Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Review

posted 5/7/2010 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
One Page Platforms: DS
One of Atlus’s most enduring series is the Persona/Shin Megami Tensei family of RPGs. Collectively abbreviated as MegaTen, they share core gameplay mechanics such as traditional turn-based combat and a popular demon collecting and training system. The series is known for its bizarre and eclectic stories, which span everything from psychic high schoolers fighting a resurrected Adolf Hitler to a demon-summoning detective. This makes the latest Shin Megami Tensei game’s subtitle, Strange Journey, seem like a misnomer at first—the whole MegaTen mini-genre is about strange journeys and happenings.

Strange Journey is, however, a genuine departure for the series in plot and setting. The game has an uncharacteristically pure science fiction atmosphere, which it successfully juxtaposes onto the common themes of demons and dark magic. You don’t play as a psychic teenager but as an experienced US marine, assigned to an international team of military and scientific experts. This team, assembled onto four advanced air/land vehicles, is tasked with investigating the Schwarzwelt, a growing black cloud of destructive inter-dimensional energy that is expanding exponentially from the Antarctic.

Needless to say, things to horribly wrong early into the mission. Your crew’s carrier vehicle gets separated from the rest and crashes, and shortly afterwards strange demonic creatures invade it and abduct several members of the crew. You head off to rescue them and hit some surprises early on, and the game takes off from there. For a scifi nerd like me, the story and setting really eased me in to what is a very pure, traditional JRPG experience. The MegaTen mechanics are all here and in fine form, but there are no angsty lovesick teens or navel-gazing existential subplots. The story is about a team of preeminent professionals who get dumped into a bewildering disaster and get a harsh lesson in arrogant assumptions along the way.

The gameplay is typical Atlus all the way, but has more in common with Etrian Odyssey than the previous MegaTen title, Devil Survivor. You explore dungeons in first person, with a helpful map plotting your progress on the touch screen. As you complete your quest objectives you’ll run into regular random encounters, signified by a glowing bar along your HUD that changes color as an encounter gets closer to happening. This lets you predict when an encounter is going to hit you, but once you’re confronted by some demons, fighting isn’t the only option by a long shot.

The first surprise is that this supposedly hellish word isn’t necessarily hostile—one of the first tutorials you get is how to talk to demons. The demon inhabitants of the Schwarzwelt are just as likely to chat with you as they are to attack, and competent negotiating is a big part of the game’s demon recruiting system. You aren’t accompanied into the field by other human team members, and you won’t last long without local help. In most encounters you can always start up a conversation before firing a shot, with varying degrees of success.

Some demons will actively pursue friendly conversation, while others are more standoffish. You’re given a number of responses and it can be a crapshoot what a particular type of demon will respond well to, but befriending them can have real benefits. Most demons will give you money or rare items but some will even agree to join your party. It’s important to recruit a wide selection of demons early on, so if one falls in battle and you’re far from home base to revive you can call in another. There are dozens of demons to collect in the game and using them strategically means the difference between life and death.

Combat is still inevitable in some cases and crucial for leveling up. Some demons are nebulous and impossible to understand, making negotiation risky. Others will attack you outright. Knowing your demons and having a wide selection makes the combat easier and addictive too. Choosing demons and attacks with the same alignment as you will result in powerful combos, and if you know what powers enemies are weak and strong against you can tailor your attacks to be even more devastating.
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