Preview: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Shin Megami Tensei. Some hear the name and wonder what language is being spoken. Others, like myself, hear the name and smile. To me, the name is an indicator that I’ll be welcomed back into a dark setting, where demon summoning and fusion take place in devilish dungeons. I know that I’ll soon find myself lost in a world that will challenge every bit of the role-playing chops I’ve built up over the years.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey certainly has all of that, but it also brings plenty of new things to the table. Strange things. How’s this for strange: someone worked some science fiction into my MegaTen. Why are there flying/hovering spaceship trucks? Why am I wearing a diving suit? Wait, why is this dungeon a shopping mall? What’s going on here?

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (DS)
Publisher: Atlus
To be released: March, 2010

In Strange Journey, a hole has opened up over Antarctica, and it seems to be getting bigger by the day. Someone’s going to have to fix that, and they only way they can figure to do so is to get inside. You play as a team member on that expedition, of course. Inside you find a strange world that is jam-packed with demons and crazy locales. Things go south (pun intented) quick. What sucks is that this South Pole portal, the Schwartzwelt, does not want to let you leave. You’re going to have to fix things here or die here. You’ve got to save the Earth to save yourselves.

You’ll navigate otherworldly dungeons in first-person in this full-fledged role-playing game as one of the only people on your expedition that has the balls to leave your ship and get out in the wild with the demons. There are dungeons, and you will be crawling in them. You’ll do so in your Demonica, a sort of futuristic suit that protects you from the otherwordly elements. It kind of looks like a diving suit, but not in a Big Daddy way.  The Demonica also serves as a sort of demon management system, letting you summon, manage and even combine them. What’s great is that all demon management can take place anywhere in the game, as you’re always wearing the suit. Never did the demon thing before? No worries, as the Demonica has a robust help manual built in.

There’s all kinds of nifty features worked into the game play through this Demonica suit. One is the ability to find raw materials out in the wild in your battles and have the team back on your ship’s lab work them into new weapons, armor, items, and even suit upgrades. One of the first upgrades you get is a suit add-on that lets you find more of these hidden materials in dungeons. Back at the lab the team will work these materials into plug-ins that let you increase or hit points or let you talk to demons easier. You’ll get to a point where you’ll have useful features you can use to customize your suit to your liking depending on your missions.

Again, this is a dungeon crawler. If you’re looking for perky girls and J-pop and social links, you’ll need to look at some of Atlus’ other products. This is only dungeons, demons, and darkness, though fans of the Persona series will surely enjoy this change of pace. As always in these games, success relies on having the right combination of demons and powers to take on the enemies you’ll encounter. I found myself fusing demons more frequently than I have in past MegaTen games, looking for the right beast to bail me out. In Strange Journey, you’ll actually have to familiarize yourself with the demons before you can properly fight them. When you first encounter them, they’ll show up as distorted fuzz on your Demonica’s screen. Only through battles and trial and error will you discover their identities, strengths and weaknesses. Each battle is like a little puzzle to figure out, keeping your dungeon crawls interesting.

And like the other MegaTen games, this one is tough in places. I just finished a session where I died. I ventured too far into a dungeon and encountered baddies that far outranked my party. As mentioned above, they were unidentified blobs on my monitor. I threw out some general attacks and some random elementals, but I was barely hurting them. They returned single hits that took out most of my party. I summoned my remaining demons and got in a few more hits, but these fuzzy blobs sent me packing. Next time I’ll gear up a bit more and do some demon fusion to find these bastards again. Luckily, the battle system is fresh and fast, and the new demons and abilities keeps it interesting.

What really makes Strange Journey such a journey is the work they’ve put into the setting. We’ll save the full details for the review, but it should be said that this sci-fi change is a winner. The DS isn’t a 3D powerhouse by any means, but Atlus really worked it to make this game dark and desolate. The music? Out-of-the-park good. Creepy chanting and moaning sounds otherworldly and perfectly fits the setting. And, as always, the characters are fantastic. Oh, and the lady demons are as sexy as ever.

Strange Journey is a full-featured, big-time RPG on the DS. This is the DS JRPG you’ve been waiting for. Like you, I’ve been dreaming of a beefy, satisfying role-playing game on the DS, and this is it. Strange Journey looks and plays like a full-on console MegaTen game.  Atlus has put one of their premium role-playing releases on the DS, and I think it’s safe to say that if you’ve ever liked any of their games, you’re going to love this.

Dale North