Shin Megami Tensei is a franchise that has earned quite a name among RPG fans, due to a large number of high-quality entries. Nocturne and the Persona are regarded as some of the most interesting and challenging JRPGs on the market, but we've never actually gotten the early Megami Tensei games in English-speaking countries. The closest would be Persona, which has a lot in common with the early entries in the franchise, but quite a few differences as well. The earlier SMT games resembled Wizardry meets Pokémon, combining first-person dungeon exploration with monster-raising. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a return to the older SNES style of Megami Tensei. It's quite a bit different from Persona or Nocturne, but it's shaping up to be one of the most addictive RPGs on the DS.
Strange Journey is set in the near future, when a strange black dome appears over the Antarctic. Dubbed the Schwarzwelt, the dome is slowly spreading to envelop the entire planet and destroy all life. The player takes on the role of an unnamed soldier, a member of a special exploration team that is being sent to investigate the dome. He is assigned to the Red Sprite, a super-advanced exploration vehicle that is capable of breaching the Schwarzwelt's strange surface. More importantly, he is equipped with a Demonica suit of powered armor that's capable of surviving within the Schwarzwelt's deadly atmosphere. The mission quickly becomes disastrous, and the Red Sprite is separated from the other members of the team and trapped deep within the Schwarzwelt. As if that weren't bad enough, the Schwarzwelt is filled with demons, all of which are incredibly deadly and invisible. In order to escape, the soldiers of the Red Sprite must use a mysterious demon-summoning program that appeared on the Demonica suit system.
As in most Megami Tensei titles, your decisions have a major influence on how the game plays out. While you begin as a neutral character who is simply there to do his job, things change as the game progresses. You'll be asked to make choices that may sway your alignment, which are the sort of ideals you have: chaos, law or neutrality. Don't assume that "law" equals good, or "chaos" equals evil, though. They tend to skew more toward how much freedom you believe in or your views on power. A character who aligns with law may believe that mankind is incapable of standing on its own and needs to be guided by a higher power to bring about peace, while a chaos-aligned character may embrace survival of the fittest and freedom over social structures.
Your character will end up as one of these three alignments, depending on his choices throughout the game. This has a tremendous impact on how the game progresses and will alter your eventual ending, but it also impacts the game world. Demons have their own alignment as well, and their like or dislike of you will be determined by your alignment. It will be far easier to recruit law demons as a law character, for example. It also heavily factors into combat, as co-op attacks can only be triggered with demons of the same alignment. Unlike most RPGs, Strange Journey holds you to what you say, so think carefully before you answer even innocent-sounding questions.
It's actually far easier to liken Strange Journey to Atlus' Etrian Odyssey than any of the recent Megami Tensei games. If you've played that game, you'll find much of this to be familiar. You begin the game on the Red Sprite, which functions as your combination base and hometown. When you leave, you'll be instantly thrust into the dungeon, which are large and completely unmapped, so you must explore them to discover the structure. Like Etrian Odyssey, mapping is done entirely on the bottom screen, although Strange Journey uses an auto-map instead of Etrian Odyssey's self-mapping system. Every time you step forward, a new square of the map will be unveiled. The dungeons are fairly complex, so don't think that this will be a straightforward exploration. There are branching paths, hidden doors, deadly traps and annoying pitfalls to be found on every floor. To best deal with the dungeon, you'll have to make multiple trips into the depths, taking your time and exploring to find easier ways to travel deeper into the dungeon. The dungeon is divided into various strata, and you can only venture into a deeper stratum once you've cleared the previous one, which usually involves defeating a boss.
When you begin, you're only able to explore the most basic elements of the Schwarzwelt, but as the game progresses, your Demonica suit will receive upgrades that allow you to explore deeper. For example, an early upgrade is a sensor that lets you find Forma, a rare material that appears semi-randomly around the map. If you're close to Forma, the sensor will light up and pinpoint the location so you can collect it. Later upgrades allow you to access previously hidden doors or passages and venture into areas that would otherwise be dangerous or battle deadly invisible monsters. Your Demonica suit is upgraded automatically to take advantage of these new features, but it is best to be cautious and know your limits about where to explore. There are areas in early parts of the game that you can only access after venturing to a deeper floor.
Upgrading your Demonica suit is a big part of the game. Unlike the protagonists in other franchise offerings, your main character in Strange Journey isn't any kind of superhuman or magician. His powers are limited to the special Demonica armor, and this is both a plus and a minus. The Demonica is pure technology and not magical, so your protagonist can't use the same magic spells as the demons but he can equip weapons and armor to mimic the demons' abilities. Instead of having natural strengths and weaknesses, he can equip different armor to change his defensive abilities. Rather than casting magic spells, he can use a gun and special bullets to use elemental damage or debuffs. This makes him extremely customizable, so you can alter his abilities at any time during the game and switch attack and defensive abilities on the fly, as long as you're not in battle. As a trade-off, your main character tends to be a bit less powerful than demons. His strength comes from his customization, which allows you to alter your combat style for any situation. Beyond weapons and armor, you can also find sub-apps, which can be attached to your Demonica to alter its features, including your character getting into fewer battles, earning better prizes from demons, and altering the way a demon's skills grow, to name a few. These sub-apps take up a certain amount of space on your Demonica, so you can only equip a few at a time.
Improving the Demonica isn't simple as buying parts from a store. In order to upgrade your suit, you need Forma. Some can be found by using the Forma Search function on your Demonica, while others must be earned from demons. Regardless of how you come across Forma, it serves as the synthesis material for Demonica items. You take Forma to the Red Sprite's lab and pay the Macca (currency) to convert the Forma into items. While there are a few items that can be made without Forma, almost everything else in the game requires Forma for creation, including armor, weapons and healing items. You could have a near-infinite supply of Macca, but it wouldn't help unless you had the Forma to generate the equipment, so you'll probably have to make trips into the dungeon just to farm the material. The payoff is very worth it, as each piece of equipment in Strange Journey is incredibly important and can completely alter the tide of battle.
Battle is a major part of Strange Journey. The Schwarzwelt is packed to the brim with demons, and you'll have to fight your way through hordes of them before you can escape. The combat system is rather simple; your party is made up of your Demonica-using main character and up to three demons that he has summoned, and you battle opponents in turned-based combat until one emerges victorious. As in other Megami Tensei games, your main character is the backbone of the party, so if he falls in battle, the game is over.
On the other hand, demons are replaceable, so if a demon falls or you want to change the demon you're using, you can summon a new one during the main character's turn. Your demon selection is very important, as certain demons can provide benefits that others can't. In addition to each demon having a strength and weakness against certain elemental attacks, each demon's alignment can alter combat. If you hit an enemy weakness with one of your attacks, all demons with the same alignment will perform a "co-op attack" on the unlucky foe, and the more demons who perform a co-op attack, the more powerful it is. To get the biggest benefit out of combat, you have to keep a team of like-minded demons, so you can have three characters contributing to a co-op attack each time. Of course, this isn't as easy as it sounds, and you may sometimes have to sacrifice co-op power in order to have a strong or useful demon on your side.
One of the more enjoyable aspects about Strange Journey's combat system is that it isn't entirely based on combat. Like the early Megami Tensei games, you're also given the option to talk your way out of fights. At the start of combat, you can attempt to talk to a demon by engaging in a brief text-based mini-game. You choose what to say to the demon, and it may react positively or negatively depending on its likes and dislikes. Positive reactions tend to pay off for you. If a demon likes you enough, it will be willing to negotiate with you, so you can ask for items or Macca — or get it to join your party. In exchange, you may have to give up some health, MP or items to keep the demon happy. Negotiation isn't always successful, but it will usually lead to you getting rare items or a new demon partner, all without having to fight. Successful negotiation automatically ends the fight, so it is a good way to avoid an energy-draining battle against tough foes.
Failing to please the demon can hurt you as well, though. At best, the demon may become angry and refuse to talk anymore, but at worst, it may suddenly attack and get in a free round of combat. In rare situations, it may be so disgusted by your failure to talk that it'll storm out of the battle, thus denying you of useful experience and Macca for fighting the demon, but at least you don't have to fight. You can also use negotiation as a way to make certain areas a lot easier. You can't recruit more than one type of the same demon, and if you try, the demon will notice. This functions very similarly to an automatically successful negotiation. The demon will leave, ending the battle, and sometimes earning you rare items. If you keep a stable of demons in your party that are tough to battle, you can greatly reduce the amount of fighting you have to do.
It's important to note that Strange Journey takes an unusual approach to enemy encounters. All the demons inside the Schwarzwelt are invisible, and the only reason you can see them is because of the demon-summoning program installed on your Demonica suit. The program isn't perfect, though. The first time you encounter a demon, it'll appear as distorted data. You can't talk to it, don't know its name, and can't even see what it looks like. This is the hardest time to encounter a demon because you can't even use your prior Megami Tensei knowledge to guess at its weaknesses. You have to use attacks that are unlikely to backfire or make a random guess at an enemy's weaknesses. Once you defeat an enemy, the Demonica begins to analyze it so you can learn its name and appearance. From then on, you can raise the demon's analysis level by interacting with it by fighting it, talking to it, or even raising and battling with your own version of the demon. As you analyze the demon, more information will become available, including its weaknesses and attacks. Fully max out the analysis of a demon, and you'll know exactly what you're coming up against every time it appears.
Strange Journey has an interesting balancing game involved with raising your demons. For the most part, demons are only good for a few levels. They're strong for a while as you get them, but keeping a demon leveled can't prevent it from eventually becoming outdated when compared to the foes you're fighting. At the same time, it's important to level up your demons. Every time a demon levels, it has a chance of giving you a reward, such as Forma, which is always handy. The most useful prizes are sources. When a fully analyzed demon levels up, it'll give you its source, which is a special item that can be used in fusion to pass along the demon's skills, even if they were not part of the fusion. This allows you to pass along difficult-to-acquire skills to a monster without having to go through long fusion sequences. Sources are also limited, though. You can only have one of a demon's source at a time, and it's gone if you use it in a fusion. Furthermore, getting a second source is much harder than getting a first one. You must be careful when and where you use a source, but smart source usage leads to significantly more powerful demons.
One unique feature about Strange Journey is how it handles the demon compendium. In other Megami Tensei games, the compendium is pretty straightforward. You can resummon any demon you've recruited to your party before, and register demons that you've changed so that you can summon an already-leveled version of that demon instead of the base version. This costs Macca, but it's easier than summoning one normally.
Strange Journey adds the new password feature, so any time you register a demon, it also gives you a password for it. This password can be entered to summon that demon as if it were part of your compendium. While this may sound useless, keep in mind that passwords work on any version of the game, so if you have a friend who also has the game, you can use passwords to help out one another. He may be able to send you the code for a demon that will allow you to defeat a tough boss, or you could give him the code for a demon he needs to fuse to get a particularly useful monster. These codes are not without their limits. You need to be of the same or higher level as the demon you intend to summon, and you still have to pay Macca for it. This feature will make it much easier for Megami Tensei fans to help each other, since difficult-to-fuse demons are just a password away.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey feels a lot like Etrian Odyssey meets Nocturne. The levels and dungeons are laid out very similarly to Atlus' other dungeon exploration game. There are a lot of familiar strategies and mechanics that work in both games, and if you enjoyed Etrian Odyssey, you'll probably love Strange Journey. The combat, the story and the atmosphere are pure Megami Tensei, so it's exciting to explore the depths of the Schwarzwelt, and the story grows more interesting the further you progress. Battling alongside your demons is fun and challenging, and there is a lot of room for customization and strategy. You'll likely die more than a few times trying to get through the game, but each death encourages you to come up with better strategies and fuse stronger demons. Strange Journey will be released not long after the juggernaut that is Final Fantasy XIII, but that doesn't mean gamers should overlook it. It may not be as shiny as Square Enix's monster, but Strange Journey has the potential to be as exciting and engrossing as any Final Fantasy game.
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