I do not think I need to tell anyone I know that I love the Persona games. I was introduced to the series by Persona 3 on the PS2 and I instantly adored it. I have since gotten my hands on all the games currently in the franchise and finished almost all of them. However, knowing this series was a spin-off drew my attention to a much larger series: Shin Megami Tensei. To this end, I have grabbed several older titles for the PS2, but seeing a new one coming out got me excited and at launch, I had to have this game.
Fast forward a few years and a few other portable RPGs and I decided it was time to take on this game. Over one-hunderd and ten hours later, I have finally put the game down. It was a bit longer then I had planned, but overall, this was a great throwback to old school dungeon scrolling I hope a lot more people didn’t miss.
Story: The world is in danger. A phenomenon not man-made but impossible to be natural has begun in Antarctica. Here in the icy wastes, a “storm” is brewing, but the storm is unique in that the it appears to be a black void surrounded by a destructive coating of plasma that atomizes just about anything it touches… and it’s growing exponentially. Fearing this growth would engulf and destroy the entire planet, mankind immediately began to study this new threat. trying to find ways to halt or reverse it’s advance. They dubbed it the Schwarzwelt.
After some experimentation, the world’s top scientists discover no way to even slow down this phenomenon, but they do find some hope in plasma shielding they can use to send probes in. Most of these don’t last long, and the video feeds they send back before being lost to the Schwarzwelt are simply not believable. For the sake of preventing world panic, this is all covered up as a particularly large hurricane plaguing the south pole.
Ultimately, the project leaders decide they need to send a research team inside. If they can not stop the inevitable form outside, maybe they can from within. You are one of the soldiers selected to go, supplying security against whatever you find in there as well as acting as a scout for them in this brave new world. To do so, you are given a DEMONICA suit designed to survive what was found to exist in this void and board one of the four ships specially equipped to survive the barrier. And having dawned the suit, you strap in and begin to approach.
Unfortunately, that approach does not go as planned and it is not long before the four ships sent in are separated, tossed around, and strewn about the void within. Yours survives, but not without incident. First you find your ship in need of repairs, but second and more alarming, your team is attacked by invisible enemies. All seemed lost till a new program was downloaded from an unknown source to your suits, adjusting their ability to see and revealing the demons that make the Schwarzwelt their home. With all these threats around you and no idea if your team is all that is left of this exposition, the fate of the world literaly rests on you completing your mission.
From this rather dismal start, you will move forward in an adventure through this new world as it expands and reveals it’s own rules to you, as well as a fairly straight forward story which unfolds with a very nice pacing in how it shows you what is going on, pulling back layers over the time you play. However, this story is also very linear, and while it does give you some choices in how to react to specific points, they will change absolutely nothing until the end of the game when your choices along the way will determine what you face to finish the game as well as which of three endings you earn. Thankfully, these points actually influence an important element of how battles work, but we will get to that when we talk about gameplay. For now, just understand this will leave you with a descent plot that you will need to discover for yourself, as it lives on pealing back those layers.
Graphics: Shin Megami Tensei (SMT): Strange Journey is generally played from a first person perspective. You will view the rooms of the Red Sprite, special rooms you encounter, and even battles from this view, but that does not mean that it is always 3D. In fact, outside of navigating the dungeon (where you will spend a majority of your time), all of these are single screens created by an artist to frame whatever is going on in the location. Generally, the scenes look good and you will have no issue with them, but their static nature will quickly reduce your attention to them beyond watching whatever cutscene or battle is being played out in front of you.
The battles here will show almost everything you need to see in the top screen. Here, you will have the monsters you are fighting in the form of 2D sprites that have a “classic” RPG look with attention to the details. And below them, your party’s health and magic are displayed with a picture and short name to represent how they are doing. The menus to decide how you will proceed will display on this screen as well as the damages done by either side. The only thing at this part of the game the bottom screen is used for is to display more detailed information about the combatants.
When not in battle, most of your time will be exploring a 3D rendered map of whatever dungeon you are on, which looks good enough, but draw distances and some of the detail clearly reveal the limitations of the Nintendo DS, be it for ability of the hardware comparable to the N64 or the space limits on the cart. Still, these points look clean and while usually nothing impressive, look alright and get the job done. Accompanying these parts of the game are a map on the bottom screen which will fill in as you play. Simply put it is clean, simple, and looks very nice on it’s own.
Overall, the game looks pretty good, though it definitely harkens to an earlier era of gaming.
Sound: Sadly, this is a real weak point of Strange Journey. There is absolutely no voice work in this game at all and very few sound effects. You will have some basic battle noises, some mumbling or shocked sounding sounds for the demons, and maybe even an occasional laugh to hear from them, but that’s about the total extent of what they placed on the card. The music, however, is another story, both for good and bad.
On the one hand the music to this game is very striking and right from the start screen till the very last fight of the game, it will always have a dramatic feel that enhances the urgency and direness the entire game is trying to demonstrate, both in the plot and each and every battle.
But on the other, it will pull you in But the way it does so is a few orchestrated tracks along side a lot of chanting music. There is very little variance in it, and what is there is not something you are likely to want to listen to away from the game… ever.
Gameplay: Strange Journey is a turn based RPG/dungeon crawler in a very classic sense. You will wander around each dungeon looking for specific places and completing specific goals before the game will let you move on to the next map. These goals vary but ultimately culminate in the need to finish the master-demon of the dungeon, collect an artifact from them, and proceed.
The game will have you doing so locked into a grid-map which will fill in for the most part as you explore, displaying what you have seen in the bottom screen of the DS. I have to say almost because while the map screen is clean and clear, it doesn’t show you all the detail that would probably be useful. Specifically, there are two details that the game holds back on the maps: where a teleporter might place you and anywhere dark. These places you are on your own, and while the dark isn’t going to be too bad, the teleporters in a few places can be a nightmare, including one later in the game that only works right on the correct phase of the moon, rendering you unable to proceed for 7/8ths of the time you will encounter it. This phase system has an additional function, however, influencing the strengths and weaknesses or even how demons will talk to you when you try to talk to them, but we will get to that in a moment. When in special rooms or events this map will remain in your display, but your location becomes the entire room you are in, and you now navigate in the few places with multiple rooms like this (like your ship) by selecting where you want to go from a menu, rendering the map useless for these small places.
As with any RPG, you will encounter enemies in your journey, and in this case they are just shy of being random encounters. You’re warning about one coming up soon will be in bar above your view on the top screen. As you get closer to meeting a demon, it will change slowly from blue to red. When the fight begins, the top screen will now show either the demons you have run into or, if this is the first time you have encountered the type, a bight blue ball of pixilated mess, representing your demonica suit having not made contact yet and not knowing how to interpret the demon for you to see. From here you will play a turn-based battle controlled completely by menus where you will pick the actions of your party before the turn plays out. The bottom screen at this time will display all the information you have gained on each demon you are now facing, and as you fight, you will learn their hit-points, level, abilities, and even their strengths and weaknesses.
When you defeat your first of any demon, the suit will learn and display them proper from that point on. Just keep in mind, this game assumes your character is the most important character. If your demons die, you can replace them on the fly by a summon command if you have more in reserve, but if you die, your game is over on the spot.
In addition to fighting, you are also given the option to talk to the demons as well, attempting to communicate, gain items from or even get them to join your party, and you will need to do this as the game relies on your teamwork between you and your demons to succeed, and this teamwork is assisted by the alliance of you and the team. Whenever someone hits an enemy with their weakness, everyone in your party sharing alliances with the attacker will gang up for a free combination attack.
There are 3 alignments you and your demons can be: lawful, neutral, or chaotic. Your demons will have an alignment you will have to accept, but your own can change. As you play, certain events will occur that you can choose how you react to. When you do, your decisions will have absolutely no effect on the immediate outcome, but your decisions will influence your own alignment and ultimately what endings will be available to you.
In addition to convincing demons to join you, you can gain demons by fusing them together to make more powerful demons and with a little online help from your friends. When fusing demons you will combine either two in your current inventory or a specific set of 3 to create something new. Usually you will get what you are trying to create, but accidents can happen so you never know what you are going to get for sure until you try.
As for getting a little help, you will find this game was designed to allow forums to trade demons. You will be given the option to collect a password you can copy down for any demon you have, which you can then pass out online for others to use if they need them. When you choose to do this, you will have 3 slots you can enter these passwords in to unlock the demons others have offered, but in order to actually summon them, you will need to cough up cash you have earned in battle or selling items you have picked up as you play. You will run into times where you will want to take advantage of this, particularly for a boss or two you will have to fight.
Those bosses overall are going to be the only other place you will find any real complaints in this game. There are a few of them which the developers probably thought they were clever about, but will basically force you to spend a lot longer then you would expect to custom raise an army for that boss or to take advantage of what others have to offer. A prime example is later in the game when you face off with one of the few human bosses who’s gun weapons are rediculous, requiring you to take one of these routes to defeat him. Thankfully such moments are rare so they will not overall ruin the pace of the game.
Bugs: I didn’t run into any bugs while playing this game. It ran perfectly.
Overall: Strange Journey was not a bad game. It plays as a very old-school dungeon crawler that will generally include it’s own map creation to make it work that much better in portable form. Mix in the Pokemon style element of capturing (or forming contracts in this case) with wild enemies and you have a darker toned but very solid RPG that should keep you busy for MANY hours .If this sounds like a fun time for you, it will be worth your time to pick this up. But if you have no interest in old RPGs, you will probably want to walk away from this game.