If you're of a certain vintage and inclination - and sorry to make assumptions, but given you're currently reading Eurogamer I reckon it's likely you are - you'll be familiar with an infamous review of Doom way back in 1994 that ended up asking what if you could talk to the monsters. It's an idle thought that's since passed into legend, oft-mocked and even held up as some vague prophecy, but I've only just realised it's not really that strange a notion. Maybe the mysterious reviewer behind this particular Edge legend was just really into Shin Megami Tensei, the long-running RPG series in which, yes, you absolutely can talk to the monsters.
There's a slim chance that's the case, seeing as this is a series whose genesis can be traced back to 1987, and one that stands as a grandee of the RPG genre alongside the likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy - even if it's never quite had the global appeal of either. Partly that's thanks to the sporadic nature of mainline releases - Shin Megami Tensei 5, which is out on Switch this week, comes some eight years after the fourth installment, which itself has a clean ten-year gap to 2003's Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne. Partly it's because Shin Megami Tensei's various spin-offs have overtaken the mainline series in terms of popularity - the Persona games easily eclipse the series from which they span off in terms of profile, which has in turn set some awkward expectations for newcomers to a core Shin Megami Tensei title.
Because Shin Megami Tensei games are very different from the likes of Persona. Yes, there are similarities - you start off your adventure in a Tokyo schoolroom, before embarking on a moody RPG adventure that's riddled with demons, but for the most part that's where the comparisons end. Persona's a chatty, sociable and, well, personable kind of RPG, whereas Shin Megami Tensei is anything but: hard-nosed, stand-offish and with an emphasis placed firmly and squarely on the combat within, there's little room for tittle-tattle amidst the wall-to-wall turn-based battles. As someone who's always hovering over the skip button during cutscenes, it's sublime.
As someone who's also pretty much entirely new to mainline Shin Megami Tensei games - I've always been aware of its legend, but have somehow never truly engaged with any of the titles - it's been one hell of an education too. This is a series that predates Pokémon by nearly a decade and yet whose premise is almost exactly the same: recruit monsters to fight by your side, working to create the best possible team for any given encounter. Like Pokémon, the further you push the deeper the delightful alchemy of its mechanics run - here you fuse monsters, working with concoctions and outcomes that can be a spreadsheet lover's dream, and what's best is there's almost nothing in the way of the meat of it all.
Shin Megami Tensei 5 doesn't muck about, and it has my utmost respect for that. Its story goes from zero to WTF in the blink of an eye - the schoolyard stuff only serves as the briefest preamble before you're whisked away to the post-apocalypse and a world of gods, demons and deities. It's a world you patrol as a Nahbobino - a creature you transform into after fusing with the mysterious Aogami - as you recruit, train and fuse the countless demons around you. Any further exposition is typically dealt out in chunks, and in between there's nothing but the sweet, glorious grind.
The grind really is the game in Shin Megami Tensei 5, and I'm all for it. This is a very traditional RPG in many respects - or perhaps I should just be more explicit and let you know it can be brutal. Overpowered enemies patrol certain areas and can wipe you with a gesture, while bosses simply demand that you spend serious time grinding up to a decent level to take them on. Checkpoints are few and far between, and it's not inconceivable to lose hours of progress should you get careless.
Is that frustrating? It depends on your tastes, and what you look for in an RPG. There's been some discourse around comparisons being made between Shin Megami Tensei 5 and its Persona spin-offs, so let me annoy people even further by throwing my own ill-informed opinion in - by this point these are two very different game series with very different focuses. If you're all about action and alchemy rather than story-driven moments - and that's very much me - then there's a clear favourite here.
Because this is an RPG that hasn't fallen far from its 1987 original, as hard-edged, dark and strange as the first-person Famicom dungeon crawler that started it all. It's permeated with the same dank ambience, and fuelled by the same deep, deep mechanics, a vision of hell that's absolutely heavenly for hardcore RPG lovers. As a relative newcomer to the series, it's been an education, and more often than not a delight. Maybe that Edge review really was on to something - when you can talk to the monsters, it turns out pretty special things can happen.
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