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Ironically, the hardest boss in my Shin Megami Tensei V playthrough was the very first one. Guarding a post-apocalyptic Tokyo Tower, the menacing Hydra hit hard, had more attacking turns, and used a multi-hit move targeting to weakness of my strongest demon companions.
Try as I might, bashing my head over and over against the Hydra led to the same results: my utter defeat.
But by design, the Hydra fight could not be won this way. It was too strong to be taken down by weaknesses alone and enemies in the surrounding areas gave insignificant experience at that level. Instead, I strategize my way forward using the game’s non-combat options like demon fusion – the merging of demons for ones you have in your party – and essence fusion – transferring skills or weakness affinities of demons to your or your party members.
I equipped myself with the right affinities, gave my demons stat buffing and debuffing moves, and fused the limited demons in the overworld to make the most powerful demons my level could handle. And with this, I finally took down the Hydra.
As insignificant as the first boss may seem, the Hydra fight upended everything I had come to expect in a JRPG turn-based combat monster catching game like SMT V. Based on my experience with similar games like Pokémon or Persona, the path to victory was fairly straightforward: naturally level up through minor encounters, strike at a weakness of a boss, and win.
Instead, SMT V pushed this gaming genre to its limits by showing you it wasn’t enough just to meander through the game mindlessly clicking A (looking at you, Pokémon). Instead, the game forces the player to be intentional, to strategize, and to take every chance. Failure to do so led to almost certain death, with no way to brute force an easy victory.
The first boss certainly was a harbinger of things to come as every major fight became a thrilling back and forth duel of the wits. There were very few moments where I felt completely safe from harm, always have to find the best strategy forward in order just to stay alive. The challenge and the seriousness of each fight was so refreshing in a gaming market that has trended towards easier and easier gameplay.
At the same time, it did not feel overly difficult for the sake of difficulty like Nioh 2 or Dark Souls. Instead, the game felt like it respected me as a player to devise strategies by working through the game’s tools and combat system to overcome the challenging enemies.
By no means is SMT V a perfect all-around game. Realistically, the game’s claim to fame lies in the intricate beauty of its combat system and battle mechanics. For those looking for deeper narrative and character progression, the related Persona series is probably a better game. For a more approachable franchise, Pokémon is probably better. For games not in the JRPG turn-based combat genre, well, there are a lot of those better than SMT V.
But realistically, those looking for what might be the pinnacle of JRPG turn-based combat, SMT V may be the game for you. It’s tense, serious, and challenging. But it’s also such a joy to find the solutions that work and defeat the previous insurmountable.