This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is the sequel to Lucifer’s Call (AKA Nocturne), and is the first of the core Shin Megami Tensei series to be developed exclusively for a handheld platform – specifically, the Nintendo DS. The traditional silent protagonist this time around is a member of an elite United Nations military expedition into the mysterious Schwarzwelt – a rapidly expanding dimensional abnormality centred on the South Pole. Driving into the Schwarzwelt in massive, town-sized, super high-tech trucks (which can fly and have AI control units), the investigation team soon finds itself stuck in the Schwarzwelt. The Red Sprite, the truck that the player character is on, is the only one of the four super-trucks that made it into the Schwarzwelt intact – and soon discovers that the different regions inside the Schwarzwelt seem to be manifestations of the various cultural forces like war, consumerism, and so on that exert a powerful grip on the global consciousness of the near future. To survive out there, the protagonist and his allies have to use their Demonicas – specially designed battlesuits which, amongst other things, enable their users to communicate with and summon demons to aid them in battle.
The subsequent plot is much like any of the core-series Shin Megami Tensei games – in other words, much more predictable and conventional than, say, Persona 4 or something like that. The cosmological conflict turns out to be between Law and Chaos, as in the first two games (plus some other sources whose identities I forget but probably aren’t very important), and as in the previous game each alignment (aside from Neutrality) ends up having one of the major supporting characters swearing undying allegiance to it, with the consequence that if you side with the opposing alignment (or go Neutral) you have to smack them down in a boss fight. It turns out that the cosmological events surrounding the game are yet another apocalypse, and if you side with one alignment or the other then when you win the game the Earth is fundamentally transformed whilst if you plump for the Neutral option then your prize when you win is the Earth not changing in any appreciable way. To be honest, it feels like Atlus makes the plot for core Shin Megami Tensei games by taking the same old formula each time and slapping a new aesthetic on it, whilst the Persona games and other Megami Tensei spin-off series tend to be much more original.
As far as gameplay goes, Strange Journey is consciously a throwback to previous generations of Megami Tensei games; there is an absolute and total focus on exploring dungeons, the exploration is done from a first-person viewpoint, and you go around fighting things and occasionally recruiting demons to your cause (and mashing them together to make funky new demons). Because you’re playing on a DS, you always have the option of closing the console and doing something else when you’re bored of dungeon crawling, which I suspect is the reason that I persisted with the game as long as I did, but it’s notably more user-friendly than the first Persona’s PSP port. The DS touchscreen is used to display an automap during exploration and monster stats during combat, making both processes much more streamlined.
The fusion system for the first time includes a neat little password system, where you can generate passwords from your customised and levelled-up demons with other players can input into their copies of the game in order to summon the demons in question. This is actually a much friendlier way of handling demon-trading than using Wi-fi because the password system doesn’t require you to know another DS owner with a copy of the game in real life (which may be a problem if you live in areas where the game wasn’t really sold in shops – I had to get it on import) in order to get access to people’s demons, and it also means that walkthrough creators have been able to provide codes for powerful demons you can get past difficult parts of the game with.
Probably the most irritating aspect of the exploration process – outside of the game’s tendency to throw secret doors, teleporters, invisible walls, invisible floors leading out over yawning chasms, and random pit traps at you, but all that’s fairly common old school dungeoneering stuff – is the way the game doesn’t display crucial NPCs to you unless you are stood on the very square they occupy, which means that effectively you have to go out and make sure to step on every single square meter of every dungeon level in order to find clues and progress. Aside from that, by and large the dungeoneering aspect of the game is quite entertaining and fun, which is good because that’s honestly all there is to it; the plot is, as I said, predictable, the NPC interactions feel artificial and perfunctory, and the usual rich symbolism and allegory that accompanies your average MegaTen game seems kind of shallow and this time around.
As far as attempts to make an old-school dungeon exploration game on the DS go, it’s a good effort, but I found myself giving up close to the end. To be fair, I’d enjoyed the game enough to sink 60 hours into it. But I hit a point where I really couldn’t face investing a fraction of that time to get to the final boss and beat ’em. Towards the end of the game, the dungeon design goes from “nicely intricate” to “ridiculously sprawling” to “tediously, boringly convoluted”, and towards the end plot events are sufficiently widely spaced out so as to rob the story of any momentum it had gained up to that point. Furthermore, a series of really lame cheap-shot boss fights (featuring bosses possessed of multiple different instakill powers) put me off the otherwise fun combats for good. And on top of all that, after you’ve played any particular videogame for 60 hours it had better be truly exceptional to hold your interest for another five minutes, and Strange Journey just isn’t on the top tier of dungeon crawlers. It’s worth a look if, like me, you’re a major MegaTen fan and you like having a dungeon crawl game you can pick up and put down as and when you feel like it, but don’t expect anything of the calibre of recent Persona games.