Darker than Final Fantasy, harder than Persona – there’s never been a better time to get into Shin Megami Tensei than with SMT5: Vengeance

By admin Apr30,2024

Shin Megami Tensei is hard. Always has been. Amongst RPG fans, it’s a series infamous for its difficulty. Whether it’s the bastard Matador skill-check in Shin Megami Tensei 3 Nocturne, or the Minotaur boss that gated so many people into the starting area of SMT4 on the 3DS, the series has become totemic of difficulty in RPGs – especially as the genre has become a little more dilute and more mainstream-friendly (here’s looking at you, FF16).

The original Shin Megami Tensei 5 – a Switch exclusive, until now – deviated from this rock-hard formula a little bit. If you spent time fusing demons, grinding out random encounters in the wastelands of a ruined Tokyo, and learning what the legions of demons in the game were weak to, you could rather effortlessly meander through the story without too much resistance. It was fun, don’t get me wrong – it just didn’t feel very MegaTen.

But Shin Megami Tensei 5: Vengeance reassess that balance. It wants to make you suffer. It wants to make you earn your victories, eke through its encounters by the skin of your teeth. Bring the grit in you out. I’ve only played about three hours of the game at a preview event hosted by publisher Sega and developer Atlus, but already I can feel that the waters here are darker, deeper, and deadlier than they were in the vanilla outing of the game.

The demon, Eisheth, in Shin Megami Tensei 5 Vengeance, asks the player:
*sigh* No, you can’t romance the demons. | Image credit: Atlus

Let’s rewind. The original SMTV was all about you, a human, fusing with a demon and thus inheriting the power to re-shape the world. MegaTen veterans will know this is par for the course; the essence of a story that underpins all the mainline games. Dubbed the Nahabino, this svelte androgynous boy hero set out on a quest of creation – shepherding a fledgling world into existence by challenging gods and opting for chaos, order, or neutrality.

As such, the story was somewhat hemmed in, only open at certain ‘flagged’ points where you could strike out and make major decisions. Like Mass Effect but more obtuse, if you want a comparison to something more Western. There were four basic endings, and no one route would really change the game that much. That’s all changed in Vengeance.

Now, as the name would suggest, you’ve got a whole new path to take: the Canon of Vengeance. This re-writes the game completely, altering your progression, your dialogue options, and pretty much everything about the game at a cellular level. The original game is still there (dubbed Canon of Creation) if you haven’t played it before – but I reckon you’ll be able to jump into this ‘definitive version’ of the story and understand what’s going on if you haven’t.

A demon, with its suspiciously high-resolution feet out, summons an attack called Sacrifice of Clay +7
Why are the feet so high-res, hm? | Image credit: Atlus

It’s hard to preview a game like this, because you jump into a premade save full of demons I wouldn’t recruit in a million years, all equipped with skills that just aren’t up to Scratch Dance (sorry). Still, the area I demoed – wholly new to both Canons, Shinjuku – was flush with high-level demons and angels, and pretty much everyone in the room (myself included) died at least once to wandering mobs of normal enemies.

Yes. Yes! Punish me, MegaTen. At least now, you can save anywhere on the overworld, meaning (hopefully) hours of exploration and grinding will rarely be for naught. The boss gates are harder, now, too: one encounter near the end of the demo had five waves of enemies spawning in – a proper gauntlet – and you couldn’t progress until you nailed them all in one fight.

It reminds me of some of the harder fights from SMT spin-off, Digital Devil Saga, in how you need to plan ahead, make sure you’re targeting weaknesses to exploit the phenomenal Press Turn system, and use buffs and debuffs on top of raw damage to ensure your survival. Maybe it’ll be easier if you know your party inside out and have fused demons correctly to breed out your weaknesses, but – as it stands – this is the toughest preview I’ve done in years.

A party of demons and humans wanders the desert in SMTV: Vengeance
There ain’t no party like a, uh, desert wandering party. | Image credit: Atlus

But that’s a good thing. This year has been stellar for RPGs: Persona 3 Reload, the FF16 DLC, Unicorn Overlord, FF7 Rebirth, Like a Dragon Infinite Wealth… I could go on. But they’re all pretty easy, no? There’s been nothing lately that’s really stumped me, had my brain running all the lines, trying to merge min-max maths and creative thinking to best what is essentially a bloody mini-boss.

It’s this fusion of slightly obtuse encounter design and system exploration that made me fall in love with MegaTen some 20 years ago, and I’m so pleased Atlus has doubled down on it here, with SMTV’s inevitable second bite of the apple. This is the way, though; SMT3 had its nigh-perfect Nocturne/Maniax update, SMT4 got a ‘B-side’ in the form of SMT4 Apocalypse, and even the somehow-now-more-popular Persona games get their Portables, Goldens, and Royals.

Atlus has clearly mastered the craft of the RPG with these tweaks and tune-ups, and Vengeance is a shining example of that. If you’re a new convert to RPG greatness thanks to the wealth of role-playing acuity that we’ve had in the past four months, it’s very likely that Shin Megami Tensei 5: Vengeance is the next step-up you’re looking for.

It’s tough as nails, it’s a brooding emo tale set at the end of the world, and the production values are tight (if you can forgive a little bit of open world jank that any updated Switch exclusive is going to be hobbled by).

A cluttered battle UI screen in which a blue human/demon protagonist fights a snake-headed beast.
Many battle scenarios in SMT games are, ahem, ‘hydra-headed problems’. | Image credit: Atlus

I think the MegaTen series has long been the difficult, brooding, intentionally obtuse black sheep of the RPG world, and with SMT5 finally coming to Xbox, PlayStation and PC with this killer new version, everyone is finally going to get the chance to see why. If you’ve ever played a Persona or a modern Final Fantasy and wished for a bit more bite – or a bit more edge – then this game is 100% for you.

Just don’t be upset when you have to grind out a few hundred battles against massive cock-shaped demons in order to pass a very minor boss. Because it’s going to happen. But therein lies the fun.

Shin Megami Tensei 5: Vengeance comes to PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X and Series S on June 14, 2024. The original is available on Switch now.

By admin

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