Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Written by Tina Amini on 1/13/2010 for DS  

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey finally got its North American release date (March 23rd). Although you can expect a full preview from us soon, we’ll give you a taste of what’s to come in the game to tide you over.

We got to see the game mechanics of Strange Journey with a demonstration from Atlus Manager of PR and Sales Aram Jabbari and Lead Editor Nich Malagos. The demo included an overview of the combat and exploration, as well as the set-up for the storyline including specific localization work that has been done for us North Americans. SMT: Strange Journey holds a generous amount of similarities to not only its own SMT series, but the Persona series, as well. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are numerous mythological, philosophical, and religious references made in the game. A good reference has to be appropriate to have meaning, and Aram quotes the ship’s AI named Arthur C. Clarke as an example of a reference that has relevance in North America.

The first thing to note when looking at the demonstration was that exploration in the game is done from a first-person perspective, similar to the first two SMT games. We won’t know of this too well, as they never made an appearance in NA.

As we wandered Antilia looking for a fight, Aram explained that the “smooth real-time 3D” engine is taken from their own Etrian Odyssey, providing gamers with an immersive experience that you wouldn’t expect from a handheld RPG. The game plays very much like a dungeon crawl, a fact to which Aram references Wizardry. The lower screen of the DS functions as the map, with a green diameter of your search distance with which to explore.

The southern pole of Earth that we have entered is adorned with icicles as expected. Aram, however, describes it as a “parallel dimension” in which the frosty South Pole is also polluted by demons, and more resembles a wasteland or war zone with planes flying overhead. Clearly, the government is right in taking action and sending a unit to explore what phenomenon is beginning to envelop the planet. What super natural element we’re up against, however, is so far unbeknownst to us as we’re still exploring the touch screen functions of the map of Antilia and the menu system.

A JRPG is obviously not all about action-packed combat. A good menu system is essential. I spend loads of my RPG times in the menu screens, so you’ll want something functional to tinker with. You can access your mission log, secondary mission log (side quests), and tutorials all through your demonica suit.

Your main menu is where you’ll be accessing items, too. You’ll find the typical expendable items to increase HP/MP for instance, but you’ll also find your forma. Herein lies another instance of similarity with Etrion Odyssey. Forma are components used to unlock new items similar to components picked up from FOEs in Etrion Odyssey. Your demonica suit is equipped to scan the area for such components.

Forma are an example of sub apps you can add to your suit for specific rewards. Equipping certain sub apps can, for instance, recover HP. We also saw one named “hiroemon” that increases your odds of attaining items at the end of battle. You’ll have to decide which to equip within your restricted frame of slots.

If there are sub apps, there have got to be main apps. Main apps are upgrades to your suit. This will be significant in the game given that progression relies on certain upgrades. Meaning, basically, that there are locked doors that you cannot pass through until your suit has seen some upgrading.

Your equipment – including your armor – will be accessed in the menu screen, too. In your case, as the human, your abilities and special attacks depend solely on your equipment. Demons have more inherent abilities similar to magic that can only be altered or added through leveling.Your demons and their specs can also be accessed through the menu. This is where SMT: Strange Journey really shines in its gameplay. Although you’ll have your gang of demons, you can also choose to fuse them to discover new ones. The menu shows what combination will result in what demon. Items can be thrown into the fusion to sometimes attain rare demons, as well.

Registering these fused demons through the Demon Compendium allows you to share your demons with friends. After generating a password, your friends can input the code into their game to extract the very same demon. Atlus is also putting out a few secret passwords for demons that cannot otherwise be acquired. Within registration, you’ll have three slots for input. You will need in-game currency to summon the demons, however, while keeping in mind the restriction that the demon cannot be a higher level than your character.

We haven’t even gotten to the good stuff, though. Menu and party configuration are important, but it gets to be all about the nitty gritty. I don’t know about you, but I’m fiending for some fighting.

The combat gameplay shouldn’t be too far from what you’re probably familiar with in terms of turn-based RPGs. Minus the basics, Atlus has a specific battle format in line for SMT: Strange Journey. There is one human character in your party, you, along with three demons that you can summon at will. All names are highlighted in a particular color indicating your alignment within the game.

Playing through the game you will accumulate certain actions that will label your alignment as neutral, chaotic, or lawful. These indications will be fundamental to combat, as it plays into one of the major features of the game known as demon co-op. It will also affect your negotiation skills when attempting to reason out of a fight.

In our first fight, Aram attempts to negotiate with the demon known as Angel, but fails due to alignment disparity. Next course of action is to rely on the analysis bar that has now replaced the map formerly on the lower screen. This bar will reveal information that you know about demons you have encountered along your strange journey. Crucial information here is the weakness that pertains to each enemy, in the form elemental attacks.

This is where demon co-op comes into play. If you manage to successfully exploit an enemy’s weakness, you will get an extra turn (in a sense). If you are familiar with the press/turn system in the Persona series, you will already be somewhat acquainted with demon co-op. Exploiting the enemy’s weakness in Strange Journey will gain you bonus melee attacks from all party members with the same alignment of the character who won the exploit.

The battle plays out fairly quickly after Aram chooses his course of action – selecting one of the demons to exploit a weakness and having the other two (of the same alignment) hit with their melee attacks – so if you aren’t a fan of the sometimes grueling battles involved in RPGs, this should be enticing news. Keeping a party member’s alignment in mind when selecting group members can be key to your gameplay method. However, you can also select members based on their elemental strengths and weaknesses. Some will have particularly useful special attacks that render them more useful than the demon co-op that can be used from picking members based on alignment. These are things to keep in mind when playing SMT: Strange Journey.

After a few battles against relatively low-level demons, we hit the heal spot to trade in-game currency (macca) for health to prepare for the boss. The boss for the level – Morax – is a demon flaunting his raging bullhead and…middle finger. Thanks, Morax.

Our interaction with him reveals the first bits of information as to what the void growing on the South Pole might be. We realize that the demons are a mirror of us, as Morax explains that they are a manifestation of our behavior and activity. This attention to consequence and the notions of morality and introspection are what Atlus and the SMT series pride themselves on. They did promise philosophical ideas, and you’re damn sure they’re going to deliver. In this iteration of the series, Strange Journey is pointing out that we can become our own undoing.

Even though Morax has given us a lot to think about, his middle finger is still looming and his raging bullhead is about to charge at us so we venture forth toward the fight to ponder the matter at a later date.

Morax is a boss, and therefore hasn’t been confronted before. That means we have no information about him in our analysis bar. Aram’s tactic is to stick with the demon Koppa Tengu to heal the entire party, as well as get a critical demon co-op to activate the other two demons that have similar alignment to his. He uses Harpy to cast buffs on the party members. Nich Maragos, lead editor, explains that buffs here function more like Nocturne than Persona 3 or Persona 4. A single cast will cover the entire party, and the buff will not wear off unless an enemy is able to nullify it. Aram alternates his human character to summoning demons if they go out, as well as using the expendable items (which only human characters can use).

After the big, epic boss battle, we are informed by game-text that we can now fuse Morax. If we’re at the appropriate level, and have the necessary components, we can recruit Morax into our party. Two of the characters have also leveled up, given that they were the final two present at Morax’s demise.

We’ve explored a little, battled a little, and gotten our hands dirty with some boss battling. In his closing comments Aram laments the sound being excluded from the demo, but mentions that every copy is being joined by a soundtrack courtesy of Shoji Meguro. He also reminds us that this is a science fiction, first-person RPG game with approximately 50 hours of game time containing replayability of epic proportions. He hopes (as we do, too) that the first-person exploration genre will find its audience with the hardcore gamers, but also break out of its niche community.Even with all that information to digest, we’re not done yet. I had a few questions I was curious about, posted here for your reading pleasure:

Why the DS? Are there any plans for a PlayStation release in the future? I know some SMT fans who were put off by the DS factor (although I have to say the DS did seem to hold its own in the demo).
Nich Maragos, Lead Editor: Since the game uses the dual screens of the DS to represent the Demonica suit’s helmet HUD and arm computer readout, it’s probably unlikely that the game will be rereleased on another platform. We’ve seen the same comments from SMT fans hoping for a new console game, but they should know that the quality gameplay, the well-balanced challenge, and the mature storyline people expect from SMT games are all present and correct even on the DS.

Nocturne was rated All Ages by CERO but M by the ESRB, while Strange Journey is rated C by CERO and M again by the ESRB. What's your take on this, and how do you view the limitation on the stateside audience?
All the other SMT games, except for the recent Persona PSP and Devil Survivor, have also been rated M, which hasn’t seemed to hurt their popularity much.

Some people have been concerned because Grand Theft Auto, another series that kept its usual M rating on handheld, fared poorly with Chinatown Wars, but I think that was more because Chinatown Wars wasn’t seen as a “true” GTA game, with an emphasis on DS stylus minigames and so forth. Other M-rated handheld GTA games that featured the same perspective and gameplay as the console iterations, like Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories did fine. Strange Journey is definitely a true SMT title with everything fans love about the console games, so we’re pretty confident in its chances.

It seems that Atlus has put a hold on the SMT series for about 6 years now, going for the spin-offs like Persona and Devil Summoner instead between then and this new SMT title. Why the pause? Why the return?
There was actually a similar gap in the series between SMT If…., which was released in Japan in 1994, and Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, which came out there in 2003. As you can see, that was an even longer gap which skipped over an entire console generation, during which our parent company focused similarly on the Persona and Devil Summoner spin-off series. A new main-series SMT is a special event that carries high expectations, and Atlus doesn’t make the decision to produce one lightly unless they can be sure those expectations will be met. Strange Journey definitely doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

Lastly I was curious to see if there is any continuation of storyline from Strange Journey's predecessors. There are obviously a lot of similarities between this title and the others in the franchise, and also notable differences such as the Antarctica location as opposed to Japan, but is there any connection between storyline, characters, etc.?
Other than the connections between the first two games in the series, there have been only very light ties between other games, and Strange Journey tells its own standalone story with no real recurring characters. (There is one exception, though fans might not recognize him at first…) You don’t have to have played any of the other games to get the most out of this one.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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I am host to the kind of split-personality that is only possible when a girl is both born and raised in New York City, yet spends a lot of time with two older brothers. So, on one hand, I'm a NYU student majoring in media and communication who has a healthy obsession with fashion, music, media and the latest happenings in NYC. But, on the other hand, I'm rocking a level 70 blood elf warlock (I just got Lich King -- give me a break), spend much of my time playing games of all genres and platforms, and if you pass by my dorm you can possibly even hear my roar of victory as I spring on the unsuspecting as one of the infected in Left 4 Dead. And just when I thought things were as random as they could be, I spent the summer in Texas and, turns out, I like 4-wheeling and shooting (real) guns too.

I whet my appetite early on the classics and later moved on to Counter-Strike, GoldenEye and the like. You'll find me trying just about any game now -- I even tried my hand at Cooking Mama -- but the more blood and gore, the better. All my friends and family are probably pretty annoyed by how much I talk about video games. It's your turn now, Internet.
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