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 r
eally 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.
Once you reach a certain level you can even fuse two demons into a new one. This is a critical ability, and knowing what kind of demon and powers you’ll get can yield some very powerful creatures. There was a bit too much trial and error in the alignment and fusing aspects for my taste but with so many combinations to experiment with, I guarantee fans of the series won’t get bored with the demon fusing anytime soon.
Your demon teammates are the main draw but your special Demonica armor is also an important aspect of the gameplay. As you progress you can unlock and buy new upgrades, allowing you to explore previously inaccessible areas or open locked portal doors. You can also get basic performance upgrades, such as special vision modes or a module that restores health as you move through a dungeon. This modularity added to the slick scifi presentation and reminded me a lot of Zelda or Metroid, which is always a good thing in my book.
Strange Journey has a handful of main hub areas but the maps are extensive and there are plenty of primary and side quests to complete. Part of the story is that the Schwarzwelt is a mirror universe. Each area is a strange mockery of a real-world setting, usually criticizing some aspect of human excess like greed or lust. The red light district was particularly interesting. The MegaTen series is known for its provocative themes and strange analogies, and it was still cool to see such mature, dry satire in a DS game. The game is never gratuitous in its adult concepts but its more serious characters and thought provoking situations were refreshing to see in a genre that usually goes with melodrama.
Strange Journey’s story is a welcome departure from MegaTen’s standard albeit bizarre fare, and its gameplay is the dungeon crawling turn based RPG that Atlus has perfected to a science. Its production values however are decidedly old school, which can be a good or bad thing depending on what you like. The first person dungeons are in 3D but tend to look pretty uniform after a while. All of the battles take place in first person too, without a lot of animations for any of the demons.
On the other hand the art for the demons is excellent, ranging from creepy to scary to cute and sexy and often a disturbing combination of all of them. With so many demons and fused combinations there is also a huge variety of different portraits. The character art for you, your team and your ship is also very high tech and professional looking, serving to ground you amidst the weird demon worlds, whenever you return to buy equipment or items.
The music isn’t anything spectacular but it’s well done and surprisingly complex for a DS game. There’s a decent range of styles, with dramatic heroic music for the action scenes that incorporates a lot of trumpets, and ominous atmospheric chants and drums for the different demon environments. The special edition of Strange Journey comes with a soundtrack CD, so you can tell Atlus was proud of the high quality score they pulled off on DS hardware.
In fact that’s a good way to sum up Strange Journey. It’s an atypically deep and challenging RPG for the DS and would stand out on any platform. Its story touches on some uncomfortable, thought-provoking concepts, which sets it apart from most weepy-eyed JRPGs. The production values aren’t extravagant but they enable a lot of good dialogue and story once you get into the meat of the game. The base gameplay doesn’t have a lot in the way of frills, but the demon fusing system is where the real depth is and the wide variety of quests will keep you busy for at least 60 hours. Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey is an old school RPG top to bottom, solid to the core in its fundamentals and embellished with a compelling offbeat story that will keep you playing for a long time.