Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey - Staff Review  

Don't Stop Believin', Ho!
by Glenn "7thCircle" Wilson

More than 80 Hours
+ Excellent party creation system.
+ Gripping story that's easy to follow.
+ Solid, consistent, well-executed setting.
+ Great balance, and difficulty stays fair.
- Pacing is ruined in the second half.
+/- Includes profanity and blasphemy.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   In the present day, Earth's resources are nearly used up and centuries of wanton growth have pushed the environment past the point where it can heal itself. As nature decays and humanity prepares to face the bleak ending it has created for itself, a growing space anomaly appears in Antarctica and threatens to swallow the world. It is with this backdrop that Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey casts the player as an American member of a multi-national crew, joining forces with the best and brightest of the world to penetrate the distortion and find a way to destroy it. Like all SMT games, science fiction fuses with religion, demons and angels fight over the fate of the world, and as the protagonist delves into the evil void, exploring Hell after Hell, he will cast the final vote for how, or even if, the apocalypse takes place.

   The setting and story are Strange Journey's greatest strengths. The plot opens as a straightforward sci-fi tale with references to demons and the end of the world as the only hints of spiritual influences. As the game moves on, the science-fiction aspects become less important and the focus shifts to a philosophy-driven religious plotline concerning a war between angels and demons, and whether or not there is still room for humanity in the picture. What's great about the setting is how consistent everything is. Conversations with enemies reference the sorry state of the human world, from environmentalism to war, and the dungeons within the space anomaly itself are warped reflections of society, always emphasizing mankind's lesser traits. In a way, the game world and everyone in it provide a single long sermon on sin and greed that can leave the player thinking about his lot in life — something not done this well in a JRPG since Nocturne.

   But even with such a prevalent setting, the individual characters in the game shine via their realistic personalities. It's easy to quickly identify with the people in Strange Journey, and then have your heart twisted as you watch them suffer through the series of torments and misfortunes that begin just minutes into the game and last until the credits scroll. The protagonist gets many dialogue options and choices over the course of the story, and depending on with whom he is aligned near the end, the concluding section can provide vastly different thematic messages to the player. Like in Nocturne, there is no "correct" path, but unlike its predecessor, Strange Journey leaves a significant amount of story after the alignment's point of no return, and you can watch aghast or in rapture as the game's once-beloved characters react to and are altered by the choice you have made.

   The battle system is the simplest and most traditional one SMT has used in a long time. Gone are press turns, knocking enemies down, and devouring foes. The human protagonist brings three demons into combat, and only he can use items or change the party's lineup during battle. Because of this, when things start going bad, they go bad fast, and if the lead dies the game is over. The high success rate of fleeing and the ability to create powerful party members help keep the difficulty reasonable, though. The only new mechanic brought to the table is demon co-op attacks. When a foe's weakness is hit, the attack will do slightly more damage, and then all party members with the same alignment as the attacker will slam the foe with an elementless attack that cannot miss. Co-op attack damage increases with the number of party members that take part in it. The mechanic fits with the setting since it encourages you to keep a party of demons with the same alignment. If the protagonist's alignment is neutral, the effect is maximized if the three demons brought into battle are also neutral. Although taking advantage of co-op attacks is not usually crucial in random encounters, it can be a godsend during the tough boss fights.

Entering battle with the protagonist at low HP is unwise. Entering battle with the protagonist at low HP is unwise.

   Aside from just bashing in skulls, the protagonist can use combat to negotiate with enemies. Rather than being typical, mindless RPG baddies, the demons in Strange Journey are individuals with their own goals and personalities. Initiating a conversation will cause a demon to start some small talk and ask the protagonist questions about his view on life, humanity — whatever is on its mind, really — and it is up to the player to figure out which answers will improve the demon's mood. There is a small serving of randomness in negotiations and their outcomes, but not so much that they become annoyingly unpredictable. The primary use of negotiations is to convince and bribe demons into joining the party.

   While recruiting vanilla demons is fine and dandy, combining two of them via fusion will result in the best party members. Through the various main series entries and spinoffs, Atlus has wrestled with creating a balance between giving the player freedom to fuse awesome demons and making an interface for fusions that does not take an absurd amount of time and patience. This balance seems perfected in Strange Journey. When a demon has been fully analyzed — which happens quickly when it is used in combat for any length of time — it will give the player its source when it levels up. A source contains two to four combat abilities related to that demon.

   When fusing two party members, the resulting demon's abilities are set and will not change by cancelling and reselecting it. However, if a source is added at the end, its skills will be randomly added to the final skillset, potentially replacing others, and this final result does change by cancelling and reselecting the source. This allows demons to be crafted with very specific abilities without requiring as much selecting and reselecting as previous games in the series. For example, if a Jack Frost is going to be created, the player might add a source with Resist Fire. Now Jack Frost has no weaknesses. Using a source with Ice Boost instead means Jack will be weak to fire, but his ice attacks will deal more damage. Collecting as many sources as possible keeps the fusion options open, and it is easy to make a party of staggeringly powerful cohorts who can handle any situation.

Fail at negotiations and feel righteous punches. Fail at negotiations and feel righteous punches.

   The presentation overall is great. Meguro's soundtrack is unlike anything he has written before. To fit the sci-fi plot, the music often sounds like a military march with lots of choral chanting and, at times, stark silence. When the setting changes, the mood of the music does too, but it does not cover the atmospheric and emotional range Meguro usually puts into his work. It might be the limitations of the DS's memory or sound system, but the score is an all-around step down from his most recent works in Persona PSP and Persona 4. Visually, Atlus has come a long way creating dungeon graphics since Etrian Odyssey. The backgrounds in the first-person dungeons are detailed and look great — a stranger looking over your shoulder would be able to quickly identify some of the locales you are strolling through. Even better, the 2D artwork for the demons was entirely redrawn and is as detailed as the DS screen can manage. That covers each of the hundreds of demons in the game. The artistic style is the same, but it is nice to finally see oft-repeated foes in the series in a different pose. Each demon also has a few subtle frames of animation. It is a small but well-utilized effect; the demons move and breathe in Strange Journey whereas they were flat and cardboard-like in Devil Survivor.

   Strange Journey's major fallacy is its length and how it wrecks the pacing. For the first half of the game, plot sequences occur often in dungeons and in the strike team's ship. The protagonist runs into companions while exploring, usually in a way that reminds the player of the urgent, scary situation the characters are trapped in. The constant spoon-feeding of the plot goes great with the setting, and the high story to exploration ratio keeps the game moving forward at a fast pace. Unfortunately, the tone of the game changes midway through, taking with it the brisk storytelling and the frantic mood. Dungeons become long, twisted mazes, the theme shifts abruptly from escaping a science-fiction quagmire to choosing a religious alignment, and the once-consistent gameplay is turned on its head. Strange Journey suddenly changes from a traditional JRPG that happens to have first-person dungeons to an all-out dungeon crawl complete with labyrinthine layouts so complex, a pen and paper might be needed to track which pits and warps lead where. This nearly ruins the excellent plot, as the final series of events is stretched thin over a couple dozen hours of gameplay. Had the storytelling kept its pace and ended near the forty hour mark with the last couple of dungeons left as post-game content, the plot would have had a much stronger impact at the end, and the complicated final dungeons would have been available for those who want to explore elaborate mazes for another forty hours.

   For those who know only of Nocturne, Strange Journey will be a bit of a surprise due to how it returns to the series' roots. It's a solid game all-around that takes a good-not-great traditional JRPG and replaces the standard third-person dungeons with good-not-great first-person, tile-based ones, binding everything together with a strong apocalyptic story. I'm all for RPGs that ramp up the difficulty over the course of a playthrough, and Strange Journey gives you the tools to make a party capable of annihilating the latest threat, but when a game with brilliant storytelling pulls you in and makes you care about the dire situation, then breaks that in order to fill a requisite quota for frustrating, huge endgame dungeons, it is hard not to feel wronged when the setting and story are weakened. Many gamers will love the beginning, but take out the cartridge forever when the gameplay stalls in a convoluted hedge maze. And that is a shame, because the final stretch concludes one of the best stories on the DS, complete with multiple paths that shake the foundation of the game world, and Atlus USA wrote some powerful prose to give the game jaw-dropping emotional and philosophical moments. Unfortunately, those who stop playing at the first warp-filled labyrinth will never experience it all.

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