All right, I think I need to start this review off with a little bit of a confession: I am a HUGE Shin Megami Tensei fan. And when I say huge I mean it. Ever since I picked up Persona 4 a few years ago I’ve picked up every Shin Megami release I could get my hands on in an effort to recapture the magic of that title. Some of the games I played were only average, such as Devil Survivor and the original Persona rerelease for the PSP and some were kind of meh, like the dull MMO title Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine. However, for the most part my faith in the franchise has been tremendously rewarded with an incredible streak of fun and atmospheric RPGs that have consumed more of my free time than I care to admit! So it was only natural that I would eventually pick up the latest release for the DS, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. So did this title live up to the greats of the franchise like Persona 4 and Digital Devil Saga, or is it just another title to be looked over and forgotten by the gaming community?
Well, it’s a bit of both to be honest. Let’s start with the game play: this is a classic dungeon crawler style RPG in the vein of games like Class of Heroes and Etrian Odyssey. The twist is that, like in the Devil Summoner or Nocturne games, your main character is the only human character in your party. The remaining three slots are actually for demons you recruit or fuse throughout the game. That’s right; your party actually consists of the same enemies you’re fighting against! The only advantage you have over your enemies is that you can fuse the demons you recruit together in order to create new demons with even greater power and different abilities than before. And this is one of the game’s strengths, as you can literally spend hours collecting different demon types in order to see how they all fuse together, only to then do it all over again to find out how the new monsters fuse into the older ones!
This is a very good thing considering your alternatives, as this game is not very grind friendly, so to speak. Once you reach a certain level in a set area the amount of time required to level up your party suddenly shoots up, making it a much more viable strategy to constantly work on changing up your party to cope with the situation than to try just power-leveling your way through the game. And you will need to do one of these two things as this is not an easy RPG by any standard. A good example of this difficulty is the very first area boss, who is clearly a fire type enemy and is thus weak to ice. This seemed ideal to me, what with having two ice casters on my team at the time, so I rushed into battle… and died. Realizing I was already on the upper end of the level spectrum for the area, I went back to my ship, pimped out my fleshy human character with some decent armor and weapons, replaced two of my demons, and charged back in and crushed the bastard!
Not to say the game play is perfect of course. If you are not a big fan of dungeon crawlers then you’re going to want to brace yourself before giving Strange Journey a try. Clearing most areas means that you’ll have to explore the entire map with a fine tooth comb in order to find secret doors and holes in the floor and whatnot. And God help you if you didn’t bother talking to every NPC you saw, as without their advice it can be downright infuriating to figure out what you should do next. But the dungeon layouts are, for lack of a better word, at least interesting, and will certainly provide a challenge for those gamers who like to complete their maps 100%.
Another key component of any Shin Megami Tensei games is their music, and here I found it strangely both hit and miss. On the one hand the music was well composed and helped add another level of depth to the game, making the world you were exploring seem even more mysterious. It’s certainly competently executed, as can be seen from the fact that the game comes with a complementary CD with all of the game’s music on it, and it’s probably some of the best music I’ve heard on my DS. The problem I have with it, simply put, is that it’s forgettable. As I write this I cannot for the life of me remember how a single song from the game went over than some vague recollections of chanting. Maybe I’ve just set the bar too high after playing games like Persona 3 and 4, but I can’t help but feel that the music is below average for this series.
But music is only a part of the equation when it comes to a game’s sensory appeal, which leads me to the game’s graphics. These are actually really nice for a DS title, with the dungeon exploring aspects being quite varied and colorful, lending a feeling of curiosity to the player as you explore new areas. The character and demon designs are also rather nice, with all of the demons and characters being distinctive and pleasing to look at. This, combined with several really nice cut scenes early in the game, gives the player the distinct impression of a game with high quality visuals. On top of this the DS uses the bottom screen to display and fill out the map as you are exploring, giving you easy reference to where you are and how to proceed from there. As such the game earns high marks on its visuals, being one of the most graphically interesting DS titles I’ve ever played.
And now we come to the final, and arguably most important, aspect of the game, its story. I was actually pleasantly surprised by this, as Strange Journey actually combines the standard fantasy elements of the series with some interesting sci-fi elements and does so surprisingly well. The premise is that you are an American member of an international strike force with a simple mission: investigate the anomaly that is growing in the South Pole and then neutralize it. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say that things go horribly wrong for your team early on and you are forced to team up with demons in order to simply survive, let alone complete your initial objective. And as events unfold within the game you will quickly discover that things are not quite what they seem and have to deal with several unforeseen challenges. If I had to make a complaint about the story it’s that the pacing can seem arbitrary at times, with long stretches of exploring with only minimal feedback from the actual plot. But overall the story was both solid and intriguing; forcing the player to wonder what is actually going on right until the very end!
My final verdict for this game is split, as while I certainly enjoyed it I can see why someone who is not a fan of the dungeon crawling genre might not like it. Thus while I wholeheartedly recommend this title to anyone who considers themselves a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series of games and/or dungeon crawlers, I can only partially recommend it to everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game, possibly one of the best I’ve played on the DS, but if you’re not into dungeon crawlers then Strange Journey isn’t going to change your mind about the genre. If you’re on the edge about this title though, then I definitely recommend picking it up! At only $19.99 new and even less used there really is no reason not to give this title a shot. And if you’re interested in Shin Megami Tensei but dungeon crawling doesn’t quite sound like your thing (or you don’t own a DS), then give Persona 4 a try. It is a truly great RPG, and if you consider yourself a gamer then you owe it yourself to at least try this title. Anyway, I need to get back to fighting demons, so until next week, Demonica: Summoning Program activate!