Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance Review: This Is Your Sign To Get Into JRPGs

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance Review: This Is Your Sign To Get Into JRPGs

I often hear people call the turn-based combat system outdated, a relic of an era defined by technological limitations and minuscule file sizes. If you’re one of those people, I have one request: play Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance.

Vengeance is the latest definitive edition in Atlus’ repertoire, a re-release that builds on the original version of a game through massive story, character changes, and the smaller, yet just as important, quality of life changes. And while the vanilla version of SMT V was great, it was clear that the game needed more time to cook. Vengeance is the perfect example of what a few more years and hindsight can do to elevate a game, because it takes the turn-based system to heights I haven’t experienced before. 

The Pinnacle of Turn-Based Combat 

Image: Atlus

I’m one of the many people who discovered Atlus games through Persona 5, the game that appeals to even the biggest JRPG naysayers. However, Persona 5 is known as the JRPG for people who hate JRPGs, the exception to the rule. Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance is the JRPG that will make you realise how brilliant the genre truly is. 

There is a level of inaccessibility associated with the SMT series, which can drive the uninitiated away. It’s lauded as having a brutal, unforgiving combat system that unfairly punishes players for not playing optimally. I personally started SMT V with some hesitation, after being convinced that Persona had the Kidz Bop version of SMT’s press-turn system.

While Persona is very different difficulty-wise to SMT, I don’t believe SMT is only for seasoned JRPG players. And with Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance’s quality of life changes, it proves to be an insanely rewarding gameplay experience. The press-turn system is all about maximising every decision – there are no throwaway turns. While it does rely on capitalising on enemy weaknesses (leading many to liken it to Pokemon), the use of buffs and debuffs, status effects, and fusing new party members based on affinities makes tough fights feel like you’re playing a game of chess. It may not be as high-octane as a real-time combat game, but this doesn’t mean battles aren’t as involved. 

There is a level of thoughtfulness and weight to every decision that I think can appeal to anyone. No encounter is unfair. Every loss is a learning moment, a challenge to the player to find the strategy that takes a boss from feeling invincible to being on equal ground. You won’t need to grind because levels aren’t usually the reason you’re losing – it’s a skill issue, and you’re asked to simply get good. Overcoming these encounters is what gives the player a level of satisfaction that is hard to find elsewhere, especially for those unfamiliar with the genre.

Image: Atlus

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance brings in some little additions that go a long way in making the game more accessible to newcomers. I was especially surprised by the inclusion of a save anywhere feature, as I’d lost hours of gameplay in vanilla SMT V due to the limited savepoints you’re given. While it might feel a little cheap to save before every encounter now, I’ve always found having to replay parts of a game due to an unexpected death to be more tedious than anything. Fights are made slightly faster, and auto-battle is made more efficient, removing any tedium from your standard enemy encounter. 

Exploration is another area where Vengeance shines, and builds upon the original game. Being able to rotate the map, see it with a birds’ eye view, and add waypoint markers are just some of the ways the experience is elevated. When playing Vengeance, I told myself I wouldn’t need to fully explore the map after doing so with SMT V years ago. But something about the exploration in this game, along with the new sidequests, kept me investigating every little corner I could find. 

An Unforgiving, Oppressive Tokyo

I’ve joked before that while playing SMT V, I would need to take a break after just a few hours due to how intense and, for lack of a better word, demonic, the atmosphere was. And this is a wholehearted compliment. 

There’s something about SMT V, and Vengeance, in particular, that makes me feel more haunted than if I was playing a horror title. The unearthly soundtrack paired with a bleak, winding map gives off an energy that’s uniquely SMT. While playing, it always feels as though something is off – not only because both versions of the Tokyo you play in are far from normal. While Persona 5’s style makes you feel like the coldest mf’er in the metaverse, Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance makes you feel like a minor player amongst unforgiving demons and humans, all barely clinging onto life. 

Image: Atlus

The only alleviation from this atmosphere comes from the demons that you recruit to fight in your party, and do odd jobs for in the game’s many sidequests. These demons are honestly filled with more personality than human NPCs – vanilla SMT V already excelled in this, but Vengeance somehow improved upon the experience with the Demon Haunt. This is a new area in Vengeance, in which you can chat with the demons you currently have recruited. Sometimes they give you a token of their appreciation, and sometimes they complain about demon fuckboys. It feels like the edgy version of Pokemon Camp and actually made me so attached to my demons that I’d hesitate to fuse them away once they’d start falling behind – which you’re constantly encouraged to do in SMT.

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance also has demons do quirky things outside of the Haunt, such as giving the player a little guess-the-demon quiz based on their silhouettes, on the condition that they join your party.

Vengeance makes demons appear to have their own lives, often sharing opinions of their surroundings and even of your player character. This game has made me crack up after reading unexpected dialogue from the most unhinged creature I randomly picked up on the street. It also made me even more attached to Aogami, the demon you fuse with to gain the ability to fight. The first time I saw my character lie his head pitifully against a park bench, with Aogami next to him like he had a stick up his arse, I felt as safe as I ever did in SMT V. 

Image: Atlus

Vengeance also comes with a bunch of new demon designs, as creative and beautiful as ever. I think an underrated draw to SMT is learning about the different mythological beings, gods, and even historical figures of real-life cultures.

For my fellow Australians, I have a particular attachment to my gummy worm companion Yurlungur, who I never fail to fuse and keep around for as long as possible in every SMT-adjacent game. I didn’t even realise he was based on Indigenous Australian mythology until recently, which made me even more attached to my long boy. 

A Re-release Girl Done Right    

Yoko Hiromine is one of the most significant additions to Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance, smacked onto promotional material to advertise the new coat of paint SMT V has been given. I met her with a lot of scepticism – Altus has a habit of adding a new girl to their re-releases, and it’s hard to say the addition is done with subtlety. They end up being given a weird combination of too much spotlight and not enough time to develop, and suffer from not technically being part of the main cast.  

Hence, I went into Vengeance with some doubt, and came out way more than pleasantly surprised. Yoko personifies the other element of Vengeance that takes it way beyond the vanilla game, which saw its story become the main detractor to otherwise positive reviews. 

Turns out, adding a feral, chaotic-neutral girl who is illiterate when it comes to reading the room was the kick up the arse SMT V’s main cast needed. There’s a scene in the original game where the admittedly boring, law-aligned saint Tao laments her close friend being tormented by bullies, while our silent protagonist looks like he just wants to leave the conversation. In Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance, we now have Yoko insert herself into the mix. Completely unprovoked, she asks why Tao doesn’t just kill the bullies, and a previously okay scene is made hilarious. Yoko doesn’t fuck around, and brings the reckoning onto a cast that I initially didn’t care much for. At one point, she says that cars shouldn’t exist because they’ve killed millions of people for the sake of comfort. The point isn’t completely invalid, but it is baffling in how extreme it is – her beliefs are intentionally juvenile, and I love her all the more for it. 

Image: Atlus

From the start of the game, the player is given the choice of whether to proceed with the original storyline of the game, or bring into existence this enigma of a teenager who wreaks havoc on everyone she encounters. This is a PSA – if you’re going into Vengeance without having played the vanilla game, go with the new Canon of Vengeance route. Don’t worry about playing the original version (yet). 

You could say there are four more re-release girls – the new villains of the game, the Qadištu, who operate under the control of Lilith (yes, that Lilith). They’re another breath of fresh air that Vengeance deserved, serving what makes the SMT series so unique. They’re hot demons who are unabashedly evil and love killing people. Sometimes that’s all you need. Without heading into spoiler territory, one member of this squad brings an unexpected change to a pivotal cutscene from the vanilla game, in a twist that actually had my jaw drop. You’re gonna wanna see it for yourself. 

A Genre That Doesn’t Get Enough Credit

Atlus is far from a perfect game developer; they have had their fair share of gamer moments. But they know how to make a JRPG, and make it well. Their games are physical proof that turn-based combat is unfairly looked at as an outdated system, struggling to stay relevant among the technological advancements we’ve seen in the gaming industry. But the innovations of the press-turn system, and the gratification I get from playing Vengeance, is something that I’ll never stop preaching about to anyone who’ll listen. I think one’s gaming preferences are, of course, based on personal taste. I fully understand if turn-based combat doesn’t shape out to be for you, and I will (albeit sadly) accept that. 

But if you haven’t played a JRPG yet, and have been convinced by those who just see the genre as generic anime slop with scissors-paper-rock combat, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice. Because Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance gives turn-based combat the justice it deserves – it asks you to stop and think, whether that’s in making a pivotal move in a boss fight or in questioning the legitimacy of a long-dead Abrahamic god (don’t let my grandma read this). 

After playing Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance, I’m convinced that now’s a better time than ever to get into JRPGs, and this game is the perfect start.

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance review conducted on PS5 with a retail code provided by the publisher

Image: Atlus / Kotaku Australia

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