Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey offers a refreshingly thoughtful experience compared to most Japanese RPG plots
- Intriguing and mature story elements, lots of areas to explore and hidden secrets to find
- Demon fusion takes trial and error, thematic elements may offend some gamers
While it's engaging dungeons and mature themes are sure to please fans of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Strange Journey suffers from a hit-or-miss Demon Fusion system and a somewhat tired premise.
The latest Shin Megami title certainly has an appropriate name. Strange Journey is a strange game for two reasons: one, it's an M-rated DS title, which is exceptionally rare, and two, it's about a futuristic multinational army that ventures to an Antarctica-like dimension to stop an impending demonic takeover of planet Earth. Strange Journey earns its 'Mature' rating not through depicted blood and gore, but by dealing with themes and story elements that could potentially make gamers feel very uncomfortable, something the franchise is known for. The Shin Megami Tensei series has also delved into various mythologies and depending on the choices you make during your time with Strange Journey, you might even end up having to fight the holy armies of the Judeo-Christian God (yes, the Biblical God, not some metaphorical figure). It's a refreshingly thoughtful experience compared to most Japanese RPG plots, but it's not for the easily offended.
The game's odd premise is also a departure from the established norm and it centres on a soldier who leads the expedition as he explores the ice caves and hellish mockeries of human-made locales that compose the strange world; everything plays out in a first-person perspective, similar to Atlus's own Etrian Odyssey series, and along the way, you can actually communicate with and recruit demons to join your team, as well as augment their powers and fuse them into more powerful fighters. You also make several moral decisions over the course of the game that determines which ending sequence you unlock.
Exploration of the varied dungeons throughout Strange Journey is exciting, and the strong enemy encounters force you to think carefully about risks and rewards when going into uncharted territory; it's a nice change from RPGs where non-boss encounters are nothing more than cannon fodder meant to bolster your experience level. While the turn-based combat engine is standard fare, there's still a lot of strategy to recruiting and creating powerful demons and crafting parties that work well together. One thing that disappointed me, however, was the demon fusion system: The previous DS entry, Devil Survivor, had an excellent "helper" utility that provided assistance in finding and planning various demon fusions. This utility isn't present in Strange Journey, and it is sorely missed -- you'll either have to commit the statistical information to memory, invest a lot of trial and error, or have a FAQ on hand.
The other big issue for me is a matter of personal preference. While the "futuristic military" theme is one that hasn't been seen much in the SMT series (or Japanese RPGs in general), it's so widespread in other gaming genres -- particularly here in the West -- that I found myself bored with it almost from the get-go. Some players will certainly appreciate the break from fantasy kingdoms and teenage anime heroes, but I like the "modern-day Japan" settings of SMT titles like Persona and Devil Survivor much more than this.
But while Strange Journey has its issues, it's still a solid game and one of only a handful of titles on the DS that truly is meant for mature audiences. If you're looking for a thoughtful, challenging RPG experience, this is a Strange Journey worth taking; those who take issue with the thematic elements, however, might want to go adventuring elsewhere.
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