Sunday, May 5, 2013

Game Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

RPG/Dungeon Crawler; Nintendo DS; Atlus; 2010
Not much to say about goings on this week, other than it is finally feeling like something OTHER than winter here in the beautiful, perpetually overcasted Pacific Northwest. That, and my birthday is in 3 weeks. Anyway, with not much else to say, it is time to move on to this week's review: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. The first SMT game planned as an international release, and first entry in the core series since Nocturne. But is this a strange journey worth taking, or is it just plain out there?

You know that Fox News is just going to deny this anyway.
In the present day, humanity's population swells and our need to consume resources has lead the planet into decline. Just then, a giant anomaly appears in Antarctica and is expanding quickly. With no information on it and no means of destroying it, the United Nations form a joint team to eliminate this anomaly now known as the Schwarzwelt. You are a member of this team, and with the most powerful ships crafted by science, and a powerful environmental suit known as a Demonica, you enter the Schwarzwelt; however, what you find within defies all logic. You discover a series of worlds that are a cruel mockery of human progress, populated by hostile creatures that can only be described as Demons. Using a program from an unknown source, the "Demon Summoning Program," and being observed by entities with cryptic goals, you and your team are stranded and lost in the staging ground for the war between Angels and Demons over dominion of the Earth. Will you side with the forces of Law? Or will you add your strength to the forces of Chaos? Or will you side with another power? Your choices will determine whether you will get out of this strange world alive.

If you have never experience a Shin Megami Tensei game, the story will be the most "out there" plot you will ever see. On the other hand, if you are familiar with the series than Strange Journey is just par for the course. However, just because it is familiar territory with the other games in the series, doesn't mean that Strange Journey's story is bad or predictable. The game is an tribute to the older games in the series, and there are many call backs to the earlier titles like the dynamic between the main characters, yourself, Jimenez, and Zelenin mirror that of the Hero, Law Hero, and Chaos Hero in the first SMT game. Yet, Strange Journey still retains it's own identity, favoring more straight up Sci-fi than the Cyberpunk ascetic of games past. Overall, the story is top notch as always in SMT, though is less character focused as say Persona or Devil Survivor. Even so, you won't be disappointed.

The map is automatically filled in. Which, of course, means you have to step on EVERY damage square.
When I say that Strange Journey is a tribute to the older SMT games, that also extends to the gameplay. The game is a first person dungeon crawl, where the main character can only move in massive 10 feet strides and can only turn in precise 90 degree angles, and must navigate a series of massive labyrinths filled with impossible structures like one-way doors, completely invisible pitfalls, and everyone's favorite, completely dark areas and warp squares. Of course, proceed at your own peril, because like the older SMT games, there are many battles ahead of you and most of them occur randomly. Battles in Strange Journey are completely turn base, but a key feature here is the Analysis gauge. When you first encounter a new enemy, they will appear as a garbled mess of pixels, and you can't even effectively talk to them (more on that later). However, after your first encounter you will learn who they are, and as you fill the Analysis gauge by fighting them more you can learn more things like what their skill list is, what items they drop, and most importantly what attacks they are strong and weak against. To aid you in your journey, you have not only your base of operations, The Red Sprite, where you can heal, make new weapons and items from the materials you gather, and at functions to your suit that allow you to see in the dark and reduce damage from hazards, but also, like most SMT games, gather demons to be your allies. You do this by talking to them in battle, responding appropriately to their questions, and satisfying their requests, or by fusing old demons together to create new more powerful demons. Doing so will fill out your roster with powerful allies, and must be done regularly since not only do demons not learn new skills normally, but they also level up at a much slower rate than the main character. I don't care how much you like that Pixie you get at the beginning of the game, she is just going to be a liability later on. However, during all this demon recruiting and fusing fun, there is one thing you must keep in mind: Alignment. In Strange Journey, again like old SMT games, both you and your demons have an alignment from Lawful to Neutral to Chaotic each symbolized by the color of your name. Having Demons of the same alignment in your party is ideal because whenever you hit an enemy weakness, you will gain extra damage based on how many like alignment individuals make up the rest of your party. Also, the main character's alignment can change throughout the game as he makes his choices, and will change which ending you get.

Finding out what the enemy is weak against is a tiring process.
Of course, this is a Shin Megami Tensei game, which means one thing: ball bustingly hard gameplay, and Strange Journey has it's own share of frustrating gameplay mechanics. Once again, the main method of gaining new demons is through negotiation, which is largely one big trail and error process trying to figure out which response is ideal, because many demons will ask the same question, but depending on their personality will respond differently to the same answer. One demon might find an answer praiseworthy while another demon (sometimes of the same type) will find the same answer insulting, and often times a wrong answer will immediately end negotiation with the demon side gaining a free round of attacks. Also, as per SMT tradition, a game over is triggered when the main character falls in battle, regardless of the status of the rest of his party, and naturally there are a number of ways for the main character to instantly DIE, resulting in a swift one way trip to the game over screen. Not that having a demon die is any better, since as soon as a demon falls they are returned to your reserves, and not only must be revived, but also summoned back into place, resulting in a lost of two turns. Is is also coupled by the fact that only the main character can use items, and that normally he is the only one who can summon demons. There are also the gameplay mechanics common to this type of first person dungeon crawl, such as invisible pits, one way doors, and the fact that the only way to map an area is to step on every single damaging square of the map, which may make this game unappealing to those not use to this type of gameplay. I won't lie, this game can be unfair, creating an artificial sense of length.

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, is a good game, and will especially appeal to those who like old school dungeon crawlers that are more about slow steady progress, than absolutely blitzing through any resistance. However, this game is getting a recommended, not because of any real faults in it's quality, it is certainly a solid entry in the SMT franchise and not one to be overlooked by anyone who considers themselves a fan; however, it is a game that falls into a very particular nitch, one where hard unfair gameplay is the norm. Even SMT fans who got into the series with it's more recent entries like Persona 4 or Devil Survivor, might not like it. It is a great game, but one with a very particular audience that won't cross genre boundaries. Strange Journey is recommended for those who are willing to brave it.

Until next time,

-Crescent, they told me this was safe! That doesn't look safe!

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