Shin Megami Tensei: 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. It is up to the Red Sprite crew to find their lost comrades and try to halt the spread of the Schwarzwelt before the unrelenting darkness covers the entire Earth.
Strange Journey's plot is rather interesting. Like most SMT games, it is about placing seemingly normal people into a strange situation and allowing the players to decide what happens. The Schwarzwelt is filled with demons, but not all of those demons serve the same purpose or master. As players travel through the Schwarzwelt, they will encounter a wide variety of different forces that are competing for control over the Schwarzwelt.
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.
Unlike many games, however, this isn't a path to evil, or at least the traditional idea of evil. A player can also choose to be neutral, opting to remain focused on human matters and human goals, although this path has its own difficulties. Your eventual ending and the fate of many characters remain tied to your alignment choices throughout the title. It doesn't quite make the game nonlinear, since much of your adventure is the same regardless of your alignment, but it does have a significant impact on gameplay. Regardless of whether you choose to follow chaos, law or neutrality, you'll find that your adventure is different from that of another player with a different alignment.
As far as gameplay goes, Strange Journey has a lot in common with Etrian Odyssey, and for good reason: They use the same basic engine. If you played Atlus' other dungeon exploration RPG, a lot will feel familiar here, although there are enough twists and difference to prevent the game from being Etrian Odyssey: Shin Megami Tensei Edition. You begin the game on the Red Sprite, which functions as your base and hometown; from here, you can heal, buy new items or accept missions from crew members. When you leave, you'll be instantly thrust into the monster-filled dungeons, which are large and completely unmapped, so you must explore them to discover the structure. The Schwarzwelt is divided into multiple sections, with a new section opening up each time you defeat a boss character.
Like Etrian Odyssey, mapping is done entirely on the bottom screen, although Strange Journey uses an automap 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.
The game takes care of icon placement and wall-drawing for you, which is both a plus and a minus. It keeps the game moving forward so you don't have to pause to map out a section, but it would've really been nice to have the option. There were more than a few times when I was wishing that I could make notes on the map or leave myself hints about something important. One good example of this is a side-quest that involves you finding dead members of the Red Sprite's investigation team. You encounter the corpses long before you get the side-quest, and it would've been useful to mark them on the map instead of having to backtrack to find them. For the most part, the map is perfectly functional and gives you very accurate information about the area you've just explored. The lack of note-taking wouldn't be so noticeable if Strange Journey wasn't already so similar to Etrian Odyssey, but it can be a frustrating element to lack.
The dungeon design in Strange Journey is phenomenally good. Each section of the Schwarzwelt is uniquely designed and full of traps, gimmicks and enemies that occur only in that area. You rarely feel like you're wandering through identical dungeons, as each area has a new and unique situation for you. One dungeon may be full of secret doors and teleport traps, forcing you to map your way through a nonlinear area to find hidden items. Another may be full of rivers that carry you in an uncontrolled current to a set location. Yet another is made up almost entirely of pitch-black rooms and forces you to slowly find your way through the maze without the aid of sight or automapping. Some of these dungeons can get a little annoying, but rarely do they stop being exciting to explore. You may feel aggravated when you're trying to find your way through an invisible maze, but that is easily surpassed by the satisfaction of getting through the traps.
Strange Journey is also very good about placing save points and shortcuts around the dungeons. It's rare to find a difficult area without a save point afterward, preventing tedious backtracking and the very possible risk of dying and being forced to redo a tough area. With that said, there are some areas that are just annoying. One of the most tedious and unenjoyable sections involves having to track down a series of items in a teleport maze, each of which is scattered in a different location. This means you have to map every single teleporter outcome to find the proper items. Since you can't make any notes on the touch-screen, this reduces you to memorizing every teleport result or keeping something nearby to map it out by hand.
As you explore the various zones of the Schwarzwelt, you'll inevitably end up in battles with demons. Your party is comprised of your character and up to three other summoned demons, and you fight in a traditional turn-based style, where you use regular attacks and special magic spells against opponents. There are some differences from other recent SMT games, though. To begin with, every enemy is invisible. Your Demonica suit allows you to see demons, but only as indistinct globs. The first time you encounter a demon, you'll have no idea what it is. This is the most dangerous time, as any spell you cast has a risk of being one that it can reflect back at you. After you defeat an enemy for the first time, you'll be able to see its name and picture. Continued fights against the same enemy will reveal its weaknesses and attacks, until you eventually know everything there is to know about it. This can be a bit frustrating, as running into an invisible enemy while you're weak or low on health can be a potential death sentence, but it also adds an interesting element of danger to exploring new areas. You can't rely on your knowledge of other SMT games to get you through.
As in games like Persona or SMT: Nocturne, hitting enemy weaknesses is important. However, it isn't enough to simply figure out which elemental attack damages the enemy the most because weaknesses in Strange Journey only cause a small amount of additional damage. In order to truly exploit weaknesses, you need to take advantage of demon co-ops, which are special attacks that a party member performs if a teammate hits an enemy weakness. These co-ops only activate if the party member has the same alignment as the member who struck the enemy's weak point, so alignment is the most important part of setting up your party. The more demons you have doing a co-op attack, the more powerful it gets. Three like-minded demons hitting an enemy's weak point can massively increase the damage you do in a single round, but this comes at a cost. Just because a demon is like-minded doesn't mean that it's powerful. You may be forced to use inferior demons to take advantage of co-op attacks, or you may have to sacrifice the extra damage granted by a demon co-op in order to have a strong healer or tank on your side. Party selection requires more thought than in previous SMT games, and it encourages you to think harder about who you're bringing along.
Demons can be recruited in a few different ways. You can talk to them during battle, which starts a brief dialogue selection minigame where you choose the option that best pleases the demon. Make it happy enough, and it will join you or give you a useful item. Tick it off, and it may storm out of the battle or attack you. You can also fuse together demons to form a new, more powerful demon. These fused demons can be further modified by demon sources, which allow you to give specific spells to demons and limit the need for long fusion chains. The most useful and unique way to get demons is through the use of passwords, which you can use to summon it. This can allow you to summon a demon without needing the source, you can also trade passwords with other players. If you get stuck in a certain part of the game, can't find the right demon to fuse, or want a low-level demon with high-level abilities, you'll be able to get these through the use of passwords. This lowers the difficulty of the game, but it also cuts down on the frustration. While there's a certain satisfaction to creating the perfect demon, it's tedious to grind when you just want to advance the plot or defeat an annoying boss.
Your main character in Strange Journey is an average person, and his only advantage is the Iron Man-like Demonica suit that he wears. He lacks many of the special powers of characters in other SMT games; he can't cast spells or use special physical attacks, but he mimics demonic powers through the use of modern technology. He has a series of equipment slots on his Demonica suit: accessory, armor, gun and sword. Basic attacks normally do physical damage, but anything you equip in the sword slot will alter the physical damage that he does. For example, one weapon may hit once for heavy damage, and another weapon may hit multiple times but can inflict a status effect.
Armor changes your character's strengths and weaknesses, which is, by far, the protagonist's most useful ability. By default, the Demonica suit is immune to Expel attacks but otherwise has no special attributes, but with the proper armor, you can make him a tank in almost any situation. Accessories give you a special attribute, ranging from improving your Demonica's stats to nullifying certain kinds of attacks.
The gun slot replaces your magic abilities, but the kind of gun you use can alter how damage is inflicted. A machine gun may be able to hit an entire row of enemies, while a shotgun can hit random enemies multiple times. Each gun has a few different special abilities that mimic magic spells. These spells cost MP, although they are both less powerful and more expensive than a demon spell of comparable levels, so your main character is far more customizable than demons but has difficulty matching their damage output.
In addition to your Demonica suit's combat abilities, it has passive abilities called applications, which come in two forms: main and sub. Main apps are always available and include the ability to detect rare items, find hidden walls, unlock doors, see in the dark, and many other useful powers. They're important and are usually required to advance the plot. You'll usually gain a new main app upon completing a mission or defeating a boss, and they can unlock new areas of the Schwarzwelt for you to explore. On the other hand, sub apps are optional and can do anything from reduce the enemy encounter rate to change the demons you create from fusion. Most sub apps take up a certain amount of space on your suit; the more powerful it is, the more space it takes up, so you can only equip a few at a time. Sub apps can be changed at any save point in the game.
Upgrading your Demonica suit isn't a simple task. You can switch between weapons and armor you have acquired at any time, but you need to obtain those items first by creating them from Forma — rare materials from demons themselves — that are found in the demon-infested lands of the Schwarzwelt. To find Forma, you must explore the Schwarzwelt and find hidden stashes. Forma are invisible unless you go near them, but once you find them, you can pick them up. Some Forma are best if obtained straight from the source. When you defeat a demon in battle, there is a chance that it'll drop special Forma, which are necessary to create the best weapons and items in the game.
Once you've collected the proper Forma, you can go back to the lab on your ship and convert it into new armor, weapons and items. Collecting Forma is very addictive because each one leads to new items, which lead to ways to make your character more useful and powerful. However, there is a fair amount of grinding involved in getting proper Forma. Item drops are randomized, and getting the proper items for your equipment usually means spending some time negotiating or battling with demons until they give you the proper items. It's possible to beat the game without buying every available weapon and armor, but those who enjoy having maximum flexibility in combat will spend a significant amount of time farming for rare Forma.
Like most SMT titles, Strange Journey is not very forgiving. Early on, you can burn through fights with your available demons. As the game progresses, you'll find yourself thinking very carefully about which demons to bring along, especially as your alignment changes. There are certain bosses who are nearly impossible to defeat without at least two other demons of a similar alignment hitting them with a co-op attack. At the same time, you may have a hard time finding a demon of the proper alignment with the correct strengths or weaknesses to survive an enemy's attacks. This adds a very interesting element of strategy to the game, perhaps even more so than in many recent SMT titles, since your choices depend on more than your most powerful demon. For a good chunk of the game, I was carrying a demon that was almost 10 levels behind the curve, simply because his resistances were so useful. It may be frustrating to gamers who like to use any demons that catch their attention, but it makes the combat a lot more interesting.
Strange Journey's only real weak point is its visuals. The dungeon exploration is very much in the same vein as Etrian Odyssey, for all the good and bad that implies. The dungeons have very interesting art design, but much of your time is spent wandering through identical-looking corridors and rooms. Fortunately, the level design is interesting enough to prevent the limited variation in textures from becoming boring too quickly. The enemies are represented by still pictures with very limited animation, rather similar to the Pokémon titles. Combat is little more than basic visual effects appearing over animated gifs; this is an extremely small step up from Devil Survivor, where the monsters didn't move at all. Like the dungeon design, however, the combat is intense and exciting enough that you're unlikely to care that this isn't the prettiest game on the market.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is perfect. The music is almost universally ominous and somber. The early areas are filled with pounding drums and eerie chanting, and as you delve deeper and deeper into the Schwarzwelt, you'll find the music alters to match the tone of the area you're exploring and really set the atmosphere.
The Shin Megami Tensei series has proven itself as one of the most consistently well-made RPG franchises in recent memory, and SMT: Strange Journey is no exception. There are few dungeon exploration games that are as solidly well put-together and interesting. It's more accessible than Etrian Odyssey while still being very similar, so it's a good game for dungeon-crawling fans who couldn't survive Etrian Odyssey's punishing difficulty. The dungeon design is top-notch, and combat is fast-paced and intense, especially since your party makeup has such a huge impact on tactics. The plot is engrossing and interactive, encouraging players to carve out their own story and giving their choices actual gameplay effects. Perhaps the only weak point is the unimpressive visuals, which are fortunately bolstered by the atmosphere and a well-crafted soundtrack. The difficulty can be high, especially in some of the later areas, but it's easy to get help with the password system. If you're an RPG owner with a Nintendo DS, Strange Journey is a must-have and easily one of the best games on the system. It may not have the visual charm of a Mario and Luigi game or the high production values of a Square Enix title, but it's hard to name another game as challenging and engrossing as Strange Journey.
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