, I am early in my playthrough, and I’m hoping to see a whole lot more of some of the classmates we see early in SMT5.

Shin Megami Tensei 5 is scheduled to be released Nov. 11 to the Nintendo Switch.

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