Shin Megami Tensei V Killed God and You're Next

Before getting wrapped up in the game's narrative, a sweeping story about the role of God in society, you have to understand that this world doesn't care about you at all.
November 9, 2021, 2:00pm
A screenshot from Shin Megami Tensei V
Image Source: Atlus

Shin Megami Tensei V is a video game about the pleasures of running repeatedly into a brick wall.

The Shin Megami Tensei series is arguably the inventor of the style of game that Pokémon would popularize. You play as a high school student in Tokyo who is suddenly pulled into a world of monsters. Lucky for you, you have the ability to cast magic spells, and also to enlist demons to help fight with you. Unlucky for you, this is not the soft world of Pokémon. For the first ten hours of this game, you traverse a harsh desert with crumbling buildings in the distance, fighting and capturing demons who are designed to look grotesque more often than not.

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Every single enemy encounter in Shin Megami Tensei V is a test. They're tests that you haven't studied for, and where you never went to class. Even more frustratingly, no matter how well you do in parts of the encounter, passing the test is a binary: you either master the lessons the game is trying to teach you, or you fail, and are booted back to the title screen.

Most people would run screaming from a game like this. Shin Megami Tensei V is a throwback in its design. It feels like a direct sequel to the similarly difficult Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, which Atlus remastered for the Switch earlier this year, not just in its narrative but also in its approach to gameplay and tutorializing. In these games you learn by doing, and if you don't learn your lesson, you die. Like the world you inhabit, one overrun by demons and angels in an eternal religious war, it's survival of the fittest.

Other than Nocturne, I struggle to think of games that have such frustrating delights while also giving almost nothing in terms of empathy towards the player. Even Dark Souls, the ur-example for "hard game" to the point of parody, has a convivial feel when it comes to failure. In Souls games, the lesson is often that failure is a part of growth. Regaining the experience you've lost from dying is not usually a big hassle, and sometimes your failures are very funny. Failure is a comedy beat, a minor set back, and the lesson you learn from that game is that you can recover from it.

In Shin Megami Tensei V, failure is often emotionally devastating. Like Nocturne, this game does not have auto-save, and checkpoints are few and far between, especially in the early hours of the game. I have lost a huge amount of progress in this game from random enemy encounters, the kind that are not usually difficult in other kinds of games. I had to, at one point, put my Switch down after losing a random encounter before I even had a chance to attack. I lost an entire night's worth of progress.

I'm not sure it's wise to frontload so much of the mechanical difficulty of this game, but it's certainly instructive. Before getting wrapped up in the game's narrative, a sweeping story about the role of God in society as per Shin Megami Tensei tradition, you have to understand that this world doesn't care about you at all. Nietzsche would approve of this world where gods may exist but are not the rulers of humanity's fate. This is a world where your ability to survive is determined by you and you alone. Although this can be depressing as hell when an Ippon-Datara hits every single one of your characters with a hammer until they die when you're within spitting distance of a checkpoint, nihilism can also be thrillingly freeing. I keep coming back to this game to prove something to it, and to myself. I know that with the right strategy, I can defeat every single one of those hammer wielding demons. This is a universe that runs on rules, and once I learn what they are and how to manipulate them, I can strategize my way through the pain.