PREVIEW: Shin Megami Tensei V Is Nocturne Enhancedby Kim Morrissy,
In retrospect, the timing of the Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD remaster, which came out in English earlier this year, could not have been better. It served as a perfect refresher course of what makes SMT games so eerie and unique while also doing little to cover the rough edges and aged elements. In some ways, the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V feels like a Nocturne HD remake: It draws directly from the earlier game's style and gameplay, but brings it to life with a wealth of graphical and artistic enhancements.
Obviously, SMT V has an entirely new story, which I'm looking forward to seeing play out. But SMT games don't tend to be distinctive for their plots so much for their vibes. If you've played even one game in this series, you'll know roughly what to expect. SMT V once again takes its players to an apocalyptic, desert-ified Tokyo populated with capricious demons.
Many of the visual details breathe new life into Tokyo's ruined world. Demons are shown wandering the overworld and interacting with objects in the environment, like jumping around on top of cars. They also get unique animations in battle, making them feel real like party members no matter how briefly they're a part of the team. The animations in the Cathedral of Shadows are a particular highlight as the protagonist jams on the organ in grandiose fashion.
I had the opportunity to play a demo build of the game at this year's Tokyo Game Show, and I can happily report that one of my biggest fears about the performance was unfounded: The game runs well on the Switch hardware. The relative sparseness that comes with the fall of civilization ends up working in the game's favor here—despite taking place in a large open area, there's minimal lag. Although I do have concerns that the environments may end up looking same-y over time, but SMT V manages to walk that increasingly difficult tightrope among Switch games when it comes to balancing performance and graphical detail.
There are noticeable quality of life improvements as well—there are no random monster encounters, the protagonist can sprint at a pace that can allow you to easily outrun hostile demons, and there's a mini-map with clear indicators about points of interest and where to go next. You can also pick up HP-restoring orbs on the field, which means that dungeon treks won't be such a battle of attrition. As for the battle difficulty, it's tough to gauge a game's balance and progression through a demo, but I did come across a field boss that wiped my team in one turn. Given that SMT games are infamous for their arbitrary difficulty spikes, I wonder if the inclusion of really obvious field bosses in this entry will allow players to set the challenge at their own pace. If so, it's a welcome move.
Although I didn't have the time to play around too much with the demon fusion system, what I can say is that all the staples are there, and it's as addictive and customizable as ever. Also, being a demon now himself, the protagonist can fuse with other demons in order to gain their skills. This allows for more robust customization than the "Whisper" system of SMT IV and the Magatama system in Nocturne. Unfortunately, this also means that the demon you fuse with the protagonist is lost, so it might end up costing extra macca and/or time to build the skillset you want and have a strong party of demons. It's a system that looks like it has its upside and downsides, depending on how difficult it is to accrue macca in this game.
Some of the long-time frustrations of SMT games are still present. Demon negotiations are random, and your target may fleece you of your health and items and still not join your party at the end of the day. The Press Turn system means that you can gain extra turns if you hit the enemy's weakness, but if you miss or use an attack that is nullified or absorbed, you'll lose your turn and have the tide very quickly turned against you. The moon phase system is back, so that enemy strength levels and conversational patterns will change depending on when you initiate the battle. Still, at the end of the day, it wouldn't be an SMT game if it didn't have some level of arbitrariness to it.
All in all, SMT V is shaping up to be the most accomplished game in the franchise yet. It takes all the best elements of the earlier entries and presents them in a highly polished experience. It looks good and feels good to play—I can't wait to get my hands on the full version.
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