Finally, a Worthy Successor
The 2000’s were a self-described “gritty” decade for games, which meant a lot of chest thumping, and running people over with cars, and forced swearing. Its energy a reflection of the larger social nihilism being built upon Potemkin Villages and military conflicts involving small percentages of the population. Much like the term Gen Y, and the entire decade itself, most of the games from that time have been maligned and forgotten (which means they will inevitably be rediscovered in another 10 years).
There is an exception to this: Atlus, and specifically the macabre family of Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) games, were on a role. They combined synth wave aesthetics (before that was cool again) with stoic protagonists (before Breath of the Wild) and impactful choices in incomprehensible worlds (before Demon’s Souls did it better). Those games probably got more play time on my PS2 than anything else: Nocturne (aka SMT 3), both Digital Devil Sagas, the pair of Raidou Kuzunoha Devil Summoner titles, and Persona 3 (and with less satisfaction Persona 4).
Nocturne had such an impact on me that it propelled this deeper dive into the SMT world. And while I enjoyed my time with all of the lose-lose storylines, and rock-paper-scissors mechanics, as the 2000’s shuffled into the 2010’s, I felt the luster peeling off. Things like Strange Journey, Persona 4, and the relentlessly boring Devil Summoner 2, felt like lateral movements at best. Even an aesthetically beautiful game like SMT 4 had relatively limited emotional impact.
And so I can’t exactly say what drew me back to SMT 5. At a base level, the game itself is not all that different than its predecessors. Even the three pronged D&D morality (Law, Neutral, Chaos) remains intact. And yet somehow it feels different. It is immensely enjoyable where as the more recent entries were boring.
Much of this change is due to the rebalancing of the difficulty with a “Hard” mode. The new mode transforms a somewhat challenging game into a slowly evolving puzzle. Every mini-boss requires thought and strategy. You often have to pull out all of your tricks. A single mistake is a hard reset. And it becomes a slow but wholly earned push forward.
I’ve heard Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series compared against its more popular spin-off Persona succinctly as: SMT is plot driven, where as Persona is character driven. And I like that comparison. The ride is a challenging, sometimes perverse, and often beautiful experience that is for people looking for a change. A slow burn in an age of instant gratification. And for me, the best SMT game since Nocturne and Persona 3.