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Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: Cartridge
Release: US 03/23/10



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You'll need 'em.
 
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Whoo! Extra attacks!
 
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Status effects are still big in SMT.
 
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Yes, that's you, with the evil eyebrows.
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John McCarroll
Hands-On Preview
01/01/10
John McCarroll

The Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series and all of its spinoffs are tailor-made for the core RPG fan, and that's simply the way that we like them. All of the titles with subtitles or that are spinoffs tend to change up the way that things are played, and the numbered entries - most recently Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for the PS2 - stick to the tried and true method of demon fusing, collecting, and conversing. While it may just be called Strange Journey, this DS title should very well be named Shin Megami Tensei IV, because it's right up the same alley as its PS2 predecessor. There's a lot that's different here, such as the old-school first-person dungeon crawling, the science fiction atmosphere, and the search for items with the "Demonica" while out in the world, but it keeps to its roots. That's a good thing, because the title's shaping up to be just as good for the core gamer as the rest of the series.

There's an anomaly that's formed at the south pole of the Earth, and its slowly swallowing up everything in sight, expanding at a growing rate. Probes that enter have never been able to exit, but they've sent back some telemetry. That telemetry? It shows human-like settlements, what looks like a red light district, a castle, and a number of other things. These readings couldn't possibly be right... could they? The nations of the planet decide that they have to stop this expanding threat and send a force of four ships loaded with the world's finest brains and brawn to take it down. Once they enter, everything goes to hell - almost literally. All four ships suffer massive failures and the main character must venture out into the world to fight the demons... with the help of a program given by a benevolent outsider.

The main character and his allies wear a suit called a Demonica, which can be upgraded and expanded with programs and other items. It's with these that players can talk to and recruit demons, find objects called Forma, and just kick butt and take names. Rather than simply have standard shops, players need to acquire Forma out in the world to fuse weapons, armor, and items together. While Macca (SMT currency) is required to create these items, players will also need to converse with demons to get these Forma on top of finding them out there in the world. Conversing with demons isn't the easiest thing in Strange Journey, though...

Longtime fans of the Shin Megami Tensei series knows how the core gameplay here goes: fight demons across a barren world, talk to them, recruit them to your side, fuse them, and make more badass demons. This is intact in Strange Journey, although there are a couple of new twists, as not all demons are easily identified or conversed with. The first time players encounter a demon, they'll appear as static and can't be conversed with easily (it's a crapshoot of random options if you try). The more times a particular demon is encountered, the more the player learns about that demon. Conversations are somewhat varied, and different types of demons speak in different ways, but sometimes talking to the same type of demon over and over gets boring. Demons also have alignments in Strange Journey, so it can be difficult to recruit a demon on the opposite end of the spectrum from the player's chosen alignment.

These alignments carry directly into the battle system, as well. As opposed to Digital Devil Saga's and Nocturne's Press Turn System, where players get more turns if they hit weak points on enemies, Strange Journey ties in weakness to alignment. If you have a neutral demon use the right spell, all the other neutral demons in your party will damage the enemy as well. It makes the setup of your party all the more important, since it's not just about putting the demons with the most power directly into your party. The battle system, aside from that caveat, is pretty similar to a standard RPG battle system. Still, it makes it that much deeper and fun to explore the world, since you've gotta catch 'em all... or something.

There's a lot under the hood in this DS title, and it's a fully fledged title in the series despite being on a portable platform. I've spent about ten hours so far with my preview build and I've loved every moment of it - but it is a Shin Megami Tensei title. If you make dumb moves, you're going to die, and I spent a lot of time walking around with dead demons trying to run from every battle. It's tough, but what SMT game hasn't been? If you're a hardcore RPG fan, this game will be right up your alley, and it very well may be one of the best handheld RPGs I've played yet.



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