The Megami Tensei is a very popular JRPG franchise in Japan. While it does have a strong cult following in other parts of the world, it's still lesser known than its spinoff series Shin Megami Persona. Yet Megami Tensei has stuck around for a long time for a reason. The games are wonderfully deep and complex and have a lot going for them. However, for many players, including myself, they may just have too many layers that they might be borderline impenetrable. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey was released on the Nintendo DS in 2009 in Japan (2010 in the America). In an interesting move, it has now been remade as an enhanced port on the Nintendo 3DS, entitled Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux.
In a refreshing twist on the usual teen protagonist and drama angst normally presented in this series, Strange Journey focuses on a militaristic science fiction story. A massive black quantum singularity appears in Antarctica and begins to slowly spread across the globe. In a few months, the continent is consumed and it's only a matter of time before the entire Earth is swallowed up. A secret task force of the United Nations dubs the singularity "The Schwarzwelt" (which is German for the "black world"). With time ticking down, an elite military and scientific team is quickly put together to dive deep within the Schwarzwelt to investigate the phenomenon and hopefully reverse its spread. Inside the anomaly, the crew discovers that the Schwarzwelt reflects the worst aspects of humanity back at them, including a battlefield, a garbage dump, a red light district, and a shopping mall (representing greed). The team is aided with high tech weapons, armor, transport, and artificially intelligent computers to get the job done.
The story takes many twists and turns, and is quite engrossing at parts with a lot of fun surprises along the way. New story content was added for the Redux edition, including a mysterious woman Alex who's actively hunting you down for the sole purpose of murder. There are also three new endings and a huge new dungeon to explore. Any fans of the original game would find quite a lot here to appreciate. Personally, I appreciated more science fiction and military elements. I would be pleased if the series experimented with new narratives like this more often.
In terms of gameplay, Strange Journey is a dungeon crawler of the most classic sensibilities. The environments within the Schwarzwelt are seen and navigated from the first-person perspective which is interesting at first, but essentially means you will be spending the majority of the game walking down hallways with repeating textures. It can become quite monotonous and some of the areas you explore look rather washed out and stretched across the screen. The first-person exploration is clunky and moving from one area to another isn’t always fluid. Sometimes it feels more like you are piloting a bulldozer rather than controlling a nimble assault soldier.
As you traverse, a 2D map is displayed on the bottom screen. Explored environments are automatically mapped out, with highlights being placed for unopened containers and doorways. The environments contain traps, including pits, shifting floors and floor tiles which damage the player if stepped on. I enjoyed this aspect as these dungeon can be quite labyrinthine and the cartographer in me rejoiced. I had to have every square inch mapped out even when I knew going through a one-way door would set me back ten minutes. The dungeons can be quite complicated with many layers and a lot of twists and turns.
During exploration, you will encounter a host of allies (almost all of them are fellow soldiers from your exploration team) as well as enemies. You see, the Schwarzwelt is full of demons swarming all over it. Battling with these demons is unfortunately random - and I'm not the biggest fan of random battles. Combat is turn-based, allowing you and your allies to gang up on foes the moment their weakness is exposed. Using spells that align to these weaknesses will enable your allies to team up attacks to deal massive damage which is absolutely critical to success. Combat is straightforward but still more complex than you would imagine. Different cycles of the moon affect attacks, and weaknesses and strengths must be taken into account, as well a host of other factors, including alignments.
While in combat, you can attempt to lure demons to your side, making them your allies. This is queued simply by selecting a prompt to talk to demons rather than fighting them. Trying to talk to demons is almost like a mini game, involving a conversation tree somewhat like in a dating simulator, but I found it incredibly frustrating. The randomness of the required answers was irritating. Sometimes a demon would react differently to the same answer leading them to straight up attack me. Other times I would have to flatter them and then insult them to their faces right after. Sometimes I would have to act boastful but then in the next question the demon wanted me to be bashful. I could find no rhyme or reason to how this works, even when taking the alignment system into consideration (there are light, neutral, and dark demons which react based upon your own alignment). I'm going to give the game the benefit of the doubt and assume I was just too dense to figure it out. A part of me still thinks there's a bit too much randomness going on with talking to demons.
Once you have recruited these demons, they are yours to command. You can even fuse them with other demons to make new ones. It's quite similar to a Pokémon game, really. There are over 300 demons to collect with a host of types, strengths, weaknesses and special attacks. But then you devolve the demons to their atomic particles and mash them together with another one to create a new creature. So, it's considerably darker than Pokémon. The offspring will have better stats than the original demons as well as inherit their skills. The catch is, though, that when you fuse two demons together, the result can't be greater than your own level. Therefore, it's also wise to keep your original demons around for a while. As you use them, they will level up and learn new attacks and spells all on their own, so it isn't always necessary to fuse demons to get the best team.
There's a lot of charm in Strange Journey Redux. As you explore the map, little cutscenes will play out with your fellow troops. You can also find items around the map to craft new equipment and weapons. You can even discover friendly demons that will assign you side quests for bonuses. Exploration is rewarding and fun, but it's dragged down by the random battles which appear too often to my liking.
The Redux version features a lot of quality-of-life improvements. For example, there are Japanese voice-overs, better visuals, three different difficulty levels, 20 save slots, and the ability to save in the field. Unfortunately, there's no English dub but while I cannot understand Japanese, the quality of the voice acting seemed superb for a 3DS game. I was thankful for new difficulty levels as the game is hard, extremely hard. I wasn't able to get through the first dungeon without hours of grinding. I know there must have been a better way to do it, involving an extensive analysis of weaknesses and equipment prioritization, but I'm not enough of a power gamer to really appreciate the nuances.
Overall, if you like difficult dungeon crawlers with a sharp challenge, there's an amazing amount of content packed in Strange Journey Redux. Personally, I found it a bit too difficult and tedious to appreciate the gameplay, but I thought the story was amazing and surprisingly deep. Overall, my feelings of the game are very mixed. I can appreciate how well constructed it is and how deep its many layers go, but personally I didn't find it as much fun to play as I hoped that I would. Don't let my star rating fool you, though. If you like this sort of game, I have a feeling this will be a slam dunk for you.