The Megami Tensei franchise, in recent years, has focused far more on spinoff titles, such as those in the Persona subseries, than actual main installments, with these spinoffs in fact outnumbering the main entries. However, Atlus considers the latest title in the series, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey on the Nintendo DS, to be the newest main installment, proving to be a solid entry, in a sense feeling closer to older Megami Tensei than recent iterations.
Strange Journey focuses on an American soldier embarking on an Antarctic expedition to visit a strange anomaly known as the Schwarzwelt, in which the researchers ultimately find themselves trapped, having to battle demons that threaten Earth and save the planet from the Schwarzwelt.
Upon starting a new game, the player must answer a series of questions that determines his stat growth throughout the game. The protagonist's Demonica suit is the star of the show, granting him a number of abilities during exploration of the game's massive first-person dungeons, such as finding different types of Forma the player can use back in the Red Sprite's lab to produce items and equipment, finding hidden doors and enemies, and so forth. The Demonica also sports a light that gradually turns red to indicate how close the player is to encountering enemies.
When the player first encounters a specific enemy type, they appear as an indistinguishable pixelated blue blur only revealed after the end of the battle. Demon conversation plays a critical role throughout the game, with the player able to parlay with enemies to bribe them with money and/or items to join the party, get an item, get money, and so forth. The answers to the various philosophical questions the demons pose can vary even with the same enemy type, although a certain Sub App (with the player able to equip the Demonica with a certain number of these throughout the game) can allow the player one screw-up during negotiation.
The player can also attempt to escape from battle, although since this command doesn't work all the time (and certain Sub Apps can reduce the encounter rate if desired), odds are that the player will want to battle the enemy. Strange Journey follows the classic turn-based formula of inputting commands for the player's party, which includes the protagonist and up to three demons, and letting them and the enemy fight it out for a round, with no telling of who will go when, a flaw native to most classic turn-based RPGs.
Commands include attacking normally, with the protagonist able to attack with either a knife/sword or gun; enemies can attack normally as well, though their types of attack are fixed, either physical or gun-type. The hero can also use MP-consuming skills, which depend on his current gun, as can his demons. Exploiting an enemy's weakness will cause other demons of the same alignment (law, chaos, or neutral), and the protagonist if he is of the attacker's alignment, to attack the enemy as well, adding an element of strategy throughout the game. Interestingly, this formula does not work in the enemy's favor.
The protagonist also has a command to swap one demon for another, although doing so will waste his turn, a step down from the superior character-swapping systems of other RPGs such as Final Fantasy X and Breath of Fire IV, and a burden since a demon's death removes it from the player's party in a fight. Each of the player's summoned demons also has the useless Return option, where they return to the hero's demon inventory. Slightly more useful, though, is the Defend option the protagonist and his demons have, which both reduces damage and temporarily nullifies their elemental weaknesses.
Winning a battle nets all participants experience, money, and occasional Forma necessary to manufacture items in the Red Sprite's Lab. When demons level up, they may give the player a present and/or attempt to change one of their skills, which can either be a good or bad thing. The most significant present is a Source that the player can use during the fusion of two (and maybe in the case of Special Fusions more than two) Demons to grant them additional skills. Each Demon can have up to six skills, although when using Sources, the game randomizes the skill sets of the fused Demons (when fusing two Demons without a Source, their new skill set is fixed).
The player can also register Demons in the Compendium and retrieve them for a cost. Furthermore, players can get passwords for registered Demons and share them with other players so they can retrieve these Demons with their registered levels and skill sets. As with other Megami Tensei games, bosses can be walls preventing the player from advancing the game, although the password system can allow players to summon useful Demons to make it past them, for the right price. Overall, despite the nasty spikes in difficulty towards the end, the battle system is solid, with a nice degree of strategy.
Control is just as solid, with easy menus, controls, shopping, and whatnot, and a general good direction on how to advance, though there may be some small spots where players could find themselves lost, since advancing the game sometimes requires finding hidden doors. There's also no quicksave feature, although interaction doesn't leave too much to desire.
Although the story is unique and has different endings depending upon the protagonist's alignment, it's still perhaps the weakest part of the game, since it's somewhat thinly spread out, and scant on character development, with the antagonists having a somewhat ambiguous nature as well. The translation is adequate in spite of some compressed Source names, and overall, the story is neither a reason to play the game nor a repellent.
Shoji Meguro returns to compose Strange Journey's soundtrack, which is somewhat stylistically different from his work in other Megami Tensei games, with most tracks featuring chanting of some sort that adds decent ambience to the tracks, with the standard battle theme, for instance, having a nice epic feel. There are some tracks, such as the boss battle theme, that loop after a short time, but what the music lacks in quantity, it definitely makes up for in quality.
The 3-D dungeon graphics look nice, with most areas having reasonable diversity and very well depicting the strange, sometimes surreal environments of the Schwarzwelt. The character and monster art looks solid as well, although the player's party is invisible in battle, and while enemies are animate, they don't have actual attack animation. Still, the game is largely easy on the eyes.
Finally, the game is fairly lengthy, taking at least forty hours to complete, though things such as sidequests and completing every Accomplishment can stretch this out to well over a hundred hours. Overall, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a solid entry into the Megami Tensei franchise, bringing the series back to its roots while featuring plenty of contemporary tweaks. It does have its flaws, such as some nasty spikes in difficulty and generally being light on plot, although true to its title, it indeed sends players on a strange journey on the Nintendo DS, one that happens to be enjoyable.
+Strategic battle system.
+Exploration can be fun.
+Solid soundtrack and graphics.
-Final bosses can be hard without passwords.
-No quicksave feature.
-Story is a bit thinly spread out.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Playing Time: 40+ Hours