This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Shin Megami Tensei V.
Prologue: Existentially Challenged
I've got a new book available on Audible.com from December 9th; it's called "Existentially Challenged", and it's a hilarious supernatural murder mystery set in a world getting to grips with the British government having declassified the existence of magic. To answer all the anticipated questions: yes, it's a sequel to Differently Morphous, yes, it's only an audiobook at the moment, yes, it's read by me, yes, a print version will be out next year sometime, and no, I don't still wear this hat in real life.
"Shin Megami Tensei, Yahtzee!" Uh... sorry, I haven't got any tissues. "No, you big racist! You should play the new Shin Megami Tensei V, since you like Persona games so much!", went the anime fans every bloody week for the last month. For fuck's sake! You anime fans are like drug dealers, you are: you hang around outside middle schools, looking for any kid showing the slightest interest in Pokémon cards, and then refuse to leave them alone 'til they're gluing fridge magnets to their hair and insisting on being called "Sasuke".
"Shin Megami Tensei is the mainline series of RPGs that Persona spun off from, Yahtzee, as you bloody well know, you constantly Evangelion-referencing closet anime-liking person. Shin Megami Tensei basically is Persona without the day-to-day life sim aspect, or vibrant visual design, or really good music, or engaging characters that make it constant fodder for cultural reference, anime adaptation and fanmade jailbait pornography." That was rather a tangential sales pitch, and not exactly an effective one; "It's Persona without any of the shit you like about Persona." "Alright, how about this? Your Halo Infinite code hasn't come in yet, and you've got a week to fill before Christmas." Oh bollocks, whatever.
It's true, Persona is a spinoff from the long-running Shin Megami Tensei series; a spinoff with better art, funkier music, more engaging story, and deeper gameplay design. Bloody hell! If I had a wart on my bum, apparently, Atlus would refer to me as "Yahtzee, the popular wart spinoff". But if there's one thing gatekeeper-y shitheads always bring up when comparing the two, it's that the Shinguard Marmite Fantasy games are the anime RPGs for real men, who ain't got time for all that kissy-poo befriending super-nice girlies with obvious personal issues and a thing for tall, quiet boys with appalling time management skills; they want to really get to grips with the meat of the RPG combat, and the technical challenge of assembling and training the most effective team of Personas-- I mean, "Demons". Sorry, I get confused, 'cos they work exactly the same way as Personas, and have the same names and use the same art assets.
The point is, Persona's never really lent into the combat challenge, and if you halfway know what you're doing, you can beat most of its boss fights in Normal Mode pretty easily by constantly slapping your willy against the "Rakunda" button. That was definitely not my experience with Shin Megami Tenseiv, whose boss fights would usually immediately pound me through the garden fence, and force me to go back and grind up Demons with abilities and defenses that counter the elemental strengths and weaknesses of the boss, which I, of course, have no conceivable way of knowing without allowing myself to be thinly sliced and packaged for sandwiches at least once, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense in context, but it's challenge that counts, and context is for chumps.
But let's stop reading ahead and get back to how the game starts. You play as mute, emotionally dead, androgynous teenage anime protagonist du jour, who goes to a high school in Tokyo whose uniform, I think, is supposed to look like it's decorated with white blossoms, but looks more like the entire student body had to run through a crowded henhouse on the way here. You're minding your mute, androgynous business one day when you get mysteriously transported to an alternative version of Tokyo that looks like Godzilla finally decided to stop putting up with its bullshit; almost immediately, you meet a magic man for some reason, and the two of you combine somehow into a sword-wielding hero with a luscious, flowing hairdo, even though both of you had short hair. It turns out, the Tokyo you were living in was a copy or something to replace the original after it got infested by demon immigrants and slipped into an evil netherworld, like some kind of magical, Japanese Los Angeles. Anyway, you have to help fight the eternal conflict between God and Satan because the Japanese prime minister said so, and telling him to go eternal conflict himself wasn't a dialogue option.
Well, at least we get stuck into the action a lot faster than in Persona, where there's typically about twelve in-game days and at least one juicy murder before they'll let you in the tutorial dungeon. But in all that faffing about, it's establishing characters and getting you engaged with the plot, and that's just not happening for me in Saturday Morning Television, because the plot feels so lofty and emotionless, and our high school protagonist isn't much use as a fish-out-of-water viewpoint character because they've got all the personality and backstory of a used tea towel, the backstory of most tea towels being "I bought it from a tea towel shop".
Then you look to all the other high-schooler characters that got introduced alongside you, and they're all like, "Don't look at me! I was secretly part of the God-Satan war this whole time, and I've got unexplained superpowers; I'm not the least bit relatable, either!" And what also hurts the plot is that there's such large gaps between story developments; once you've teleported to post-COVID Tokyo at the start of the game, you're stuck there, rubbing Perdemonas together for four or five hours, before you beat the first handful of bosses and get back to real Tokyo to get the "theological conflict" thing established and sworn into the Bible Brigade, and by that point, I could barely remember what my original haircut had looked like.
Although, I did feel a stir of emotional connection when I first ran out into bad Tokyo and encountered a Pixie; it was a much-needed pang of familiarity in a strange place. Instantly, I knew a long and complicated ladder of Disonmon crafting lay ahead; no doubt we'll see all our old friends: Jack Frost, Neko Shogun, that one that looks hauntingly like a penis. But it always starts with Pixie, the first acorn that starts the oak; the first vaccine-hesitant parent that starts the downfall of Western civilization.
And if there's any part of Mega Man's Shiny Testicles that I feel I could get into, it's the demon collect-a-thon aspect. You have little conversations with them in battle and pick the right dialogue options to convince them to join you, and it has a quirk and humor to it that feels rather out-of-place alongside all the glowering twats in the main plot; looks like we found where all the personality was hiding. Fuck those humorless real-world losers; let's gather together a posse of hauntingly penis-like monsters and go give them all wedgies! But the meat and potatoes of hunting demons in the overworld is drowned in the watery onion gravy of dreary, confusingly laid-out environments.
Listen, thank you for your recommendation, anime twats, but the fact is, I don't bring any enthusiasm to JRPGs 'cos I don't generally like samey turn-based battling, so the game has to meet me halfway. That's how my chemistry with Persona games always works: there's enough energy on its part to compensate for my dowdy arse. Shin Megami Tensei just doesn't have that; our blind date ends with me pushing my peas around my plate as it asks if I've accepted Jesus into my heart. But hey, if you prefer it for its meatier tactical challenge, then good for you; some people like that. Some people like bringing their guitar to parties and seething with resentment when everyone else would rather play Rock Band than listen to them strumming out "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd for the fourteenth fucking time.
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