Staff Import Review – Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

It’s the early 21st century, and Atlus has finally deemed the time right to roll out a sequel to their cult classic RPG Shin Megami Tensei: NocturneShin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. Is it worth the six year wait? Short answer: yes. Long answer: read on…

Once again, the world is staring annihilation in the face, and once again players step into the shoes of a nameless protagonist and decide whether to save the world, or to destroy and re-make it in their own image. The core ideas of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’s gameplay– demon collection, fusion and negotiation, large-scale dungeon crawling, mature story choices leading to good or evil, just to name a few– have all been updated and refined. Atlus has definitely learned what works across the last six years, and they put that knowledge to good use in Strange Journey. There are a handful of unfortunate issues that detract from the overall experience, though not so much as to make the game significantly worse. Gamers who are already fans of the Megaten universe should be well pleased with this latest installment, and newcomers will find plenty to like.

Sometime in the near future, an unknown black void dubbed the “Schwarzwelt” begins expanding in the Antarctic, and if it isn’t stopped it could eventually swallow the entire world. The game’s nameless protagonist is a member of an elite, multinational task force charged with entering and exploring the Schwarzwelt in an attempt to find out how to destroy it. The mission goes wrong almost from the word “go,” of course. Disaster strikes as the team of four ships enters the Schwarzwelt and the protagonist’s ship, the Red Sprite, is separated from the others and crash lands. The survivors have little time to recover, however, as crew members start keeling over dead, killed by things no one can see. Only intervention from a mysterious trio gives the protagonist the ability to perceive the demons, and hence fight them. From there the crew’s mission becomes simple survival, with the slim hope of eventually finding a way out. Will that hope be realized? Will there be a world left to go back to? Will the protagonist even want to go back, or will he have other ideas about what to do with the power hidden deep inside the Schwarzwelt? That’s up to the player…

Like Nocturne, Strange Journey is one big dungeon-crawl at heart. The only “safe area” is the few rooms of the Red Sprite. Everything else is the sprawling, labyrinthine zones of the Schwarzwelt. The game is in first-person with the top screen of the NDS being the first-person view, and the bottom being a map of the area while on the field, or enemy/ally stats during battle. Controls are handled almost exclusively via the D-pad and buttons. The only real use for the touch pen is to scoot the area map around so you can see various parts. The story progresses in a series of main missions, and there are dozens of side missions players can pick up as they choose from other crew members or even demons. An easily navigable menu system keeps track of player progress in those missions, as well as player inventory and demons. FMV is kept to a bare minimum, most cut scenes being handled by character portraits with dialogue boxes. The rest of the graphics are serviceable, if not very spectacular.

The game gets players into the action pretty quickly. No 2-hour long tutorials, no silly “practice” battles. Aside from a the interaction in a short 6-question quiz to determine the protagonist’s personality type (and hence how his stats will grow as he levels up), players will only be stuck twiddling their thumbs for 30-45 minutes of story set-up before getting dumped out into the wild. Be warned, though, these zones are enormous. Even the first one is labyrinthine enough to take several hours to fully explore. One of the mid-game dungeons is so mammoth that both the first and second floor maps are four times the size of the bottom screen. These areas aren’t all simple sprawl, either. There are one-way doors, conveyor belts, three different kinds of damage floors, holes, warp panels, dark zones and other obstacles everywhere. Each zone is literally a maze, and how to get from Point A to Point B is half the challenge of a stage. Visual-wise, the zone backgrounds are disappointingly bland but, frankly, that’s not a big deal. While out on the field, most of the action happens on the bottom screen map anyway. There are hidden items, enemies, doors and even entire sub-floors to find, and those only ever show up on the map via the Demonica Suit’s radar system.

Now while all that stuff is great, the most important part of Strange Journey, like Nocturne, is the demons. The game starts off fast here, as well. Both the Compendium and the Demon Fusion ability are conveniently located on the main menu and are fully available straight off the bat. Negotiation is also something players get to dive into almost immediately, as Pixie is the only demon in the beginning party. The rest will need to be scrounged for, but don’t worry about lack of choices. Atlus wasn’t kidding when they said there would be 300+ demons in the game. At my count, there were at least 44 different demon categories.  Several demons are available only through passwords, and there is even an entire category attainable only through fusion accidents! Getting 100% completion on the Compendium will definitely require multiple play-throughs and more than a little OCD.

Negotiation has been tweaked so that demons will be less prone to extorting all of a player’s hard-earned macca and items before deciding no, they don’t want to join the party after all. Instead, they ask a pair of questions first and decide whether or not to entertain your request dependent on the answers. This is where all the effort is. Each demon type has a long list of preset questions, from which it will randomly ask two. The correct answers aren’t set, though the same demon will tend to like the same answers. Get an answer wrong and it won’t join, simple as that. Get the answers right, though, and it will start demanding loot, but by this point it’s almost certain that it will join the party. Only once in the entire game did I have a demon decide it wasn’t going to join my party after I’d already answered it’s questions correctly and it had bilked me for what it could.

Fusing the demons collected has become worlds easier thanks to two major upgrades; the analysis gauge and demon source. Every demon has an analysis gauge that goes up incrementally every time a player faces it in a battle and every time it completes a battle in the player’s party. Pass specific points on the gauge and the bottom screen will begin displaying parts of the demon’s stats. From then on, that demon’s stats are always on display for a player’s reference, without the need to keep casting scan all the time. In fact, there is no longer any “scan” or “analyze” skill in the game at all. But the most important aspect of the analysis gauge comes into play once it has been maxed out. A full analysis gauge for a demon means the next time it levels up in the player’s party, it’s guaranteed to hand out a demon source. Demon Source is an item specific to each demon; i.e. Pixie Source or Angel Source. It will contain 2~4 skills, usually ones the demon originally had or an upgraded version thereof. Sometimes, though, entirely new skills will be on there.

When players decide to fuse two demons there’s the option to add a demon source into the mix. Doing so opens up the ability to customize the new demon’s skill set. Unfortunately, this system isn’t without its downsides. First off, demons are limited to a maximum of 6 skills instead of 8. Also, the skills on a demon source are set, and they aren’t necessarily the best ones the demon had. If the demon was one that was fused, its demon source may contain a bonus skill that had been fused onto it, but again, no guarantee it’s one of the good ones. Outside of adding a demon-source, there’s no other way to customize a fused demon’s skills. When two demons are put together the skills that show up are the ones you get, period. Still, despite these shortcomings overall the system is a vast improvement over earlier Megaten games.

The battle system, compared to the other parts of the game, has undergone a complete overhaul. Basic battle is very old school; all four player party members’ actions are input via menu commands, they go off all in one shot, then the enemy gets a turn. Players get a blade for slashing attacks and a gun for piercing attacks or magic spells. The armor equipped determines weaknesses and resistances, and accessories provide some various bonuses. All of these are available for purchase in the Red Sprite in abundance.  Too much abundance, actually. I found myself skipping over new weapons and armors in swaths because they weren’t much of an upgrade at all, especially later in the game.

The Press Turn system of gaining or losing turns by hitting an enemy’s weak points or resistances has been completely scrapped. Replacing this is the Devil Co-Op system, where a strike on an enemy’s weak point earns immediate follow-up attacks by any other party member of the same alignment. Having similarly aligned demons in your party allows for some pretty hefty damage output, but conversely, if everyone is different, aiming for an enemy’s weak-point becomes almost meaningless. This shifts strategy very heavily onto the party composition side. Putting a party together becomes a delicate balancing act between having enough same alignment demons to make Devil Co-Op worth it, and getting the right demons some battle-time so you can max out their analysis gauge. One thing that doesn’t need to be worried about, though, is having the enemy Co-Op the party back. There are no penalties for missing an enemy or hitting its resistances, reducing player-party weaknesses to more of an occasional irritant as opposed to lethal disasters waiting to happen.

Lastly, and pretty least, is Alignment. All the demons in the game have an Alignment put together off of two scales: Light-Neutral-Dark and Law-Neutral-Chaos. So there can be Light-Chaos demons or Neutral-Neutral demons and so forth. The player’s Alignment is on the Law-Chaos scale only and it can and will change across the course of the game dependent on what answers are given to which question. Which Alignment the player is at the end of the game determines which of the three endings is gotten. And, to be blunt, that’s the only point where Alignment matters at all. For 90% of the game, it’s effectively fluff. It really doesn’t help that a little over half-way through things, an easily repeatable NPC encounter opens up that allows players with a little patience to shift their Alignment any which way they want. Player Alignment only becomes locked in once the final zone is entered. Before then, it’s entirely possible to get both Law-Only and Chaos-Only things in the same play-through. On the plus-side, this makes it really easy to get all three endings. And it’s not like it is possible to get absolutely everything on the first play-through. A handful of Law/Chaos-Only quests do lock off their opposite number once accepted. So again, while this is a downside, it’s relatively minor.

Overall, I think there is only one thing about Strange Journey that I can say just flat-out disappointed me; the music.  Megaten games have always tended to have great and distinctive soundtracks, from Nocturne’s heavy techno to Persona 3’s hip J-pop.  Strange Journey tries to come up with a new concept by adding some tribal chanting to sweeping orchestrals, and this works in maybe one or two cases (notably the opener).  The rest of the time… not so much.  Battle and boss themes are regular orchestrals that are just about as bland as the backgrounds.  There isn’t the variety of music that a Megaten game usually has, either.  Most zones of the Schwarzwelt have their own music, though some repeat.  The battle and boss music stays the same throughout.  There aren’t many different tunes for the Red Sprite safe-zones or cut scenes, either.  The official soundtrack either has to be pretty short, or include tracks that are hardly ever heard in the actual game just to fill out the disc.  Ah well.  I guess you can’t have everything.

While the upgrades over its spiritual predecessor Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne have made Strange Journey a less vicious game that’s more forgiving of player mistakes, it is still by no means easy. A single error may not wipe the party any more, but players who don’t pay close attention to party members and inventory will soon find themselves in a boatload of trouble. A single playthrough will likely take at least 60 to 80 hours and there are ample incentives to play through a second time, including new demons and even an entire new dungeon. In sum, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a solid game with a handful of flaws that are easily overlooked. Fans of the Megaten universe both new and old should find plenty to love about it.

This review is based off of a copy of the game that I purchased myself.

Updated 3/16/10.

One Comment

  1. King Odin:

    Nothing said about the soundtrack? Good review, otherwise.

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