|System: DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Atlus||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Atlus||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: March 24, 2010||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Mature||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Kyle B. Stiff
Imagine a frigid wasteland as a nexus for inter-dimensional horror (like something out of H. P. Lovecraft) combined with Pokémon sensibilities, and even a few creatures straight out of Care Bears. Now mix in some Starship Troopers with a nightmare spawned from inside Dali's skull, and the sort of moralizing you can only find in Japanese games, and you have some idea of just how strange a journey this Strange Journey can be.
A rift between worlds has opened in Antarctica, and now a team of elite military specialists and scientists must take the best technology that mankind has to offer and investigate this Schwarzwelt (or "black world") before it spreads and consumes the earth. Things get complicated when the flashy tech doesn't hold up, and you are forced to use demonic means against demonic enemies. That's where things get fun: Strange Journey is a dungeon-crawler where your team is constantly changing based on which demons you have allied with, or summoned, or created through demonic recombination.
Combat is set up in the old-school Western dungeon-crawling style, meaning the enemies face the player in a horizontal row, and the player's team is displayed as a series of inanimate portraits along the bottom of the screen; think Dragon Warrior, Phantasy Star, Mother 2 (Earthbound), or Wizardry. If you prefer to see animated representations of your team move and use their weapons, prepare for some disappointment. Other than that minor quibble, the combat system of Strange Journey is surprisingly varied, mostly thanks to the recruitment/conversation system.
The combat is much more challenging than your average Final Fantasy game. Every encounter can be deadly if you do not think ahead, take advantage of enemy weaknesses, and put together a balanced team of characters who work well together. You cannot button-mash your way through non-boss fights while admiring your team's spiky haircuts and flashy wardrobe.
And this is a good thing. Not only is nearly every fight like a short, violent puzzle, the demonic interaction and recruitment aspect of combat assures each encounter will actually be interesting, rather than annoying or bothersome. Plus, there's the added benefit that random encounters are no longer random at all, as a meter at the top of the screen will fill up to warn of an impending encounter. I cannot stress how great this feature is, and how it completely eliminates that little sense of disappointment we all get when a random encounter stalls the trip from point A to point B.
Recruitment occurs through conversation that is initiated in battle; picking the correct options can be slightly hit-or-miss, but each encounter allows new opportunities to try again. Each demon demands its price for loyalty: money, items, even a sip (or a painful gulp) of hit points and magic points. Once recruited, you can put the demons on your team or fuse them with others to (usually) make more powerful demons. Imagine the joy of cooking combined with the blasphemy of uncontrolled genetic manipulation, and you won't be far from the truth of the matter. Demons also level up and gain powers through combat, which is nice, but there's nothing like the rush of creating a powerful new lifeform where, before, there were only two weaklings taking up space.
Strange Journey may be set up as a dungeon-crawler, but because the game takes place within a meeting place of alternate dimensions, each "floor" of the dungeon can look wildly different from the next. One level near the beginning even looks like a nightmarish remix of a World War II-era blasted city, complete with burning red sky and bombers dropping their payloads in the distance. This place is by no means the strangest floor, either.
The colors are rich, and all visual designs are memorable, with the monster designs especially showing an incredible amount of variety. Though some of the monsters are way too cute for my taste, for every cute monster there's also an interesting-looking beast, or sexy demon, or "bound angel" archetype, or badass warrior, or wicked-looking spellcaster to balance the game's aesthetic flavor. There are some very nice looking character portraits during conversation, though most conversations lack facial portraits, which is a real shame. Overall, Strange Journey's visual aesthetic is nearly perfect for its mature content, dark outlook, and themes of demonic invasion and humanity's responsibility to clean up its own mess.