The Shin Megami Tensei series has seen many forms and focused on many sub-genres over the years. The previous (and first) entry on the Nintendo DS was last year’s underrated Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, a tactical RPG that utilized demon summoning and turn-based combat. This year, Atlus has released another SMT title: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.
The latest will feel very familiar to those hardcore RPG enthusiasts who played one of Atlus’ other series, Etrian Odyssey. That’s because Strange Journey is a dungeon crawler with a first-person viewpoint. It’s not as tough as Etrian Odyssey, thanks to far more save points as well as healing stations, and, in comparison, an abundance of money, but that doesn’t mean this is an easy game. It’s an SMT game, which means it comes with the kind of tough battles that requires a thorough understanding of the battle system.
At its most basic, Strange Journey is a dungeon crawler with turn-based battles. While seemingly random, battles occur after a set number of steps–you can see when one is imminent on your HUD thanks to a color gauge. You control one character that you can name, as well as up to three demons at a time in your party. You recruit these demons through conversations and negotiations — you have to answer a few of their questions in a way that will make them like you, and then give them money, items, or health in order to convince them it’s worth joining your party. Questions are sometimes tough to gauge, but you can figure it out easily — don’t make it sound like you want to kidnap barely legal fairies for pedophilic pleasure, and you shouldn’t have any troubles recruiting those types of classes. Make big, tough demons respect you by showing how tough you are (or admitting how strong they are) and they’ll join up–you get the idea.
You fight by plugging attacks, skills or item commands into the menu for your entire team, and then a round plays out. You can summon new demons to the fight as well in order to replace either fallen ones or those you just don’t want in the battle anymore. If you don’t feel like fighting, you can select auto fight with the X button, which can be stopped in between rounds. This happens quickly, so make sure you do it if you know you’re going to win anyways. You wouldn’t want to lose a match against some tough demon because you were too lazy to go through a menu.
The first time you encounter demons, they appear as blue static on your screen. Once you have fought them and collected information on them–their name, weaknesses, etc.–they will show up in their true forms. You continue to collect information on them after this–after battles, you may notice that your Analyze level for a particular demon went up. You can reference that information to know their weaknesses or what they are strong against, which is useful knowledge not only for fighting, but when you’re building your own party for a region or boss.
You can carry up to 12 demons at a time, though that number is smaller at the start. Capturing demons won’t be enough though–you need to fuse demons together in order to make more powerful ones. You can’t fuse a demon more powerful, level-wise, than your main character, but there are still some excellent combinations to be had at all times in the game. After you have leveled a demon a certain amount, they will give you their “source”, which is basically some of their skills that you can apply to a demon fusion in order to customize a bit. There is also special fusion, which requires three demons rather than two, but this makes some of your better fighting companions who have much better skill-sets and base abilities than your standard fusion.
The story and presentation in Strange Journey are also worth discussing. Graphically and artistically, this game is appealing. Environments are varied, despite the fact they are mostly just walls and alleyways for you to traverse in a maze-like fashion, and character animations (and designs) are splendid, as is normally the case in SMT titles. Conversations are menu-based using statis animations, but you don’t do a whole lot of talking unless you are in between missions or a new story element pops up while you’re out in the field.
As for the story, you are part of an elite strike team sent to accompany scientists and researchers to the Schwarzvelt, an odd distortion of time and space that appeared in Antarctica and is threatening to swallow the planet. In addition to completely satisfying the quantum physics nerd in me with constant references to advanced sciences and theories, the story remains entertaining throughout thanks to the dialogue that permeats the experience–the main conflict is between humans and demons, and although demons are considered evil and terrible (as well as dangerous) their behavior and the world they live in is simply a reflection of human activities and the selfish desires of humanity. Sure, the demons are bloodthirsty, and many of them want nothing besides your death (or at least a sandwich made from your corpse), but their existence is tied directly to humanity’s treatment of the planet during the absence of the demons. For once, you can stop to think about what a JRPG is trying to tell you on a philosophical level–and that level is something besides, “As long as you have friends, no goal is outside your reach!”(and a cliche cast of friends, at that).
Strange Journey is a lengthy experience as well–you don’t necessarily have to level grind to succeed, but you will have to spend time searching out demons and leveling up sufficiently. No worries though–dungeons are long enough, and with plenty of goals in them, so you won’t have to do much running around outside of what is required of you from the story and side missions you can take on. You may fly through the early portions of the game as the game teaches you about recruiting demons, fusing them and the like, but as time goes on and you need to make sure your party is loaded with enough firepower to take on the demon clan’s heavy hitters, things get a bit more difficult and time consuming.
Luckily there is plenty to do outside of just fighting while you roam the mazes. Forma can be found using an application in your suit–forma is basically a material that is used in the ship’s laboratory to make items, weapons, accessories, and additional apps. Once you have the app for locating forma, an indicator will go off on your map once you are within range–it’s worth finding every piece of forma you come across, because chances are good the ship’s labs can turn it into something you can use. This helps keep your searches for battles and demons from feeling grindy, which is welcome in a game like this that requires so much fighting.
Blast Factor: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a blast from the past in a lot of ways, but it’s a welcome one. The DS gets another lengthy RPG title to add to its collection, but it’s one time with. There’s an entertaining story, one that’s a little deeper than you would think from a handheld RPG, as well as the joy of fusing and creating new demons–and of course, it’s a challenge to complete, which is welcome news to those who follow the SMT games, or even those who can’t wait for Etrian Odyssey III.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is available exclusively on the Nintendo DS. A copy of this game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes.