Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

I really dug Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, but I want to be clear on what type of gamer I think will also enjoy Atlus’ latest DS title and Shin Megami Tensei game.

If you are a gamer that has roots in the earliest Shin Megami Tensei series games, I’m sure you’ve already pre-ordered this, knowing exactly what to expect. Likewise, the savvy gamer that jokingly calls this game SMT: Etrian Odyssey surely knows what they’re buying. This is a big, console-sized dungeon crawler in a little tiny package, and it gets back to the series’ roots. If you’re looking for that, this is your game.

On the other hand, if you came into Atlus games later, and find that most of your enjoyment of the Persona series was the social links and the cute girls, and you found yourself running through dungeons to get to the next story bit, you might want to try Strange Journey before you buy. Or read our review.

Strange Journey (DS)
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Released: March 23, 2010

The bottom side of planet Earth rips open and badness begins spilling out. Naturally, Earth’s citizens freak out with weird demons running topside. Somehow Earthlings picked the inconvenient name “Schwarzwelt” for this hole in the South Pole, and now the world’s governments have come together to create an international task force to investigate this mysterious portal. You play as a member of that task force, and upon investigating you end up in a bad situation right off the bat, stuck in another dimension alongside all the rest of the expedition team. And wouldn’t you know it: there’s a ton of demons inside this hole, and you’re not getting out any time soon.

Atlus brings the science fiction in a big way to Strange Journey, going way past the older games’ cyberpunk feel and right into stuff like parallel dimensions, teleportation, and a cast that’s always wearing spacey suits. But don’t worry: if you love the Atlus demons and mythology, as they’re all still here. In fact, the blend of science fiction and the demon world makes for a very interesting foundation to build a story on. I’ve crawled many a dungeon in my day, but this game manages to feel fresh and exciting in comparison.

Your team’s downed exploration craft, the Red Sprite, plays as a sort of home base for the entire game. In this craft you’ll find a laboratory (store), sick bay (healing) and Command Room (story and saving), and you’ll retreat there when you’re not exploring dungeons. Having all of these conventional RPG spots combined in one mobile craft makes for a very convenient vehicle [pun!], especially seeing has how this craft is capable of traveling to other dimensions. The Red Sprite is also where you’ll receive your commands from. A rather talky ship AI bot will dole out missions between dungeons, and you can always head back to get more guidance.

That’s mostly what you’ll be doing: exploring varied dimensions in an attempt to find your way out of this Schwarzwelt and regroup/not die. But instead of the demonic looking world you’d normally expect, each dimension’s setting acts as a sort of social commentary on the world today. For instance, one dungeon looks like a demonic version of a shopping mall, and the message there seems to point to human consumption and greed, with the endless rows of food and “BUY! BUY! BUY!” signs everywhere. Another dungeon is a bit more horny, and looks like a massive red light district. Eventually you begin to see that the demon inhabitants of the Schwarzwelt disapprove of what humans have done with Earth, and the whole game ends up making you a bit more environmentally aware and perhaps a bit less proud to be a human. There’s some deep and interesting parallels between how you use the demons and how humans use the Earth.

Strange Journey is a first-person dungeon crawler, much like Atlus’ Etrian Odyssey. In fact, it shares the same graphics engine. The top DS screen will display your first-person views during exploration and in battles. The bottom is mostly used as a map for each dungeon floor, with an auto-mapping feature that will help you get lost a bit less. It also serves as a menu screen while you’re managing your demons and stats. There’s very little touchscreen support built in; the most useful function for the touchscreen is the ability to scroll dungeon floor maps freely. Otherwise, you’re using the d-pad and buttons to navigate this world and the game menus.

You’ll be thankful for that dedicated map screen, as the Schwarzwelt is a huge maze of mazes, complete with all the SMT trappings you’d expect, like trap doors in floors, false walls, hidden paths, and teleportation. And just when you begin to feel comfortable knowing that your every step and turn is mapped out for you, the Schwarzwelt pulls a fast one and puts in you in an un-mappable zone or a flipped dimensional path, where you’re walking virtual hallways, wondering where you’ll come out. Strange Journey‘s dungeons are dungeons for fans of the genre, though seasoned players will find that save points and healing terminals are a bit more frequent than they’d normally expect. In other words, these mazes will leave your mind appropriately scrambled, but you’ll rarely find yourself discouraged from too much lost progress, as you likely saved not too long ago.

Another aspect of the game that keeps these dungeons more interesting than in your typical crawler is the ability to find raw materials called Forma. Your standard crawl becomes a sort of treasure hunt looking for these strange items. Once acquired, you can take them back to the Red Sprite’s lab to be developed into something you can use. You’ll eventually gain powers that let you find other items to make you even more powerful. Your weapons, armor, items and more will be created from this Forma.

The auto-mapping, item finding and many other cool features are all related to your Demonica Suit. The futuristic suit that protects you from the otherwordly elements also has every role-playing bell and whistle you could imagine built in. Everything from demon contact to item management is facilitated by this suit. Your first person view on the game is actually presented through the Demonica’s visor and HUD. When you first encounter an enemy, it shows up on your HUD as static, which prevents you from using any kind of strategy. You’ll just have to blindly attack, but as you do so, your Demonica Suit gathers information. After enough battles, you’ll finally see the demons you’re encountering, working up to the point where you have every stat on this demon, including their strengths, weaknesses, and powers. Aside from battle, you’ll be able to manage and fuse your acquired demons right from your Demonica’s HUD. The guys back at the Red Sprite lab can also develop new powers for your suit using the previously mentioned Forma, like the ability to regenerate hit points, or the ability to fend off demons. With this suit, there’s no running back to a town to get things done; you’re free to stop at any time and do anything you’d need.

Strange Journey wouldn’t be a Shin Megami Tensei game without the demon battle aspects. All the demons you know are here as well as many more you’ve never seen before — hundreds of new ones that you’ll have to narrow down to the 12 you can carry with you. No worries, there’s still a demon compendium you can keep to summon any you’ve acquired later. Just as in other series games, you’ll encounter demon enemies that can be recruited as allies through some smooth talking and bribing. In this game you’re able to fight alongside 3 demons of your choosing, using Atlus’ beloved Press Turn battle system to take on enemy demons. As always, you’ll be able to fuse two or more demons into something new and (hopefully) stronger. A new twist on fusion is the Demon Source. You’ll acquire these Source pieces from demons you’ve fought alongside with, as a sort of thanks from them. You can use this Source as a sort of ingredient in fusion, passing along some of the granter’s powers and spells to your new creation.

A new password system lets you skip fusion and take the easy way out. Players of this game can share codes assigned to each demon, letting others effectively borrow their demon creation. Stats and skills travel with this unique password, too. Seeing as how I’ve been the localized version of Strange Journey months before its release, I had no one to trade codes with. Luckily Atlus was kind enough to generate some for me. You’ll use an alphanumeric pad to enter a two line password into your compendium, and from there you can summon it. I was thankful for stylus support, as the passwords are long and funky. For those wondering, I did try some passwords from the Japanese version of the game, and none of them seemed to work.

Another new demon feature carries into battle. If you and your summoned demons are of the same mindset and you manage to exploit an enemy’s weakness, those demons will follow up with an automatic cooperative attack.  This adds to your demon choosing strategy and expands on the Press Turn weakness exploiting game play. If you set your roster right, you’ll get in free hits, allowing you to take down even bosses faster. I always appreciate when RPG bosses are not exempt. On a related note, bosses also are susceptible to status ailments in Strange Journey, as they rightly should be. I took down what would normally be a fairly difficult boss by casting mute on him, leaving him powerless.

Overall, between the tried-and-true weakness exploiting and these new demon ability upgrades, Strange Journey‘s battle system really pops. It’s not as upbeat as a later Persona game, but it definitely has its charms, and much of that lies in the massive pool of demons you can draw from. This one, more than any other SMT game I’ve played, found me working to tool very specific demons for my needs at the time. Being able to tinker and create the best party for each dungeon worked out to be pretty fun. The mazes and gradually increased difficulty will challenge you, but I never felt like I was stretched thin, and I never found myself frustrated from lost progress. It’s not an easy game, but there seemed to be a nice balance that made me feel like these dungeons would be pretty approachable to anyone interested.

You might not expect much from the presentation of a 3D first-person view DS role-playing game, but I think Strange Journey turned out pretty well. The textures of the walls of the dungeons vary greatly in quality, but overall I think they did a pretty good job. You’ll find that the game starts to have a pretty dark color pallete and features underground locales, but it does open up, and you do get to step outside a bit and see more color. One thing you cannot get away from is the overwhelming presence of the color blue in the game. I suppose it fits with the South Pole setting, but even the menus and dialogue boxes are blue. The demons themselves look great, both in battle and out. In battle, they have strong, clear presentations and even basic (and sometimes funny) animations. In your demon compendium and in the menus, the art for each is detailed and fantastic. A key part of Strange Journey‘s presentation is the music, composed by Atlus musician Shoji Meguro. Low brass and string dirges are tinged with deep-voiced chanting and humming, setting the underworld tone perfectly. All of the score manages to be dark and unsettling, but still maintains that Meguro groove somehow. A real high point is the rousing battle theme, which you’ll hear hundreds of times, but will likely never tire of.

As far as Nintendo DS role-playing games go, this is my new favorite, hands down. But then again, I’m a huge fan of both dungeon crawling and Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series games. For me, Strange Journey was a match made in heaven, with its unique blend of science fiction and demonic themes. Even beyond that, it’s the “more” I’ve been craving since Nocturne, and despite being on a portable, feels like a huge console game. But, as I said before, this is not a light-hearted romp that has you dating high-school girls and working part-time jobs. You’ve got to know what you’re getting into. If you do, Strange Journey is highly recommended.

Score: 9 — Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won’t cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)

Dale North