I’m gonna make my case for SMTIV: Apocalypse because I think that game is great fun and the hate it gets borders on absurd sometimes.
re the story and characters:
I don’t think the story will impress anyone, it is by design an alternate timeline romp that purposely discards the more severe aspects that mainline SMT is known for. In that way it feels similar to Soul Hackers actually! The cast of characters is similarly archetypical and speak with a very familiar and friendly tone to one another. With the exception of one truly abhorrent character(Toki) I found them all charming, and the NPC dialogue is sharp as hell. They also don’t linger on the story in the same way a Persona does, the scenes move and groove and then you’re back to the real meat of the game: the gameplay. I do understand why people would not gel with it as it really doesn’t have a core thematic hook like most of these games do. It is something you have to be in the mood to meet halfway. Similar to Devil Survivor, if you wanna play those games you gotta make your peace with the corny characters and women with anti-gravity boobs. Don’t expect SMTIV, be prepared for something a little different, and maybe have a great time! One of my major criticisms of it is the main character actually. Nananshi is a non-entity and I think the PUNK RAWK look is purely aesthetic, and a poor one at that!
re the gameplay:
The opinion I’ve seen a lot here and other places is that Persona 5 has the best gameplay in SMT Land. However this is very wrong: Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse has the best combat in the entire series. IVA takes the IV combat system and in my mind makes it perfect. The part where I think Persona 5 struggles is when you get out of the main loop they want you to be in. You want to exploit weaknesses, do an all out attack, repeat forever. As soon as they throw something that takes you out of the loop it falls apart. Suddenly it’s completely limp. It doesn’t matter which persona you have, it doesn’t matter which characters you’re using, it ranges from extremely boring to infuriating depending on the fight when you get into this mode. P5 is so hyper focused on the one thing it wants you to do that when you’re not doing it it feels terrible!
IVA is the opposite. IVA wants you to target weaknesses as well but it’s not the end-all-be-all of the combat. The flow of the fights is so multi-dimensional. The partner system they added is extremely cool and lets you set up and account for windfalls in fights, and then you can keep planning your next set of buffs/debuffs/whatever. The reworked Smirk system feels way better than in IV, and the way if changes the properties of mudo/hama attacks is sick. You so rarely feel like the combat system loses focus. It excels when you have a perfect party and also during the desperation of a good SMT drag out knuckles bloody surprise fight you weren’t perfectly prepared for. Along with the option for different MC builds it just has the options, the responsiveness, the depth. It makes me so excited for what SMTV is gonna be.