Shin Megami Tensei : Strange Journey

Atelier Annie

Platform: DS
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 10.08.2009 (JP) / TBA (NA)

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Stranger in a Strange Land

You know, I actually thought I'd have a chance at finishing this one before it got announced (officially or not) for foreign release. Silly me. So, I'm quite a ways into Shin Megami Tensei : Strange Journey, and I must say that it is living up to its title.

MegaTen games have always been big on the escatology and apocalyptic imagery, and Strange Journey gets to the point right from the start, with the player's view of a mission briefing being constantly interrupted by news reports of wars, famines, murders and riots, and finally the mysterious "super-blizzard" now engulfing the South Pole. Or rather, what the government wants everyone to think is just a blizzard. Even before the action starts, it is safe to assume that things are going to be odd when words like "Schwarzchild Radius" get bandied around.

Our silent protagonist of the hour is a young Japanese officer sent to join the international task force that's going to break through the storm's barrier and find out just what's going on inside. He's not the star of the show, though -- he's just wearing it. The real hero is the player's DEMONICA suit, an all-purpose, all-environment exosuit whose personalized AI "learns" (aka levels up) as it is used. With the appropriate add-ons it can scan for items or monsters, find or unlock doors, see in the dark, or maybe even do a little warping of local reality. And, of course, it is the player's sole interface for communication with demonkind.

While not the absolute best I've ever seen (I reserve that honor for the comic book conversations in Soul Hackers), demon negotiation in Strange Journey is still whacky and variable. Different species of demon, or even different individuals within a species, will react in different ways to the player's responses. Playing to the demon's personality is necessary, but it's up to the player to figure out how to do so, and often it takes several tries to convince a demon to join the party. Other times, a demon will just up and volunteer its services... though it might be lying.

"He's not the star of the show, though -- he's just wearing it."

Exploration and discovery are very important parts of this game, and not just in the obvious aspects of the dungeon-crawl subgenre. Most demons must be defeated in battle at least once before the suit's systems can even recognize them for what they are, and automatic listings of strengths and weaknesses only appear once enough data has been collected. All but the most basic of items require raw materials to make -- and given what he does with what he has to work with, the team's engineer must be a distant relative of MacGyver.

Each sector I've seen so far has a specific theme to it taken from the gamut of human sins and vices. From WWII-era battlefields to towering mountains of garbage to Hell's biggest shopping mall, the imagery is strong enough to serve as a blunt instrument. Backing it up is one of the oddest soundtracks I've heard in a while. If you're a fan of heavy percussion and vaguely incoherent chanting, you'll probably like this game's standard background music. The battle music often sounds more like a concerto than anything else, much unlike the fast-paced themes normally used for RPG battles.

"All I can say for certain is, whatever does not kill me makes me stranger."

Of course, there's one big topic left to discuss -- combat. Before Strange Journey the last 1st-person dungeon crawl I'd played was Soul Hackers about three years ago, but it didn't take me very long to get back in the groove with this title. Optional tutorials abound, often downloaded to the suit's documentation and accessible whenever needed. Battles are a little simpler in this game, with only three allies at a time and no rows or formations. A variation of the knock-back system is in effect, with bonus attacks granted for successfully exploiting an enemy's weak points -- but only for demons sharing the same "stance", or alignment. I've found that I have to be a lot pickier over what alignment my regular allies are, even while the alignment system has become leaner and less restrictive towards team-building in other respects.

Will I make it through this? Will I find an ending that does not involve Earth being engulfed by a singularity event horizon? Hopefully yes. All I can say for certain is, whatever does not kill me makes me stranger. And no, that is not a typo.

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