Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Review for Nintendo DS

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Review for Nintendo DS

Strange Journey Is the Strangest Journey

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.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey  screenshot

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.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey  screenshot

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.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey  screenshot

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.

The grim soundtrack is a thing of wonder. It is slow and dramatic, and many tracks even have a deep, rumbling chorus that further darkens the atmosphere. It’s perfect for a game with no need for “town” music, or “inn” music, or any of the usual light-hearted RPG chords. The player is on a military incursion through a hellish dreamworld, with the earth itself at stake, and the soundtrack drives this point home.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey  screenshot

While the overall story is interesting, and it’s enjoyable to unravel the mystery of the Schwarzwelt, the unique team system and old-school team dynamic means that character development is kind of a no-show. A year from now, you’ll never look back and remember the hero of Strange Journey, nor will any of your teammates’ “personalities” leave a mark on you. It’s easy to forgive Strange Journey for this shortcoming, however, because the demonic recruitment system is fun enough to trump the desire to see the usual team of stereotypical characters undergo predictable developments. Plus, the strange and varied dimensions and levels of the Schwarzwelt actually have more personality than a lot of real human beings I know; in some ways this setup is superior to the inclusion of the nonsensical, “witty” banter between teammates that’s so prevalent in Japanese RPGs.

As for challenge, Strange Journey is not easy, but that’s not to say that it is unmercifully (or obnoxiously) “old-school”. There are a lot of tactics to keep in mind, and plenty of team variations that can go wrong, and taking advantage of a particular enemy’s weakness is usually a necessity rather than a bonus – but on the other hand, save points are usually in plentiful supply, so no single mistake is ever going to nullify five hours of grinding. If Strange Journey is someone’s first RPG after playing, say, any recent Final Fantasy, then that person would probably find Strange Journey to be unnecessarily difficult. However, it’s been my experience that most RPG players are already hard-wired to understand things like resource management, how to maximize a teammate’s potential, how to undermine an opponent’s weaknesses, and so on; thus, Strange Journey is the perfect challenge for someone who needs a little bit of difficulty and frustration in their life in order to truly relax and enjoy some downtime.

Expect at least fifty hours of game time, depending on how much you mess around with cooking up demonic combinations. The alignment system and its effects on the story make for additional playthrough potential. There is no online mode, but you can trade demons with your friends. There is no risk of any of these trades unbalancing gameplay, as you can’t use demons whose levels are higher than your own. In fact, there are so many demonic combinations, and so many challenging battles ahead, that a little help from fellow demonic chefs would add a great dynamic to the solo dungeon-crawling experience.

Interesting locations and a wild color palette keep this dungeon-crawler from feeling like a slow crawl through a featureless maze. There are some really amazing, and dark, monster designs. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of goofy monsters as well. 4.4 Control
There’s a lot to remember, but each concept is introduced gradually enough to avoid being overwhelming. 4.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Get some headphones that allow for bass, because Strange Journey has an intense, brooding, heavy, and dark soundtrack that demands attention. 4.7

Play Value
Many worlds to explore, tons of demons to fight, recruit, and fuse, hundreds of team combinations to try out, an alignment system that allows for varying playthroughs, and lots of weapons, armor, and accessories to create via item drop combinations.

4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.

Game Features:

  • Deep system of demon recruitment, fusion, and alignment-based teamwork make for a dynamic combat experience.
  • Old-school combat system perfect for gamers who want a challenge and are tired of modern, all-too-easy RPGs.
  • Subtle alignment system based on law, chaos, and neutrality goes beyond simplistic definition of good versus evil often found in games.

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