Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (Nintendo DS)

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 03/23/2010

Along with Sakura Taisen, the Megaten series has been my favourite franchise in gaming. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is my second favourite RPG of all time (after Valkyrie Profile) and there are very few Megaten related games that I don’t like. Oddly enough though, it’s the spin-offs I prefer rather than the main series and looking back over the years, it appears the rest of the Diehard GameFAN staff would agree. In 2005 Digital Devil Saga won our Game of the Year award, and last year Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor won our awards for “Best DS Game.” This year Atlus brings us another spin-off in name, but in terms of gameplay, style, and plot, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey might as well have just been called Shin Megami Tensei IV as it is the least spun-off of the spin-offs, if you know what I mean.

So was Atlus able to make the best game on the DS for two years running or is this one of those rare Megaten misfires like Revelations: The Demon Slayer?

Let’s Review

1. Story

It’s the very near future and a strange anomaly has appeared in Antarctica. Roughly several hundred kilometers in diameter and possessing the ability to destroy anything it touches, the world has become understandably frightened and worried about this void like area now dubbed the Schwarzwelt. The United National quickly gathers a research and combat unit to investigate the Schwarzwelt , which continues to grow exponentially. Although the UN vehicles manage to piece through the void, many are damaged irreparably save for the vehicle your main character is in. Even then you discover that the void appears to a gateway to alternate dimensions populated by folkloric and mythological creatures your team quickly dubs, “demons.” At first a lone pixie befriends you, but as your journeys continue many other demons will decide to befriend your character. Will you be able to find any survivors from other vehicles? Will you find a way home? Will you be able to stop the menace of the Schwarzwelt? BUM BUM BUM.

As interesting a plot hook as this is, the vast majority of the plot feels a lot like every other Megaten game ever released. You have the silent protagonist. You have the ability to talk to and befriend demons to join your party. You can fuse demons to make another creature. The entire adventure is a look into the heart of humanity and how we can be more monstrous than the demonic some times. You have the usual paths of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality that you will have choose from as your journey continues, and you have the shadowy figures manipulating your entire journey for their own shadowy reasons. At the same time I really liked how each section of the game represented a different aspect of humanity from the alien demon’s point of view. For example the second section in the game in a castle/battlefield combination and the third section is a red light district, so to say. This was a fun little touch and it was a bit more fleshed out than the “hells” we have seen in other Megaten titles.

I wasn’t a fan of the supporting cast in Strange Journey though. Their eventual fates are telegraphed way too much and this is a series that is usually very subtle with its plotlines, so hitting me over the head with a hammer as to everyone’s eventually fate was both unwelcome and a bit annoying. Very few characters received much in the way of personality or depth either; be they ally or antagonist. Again, this is a huge departure and downgrade from the usual level of quality in Megaten titles, so I was a bit disappointed here.

Overall the story works fine for what it is. It’s the same basic retread of the underlying story in most Megaten games, with a slight twist and location change. If you’re new to Megaten, you’ll actually enjoy the outside the box plot and the events that unfold within Strange Journey. Longtime Megaten fans will be feeling a bit of unwanted Déjà vu along with some letdown at the lack of characterization, personality and plot development this game suffers from. It’s still fun, but the usual emphasis on the story seems to be missing from this one.

Story Rating: Decent

2. Graphics

It’s interesting how Strange Journey can be a bit of a mixed bag here. On one hand, the game features some of the best cut scenes I’ve seen on the DS or in Megaten games in general. I was really impressed with the quality of the animation and how well these scenes looked on the DS. On the other, 95% of the game consists of nothing but static images, so this may deter gamers who like a little bit of animation in their titles. Even Pokemon and Dragon Quest have monsters that move somewhat when they attack or show up on your screen these days, so younger or less experienced gamers might be turned off by Strange Journey due to the fact very little on your screen will ever move or animated unless it is in a cut scene.

I’m a big fan of the art style used in Megaten games. Occasionally you get a deviation like the Demikids series or Devil Survivor which serves to freshen up the series as a nice one-off, but the classic Megaten visuals are timeless and it’s nice to see a return to them. At the same time the game has reused a lot of monster sprites from previous games and having beaten Devil Survivor less than a year ago, it was disappointing to see a lot of the same monsters from that game in this, but with different character art. This smacks of either laziness or a low production budget and I really don’t like the thought of Megaten titles going the way of SNK fighters. I’d have been fine with the same classic monsters that are in all Megaten games, but to have them with the same sprite and pose is a bit weak. Still at least these static images look great, even if there is no animation in the game. As long as you’re not bothered with playing an RPG that looks more like an old point and click adventure game, you’ll be fine.

So you’ve got some great artwork in terms of character design, monster design, backgrounds and maze layouts coupled by some very impressive cut scenes. However that’s balanced out by static images and a complete lack of animation for nearly the entire game. I grew up on Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale so things like this are fine for me, but for younger gamers or those expecting more out of their titles than what was possible in the early 1980s, Strange Journey may be a bit of a letdown and then some.

Graphics Rating: Decent

3. Sound

Like all Megaten games, Strange Journey has a killer soundtrack. Atlus provides the soundtrack as a pack-in bonus and unlike the usual CD’s we get from them that are missing the one or two bets tracks in the game, all ten on this CD are excellent. I will say it is a bit disappointing that we only get thirty minutes worth of music from this thing when the game is 60-80 hours long and Atlus charged five dollars over the usual MSRP for this title though.

The entire score of the game has a definite high fantasy feel to it, which may sound a bit odd considered that this is a sci-fi RPG, but the music fits perfect with each dimension/level of Hell that you visit. A lot of the songs also have chanting in the background which adds both a creepy and an ominous tone to your adventures in the Schwarz. No matter where you go in the game, the music will certainly make your experience come alive. As there is no voice acting in the game and sound effects are pretty low key and generic, the game’s audio lives and dies by the soundtrack, which is thankfully pretty awesome.

Sound Rating: Great

4. Control and Gameplay

Strange Journey‘s engine is very similar to a lot of other Megaten games. In fact, very little separates it from the vast majority of games in the series. However, in the places where it does differ, the enormity changes the entire complexity of combat and the places where things follow the status quo take the deepest and most interesting parts of the Megaten franchise and then make them rock solid.

The core gameplay comes in a first person dungeon crawl. Being a long time fan of the SSI D&D games like Eye of the Beholder, this is one of those things I love about Megaten games, as many of them preserve this classic viewpoint. It also features random battles, a hallmark of any turn based RPG, but unlike most JRPGs, the amount of random battles is quite low and you also have a “random monster detector” at the top of your screen that lets you know how close you are to encountering one of these creatures. This means if you are close to a save spot, healing location or home base, you can try to make it back before the encounter happens. Yes, the encounter follows you, so you can’t leave from that specific spot. Just watch the light at the top of your screen and when it turns red, know that a battle is about to hit you.

Once a battle starts you can go through the usual motions of combat, but like with most Megaten games, you can also talk with your potential enemies and if you’re lucky or skilled, get them to join your team in exchange for an item or some of your health or magic points. Once on your team you can register their stats and summon that specific demon with the level and powers you registered it at in case you use the original in a demon merge. A demon merge is when you merge two demons on your team into a new (hopefully) more powerful creature.

Before you can do any of this though, you need to identify your opponents. When you first encounter a demon, it will appear as a blue splotch on your screen. Once you defeat it, the specific type of demon will be identified. Further encounters with that demon will reveal things like its powers, weaknesses, alignment and more.

As you can see, battles are pretty complicated in Strange Journey but it gets even deeper. Strange Journey eschews the press based system the last few Megaten titles like Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga have used and it instead uses an alignment based attack system. Let’s say your character is neutral and you attack a monster who is weak against fire with a fire attack. Because you used a weakness -based attack, any party member on your team with the same alignment with you gets a free hit on the enemy right then and there. This is known as a Demon Co-Op and it can happen no matter who on your team uses a weakness based attack. The only downside to this that because you WILL live or die based on co-op attacks, you’ll only be able to use a fraction of the demons you come in contact with unless you like dying and lot or relying on luck. It gets a bit worse as you can always know your demon’s alignment, but you’ll never be able to see what your own alignment is or how the choices you make influence any alignment shift you receive. However, there is a clue to help you out. Check the colour of your name and compare that to the colour of demons from the three possible alignments. Your name’s colour is the code to your alignment.

After that the game follows the standard dungeon crawl motif. You buy items and weapons. You level up. Your teammates level up. You fight monsters. You do the occasional side quest. The game continues until you beat it.

One last thing worth noting – unlike most Megaten titles, you cannot customize your character at all. You start the game with a personality quiz ala Ultima IV and your end result determines your final build. I ended up with an attack based character, which worried me at worst considering how useful the ATT stat was in Devil Survivor but thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case here. Any of the five builds are useful. Nice!

Overall, Strange Journey offers an amazing engine with little to nothing to complain about. It should be a dungeon crawling fan’s dream come true.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Classic

5. Replayability

With three possible overall story paths, five potential character builds and over a hundred demons to collect, level up, merge and modify, there’s a lot of potential to come back to this game and get a very different experience from your previous one, especially with all the New Game+ bits you get. At the same time, the game is VERY long and exceedingly linear for the most part, so you will more than likely be putting this down for a few months (or longer) before you have another Strange Journey. If it was a little shorter and there were more branching paths, this would be a pretty great game to go through multiple times. As it stands, it’s a game you’ll come back to a few times, just not for long stretches.

Replayability Rating: Above Average

6. Balance

Strange Journey is a well balanced game for the most part. It does a few new things, but where one new thing does a lot to rebalance Megaten, the other throws it back off-kilter. I love that each of the game’s character builds are nice and even and that physical and magic attacks both work really well towards the end instead of the usual heavy magic emphasis in the end game. What I don’t like is that I can’t just mix and match my team alignment wise like in other Megaten titles. Being forced to usually only Law or Neutral or Chaos characters in order to have a modicum of a chance to survive limits the creativity and experimental nature of the game and that’s really what Megaten titles have always had going for them. I understand the need to try something new, but for me, this battle system was a step in the wrong direction. It doesn’t make the game unplayable, but it did make me appreciate the older Megaten army building. Forcing a specific alignment on your entire team was unpopular with D&D games when they tried it and it doesn’t work here either.

Now, besides all that, Strange Journey is a nicely balanced game featuring a lot of tough, but not impossible battles. Some side quests can (and will) be triggered before your team is anywhere close to the level they should be to handle them, so be careful there. Thankfully these are rare occasions. For the most part you’ll find SMT:ST has a solid difficulty curve, always allowing you to test your mettle.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

As I’ve mentioned several times so far, the plot is basically a rehash of common themes and plot devices found in other Megaten games. Howevere we’ve got a new (but flawed) battle system, a few new bits regarding demon summoning, merging and collecting, a new character build system and a different location with the whole Antarctica meets Ozone depletion thing going on here. These all help to let Strange Journey stand out, especially with North American audiences where the only core Megaten title they’ve received is Nocturne Maniacs, but for long time Megaten fans, Strange Journey is going to feel a bit rushed or lazy compared to other games, especially with the sprite rehashes and the regurgitation of a lot of other Megaten titles. In terms of innovation, Strange Journey is amongst the weakest Megaten titles available in English, but at least it’s here and the solid gameplay and fun experience help to make up for the fact the game feels like Megaten is finally running out of new ideas.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

I had a hard time putting down Strange Journey and that’s because I’ve always loved the demon conversations and the eventual creation of newer, more powerful demons. It’s a big reason why both Persona 2 are my favourite games from Megaten. Although the dungeon crawls will be quite long and there aren’t a lot of visuals to the game, the exploration and party customization should be enough to keep you playing the core storyline from beginning to end. For those looking for a little more diversity, there are some subquests, but most of those are forgettable and are there just to add more time to your play clock.

Although the plot and characterization in the game are rather flimsy at times, Strange Journey manages to make turn based battles less of a chore than they usually are and more into an experience. That alone kept me playing through the different levels of the Schwartz and it probably will do the same for you.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

It’s a bit tough to think who the target audience for Strange Journey would besides Megaten faithful and Altus zealots. It’s a first person dungeon crawl with an engine designed to give your team a handicap due to alignment constraints and only your main character can use items. This is going to be a turn off for quite a few modern gamers who want their RPGs to be angst ridden and pretty. Strange Journey is neither of those. It’s a look at both humanity and morality. It’s a tough little game harkening back to the challenge level of 80s RPGs in the same way the gameplay and visuals do. It’s long, it’s tedious and it’s unforgiving. Possibly its biggest flaw against developing a strong audience is that it is a portable game that doesn’t let you save wherever you want, whenever you want. That kind of defeats the whole point of having a game on a portable system.

Alas, as good as Strange Journey is, it is destined to be a very niche game that will be popular only with older gamers or those that miss the days of challenging RPGs. Did you like last year’s The Dark Spire?. The target audiences should be roughly parallel there.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

Despite Strange Journey‘s flaws, I really enjoyed my time with it. Its issues are more to do with a bit of laziness and unoriginality coupled with the fact its presentation will push away more gamers than it will attract. For me though, story and engine are why I play RPGs and although Strange Journey lacks that spark of storytelling creativity most Megaten games contain, the gameplay kept me going. Is it the best ROG I’ve played on the DS? By no means? Is it the best this year? I’d put Ragnarok, Glory of Heracles, and Pokemon Heart Gold and Soul Silver above this in terms of games I had more fun with, but in terms of both engine and character roster depth, it would be second only to Game Freak’s 390-something cock fighting classic.

There is very little Strange Journey does wrong aside from purposely pushing away a large part of the current RPG audience and being rather reliant on story bits and graphics from older Megaten titles instead of forging its own identity. Is Strange Journey the weakest Megaten title to hit US shores in some time? Yes. But that doesn’t make it a bad game. It just means it is a fun title with some noticeable flaws. I don’t feel it’s worth the larger price tag that Atlus has started to put on all their RPGs nor do I think it was a good idea to have a portable RPG without even a quick save option, but in the end all Atlus has done with both of these things is hurt the eventual overall sales figures Strange Journey will get and that’s punishment enough.

People will no doubt enjoy Strange Journey if they have the right mindset for the game, but this is one title where, oddly enough, the less familiar you are with the franchise, the more likely you are to enjoy it.

Miscellaneous Rating: Above Average

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Above Average

Short Attention Span Summary:
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a throwback to not only Megaten titles from several generations ago but to classic RPGs from the 80s in general. As fun as this retro feel is for older gamers like myself who grew up on Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale the lack of animated visuals for 95% of the game combined with the rehash of old sprites and storylines from previous Megaten titles will no doubt alienate younger or more casual gamers. As well, the game has very few places to save, or even a quicksave feature, and for a portable title, this is a potentially killer flaw for any hand held RPG. That being said the game also introduces a brand new combat engine and has made the demon communication and management system deeper than ever before. It’s also one of the rare few Megaten titles to truly balance out your character’s stats and make each one worthwhile so there are a lot of positives to be said for this newest Megaten entry. Overall, Strange Journey is an enjoyable game, but not an accessible one, so make sure a first person slow moving dungeon crawl with a lot of challenge behind it is up your alley rather than a RPG that is either graphics or story driven.



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One response to “Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (Nintendo DS)”

  1. […] games of days gone by, with its often oppressive difficulty and optional EGA graphics options, and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey spent more time in my DS than any game this year has and probably will. The first Etrian Odyssey […]

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