"Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is something of a departure from Atlus's more recent first-party titles: it is very unlike Persona 3 and Persona 4. It is relatively light on plot (and named characters), and instead is much more focused on being a good old-fashioned dungeon crawler. Fans of Nocturne will feel right at home."
A gaping dimensional rift has appeared over Antarctica, and the governments of the world are understandably cautious. They have sent you, the silent protagonist, to investigate, along with a crack team assembled from the creme de la creme of the world. You have four specially outfitted ships and special extravehicular suits to protect you from anything that might be found within the rift. Your job is to investigate, assess threat levels, and report back to the assembled world governing body.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is something of a departure from Atlus's more recent first-party titles: it is very unlike Persona 3 and Persona 4. It is relatively light on plot (and named characters), and instead is much more focused on being a good old-fashioned dungeon crawler. Fans of Nocturne will feel right at home. The action takes place primarily in various sectors of the rift, which has been named the Schwartzwelt (Black World).
Many of the sectors are designed as a commentary on trends in human life; one is an endless sea of garbage, while another is a monument to consumerism. The game makes no secret of its parallels to old morality plays, which can get tiresome (if you aren't a medievalist who enjoys analyzing the parallels between the two, which I am). That trend continues throughout the game and much of the plot is delivered in lengthy text-dump lectures. That delivery reminds me of Digital Devil Saga, with lengthy dungeon-crawling segments being interrupted by a few minutes of intense exposition, before you are returned to your regularly scheduled slaughter.
The dungeons are navigated in first-person view, with the upper screen of the DS showing the dungeon as you move through it and the touch screen slowly filling in the map below. Throughout the game, your suit gains special upgrades that let you see hidden enemies, unlock doors, and find special items ("forma") that are used to complete side quests and upgrade equipment. Unless you are scrolling through maps, the touch screen is not used for gameplay at all, which was actually rather convenient for me since holding the DS in one hand to use the stylus with the other often makes my hands ache if I have to do it for a long period of time.
Immediately upon arriving in the first sector, you start encountering demons in battle. Like earlier SMT games, it is possible to speak to demons and recruit them (via the technology of your Demonica suit), though they will often want something in return. Getting demons to join up is necessary, as your protagonist will soon find that the battles are more than he can handle alone. Once you recruit a demon, it typically goes into "storage.” You can have up to six (later twelve) demons in your storage, and can dismiss and summon demons in combat (though each of those actions takes one turn.)
As the plot unfolds, your character's decisions at key points will shift his alignment toward Law or Chaos, which are represented in their extremes by two of the other characters, Zelenin (a Russian scientist who is aligned with Law) and Jimenez (an American mercenary aligned with Chaos.) Your choices will typically win the approval of one and the opprobrium of the other; this doesn't have a mechanical effect on your interactions with them, as choices do in the Persona series' Social Links, but over time those responses add up and may shift your default Neutral alignment to Law or Chaos.
The protagonist's alignment affects several things. There are a few pieces of equipment or side quests that are restricted based on alignment, but the real meaning of your alignment is only made clear during negotiations with demons. Demons whose alignments match yours are most likely to be willing participants in negotiation, either giving up more generous items in negotiation or joining you more easily, while those whose alignments differ will demand more in exchange for joining you or may be unwilling to talk at all. Negotiation with a demon consists of choosing from sets of predetermined responses; you can guess what responses might go over well by paying attention to the demon's general personality type. The demon might ask you for money, items, or some of the protagonist's HP or MP in exchange for joining you. Even this isn't a guaranteed deal, as sometimes a demon will take your offering and then brush you off.
Alignment also affects you more directly in battle. When any member of your party (protagonist or demon) hits an enemy's weak point, all members of matching alignment will engage in a cooperative attack, dealing significant damage to all enemies whose weaknesses were exploited. Alignment becomes critical in building your party, because cooperative attacks are absolutely necessary in difficult battles (and even ordinary battles can be very difficult.)
Recruiting demons to act with you enables you to update your compendium of information about them. The compendium serves as a record of all demons you have recruited; once entered into the compendium, a demon may be summoned (or rather, purchased) back from the compendium at any time, assuming you have an open storage slot and the demon isn't already in your party. Fighting against demons, or alongside them, updates your analysis of their abilities, which at higher levels provides you information about their weaknesses and abilities. Analysis isn't just for finding weaknesses, though; once a demon has been fully analyzed, the next time that demon levels up while in your party, it will produce an item called a Source that contains some of its skills.
Sources become important when you start dabbling in the art of demon fusion. Any two (or sometimes more) demons can be fused together to get a different result; the result is usually predictable, so fusing a Tree-type demon to a Femme should produce a Lady. This being Atlus, however, accidents do happen (and sometimes you want them to, as that is the only way to produce certain demons.) During the fusion process, you can choose to use a Source that one of your demons has given you in order to transfer skills. You might want to give a demon with great stats but shoddy skills a nuke-the-site-from-orbit option, or you might want to shore up a demon's weakness to Agi spells by transferring a Resist Fire skill. Fused demons also inherit some skills from their parents, so sometimes a little juggling (and cancelling out to retry) is necessary to get the result you desire. Since demons who join your party via negotiation often come with a paucity of skills, fusion is required to build strong parties.
One of the coolest aspects of Strange Journey is a certain degree of (optional) cooperation. Once a demon is in your compendium, you can export a "password" that describes it. There are a few public passwords that Atlus released early on that give you access to demons with special skills. Alternately, say your friend is several levels ahead of you and has a great demon that would really help you fight this boss. Your friend can export a password for that demon and e-mail you its text, and you can enter it into your game in order to purchase that demon from the compendium without having to breed it yourself. Demons obtained this way are VERY expensive, but they can be worth the investment.
As in many other SMT games, Strange Journey does offer a New Game Plus so that you can pursue other choices and paths (the Law/Chaos/Neutral continuum affects far more than just your demon lineup.) You can carry over your compendium, level, and non-plot items.
New Game Plus is the only way to fill out the entire achievement log. Strange Journey might not connect to PSN or XBox Live, but Atlus did provide its more obsessive players with a list of achievements to tick off--and it is impossible to do so in a single playthrough. Sample achievements include getting 50 demons to give you items, exploring maps completely, or seeing the Law ending. Achievements do carry over between games, although partial progress does not (a map half-explored won't count next time around.) Also included is a very helpful log similar to the quest journals in a game like Mass Effect that tells you what quests you're working on and what you need to do to complete them, as well as ones you've already finished.
Overall, I really enjoyed this game, though there were frustrating sections (the teleport maze), and the dungeons did get repetitive. The single biggest problem I had with it is one I eventually run into with every Atlus game, namely that I get bored of grinding for levels and items. In this instance, the fact that it's a DS game really helped; I could play for half an hour on my morning train ride, an hour at lunch, and half an hour on the train home and feel like I was making measurable progress instead of trudging through a constant slog. I would have liked to see more plot and character development, as well, given the skills I know Atlus can bring to bear in those departments, but the game is still a worthwhile investment.
Freelance review by Lassarina Aoibhell (March 09, 2011)
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