This is Shin Megami Tensei.
The release of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey for Nintendo DS may not appear a big deal, since it seems Atlus puts out Shin Megami Tensei games on a quarterly basis. However, unlike the other games like Persona and Devil Summoner, Strange Journey isn’t a spin-off – it’s the first release in the main series since Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Bearing such a pedigree means Strange Journey retains the deep, addicting trademarks the series is known for like demon fusion and alignment choices, and even some of the less-celebrated aspects such as confusing, labyrinthine dungeon design. But it’s not just a carbon copy: Strange Journey offers enough improvements and other unique features to give itself a deservingly lofty place amongst its series peers and DS RPGs in general.
The game’s sci-fi themed plot and setting is one of its major strengths. A mysterious black hole dubbed the Schwarzwelt appears at the South Pole, sending the world’s governments into panic. They realize immediate action is needed and send specialized teams aboard armored transports to investigate how it can be stopped. However, things go awry immediately upon arrival, forcing you and your team to pull yourselves together on top of exploring this mysterious demon-filled dimension. The gravitas of the situation immediately pulls you in and keeps you interested, as there is more than one thread to resolve as soon as the game puts you in control. The story is also given out in manageable chunks and never feels overbearing or overlong. Some of the plot twists you’ll see from a mile away, but others may in fact leave your jaw dropping a bit, particularly in regards to the main cast members’ story arcs.
Being a true Shin Megami Tensei game also means Strange Journey makes use of alignments. Dubbed “Stances” in this game, their main function is to represent the traditional philosophies of Law, Neutral, or Chaos. In typical series fashion, all the demons you encounter will have their own Stance, and certain storyline characters do end up personifying (and making sales pitches of) each of the alignments, which has become a Shin Megami Tensei cliché at this point. Strange Journey doesn’t do anything radically different with its alignment choices (apart from how they tie into battle), but choosing your like-minded philosophy still maintains a strong appeal and it’s interesting to see how differently they all play out.
True to the story, the main focus of the game is the exploration of the different sectors within the Schwarzwelt. There is no overworld to connect the different areas, as your transport, the Red Sprite, serves as a central hub including a command center, healing station, and item laboratory. There is always a mission briefing before you head out proper and you’ll never be without a clear objective to accomplish. Once you’re out in the 3D field, exploration is first-person like the older games in the series. Save and healing points are thankfully rather liberally dispersed, which makes the ever-present instant death spells and life or death battles easier to manage. You shouldn’t need to grind for hours to make it to the next area, as the forgiving nature of the save points gives the game a medium difficulty despite some particularly tough encounters and boss battles.
Each of the Schwarzwelt’s sectors has a theme focusing on a flaw of humanity, such as gluttony or wastefulness. Because of the relatively large size of each of the areas, the textures you see can get repetitive and a bit smudgy because of the DS hardware, but the visual designs are interesting enough to counterbalance those issues and range in appearance from a demonic mall and bombed-out battlefields to a vile junkyard. When considered along with the plot, some of the areas do give off an unsettling vibe and make you really feel you’re exploring an unknown hell.
Your main exploration tool is your Demonica Suit, a specially-made piece of armor that has numerous practical applications. Main applications are gained at set story intervals and search for variables crucial for making progress such as item-crafting material called Forma, cloaked walls, and stronger "miniboss" enemy types among other uses, lending to the sci-fi discovery feel. There are also sub-applications that can be made in the laboratory that range in ability from aiding fusion to restoring party HP. One of the most useful features of the Demonica Suit is that you can access demon fusion and the demon compendium at any time in the dungeons, which can be extremely handy. Really, the Demonica Suit doesn’t add much that could have been accomplished otherwise, but it gives an excuse to expound on the futuristic theme and it succeeds in providing that extra bit of immersion.
Speaking of the laboratory, it’s where you expend the Forma items you find throughout the Schwarzwelt. They are just materials that require specific amounts to craft new items, weapons, and armor and are usually found in abundance. You’ll never have to grind for new items, as you can pretty much sail with what you get. It’s also not the only place you can get new weapons and armor, as a large collection of sidequests are compiled into the EX mission system, where demons and sometimes even your allies have a variety of tasks for you to accomplish. They are totally optional but the rewards are often worth it, so it’s a welcome alternative.
Gameplay-wise, the real meat of any Shin Megami Tensei game is in its battle mechanics, and it’s here that the Stance system implements its other main function: Demon Co-Ops. When enemy weaknesses get exploited by your party, Demon Co-Ops allow members of the same Stance to perform an unblockable Almighty-damage follow-up attack, which can cause devastating damage under optimal conditions, even to bosses. In practice, Demon Co-Ops are just the next go-round of the Press Turn system and they definitely encourage you to be strategic when lining up your roster of demonic allies, which helps make every choice matter.
But as useful as they are, if you don’t want to use Demon Co-Ops, they alone aren’t a requirement for success, as Strange Journey gives you plenty of other more traditional offensive options. The main character alone has both physical and gun attacks by default and your gun can also be upgraded to feature elemental attacks. You can have up to three demons summoned alongside you at a time, and the total pool of skills they draw from is rather large, so even the basic battle repertoire has just as much breadth as it did in Nocturne.
Another new twist is that whenever you first encounter a new enemy, it appears as a scrambled image, imitating that your Demonica Suit doesn’t have the necessary information to render it fully. You’ll gain this information by both fighting demons and fighting alongside them. It’s a neat touch that fits in with the sci-fi aesthetic, and it makes the initial battles with them thrilling as you really won’t know what to expect. Once you fill up a demon’s analysis bar, you’ll gain insight into its elemental strengths and weaknesses and even its drop items. Though the battles are random, the encounter rate is relatively low and you’ll never have back to back encounters like in Nocturne.
Pacifism is yet another viable battle option, performed via the returning demon conversation mechanic. It’s a system that hasn’t changed much, but it already carried with it an impressive amount of options. The most important tactic is still to smooth talk demons into joining your party, but you can also persuade demons already in your roster to end battles early and possibly get an item in return, or possibly say the wrong thing and have them all angrily attack you. On their own, conversations still have an element of randomness to them, but certain sub-applications do become available that bolster your success rate to near 100% if you play it careful.
Fusion has always been the better option for gaining new demon allies, and Strange Journey’s iteration sees overall positive changes that may seem restrictive at first. The most affecting mechanic change is the return of huge numbers of demon families, the likes of which were only seen in older games like Shin Megami Tensei II. It is these families that affect the outcome of fusion, so as long as you pay attention you'll be able to discern the proper combinations to get the demons you want. A problem with this large amount of families is that it can cause many to be totally incompatible with one another or fuse into something junky many levels below you. But once again, fusion sub-applications are eventually available that can help prevent these types of dead-end fusion situations, so there's always a way out a seemingly one-way street.
Demon management will be key to your success, as Strange Journey features an exhausting 318 of the creatures -- a series record. Impressively, all are rendered as animated sprites, but the quality of the animation does vary, ranging from some barely moving their torsos up and down to others that fluidly twist their bodies and flap their wings. When it’s done well, it looks good, and thankfully most of them are in the range of “decent to good.”
Relevant to fusion, each demon also possesses a Demon Source, an item that can be used to directly pass on some of its skills. After maxing out its analysis bar, demons will give you their Demon Source upon leveling up, though you can only have one of them per demon at a time and getting another from the same demon has an absurdly low chance. Nonetheless, Demon Sources are a great way to bolster the skill sets of demons you’re about to fuse and provide a quick and easy way to get the most out of your party members, making them ideal for players unaccustomed or overwhelmed by the series' fusion mechanics.
It’s good they’re there, because basic skill inheritance is very limited. Fusing two demons without a Source will result in one or two passed on skills that can’t be changed or randomized. This can be problematic at times, when you want to keep a skill of a demon’s that wasn’t on its Source. In some ways it’s alleviated by the high numbers of demons – you’re nearly guaranteed to get the skill that you want on some demon close to your level – but it can be aggravating when a demon you’re about to fuse is weak against ice and the resist ice skill won’t transfer over.
Because demons level up fairly fast, you’ll rarely have them for much longer than it takes to get their source, but fusing them away for new demons and new Sources is just another encouragement of the high demon count. One negative surrounding the Devil Sources is that they do randomize the skill inheritance, but changes ensure it's nowhere near the annoyance it was in previous games. Since Strange Journey maxes demons to six skill slots, you’ll generally only be re-rolling for two or three wanted skills and since Sources have no restrictions, you’ll get what you want in just a few rolls.
This was probably done to justify the password system, which allows you to trade demons with other players. It’s not trading in the Pokemon sense, as it just amounts to each demon in your compendium generating a 32-character password that keeps track of their stats, skills, and level, which is universal and can be inputted by any player. It’s definitely useful if you are playing the game along with someone, but it does seem like it will encourage FAQs full of “perfect” demons. But even then, it wouldn’t really be game-breaking, as you’d still need to be an appropriate level, not to mention summoning demons from the compendium can be absurdly expensive.
The game’s audio pleases on all fronts, as long as you can accept a caveat or two. The sound effects are all fine, the highlight being the demon voices that will pop up during conversations. It’s the music that’s perhaps one of the game’s more subjective aspects, as the Shoji Meguro composed score is orchestral themed with a prevalent chanting chorus. While it’s new ground for him, none of the music is bad and the majority is actually quite good – the battle themes in particular never fail to please. The real problem with the music is that there’s not enough of it. Major areas later in the game reuse tracks already heard in previous areas, which is unfortunate and makes them not seem as unique as they should be. Otherwise, the music is implemented like any typical RPG score and it’s a perfect fit for the game’s setting and theme.
Strange Journey has a good length and should take 50-70 hours to complete depending on the pace you take, so there’s a significant amount of gameplay to be had. That makes it even more tempting to directly compare the game to Nocturne, and it's a compliment to Strange Journey to say it's ultimately a fair comparison. Nocturne's scope is of course much larger, but Strange Journey offers so many interface improvements and other streamlined changes that in some respects it might be hard to go back. Even the game’s worst moments such as the confusing maze types are more an adherence to annoying and off-putting series traditions rather than outright sloppiness. If you’re interested in Shin Megami Tensei at all or just want a great DS RPG, Strange Journey is as close to a must-buy as you're going to get.