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Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Review

Trent Fingland's picture

Shameful Voyage

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot

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.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot

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.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot

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. Rating: 3.0 out of 10.

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. 

Category Tags
Platform(s): Nintendo DS  
Developer(s): R&D 1  
Publisher: Atlus  
Series: Shin Megami Tensei  
Genre(s): Role-Playing  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Hahahahaha.

I don't think I've ever laughed as hard reading a review as I have this one. I'm just going to pick out some of my favorite parts:

"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."

I can only imagine how terrible your party demons must have been if you could only manage to pull off one or two points of damage by exploiting weaknesses. You'd literally have to never bother fusing new demons, or if you did you would have to intentionally go out of your way to fuse the crappiest demons possible, making no attempt to actually put worthwhile skills on them. That's quite a feat.

"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."

That is too bad, especially with hundreds of potential demons to choose from and the ability to directly fuse any skill you want on to a demon, how could anyone manage to do THAT? And since actually using demons from another alignment is obviously not viable in any way it must have been some sort of miracle that I managed to regularly use demons from other alignments and finish the whole game.

"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."

See this part leaves me all confused. Earlier it seemed like you barely bothered fusing, but apparently you have a problem with your supply of demon sources, meaning you must have been fusing like crazy using up all the different sources you get in the game. Even with one source per demon that's more than enough to last you through the whole game. You should really be more clear.

"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."

See now we're back to square one. On the one hand you act like you fuse like crazy, but on the other hand your demons suck so badly that you have to grind for new ones as soon as you enter a new level. There's got to be some kind of contradiction there, you couldn't possibly spend that much time grinding and fusing and still end up with crappy demons.

"That one word, grinding, describes Strange Journey better than any other."

This may be my favorite part. Claiming that you have to grind in a MegaTen game is always laughable, and Strange Journey is no exception. You can get through the entire game without doing any real grinding if you make proper use of your demons and actually fuse good demons in the first place. The only time I even had to consider grinding was when I got slaughtered by the final boss of the Neutral path, but even then I managed to overcome just by reworking my team and obtaining some specialized demons that could deal with it.

You'd make a great comedic writer if only this wasn't sadly meant to be taken seriously. Oh well, I still got a laugh out of it, so I suppose it's all the same.

He who laughs last, laughs best, or something.

I shouldn't have approved this comment, because your tone is pretty combative which is against the GameCritics.com Code of Conduct.

I approved it for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, your complaint about this line is legitimate:

"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."

It's actually an editing oversight on my part. I meant to say that hitting enemy weaknesses only did one or two points of damage MORE THAN attacks that didn't exploit weaknesses at all.

As for the rest of your complaints, the only response I can give you is that I'm glad that you could enjoy a game that I honestly could not.

The second reason I approved this comment is that it's clear that you put a lot of thought and effort into it, and I couldn't in good conscience just trash it. If it weren't for the tone, this could practically pass as a second opinion review. :P

"I meant to say that hitting

"I meant to say that hitting enemy weaknesses only did one or two points of damage MORE THAN attacks that didn't exploit weaknesses at all."
Thats just not possible. The hit you see after an exploit isnt the same total, its completely new damage. Are you telling me they hit for a combo attack of 2 damage? So if you hit for 30, and then a combo dealt 32, thats 62 total damage, not 32. Combos typically deal 80-100% more damage depending on the number of similar aligned party members you have.

I guess I should've been

I guess I should've been much clearer on this point.

Here's an example of what i'm talking about. Let's say you have a single lawful demon in a party of mixed alignment. If the lawful demon uses an ice based attack on an enemy susceptible to ice, the bonus in damage pretty negligible.

In order to get some substantial damage out of an enemy weakness, the party generally needs to share an alignment, which limits the freedom of the player to customize their party how they want.

true, but it also gives more

true, but it also gives more value to a wider base of demons. If youre playing as law then that encourages you to pursue all that law has to offer. Also, you dont have to take advantage of that system, in fact in some cases its better not to. And keep in mind, the press turn system was a trade-off, you got extra turns, but so did your enemies. This is just a different take on it. For me, i think it works. And i know what you mean about the inheritance system, but i enjoyed the game more taking this outlook: the sources replace your inheritance. If you get sources from every demon you use and then fuse them, you might as well use a source every time giving your demons a wide range of skills and sources that end up with interesting bonuses(the skill that gets assigned to the source randomly).

The main reason I feel like

The main reason I feel like the press-turn system is so superior to the co-op attacks is that press turns feel like a reward. If you did something right, namely exploit enemy weaknesses, you got a pretty significant reward in the form of extra turns. Used correctly, press turns would allow you to utterly decimate the most serious opponents. What's more, fights could usually be resolved without extra turns, as long as you were at least covering your own ass.

In Strange Journey, co-op attacks feel much more mandatory. The extra handful of damage that comes from an unassisted hit on an enemy's weakness feels like the the game is having a little chuckle at my ineptitude. On the other hand Co-Op attacks--even perfectly executed--rarely gave me the feeling of dominance that I got from Nocturne and the other Press-Turn titles. They simply allowed me to resolve boss battles sometime this year, as opposed to nickel and diming them for eternity.

Couple Persona tibbits

I came across this review rather randomly, and it's quite dated now. That being said, there are a few comments I would like to make.

1) Press Turn vs Co-Op attack. Yes, I agree that Press Turn is quite unique and good. But the comments about this is where I fail to agree.
- Abusing weakness shouldn't make the game too easy. That's one philosophy I can see in this game. Perona 3 was fairly heavily criticized by a few people because their variation of Press Turn system (One-More System) made the difficulty way lower than it should have by almost completely stopping the enemy from attacking, so long as you got to hit first. So the random battles were more of getting the pre-emptive attacks. This was fixed in Persona 4. On that note, co-op attack system is simply telling the players, "Look, this, this, and this won't work on the enemy. But here's elements you can use, and here's weakness if you want to do more damage. But you need to do better than hitting the weaknesses to win (namely using stat buffs and debuffs)" If you look at the game as hitting around the enemy resistances rather than hitting the weakness, it makes more sense. co-op attacks are nothing more than extra incentive and by no means required (save for couple bosses that heals too much, where co-op is obviously intended to be used). Whether this is good or bad is another thing, but let me say that I've never at any point had unified alignment in my team and I did just fine (including those bosses that were probably meant to be challenged with co-op damage). Oh, and did I mention that Strange Journey has the largest Demon Compendium among all SMT series? How you can't form the party you have inmind, it's beyond me. In short, I agree that press-turn is a very good system and I do miss it, but I just can't agree with your *reasons* that denounce co-op system.

2) I'm sure you already know this, but whole SMT series (systematically) forces you to update your team as you move along, but grinding is by no means necessary. Your team gets outdated; yes, of course. You need to update your team; certainly. What do you need to do? Talk and negotiate, then fuse. Unless you can't do the in-game conversation properly (which wasn't mentioned at all in this review so I'm assuming that there wasn't a complaint there), this shouldn't exactly be "levelling up for 3 hours just to survive the new dungeon". I could be misunderstanding the definition of grinding because that's not necessarily the proper term I guess.... Or is it that the expectation is to go through the game without changing the team? If so, then this is a wrong game for such person. It doesn't make the game bad. It's like using fork and knives at an international food fair where you may need hand, chopsticks, etc.

3) And while we are on the topic of demon fusion, I can't see how one can be short of Demon Sources with so many demons to get the source from (reminder: this game has largest demon roaster in the whole series). You see, running short of demon source pretty much says one of two things: either the player never updates his roaster, or the player fuses the team too frequently - before one has chance to fully analyze the demon and level it up once. I personally had trouble *using up* the demon sources by the end of game and I had to force myself to use one every time I did fusion (even with that I was left with good 3~40 when I beat the game first).
And actually the qualities of demon sources... often the "source" skills are similar or better than the demon's original skillset. And when one is using sources, the inherited skills are randomized (among the possibilities in that particular fusion), which can be adjusted by traditional cancel-choose repetition. This actually lowers all the time spent in fusing demons overall, yet the shortage of demon sources (which I cannot see how it could have happened. Please do elaborate on topic).

I could probably go on, but basically I'd like to say that throughout the review, I felt that the reviewer was complaining about the changes it made without actually trying to play the game without prejudice. This game is obviously not Nocturn or Etrian Odyssey (which is more ruthless if you ever attempt to fight the F.O.E. on the floor you just reached). I wouldn't complain that hamburger is so hard to eat because I'm using chopsticks.

It's a shame that a

It's a shame that a half-year old review is considered "dated" but that's the internet for you. I'll try and address your points the best I can.

1) The primary issue with the battle system is that it never felt sufficiently rewarding for intelligent play. Skillful decision making mostly saw normal progression, and anything less than that was a pure struggle. Contrast this with Nocturne, where poor strategy had harsh consequences, but cleverness could be an incredible tide-turner. It felt as though the only options were a slog or standard level of progress that took a much larger mental investment than most other RPGs, including SMT.

2) My problem with the grinding is that it seemed so front-loaded; the majority of it occurred at the beginning of a new floor in a big unpleasant chunk. In all other SMTs I've played fusing/negotiation/recruiting was definitely a constant, but it seemed to flow with my progress, rather than throw up giant "fuse walls" that I found in Strange Journey. Aside from that, Strange Journey required grinding for many other reasons aside from explicitly leveling up, which I'm sure your saw in my review, and none of it was very enjoyable.

3) To be completely technical, I never ran completely out of sources. However, there were probably 2 useful sources for every 10 I came across, and those were the ones that went quickly. Having 15 sources that don't have anything more useful than Agi on them is as good as having none at all. This was a particular problem when trying to develop a solid healer for my group.

I hope I answered your questions well enough, and I thank you for the well-written, thoughtful comment. Even though we disagree on the quality of SJ, comments like yours are part of the reason I write at all. :)

I strongly disagree with

I strongly disagree with your opinion about the game, but that's not what this comment is about. I realize that I'm very late to the game here, but I wanted to thank you for taking the time to respond to critics of your review, and for showing a willingness to engage in an in-depth debate on the subject, including a person that you felt was too combative. As far as I'm concerned, this kind of behavior is a gold standard that video game (and other reviewers) should be held to (at least, from time to time).

Great Review

This review really sums up how tedious Strange Journey is compared to the best games in the series. Thanks!

Kinda late to comment here

Kinda late to comment here but:
"The first couple of installments—which appeared on the Super Famicom and never made it to American shores—were unmercifully difficult treks"
...you never actually played these games, did you?

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