Various rants on Strange Journey

After Persona 3 and Persona 4 (AKA "The Best Games Ever"), as well as the superb Devil Survivor on the DS, I became a huge fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series.  Though I won't openly admit that, because that title screams "Gratuitous Japanese: The Game".   Still, I was psyched for the latest DS entry, Strange Journey.  Up to its release, I was skeptical, but interested.  It's hard for me to get excited about another Call of Duty, Halo, or Killzone, because the genre seems so derived these days (not that I'm completely against shooters; Uncharted 2 was badass and is my vote for the best shooter of the last year).  Mario Galaxy 2 was fun, but all it did was add more content to the original model based off of Galaxy 1.  There's a million more examples, but the point is, I like things to be shaken up, and Strange Journey does that.  After three games in which typical high school students get swept up in something bigger than themselves, it's a refreshing change of pace for the next game in the series to go "An elite group of Government soldiers travel to Antarctica to figure out why there's a shopping mall there".  It's also why I'm excited for Metroid: Other M despite there be every reason for it to be bad: it's different, dammit.  And as my last blog stated, I'd rather play the new XCOM than the other shooters announced at e3, solely due to the setting.
 
It's also strange that Strange Journey is the first "true" Shin Megami Tensei game in a while; it's been referring to as SMT 4, when the last main game in the series was SMT: Nocturne for the PS2 (which I never played).  Odd that Persona 3, 4, and Devil Survivor are nothing but "Spinoff" games, yet they're also friggin' amazing.  So, as a newbie SMT fan, I was ready for Strange Journey to feel fresh to me.  And it certainly did.  Sites like Gamespot knocked the score down for the dungeon crawling being repetitive, but I personally never found that to be a problem.  Every time I got a new toy, it was always exciting to find every hidden passage, even if there wasn't anything too exciting beyond that wall.  Generally, these days good game design lets players explore new areas by giving them new tools, but there's a certain rush you get from finding a hidden passage while you were looking for something else, or finding a shortcut that makes it easier to go home.  The lack of save-anywhere can be frustrating, but it also keeps you on your toes, focused the whole time.  Strange Journey ends up proving that good game design is subjective. 
 
Even if it's a fundamentally different game from the others in the series, it's nice to see the main themes reflected without feeling overused.  The gameplay is still essentially Pokemon, with collecting new demons and building an ultimate "team" and all, but this game feels much more like a traditional RPG, as opposed to the class change mechanics of Persona, or the tactical play of Devil Survivor.  Still suffers a bit in that regard, though; you really don't need more than four demons at a time, and the extras are used more to experiment with fusion than any other gameplay advantage.  Speaking of which, one of these days Atlus needs to build a more in-depth fusion tutorial so I'm not just randomly fusing demons together hoping I'll get something good (or just going straight to GameFAQs every time a boss winds up being overpowered).  The demon sharing system is unique and welcome, though; being able to fuse worthwhile demons I heard about over the internet, both from other players and special "DLC" demons ended up being a great help.  Certainly a lot less tedious than the way Pokemon did it.  Considering that I needed to summon a custom-made demon designed solely for taking out the final boss, is this just a way of circumventing cheating in games?  I did have to do a fair amount of money grinding to get it, but it wasn't as bad as I expected.  Though seriously, make the bosses easier next time; Ouroboros felt like a big roll of the dice every time we fought. 
  
-Spoilers for Strange Journey and Devil Survivor-
Though, I'd say that the most interesting part of the story was the Law/Chaos split halfway through.  A lot of games these days love morality systems, but mostly they come down to making a good or evil choice once in a while.  "You can choose to be good or bad!" the ads go.  Well, why would I want to?  Fable II was absolutely awful about this, because many of the morality choices were completely cosmetic.  "Give the item to the policeman and he'll reward you handsomely, or give it to the crook and he'll also reward you handsomely".  Good or evil becomes an arbitrary choice, rather than a moral dilemma.  However, Strange Journey's endings are a much more vague scale; do you sacrifice freedom for the sake of peace under God?  Or is safety a necessary sacrifice in order to achieve freedom?  Two of the game's characters, Zelenin and Jimenez, end up going through physical transformations during the game- Jimenez, a demon, and Zelenin, an angel.  With their transformation, their personalities change as well; Jimenez becomes much more aggressive and unafraid to show his true feelings, while Zelenin is completely concerned with peace and tranquility.  Neither side is portrayed as "right", and the tug of war at the player makes the choices he makes much more meaningful.  Unfortunately, the game doesn't handle this too well; the way you're aligned is dependent on seemingly arbitrary dialogue choices at parts, and by the time I figured out I'd rather side with the demons than the almost emotionless angels, it was too late, and I was locked into the "Law" path.  Devil Survivor handled this Law/Chaos split much better; throughout the game, you're given enough time to communicate with all the major parties on all sides, and your actions decide what paths are available to you at the final day, where you can explicitly choose which side you want to join.  Though, Naoya, who represents Chaos, is portrayed as crazy and psychotic, while Amane, the girl representing God, is much more calm and helpful to you, so it was much more difficult for me to side with the "dark" side. 
-End spoilers- 
 
Still, through all my ranting, Strange Journey was a refreshing change of pace, and one of the better games I've played in 2010.  I just wish more games weren't so afraid of change.  I've played a bit of Dragon Quest IX since its release, and many parts of the game frustrate me; the storyline feels tired and cliche, I'm back to hitting "attack" over and over again for each encounter, and generally it's just repeating all the tropes of old SNES RPGs, forgetting that gaming has evolved a great deal since then.  Also, I think SMT games have spoiled me with status effect spells that actually work on enemies.  I'll still play through Dragon Quest IX, but I'm more looking towards Etrian Odyssey III for my next big JRPG fix.

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Posted by BigBob

After Persona 3 and Persona 4 (AKA "The Best Games Ever"), as well as the superb Devil Survivor on the DS, I became a huge fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series.  Though I won't openly admit that, because that title screams "Gratuitous Japanese: The Game".   Still, I was psyched for the latest DS entry, Strange Journey.  Up to its release, I was skeptical, but interested.  It's hard for me to get excited about another Call of Duty, Halo, or Killzone, because the genre seems so derived these days (not that I'm completely against shooters; Uncharted 2 was badass and is my vote for the best shooter of the last year).  Mario Galaxy 2 was fun, but all it did was add more content to the original model based off of Galaxy 1.  There's a million more examples, but the point is, I like things to be shaken up, and Strange Journey does that.  After three games in which typical high school students get swept up in something bigger than themselves, it's a refreshing change of pace for the next game in the series to go "An elite group of Government soldiers travel to Antarctica to figure out why there's a shopping mall there".  It's also why I'm excited for Metroid: Other M despite there be every reason for it to be bad: it's different, dammit.  And as my last blog stated, I'd rather play the new XCOM than the other shooters announced at e3, solely due to the setting.
 
It's also strange that Strange Journey is the first "true" Shin Megami Tensei game in a while; it's been referring to as SMT 4, when the last main game in the series was SMT: Nocturne for the PS2 (which I never played).  Odd that Persona 3, 4, and Devil Survivor are nothing but "Spinoff" games, yet they're also friggin' amazing.  So, as a newbie SMT fan, I was ready for Strange Journey to feel fresh to me.  And it certainly did.  Sites like Gamespot knocked the score down for the dungeon crawling being repetitive, but I personally never found that to be a problem.  Every time I got a new toy, it was always exciting to find every hidden passage, even if there wasn't anything too exciting beyond that wall.  Generally, these days good game design lets players explore new areas by giving them new tools, but there's a certain rush you get from finding a hidden passage while you were looking for something else, or finding a shortcut that makes it easier to go home.  The lack of save-anywhere can be frustrating, but it also keeps you on your toes, focused the whole time.  Strange Journey ends up proving that good game design is subjective. 
 
Even if it's a fundamentally different game from the others in the series, it's nice to see the main themes reflected without feeling overused.  The gameplay is still essentially Pokemon, with collecting new demons and building an ultimate "team" and all, but this game feels much more like a traditional RPG, as opposed to the class change mechanics of Persona, or the tactical play of Devil Survivor.  Still suffers a bit in that regard, though; you really don't need more than four demons at a time, and the extras are used more to experiment with fusion than any other gameplay advantage.  Speaking of which, one of these days Atlus needs to build a more in-depth fusion tutorial so I'm not just randomly fusing demons together hoping I'll get something good (or just going straight to GameFAQs every time a boss winds up being overpowered).  The demon sharing system is unique and welcome, though; being able to fuse worthwhile demons I heard about over the internet, both from other players and special "DLC" demons ended up being a great help.  Certainly a lot less tedious than the way Pokemon did it.  Considering that I needed to summon a custom-made demon designed solely for taking out the final boss, is this just a way of circumventing cheating in games?  I did have to do a fair amount of money grinding to get it, but it wasn't as bad as I expected.  Though seriously, make the bosses easier next time; Ouroboros felt like a big roll of the dice every time we fought. 
  
-Spoilers for Strange Journey and Devil Survivor-
Though, I'd say that the most interesting part of the story was the Law/Chaos split halfway through.  A lot of games these days love morality systems, but mostly they come down to making a good or evil choice once in a while.  "You can choose to be good or bad!" the ads go.  Well, why would I want to?  Fable II was absolutely awful about this, because many of the morality choices were completely cosmetic.  "Give the item to the policeman and he'll reward you handsomely, or give it to the crook and he'll also reward you handsomely".  Good or evil becomes an arbitrary choice, rather than a moral dilemma.  However, Strange Journey's endings are a much more vague scale; do you sacrifice freedom for the sake of peace under God?  Or is safety a necessary sacrifice in order to achieve freedom?  Two of the game's characters, Zelenin and Jimenez, end up going through physical transformations during the game- Jimenez, a demon, and Zelenin, an angel.  With their transformation, their personalities change as well; Jimenez becomes much more aggressive and unafraid to show his true feelings, while Zelenin is completely concerned with peace and tranquility.  Neither side is portrayed as "right", and the tug of war at the player makes the choices he makes much more meaningful.  Unfortunately, the game doesn't handle this too well; the way you're aligned is dependent on seemingly arbitrary dialogue choices at parts, and by the time I figured out I'd rather side with the demons than the almost emotionless angels, it was too late, and I was locked into the "Law" path.  Devil Survivor handled this Law/Chaos split much better; throughout the game, you're given enough time to communicate with all the major parties on all sides, and your actions decide what paths are available to you at the final day, where you can explicitly choose which side you want to join.  Though, Naoya, who represents Chaos, is portrayed as crazy and psychotic, while Amane, the girl representing God, is much more calm and helpful to you, so it was much more difficult for me to side with the "dark" side. 
-End spoilers- 
 
Still, through all my ranting, Strange Journey was a refreshing change of pace, and one of the better games I've played in 2010.  I just wish more games weren't so afraid of change.  I've played a bit of Dragon Quest IX since its release, and many parts of the game frustrate me; the storyline feels tired and cliche, I'm back to hitting "attack" over and over again for each encounter, and generally it's just repeating all the tropes of old SNES RPGs, forgetting that gaming has evolved a great deal since then.  Also, I think SMT games have spoiled me with status effect spells that actually work on enemies.  I'll still play through Dragon Quest IX, but I'm more looking towards Etrian Odyssey III for my next big JRPG fix.