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Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance, Atlus.
Atlus

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‘Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance’ offers diabolical duels amidst a compelling campaign

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance is easily one of the best games of the year so far.

A Scanner DarklyRichard Linklater’s gorgeous rotoscoped nightmare Philip K. Dick adaptation, is one of my favorite films. One of my first favorites. It burrowed into my brain and rewired circuits. I’m not making the comparison just because I am an irretrievable nerd. Thematically, Linklater’s film and Shigeo Komori and company’s Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance share key concerns — the destruction wrought when ruthless powers go up against each other, the costs of getting caught up in those fights, transformation, cyclical patterns both personal and systemic, and the risks and necessity of care. And, much like A Scanner Darkly, Vengeance has hooks in me.

Vengeance is a significantly updated version of 2021’s Shin Megami Tensei V. In terms of gameplay, Vengeance introduces some major quality-of-life improvements. In terms of its story, Vengeance contains both the original tale (here referred to as the “Canon of Creation”) and an entirely new campaign (the “Canon of Vengeance”). For the purposes of this review, I played through the Canon of Vengeance — its full main story and a good chunk of its optional side quests.

Creation and Vengeance share protagonists — a quiet, bookish high school student whose name the player can choose and an amiable artificial god named Aogami. When the student stumbles from the present day into an inexplicably ruined version of Tokyo inhabited exclusively by gods and demons, Aogami rescues him from an unkindness of ghouls by fusing with him to become an entity known as a Nahobino. As a Nahobino, the protagonist and Aogami wield power on par with the allegedly deceased God of Law — and with that power comes attention.

In the Canon of Creation, the Nahobino joins the brawl to claim the God of Law’s empty throne and remake the world. In the Canon of Vengeance, that contest is interrupted before it can even begin by the Qadištu, an alliance of four merciless demons led by Lilith. They seek to uproot the crumbling status quo and the cosmic system behind it. The point of divergence? A dream — or perhaps something more real — in which the Nahobino has the chance to free the soul of a young woman from nothingness, though he is warned she will upend everything. Heeding the warnings launches the Canon of Creation. Releasing her launches the Canon of Vengeance.

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance, Atlus.

The young woman is Yoko Hiromine. Where the Nahobino’s power comes from his merger with Aogami, and other humans who know the fight rely on an app to contract with demons, Yoko is one of two people who apparently possess supernatural powers naturally. She’s cynical and guarded but befriends the Nahobino after they team up to fight off a horrible chameleonic lion-dog-wizard statue. When she and the Nahobino fight their way back to present-day Tokyo and join an alliance of humans, angels, and gods that’s trying to keep everything from toppling completely, they meet and befriend Tao Isonokami, a sweet-hearted high school lacrosse player and the other person who possesses natural supernatural powers.

As the Nahobino, Yoko, and Tao investigate and battle the Qadištu, their bond grows and changes them. Yoko pushes Tao to see beyond the immediate; to consider what it takes to resolve a systemic issue when the system won’t. Tao pushes Yoko to see the people who live in the systems she despises; to recognize her macro-scale analyses, while accurate, need to make space for compassion. They challenge each other to refine the codes that make them who they are and define their care. Simultaneously, they face an unbridgeable ideological divide, one that only grows deeper over the course of their strange journey. Sooner or later, they and Vengeance‘s greater cast will have to decide where they stand. It’s marvelously thorny storytelling.

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance, Atlus.
Vengeance’s ensemble is intriguing and well-performed. Erin Yvette’s world-weary, thoughtful Yoko is a personal favorite.

But before anyone picks a side, they have to get where they’re going. There’s a whole host of demons between the Arrakis-like ruins of Tokyo Tower and Shinjuku’s coral-like forests, and, in an Atlus RPG, charging in without a plan is a very good shortcut to the Game Over screen. As with its cousins in the Shin Megami Tensei spin-off Persona series, Vengeance‘s combat turns on balancing resources, stretching the actions you can take, and restricting your computer opponents’ actions. In Vengeance‘s case, this means recruiting demon allies — whether through fusing current party members together or succeeding in often hysterical negotiations to get enemy demons to join you — to up the number of actions you can take per turn and ensure you can exploit your opponent’s vulnerabilities while covering your own.

Strike a demon’s weakness, and you’ll extend your turn. Smash into something strong against your attack, and you’ll shorten it. That holds true for the player and the computer, and it requires attention to be paid. It makes for tense, reliably exciting fights that Vengeance‘s creative team is happy to twist with interesting variables, like a late-game boss who gains more turns the more times he’s hit by his weaknesses.

Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance, Atlus.
Vengeance‘s combat is smooth and thrilling and teaches you how to learn from it. It also frequently looks darn cool.

In terms of combat, Vengeance is a challenging, rewarding game. Being able to save anywhere (as opposed to only at specific points) is a welcome change from the original Shin Megami Tensei V. It makes making a bad call and taking a loss more of a question than a period or an exclamation point — congratulations, you may have to redo a whole pile of exploring and fighting depending on when you were last able to save. It’s not as immediate as El Paso, Elsewhere‘s “YOU KEEP GOING,” but they share a welcome step-up spirit.

Between Shin Megami Tensei V: Vengeance‘s story, character work, and combat, there’s a lot to dig. This is one of the best games I’ve played this year.

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