HIGH A new Shin Megami Tensei title!
LOW Too bad it's terrible.
WTF A poop demon came out of the ship's toilet. I guess that's not all that WTF for Shin Megami Tensei.
Before I begin to discuss Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, a history lesson is in order.
The Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series began its life on shaky foundations. The first couple of installments—which appeared on the Super Famicom and never made it to American shores—were unmercifully difficult treks through repetitive first-person dungeons peppered with unremarkable random battles. The central hook of recruiting the same enemies encountered with shocking frequency was nifty, but it did little to raise the overall package above mediocrity.
What really gave the series legs was its unique setting. With contemporary Tokyo as a backdrop, SMT introduced players to a world where demons roamed the streets and the apocalypse was imminent. The forces of creation warred over what form the world would take after its destruction and players could align themselves with whichever faction they chose, or even remain neutral. Considering that most RPGs were still knights and kingdoms back in the 16-bit era, it's no surprise that SMT managed to pick up a lot of interest.
It wasn't until SMT: Nocturne, the third installment of the series and the first to see an American release, that Atlus saw fit to modernize the gameplay. By the time of the PS2, games had come a long way from knights and kingdoms, and Atlus likely understood that setting alone would no longer be enough to carry the series. With the introduction of the deceptively simple press-turn system (a double-edged sword that awarded combatants extra turns for exploiting enemy weaknesses) Nocturne transformed the series from an intriguing sideshow to an A-list contender.
Enter Strange Journey. Atlus has not only disregarded the lessons learned since the seminal Nocturne, but also created something that is even more of a chore to play than the series's earliest incarnations.
First, and most offensively, the press-turn system has been axed. It's not an exaggeration to say that press-turn (used in nearly every R&D 1 developed game since Nocturne) was primary in elevating the series above a standard turn-based grindfest. The Co-Op Attacks that have replaced it are no substitute, and in some ways are worse than having nothing at all. Like the press-turn, they still revolve around exploiting enemy weakness, only instead of gaining extra turns, party members of the same alignment (Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral) will join together to add a lump of damage on top. Simply put, hitting an enemy weakness causes extra damage, which is incredibly standard practice for RPGs.
What makes Co-Op Attacks worse than having no mechanic at all is that hitting enemy weaknesses does very little extra damage by itself, often only one or two points. This means that players must have a party of similarly aligned demons if they hope to have any success against the game's incredibly vigorous bosses. In turn, the pool of potential demons that a party can be comprised of is significantly limited. Can't find a group of adequately leveled Chaotic demons to cover all your elemental bases? Too bad.
Theoretically, as in all SMT games, the player could collect and fuse demons together until finding one that fills the gaps in their arsenal, but once again Strange Journey has brought unwelcome, regressive changes to the formula.
Typically, a fused demon inherits three or four random skills from its "parent" demons. Repeatedly canceling and restarting the same fusion was the only way to ensure that the resultant demon had the right skills for the job. There are obvious problems with this, the foremost being that it could take dozens of retries until achieving the desired result. Strange Journey attempts to resolve this problem by giving a fused demon exact inherited skills—decided by an esoteric, invisible spreadsheet—that will not vary no matter how many times the same fusion is attempted. While no longer having to play the X, O game is nice, it also became nearly impossible to get the demon I wanted with the skills I needed. Too often I would fuse a high-level, magically inclined demon for healing purposes but end up only with a low-level fire spell instead.
In an effort to give players a little more agency in this process, Strange Journey introduces Demon Sources. After a demon has been fully analyzed—either by being fought many times or spending a stint in the party—they will cough up a Demon Source. These Sources can be used as a third component in fusions, and they will confer a decent spread of the abilities that the originating demon had. While this might have been a workable solution to my party building needs, Demon Sources are in incredibly short supply, with each demon giving up only a single one. There is a infinitesimal chance that a demon will give more sources upon each level up, but the chances are so remote and the time investment is so large that it's not worth the effort.
The flow of the game exacerbates these already serious problems. The scenario of Strange Journey follows a group of elite soldiers and scientists as they explore a mysterious, otherworldly void that has suddenly appeared on the south pole. This void, like many voids in many games, is organized into discrete levels. Once a level is conquered, players move on to the next, and the difficulty of the demons jumps accordingly. Rather than having a smooth arc of difficulty where the party can gradually adapt to new challenges, the challenge of Strange Journey is more like a steep staircase. Once a new level is reached, I could count on my entire party being abruptly obsolete, and would have to spend an annoying amount of time grinding—for levels, for demons, for Sources—just to reach basic survivability.
That one word, grinding, describes Strange Journey better than any other. Even purchasing basic supplies such as healing items requires grinding, not just for cash but for the materials—known as formas—to create each item. Formas can randomly appear scattered across the map, drop from enemies, or be received during conversations with demons. Naturally, there are formas that can only be attained from one of those specific methods, as well as items that require multiple formas in differing quantities. After a certain point I couldn't help but wonder if the game wasn't some kind of malicious joke made at the player's expense.
The list of issues continues. The entire game plays out in the first-person perspective of the first two SMTs, and is still is about as exciting as navigating a maze on graph paper. The only reward for moving to new levels of the void is more obnoxious hazards—damage floors, conveyor belts, pitfalls, and completely darkened rooms that even the main character's onboard computer can't map. Even the narrative has its sights set firmly rearward, dumping the multifaceted philosophies of Nocturne and returning to the Lawful/Chaotic dichotomy of the originals. Honestly, I could go on.
As a dungeon crawler, Strange Journey is abominable. As an SMT, it's unforgivable.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Nintendo DS. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. The game was not completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, fantasy violence, language, partial nudity, sexual themes and is rated M for Mature. The M rating seems unwarranted here. All of those descriptors are present in some quantity, but the graphical fidelity of the DS doesn't allow for any of it to come off as particularly offensive or gory. I think mature teens could handle the game without any problems.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are no significant audio cues to be aware of. All pertinent information is presented clearly onscreen.