Developer: Atlus / Publisher: Atlus / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Fantasy Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes) / Played on: DS / Price: $34.99
The Shin Megami Tensei series of Japanese RPGs is known for its stellar production values, depth of gameplay, and satisfying storylines. The latest entry into the long running lineup of games is a Nintendo DS exclusive called Strange Journey. Borrowing from older games in the series as well as exploring new story elements, Atlus is hoping this demonic, sci-fi adventure takes players to places both familiar and unknown. Does the futuristic setting and exciting battle sequences make for a great starting point for a spin-off, or will the change of venue be a turn-off for series veterans?
A mysterious occurrence in the South Pole has caused a massive black hole to appear that is slowly swallowing the entire planet. The United Nations has named the void “Schwarzwelt”, and has determined that action must be taken to stop the spread of this odd formation before it takes over the Earth. You take on the role of a soldier sent into the Schwarzwelt to attempt to find a way to stop it from spreading all over the Earth. For most of the game you are trying to locate the other ships that went into the land with you, but you’ll eventually be fighting simply to make it out of the demon-infested world alive.
Strange Journey lays on the science fiction feeling pretty thick, and at times the game can get bogged down with melodramatic segments. The tone throughout the game is a serious one, and that helped to make the slower parts a bit more enjoyable progressing the storyline and characters forward as you start to feel genuine emotion for the them in the game. Strange Journey comes away as an average sci-fi story, and is at times somewhat predictable.
Strange Journey takes you from one locale to the next, all with a twisted sort of feel to them, ranging from a ravaged city to a shopping mall. In each location you’ll fight off demons, avoid traps, and find clues on how to escape. All of the exploration happens in a first-person perspective reminiscent of older style RPGs like Eye of the Beholder or The Dark Spire where you can only move in the direction you are facing. As you explore more of the land you’ll engage in random battles with demons, and eventually a boss demon at the end of each location. You can interact with any of the regular demons in the game in hopes of gaining items or money from them, or even having them join your party and help you fight. Every demon has a different set of skills with varying elemental and physical attacks. As you fight and earn experience you can level up yourself as well as your demons, but due to the variety of enemy demons in each level, you will need to rotate one of the three creatures in your party frequently.
An addictive and fun fusion system allows you to combine two or more of your little helpers to form a new monster pulling genetic traits from each “parent.” A very strategy-oriented battle system accompanies this in-depth demon roster, as certain creatures have weaknesses that you can exploit in order to do more damage while some beings are completely impervious to a certain attack style. The boss battles in particular are quite brutal, forcing you to have a well-rounded team in order to overcome the beast. You really do feel like you are in danger with every step you take, and one wrong move and you could be back at the load screen. As fun and strategic as the battle system is, however, it gets quite repetitive as you go through essentially the same actions the entire game. A bit more variety of gameplay in and out of battle would have been nice, and for a series that is known for its totally immersive RPG elements there really isn’t much to the game outside of the main story like there is in the Persona games.
The first-person perspective allows you to see up close the detail crafted into each location. It’s just too bad that they all look alike. While each zone has a unique theme to it, like burning cities, castles, and spaceships, the actual detail within each area is very repetitive. I got lost countless times trying to find my way around a location simply because it all looked the same. The demons, on the other hand, all look and act quite differently from each other. While fans of the series will see some familiar faces like Jack Frost or Archangel, there is a good deal of unique and interesting monsters to battle and obtain. A few scenes in the introduction and ending feature fully rendered 3D, but for the most part it’s a standard 2D affair. Graphically Strange Journey is an average DS game without any truly special moments.
One of the biggest things holding the game back is its lack of voices. Be prepared to read a lot to understand the evolving story, though some dialogue scenes appear approaching the 20 minute mark. Some of the more drawn out or dramatic sections would have benefited from the addition of voiceovers. The music is composed by series veteran Shoji Meguro and accents the game well. Music gets more intense during boss fights, each zone has a fitting melody to go with it, and the game itself actually comes with a soundtrack as an added bonus. Sound effects are a bit on the ordinary side with slashes and gunshots sounding the same even coming from distinctly different weapons you have equipped. I did have a sort of nostalgic feeling when in battle, though, as many of the sound effects used are the same ones used in other games in the franchise. Overall Strange Journey sounds great and has some solid music throughout.
While certainly not as mainstream a game as the Persona games are, Strange Journey is a fine RPG for the DS. Anyone looking for a game similar in style to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne should definitely give it a try. If RPGs aren’t your thing then you need not apply as there isn’t anything here to change your mind. As a whole, Strange Journey is a good RPG and shouldn’t be missed by fans of the series looking experience more of what they love.