SMT: Strange Journey - Nocturne in the Schwarzlight

I’ll say it outright: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is not only one of the best games in the series, but a top contender for best DS RPG as well. I’ve beaten the Japanese version four times across 200 hours of playtime and enjoyed just about every moment of it. So much so, I can’t wait to do it all over again in English next week.  

I reviewed the game a while ago here, and in most ways this blog is a supplement to it as there’s a lots to say about Strange Journey that doesn’t fit into the scope of a typical review. As it’s being billed “a true series follow-up,” the big question is probably how it compares to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. After my first playthrough I would have just brushed the question off with a “you really can’t compare them” but now after playing it four times, it definitely feels like a legit inquiry. It may not have a PS2 running it, but Strange Journey takes all the gameplay elements impacted by design choices and does just about all of them better.  Here’s a quick comparison of some key mechanics.

Despite Nocturne’s obvious hardware advantages, Strange Journey throws just as much clever design at you.

 
 Some designs in SJ's first area, Antlia.
I can't speak for everyone of course, but a lot of Nocturne's appeal was in its graphics, even if they weren't pushing the PS2's limits. The game had a really unique, abstract look to it, plus lots of floating cubes and other geometric shit that felt convincingly otherworldly and non-organic. But I knew the whole time I was being fooled into liking the cubes just so the game could pull of its impressive sense of scale -- at any time in an outdoor environment you could look up and see the other side of the Vortex World. Too bad it looked fairly realistic instead of being comprised of Lego bricks.

But you don't need a whole lot of horsepower to have good art direction, and Strange Journey's is still top-notch conceptually. The visual appearances of the dungeons themselves go a long way towards keeping things interesting, even though one way you'll notice the game's obviously meager budget is through the repetitive textures seen on their walls. Given their large sizes however, it’s to be expected and it’s made less of a deal since the actual dungeon design will keep you guessing. You might have to enter a section that’s totally dark, requiring you to use the map screen to maintain your direction; enter a sort of parallel dimension that will lead to a different part of the map; or (grumble grumble) maintain your composure through some brief teleportation mazes. But since save points and healing stations are plentiful this time around, it’s easier to focus on moving onward than being worn down by combat.  

Though the battle systems overall are pretty much even, Nocturne is slightly superior with the sword and Strange Journey with the tongue.


 will u b my g/f?
In Shin Megami Tensei, bashing skulls matters just as much as talking jive so it’s important to give both systems equal weight. In battle, Strange Journey’s Demon Co-Ops are purely offensive versus Nocturne’s Press Turns, which could both add offensive options and prevent the enemy from attacking at all. Everything else about combat is functionally identical, but I’d still have to say Nocturne’s gives you more just because it allows you to void enemy turns through immunities.

Strange Journey has the edge in conversation. Even though I couldn’t understand a lick of what was being said, the mechanics around it are much more fleshed out and forgiving than Nocturne, especially if you take into account all the Demonica Suit sub-applications which can nearly guarantee you’ll get what you want from the demons you encounter.

The sub-apps are important because they affect more than just conversation, allowing you to tweak elements in battle, on the field, or while fusing. For example, even though the encounter rate in Strange Journey is much lower than Nocturne’s (no more back-to-back encounters!) they still allow you to dial it back further, or even increase it should you desire. Most of them don’t drastically affect the way the game is played, but most make the game’s processes seem faster and more intuitive, so who wouldn’t want that?  

Strange Journey has quite possibly the best fusion in the entire series.


On first glance, Strange Journey’s fusion seems similar to Nocturne and it is – fuse two demons and get a new one with some skills carried over from the parents. I was a little put off at first though, since basic fusion inheritance is limited and you can’t just select what skills you want to pass along. But by the time I had fused my last demons, I had probably spent more time with fusion in this game than any other, and subsequently figured out how to give my demons the exact high-level skills I wanted in a matter of minutes. Coming from someone who has spent much time in Nocturne and the Personas canceling out of fusion to get the right “roll,” I personally think that’s a little insane.

So how is that possible? Trade secrets for now, but suffice to say it has to do with just how useful the new Demon Sources are. Demon Sources are a grab bag of skills that your demons bequeath you, and can be used in fusion to beef up your results. While at first the Sources seemed like a quick way for beginners to fuse demons with a variety of skills, they've got some high-level tricks up their sleeves that will please those who take pride in crafting pedigree talking penises.

Cu Chulainn wouldn't have TRUSTed St. Patrick.
Ultimately, Nocturne and Strange Journey compare well because they complement each other. Nocturne still offers a bigger scale, but time and experience from years of previous games has made Strange Journey much more streamlined and accessible. And at the same time, I don’t think Strange Journey makes Nocturne instantly obsolete; in addition to the unique story and world, the fact that Nocturne is the model of modern Megaten mechanics maintains its relevancy.

Nocturne got a lot right on the first try (well, maybe second try), and its omissions in contrast to Strange Journey don’t necessarily make it a lesser game, but I think its interface inadequacies and the like will nonetheless date it quicker. I won’t outright say which one is better than the other, but I will say this: Strange Journey is just as intense and involved as Nocturne, only with necessary design progression that will appeal to more than just the typical diehard niche. 
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SMT: Strange Journey - Ankle-deep in the Schwarzverse


I'm five hours in and I just cleared the first area in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. My expectations for it were sky-high and so far it's lived up to them and then some. As I get my head wrapped around all the awesome, here are some general thoughts. 
 

Plot

Even though I can't read Japanese, it's easy to infer just how interesting the plot is. The basic concept of a specialized team exploring a demon-infested dimension in the South Pole is already original enough and the story itself has some twists practically the moment you step onto solid ground. I can't wait to see where it goes next. 
 

Graphics

By its looks and how it moves, SJ screams Etrian Odyssey, which makes sense since they share engines and were developed by the same company. It looks about the same as one of those games, with some pop-in on the field but generally interesting-looking backgrounds. Most of the games I play on DS are 2D sprite-based, so I am in no way an expert on how cutting edge 3D looks on DS, but it generally looks good. Speaking of 2D, the demon sprites are mostly awesome. Some suffer from being too small, and some seem over-animated and look like they are having seizures. They're demons, so maybe they are supposed to look like that?
 
There are also lots of little things in the presentation, like how demons of different alignments have their names highlighted in different colors - blue for Law, white for Neutral, and red for Chaos. 
 

Gameplay

Like the PS2 games, gameplay is built around the Nocturne elemental standard, but with a new twist. This time around, the Devil Co-op system lets demons of the same alignment as you land extra hits when you hit a weakness. It's simple, but it absolutely makes you consider and reconsider who you have in your party. Fighting a boss, I switched out one demon for a weaker one, just so he would take part in the Devil Co-op and indeed ended up dealing more damage.   
 
You can also fuse at any time while in a dungeon, which is pretty awesome. The game is also pretty generous with save points and health terminals, at least so far. Like Etrian Odyssey, it's all about going as far in until you can't take it anymore. I definitely had to retreat more than once, but due to the mentioned conveniences I always felt like I was making progress.
 
Fusion so far seems more simplified, generally for the better. Skill inheritance seems a lot more restricted, as a few rerolls kept resulting in the same skill being passed over. But then again, the Devil Source items your demons give you when they level up let you pass on a good number of skills, so there's still room for customization. Those expecting to be able to hand-pick skills like in Devil Survivor will be disappointed, but for how SJ makes it work, it's still a vast improvement over the old canceling-out method.
 

Sound

I've been blown away by the quality of the sound. The music sounds very clear and the only time it sounded crappy was during a movie, so it was probably the fault of compression. The word I like to use to describe the music is "oppressive." The Schwarzverse is not a cheery place to be and the percussion-backed chanting absolutely makes the mood. There are complaints out there about the quality of the music, but the only legitimate one I've heard so far is that there isn't a whole lot of it. Based on the game's length, that could be a problem, but I'm sure those people judging that have yet to play the game. It's probably one track per area, some cutscene themes, battle music, and Meguro's called it a day. Seems pretty standard to me.
  
So that probably hits on all the major issues the game has to offer. So far, it's been pretty impressive, but how it sustains itself for another 40-50 hours should be interesting to see (for me personally, the demon collecting alone will keep me enthralled that long or more).
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