Strange things are happening to me
Eight years ago, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey was my first experience with anything SMT related. I was hesitant at first, not being a fan of first-person dungeon crawlers at the time. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up my copy at GameStop and booted it up on my Nintendo DSi XL. While it would be many more years before the genre would click for me, I came away from the game with a great appreciation for the world Atlus has constructed and its devil-may-care attitude about appropriating various religious deities.
It was the opposite of the happy-go-lucky games I normally play, and even today, Strange Journey remains an oddity in my DS game collection. Strange Journey Redux isn’t as much of an outsider on my 3DS having bought every other Shin Megami Tensei game to hit the handheld, but it is still one deep, dark, and devilish ride.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux (3DS)
Released: May 15, 2018 (North America), May 18, 2018 (Europe)
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux takes me and my merry band of mercenaries to Antarctica, where a massive cornucopia of realities known as the Schwarzwelt is slowly expanding. My mission is to study the phenomenon and stop it before it spreads across the planet. Once inside, I’m quickly assimilated to new technology that will allow me to traverse the twisted paths of the sectors I’ll explore and stay alive in turn-based battles with the help of demons I meet along the way.
To the outsider, one who’s never picked up an SMT game before, it can look like Pokémon for adults. In reality, Strange Journey Redux takes a more nihilistic approach to the monster-catching genre. There are 350 demons for me to confront, converse with, and eventually add to my team, but I can only carry up to 18 of them at a time. These aren’t buddies I’m supposed to grow fond of, but rather blocks to be taken apart and rebuilt as I see fit. They’re nothing more than their abilities to me, tools for my success. There’s something grim about having a demon beg to join my crew, only for me to immediately turn and fuse that new creature with another from my stock because they have Luster Candy which is a frickin’ useful skill.
The meat and potatoes of Strange Journey Redux is the same as it was eight years ago. I still travel from sector to sector, first-person dungeon crawler style, trying to find a way out of the Schwarzwelt while the forces of heaven and hell try to corrupt me. Its hard sci-fi cum theology lesson of a story meshes well with the backdrop of the various sectors, from the demon bordello of Sector Bootes to the They Live inspired aisles of Sector Carina. Strange Journey doesn’t pull any punches with its story, and the Earth it presents — one corrupt with greed, pollution, and sin — is perhaps more relevant now than when it first launched. It may lack the more immersive story-telling techniques of the Triple-A games market, but Strange Journey‘s text-heavy narrative is a gripping piece of fiction that feeds players a bitter truth of mankind’s self-destructive reality.
This enhanced 3DS port features a lot of quality-of-life improvements, such as Japanese voice acting, better visuals, three different difficulty levels, 20 save slots and the ability to save in the field. It’s still missing features like automatic scrolling text or the ability to make notes and marks on the map like I can with the Etrian Odyssey series this game is so clearly inspired by. I can do without either of those because it will now let me pick and choose which skills my demons inherit during fusions. There’s also new music, new demons, a new animation you shouldn’t watch because it spoils the story, and new artwork courtesy of the most substantial addition to the game, the Womb of Grief.
The Womb is a seven-floor mega-dungeon I need to complete to unlock one of the three new endings to the game. Central to the dungeon are Demeter, the goddess of the Harvest who tasks me with finding six pieces of fruit, and Alex, the new mysterious character who is trying to kill me. If you think Alex and the Womb are effortlessly woven into the existing narrative, think again. The dungeon and her storyline feel very much like a gaiden to the existing adventure. Much like the additions made to the enhanced port of Radiant Historia, these new story elements do not coalesce. I can count on one hand how many times she appears in the original plotline, and her banishment to the Womb highlights some annoying game design choices.
Alex has a sparse storyline and most of my interactions with her quickly devolve into fighting. At first, she overpowers me, forcing me to flee from every fight. As I traverse the late-November-corn-maze that is the Womb of Grief, I come across her multiple times. At first, when I’m weak, she acts as an artificial barrier to keep me from advancing too far. On the third floor of the dungeon, she blocks my only two pathways. So I leave, and 10 hours later I come back with my character leveled far above where I need him to be to fight back. What I think is going to be one or two fights actually ends up being more than a dozen.
On this single floor of the Womb, I fight Alex multiple times and not once does she grant me any experience points when I defeat her. I just keep fighting her to advance and get absolutely nothing out of it. If I get hurt too much and need to heal, and I leave the dungeon, I have to repeat all of those battles. I don’t know who designed this portion of the game — something tells me the same person who thought up the bullshit that is Jack’s Bargain — but it absolutely soils a dungeon that actually isn’t all that good to begin with.
Of the seven floors of the Womb, only the final one makes good use of all the dungeon elements established in the regular campaign while adding nifty tricks of its own. The rest of the floors feature some interesting ideas that are bogged down by repetitive fights and puzzles that can be easy to mess up, leading to more arduous fights with the same several demons.
I’m not sold on this new addition for most of the game, and even when I finish the final floor of it, I’m indifferent. But a few hours after that, when I see the fruits of my labor blossom, I become greatly appreciative of all the hours I spent traversing the Womb. The original Strange Journey had one of the best final boss battles I’ve played in a JRPG. The final boss for the new endings — of which I unlock the “new law ending” — is just as satisfying. Also hard. Very, very hard.
With the various quality of life improvements, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is simply a more playable version of an already great game. I really enjoyed it the first time around eight years ago, and replaying it today reminds of why it was the ideal game to introduce me to the Shin Megami Tensei franchise.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]