Video Games

The Best Game Starring Penis Monsters Ever Made

The Nintendo Switch RPG boasts plenty of sand, existential crises, and monster battles.

A boy and girl stand on a sand-covered street major road, with a busted bridge over them covered by a broken road sign. There are monsters hovering in the air looking down on them in front of burned buildings.
Atlus

While fighting a hydra in the shadow of a sand-covered Tokyo Tower, I couldn’t help but think of another world: that of Dune. The glistening sands of Shin Megami Tensei V’s bombed out, post-apocalyptic Tokyo are superficially similar to the terrain on Arrakis, sure, but the emotions I felt while traversing the Nintendo Switch game were similar to those I had watching Denis Villeneuve’s blockbuster—wonderment at watching a beloved series finally well-realized on a big, modern screen.

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Out on November 11, Shin Megami Tensei V is the newest installment of the long-running Megami Tensei series of role-playing games. Like Dune, this franchise has a storied history: The first entry, 1987’s Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei for the Nintendo Famicom, was based on a trilogy of sci-fi novels about a demon summoning computer program. Gameplay-wise, it set the franchise’s basic template: turn-based combat, dark themes, and scores of demons to recruit and collect. The formula proved a winning one, and Megami Tensei spawned numerous sequels and spinoffs ever since. Many of these releases were exclusive to Japan, and the mainline games remained niche in the west, with the most recent entry on the Nintendo 3DS Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse arriving more than five years ago.

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Stateside, the series is most associated with the spinoff series Persona, which has eclipsed the mainline Megami Tensei games in both popularity and acclaim. Where Shin Megami Tensei games, the purest distillation of the original Famicom release, prioritize darker, apocalyptic themes alongside grueling fights, Persona games are lighter, brighter, and flashier, and focus on character-driven storytelling, sometimes to the point of excess. The majority of your time playing recent Persona games is spent watching cutscenes and reading dialogue, and while these stories are often thrilling, even occasionally moving, they can also get bogged down in repeating the same story beats and anime character tropes ad nauseum—especially throughout a 100-hour runtime.

Shin Megami Tensei V has no such fluff. The story here follows a high school student and a few of his pals in Tokyo—par for the course for the series, particularly the Persona games. Quickly, there is a dramatic turn of events and our hero is dropped into another version of Tokyo: a sand-covered, apocalyptic landscape, which has been ruined by a war between angels and demons decades earlier. In order to survive, he fuses with another creature to become a kind of techno-demi-god, working alongside and fighting the hundreds of demons he finds along the way back to his own universe. The story grows in complexity and intrigue as the hours fly by, but it’s rarely the center of the game. Instead, the focus is on exploring the vast landscape of this netherworld Tokyo, which becomes more tangled and dense the deeper as you move from region to region. Your top priority is mapping the area and fusing demons together to have increasingly powerful, battle-ready monsters in your stable, allowing you to advance and help decide the fate of the mortal, and moral, universe.

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The story’s philosophical dimension—its emphasis on how one, when given the chance, might restructure the world—is a recurring theme in the series that has long captivated me. Many of the Megami Tensei games are interested in basic questions of moral and political philosophy, especially 2004’s Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, a high point in the series that has much in common with this latest entry. While the gameplay takes precedence over the thematic probing, Shin Megami Tensei V (and its ilk) remains the rare game that’s interested in these headier questions at all, especially considering the series has been actively riffing on them for over three decades now. This marriage of fantasy-focused action and ethical quandaries strikes me as part and parcel with, once again, Dune, which similarly takes the pulpier elements of science fiction and combines them with headier concerns—a striking combination in any medium, and one that helped elevate Dune above its forebears back when Frank Herbert first published it in 1965. Neither the world-weariness nor the potential absurd scene-setting cancel each other out; it makes full sense within these series that characters like our hero in this game and Paul Atreides in Dune have both wacky monsters to fight off and universe-spanning responsibilities, because the series weigh these elements equally.

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A purple chicken spreads out is wings. It says, "Hey! I'm Drake Basilisk! Let's have some fun, yeah?!"
Much of the game is spent befriending an odd array of demons. Atlus
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The series’ internal mythologies help to establish these stories as uniquely mystical, self-aware, and even a little bizarre—but never judgmentally so. In the case of Shin Megami Tensei 5, its mythos explains how the demons you fight and recruit are drawn from all sources: from the folklorish, a la series mascot Jack Frost; to the profane, like the penis-shaped chariot-rider Mara of Buddhist myth; and even to the angelic, via the fleet of recruitable archangels and Maria, literally the Virgin Mary. Shin Megami Tensei is the sort of series where you might summon Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent god, in order to do combat with Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites, all set to a banging metal and techno soundtrack. Where another series might make these aspects feel jarring when combined or even crass, here, it’s utterly ludicrous, occasionally provocative, and extremely fun.

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That fun is most effectively expressed in combat, which is highly calibrated. There are no massive damage numbers here—for example in the early game, the difference between an attack which does 50 damage, and one that does 150 damage is incredibly significant. These relatively low numbers give the player a clear indication of how effective their strategy might be, which is essential knowledge to avoid getting absolutely stomped. Though not quite as brutal as other games in the mainline series, here the player has to match their demon’s strengths against enemy weaknesses, which feels like you’re in an ultra-complex game of rock-paper-scissors.

For something so profoundly odd and moving in many other ways, the series’ gameplay may seem disappointingly familiar. But like Dune once more, Shin Megami Tensei’s reputation may not precede its very clear influence on similar, but much more recent, works. For newcomers, the game’s focus on collecting monsters and type match-ups might sound a lot like Pokémon. If you’re burned out on those much more light-hearted, arguably repetitive games or associate them with a period of your life you’ve aged out of, Shin Megami Tensei 5’s basic gameplay may sound like more of the same. But in the same way that George Lucas sanded off the rougher edges of Dune for mainstream consumption in Star Wars, the creators of Pokémon were clearly inspired by the basic structure of Megami Tensei and jettisoned many of the more difficult elements—and penis monsters—in order to launch one of the most successful media franchises in history. But while Pokémon has always been a series targeted at kids, Megami Tensei remains squarely aimed at an older and savvier demographic, one especially appealing to those that may have grown out of Pikachu and friends. The darker themes and more meaningful story is what makes it incredibly worth consuming, even if you find yourself exhausted by the formula you think’s promised on the tin.

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Shin Megami Tensei V is not perfect. The game’s art, music, and presentation are among the best in the series, but the game itself is not exactly a technical marvel. The graphics are a bit stuttery, and bathed in a level of fog that would make a Nintendo 64 blush. The narrative here too, while occasionally beguiling, doesn’t achieve the tautness of the highest points in the series. Still, I found these gripes easy to forgive in a game that is otherwise so singular and confident in its own weirdness.

Beloved by a hardcore group of followers, and with a hugely popular spinoff series under its belt, Shin Megami Tensei V is arriving onto a scene that may be better prepared for it than when past entries flew under the radar. That it’s on the Nintendo Switch helps, being that the console boasts its own hardcore (and much larger) group of followers eager to try anything new and talked about. Shin Megami Tensei V is a unique, strange, and highly appealing game that has the chance to become as big as its ambitions, and deservedly so. Just as Villeneuve found recently that there is still room for an old story like Dune in a genre landscape transformed by its own influence, the Megami Tensei games now have a chance to break out on their own.

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