I’ve enjoyed just about every Shin Megami Tensei game that’s come out since Nocturne was released on the PS2. There’s just something really intriguing about the franchise’s universe and mythology that keeps me coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the immersion of living in these worlds inhabited with demons for dozens of hours, the unique way the apocalypse happens in every game, or in some cases, solving a great mystery, or maybe it’s a combination of all of those elements. Whatever the reason, Shin Megami Tensei games have always been a great deal of fun to play, no matter how challenging they are, and the latest entry, Strange Journey, is no exception.
Though each of the SMT games takes place in a world with similar rules, there’s absolutely nothing tying them together in any way that would make Strange Journey inaccessible to newcomers to the franchise. This time around, a mysterious energy known as the Schwarzwelt has appeared in the Antarctic, and the world’s governments put together a taskforce full of the best scientists and soldiers to investigate. You play as one of the soldiers dispatched to aid in the exploration of this bizarre anomaly, which comes in handy since the moment the coalition enters the void you’re transported to an alternate dimension inhabited by demons. The team gets split up, and it’s up to you to not only rescue the other task force members, but to explore the Schwarzwelt to try and find a way to escape.
It won’t be hard to notice that much of this alternate dimension looks like the worst humanity has to offer. Each and every area of the Schwarzwelt exaggerates some aspect of the world we currently live in, from ridiculous red light districts to war-torn streets where the sky is constantly ablaze, to try and make the point that humanity is quite vile. Through discourse with demons and other members of your team, the game’s sometimes heavy-handed message can be a bit grating. Thankfully, Strange Journey’s overall story, dialogue, and characterization are wonderful, and provide more than enough reason to continue playing no matter how hard the developers beat you over the head with ideas of change and environmentalism. I’m all for getting a point across, but when that same point is reiterated ad nauseum over the course of the dozens of hours you’ll be putting into completing the game, it gets to be a bit much.
Strange Journey is very traditional when it comes to the battle system. You control your human character, and up to three other demons at once, with the ability to summon new demons into battle if the need arises. There are three options given to you at the start of any random encounter: Fight, Talk, Retreat. Demons can only use a standard attack or one of their magic abilities, but you have a few different options at your disposal. You’re equipped with a gun and a sword, both of which have different variations you can craft from items you discover (we’ll get to that in a bit), thus giving you two different types of attack. You’re also the only one who can use items, meaning you’ve got to be on top of curing status ailments and occasionally healing the other members of your party. The combat is turn-based, but there are some interesting new tricks at your disposal to give you a slight advantage when battling.
Occasionally when playing, you’ll be asked a question by one of the NPCs. Depending on the answers you give in the game, your character will fall under one of three alignments: Lawful, Chaotic, Neutral. Alignments can change as you progress, but it’s very tough to change from one extreme to the other. All of the demons fall into one of those three categories as well, and if you have the same alignment as at least one other member of your active party, you can pull off a cooperative attack. Striking an enemy’s weakness will give a free standard attack to any teammate with a shared alignment. Planning your party, and your attack strategy, around this feature is extremely helpful, particularly since the tactic doesn’t work for the demons inhabiting the Schwarzwelt. Though, since you’re limited in the number of demons you can have in your possession, it’s still best to have more of a well-rounded team than one that consists of like-minded demons.
Exploiting enemy weaknesses is a major part of the franchise’s battle system, and thanks to the abilities the Demonica suit grants you, it’s actually never been easier in an SMT game. All demons first appear as giant energy balls. Once you defeat a demon after the first encounter, it materializes in its true form from then on. Every encounter you have with a demon is “recorded” by your suit. The more you battle, the more research is done on a given demon, and thus the faster you’ll be able to find out just what strengths and weaknesses a demon has. The same holds true for demons that fight by your side. Every battle you use a demon for fills the analytic bar just a bit more. Once it’s full, the demon usually gives you some sort of item reward, which you can then use later during the fusion process.
Those of you familiar with the SMT franchise will find yourself right at home with Strange Journey’s fusion system. It’s nearly identical to every other incarnation in the brand, and like many other aspects of the game, doesn’t stray too far from what’s come before. Newcomers will find an easy to use, complicated to master interface for creating new obedient demons when they attempt fusions for the first time. Once you begin recruiting demons, you’ll have the ability to fuse two (or in special occasions, three) of them together to create an even more powerful demon. You’ll even have the option to include special items gained from demons already allied with you in the fusion that will grant the new creation abilities it may otherwise never have had. My only gripe is one that I’ve had with the series for a long time, and that’s you can’t create demons above your current level. I understand that the game doesn’t want you rolling around with high-leveled demons at earlier portions of the game, but it would be nice if for once I could get that level 23 demon to help me through a tough part of a dungeon when I’m only level 16.
Likewise, the conversation system in Strange Journey is another of the franchise’s hallmarks that veterans will be able to ease back into. New players may however find a bit of frustration in talking with demons initially because of how random the demon conversation paths are. Once you play the game for a few hours though, and begin to see how alignments and the phases of the moon affect the demon attitudes, recruiting or getting items from demons becomes one of the most interesting parts of the game. You can also use conversations with demons to your benefit when not recruiting. If you happen to be talking to a demon that you also happen to have in your party, the demon you’re talking to will recognize this, and either leave the battle, along with the other demons on screen, grant you an item, or heal you or the entire party out of respect. Knowing when and where to use certain conversational tactics will go a long way in helping you make it through a given dungeon alive.
Crafting new items, weapons, and software for your Demonica suit also plays a huge part in making it out of the Schwarzwelt. Creating any new items requires Forma, a special material scattered randomly throughout dungeons, and frequently dropped by defeated demons. There are dozens of different types of regular Forma, in addition to the hundreds of types left behind by demons. Once you acquire enough, you can bring it back to the lab on your ship, where the scientists will create anything you want, as long as you have all the raw materials. New weapons, armor, and items are where I spent most of my cash and Forma, but occasionally, you’ll create a new program for your Demonica suit that will aid you greatly when exploring. You’ve got a limited amount of slots available, so knowing which programs to get adds a bit more to the strategy later in the game. However, at the save locations around the world, which are quite plentiful, you can swap out any program you have at any time should you realize you brought the wrong one with you.
Strange Journey looks and sounds terrific, especially for a DS game. It’s not often that a 3D dungeon crawler is so well executed on a handheld, but the developers at Atlus have really done a fantastic job creating a world that is both varied and interesting. While some of the areas aren’t quite as nicely rendered or textured as others, there’s never a time when you’re disappointed in the presentation. The game’s sound effects and score are also great, which should be no surprise to longtime fans. Atlus games often have fantastic soundtracks, and the musical accompaniment for Strange Journey holds its own against disc based game scores despite relying on the less powerful DS for orchestration. It’s a shame there are no voice-overs, but given the small memory available on the cartridge, it’s perfectly reasonable to not include them. The few cinematic sequences are rendered well, but don’t do anything remarkable, which is a shame given how infrequently they occur.
Strange Journey is easily one of the best RPGs to come out this year, which should come as no surprise to the SMT faithful. While diehards may find the frequency of which save points and health stations appear in the game too high, there’s actually a pretty good balance of challenge there for people who aren’t as familiar with how punishingly difficult SMT games usually are. Thanks to how well it eases new players in, how well it plays, and how it has just the right amount of fun and challenge, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a game I can easily recommend to anyone.