I can't help but wonder why it is that the games on the Nintendo DS seem to be the most addictive of them all. We're in a console generation where titles like Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 2 are recent releases and titles like Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas are on the horizon. Despite that, my hands have been glued to my Nintendo DS with Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. Sure, it's not the most graphically impressive game I've ever played, and the story leaves a lot to be desired, but Strange Journey is nothing if it's not addictive. For the same reason that kids across schoolyards (and, yes, me too) are playing Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver, hardcore RPG fans will play the newest Shin Megami Tensei. It may not have a numeral in the title, but this game really is Shin Megami Tensei IV, and if you're at all a fan of previous games in the series, you really should snag this game.
Strange Journey takes place in a near-future Earth where there has been a large void, called the Schwarzwelt (that's essentially "black world" in German), slowly encroaching upon the land of Antarctica toward the habitable parts of the planet. The world's governments have sent probes into this expanding darkness, only to receive images back of shopping malls, red light districts, and other signs of human civilization and nothing else. Concluding that these probes are simply incorrect, there is a crack team of scientists and soldiers who are given state of the art technology to enter this emptiness. They wear suits, called Demonica, which can be augmented by different software and sub-routines.
Upon entering the Schwarzwelt, the four ships are struck with a great deal of turbulence and are separated. The Red Sprite, the ship containing your protagonist, crash-lands and is discovered to be filled with invisible demons. However, found in the survivors' Demonica suits is a program that allows them to see, speak to, and summon these same demons. It's up to the crew of the Red Sprite to find the rest of the survivors, discover the secrets of the world of the demons, which is indeed a world of shopping malls and red light districts, and, of course, save (or destroy) the world.
The overall plot and dialogue is less than stellar, but that's not where players will derive their enjoyment of Strange Journey. The gameplay is core, but that's not to say that the gameplay and the story are not inextricably linked. Players' choices in Strange Journey matter – they directly affect the Dungeons and Dragons-style alignment of the player character, and being aligned with Law, Chaos, or Neutrality is a of some importance in Strange Journey. Alignment is a direct contributor to two of the big parts of the battle system: demon negotiation and demon weaknesses. The battle system itself is straightforward for those who are familiar with most old-school RPG battle systems. It seems like it's a bit of a step backwards, as it doesn't have the nuances of the Press Turn system or the depth of Persona's battle system, but there is still a lot to take into consideration.
Players will spend much of their time in battle negotiating with the same demons that they fight, as the only way to fight demons is demons. So it's like fighting fire with fire... but with demons. Negotiating with demons is a multi-step process, where the protagonist must feel out the demon by answering multiple-choice questions. Sometimes, it seems like it's more than a bit random, as many demon types will not react the same from encounter to encounter, but it's a much more gratifying process than simply throwing a pokéball at an enemy to capture it. Alignment matters here, as a demon of the same alignment of the player is much more likely to play nice and be recruited. It's not just recruitment that players can get, as they can also negotiate for items or for macca (SMT's currency).
Finding these demons isn't as easy as it first seems, as the main character can only see these creatures through his Demonica suit. When new demons are encountered, they simply appear as static, and it's up to you to figure out what kind of attacks are the most effective against the newest demon's type. This is probably the most difficult part of the game – especially considering that, like previous SMT games, the death of the protagonist is a game over. There's no using a revival bead on him. As such, the player character might find himself wiped out by an errant attack that the armor he has equipped makes him weak to. It's a crap shoot, certainly, but there hasn't been a game in this series that hasn't killed you eight ways till Sunday in every dungeon. It's a difficult game, absolutely.
Once you've accumulated all of these demons, the alignment still matters. Bringing together a party that's all neutral, all law, or all chaos can bring wonderful benefits, as they will now obtain bonus attacks. Unlike the Press Turn system, which allowed extra turns for attacks that exploited weaknesses, or the Persona battle system, where strong attacks cause the enemies to lose turns, Strange Journey makes attacks that expose a weakness work in the simplest way: they hit harder the more demons in your party you have of the same alignment. These extra attacks are more than worthwhile, and at many points in the game, they can be much more effective than standard attacks. Crafting a team that meshes well and exploits the weaknesses of different demons is incredibly important.
That brings us to the most fun portion of Strange Journey: Demon Fusion. Unlike its child-like compatriot in Pokémon, it's not simply about going out and finding the right demons, it's about putting them together into freakish abominations that are even stronger than the demons that comprise their bodies. It's old hat for those familiar with Persona or SMT: Nocturne, but it works incredibly well in the portable space and it remains great fun in this iteration of the series. All the standbys, such as fusion accidents and special fusions, are there; there's not much here that's different from the demon fusion in the rest of the series.
One thing that is different is the inventory and equipment system. Rather than simply buying things with macca – after all, you're in a world filled with demons that don't particularly like you – players must find different components out in the world, either from scanning anomalies inside the Schwarzwelt or by defeating demons, bringing them back to the ship, and crafting them inside the ship's lab. It can take a bit of hunting to find the right types of components to make just what you want, but there is a gamut of things for players to customize or create. Armor affects a player's defense and strengths/weaknesses, weapons change a player's attack type and strength, and sub-apps change minor things about the player's experience. These are all limited by internal systems, but they're all incredibly fun to tinker with.
There's no doubt that the core gameplay of SMT: Strange Journey is fantastic, but the other aspects of the game aren't quite as strong. The graphics are slightly above average, and the first-person dungeon view shows some of the low-resolution textures. Things never look bad, but there are games on the DS that look better. Many of the 2D sprites do look great, although the eyebrows of the main character are more than a bit freaky, but many seem under-detailed, especially compared to many of the 3D models from other iterations of the series. The music is fairly non-descript – I can't remember a single song from the game, positive or negative. All the sound effects portray things effectively, although similarly to the music, there's not much that stands out.
While the aesthetic elements of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey are only slightly above-average, the incredibly strong gameplay elements make the game so addictive that this doesn't matter. If you love RPGs and don't mind seeing quite a few game over screens, there isn't much to dislike about Strange Journey. All of the systems are simple enough to grasp for the handheld gamer, but are deep enough to be incredibly worthwhile. Atlus has struck a great balance with Strange Journey, and they've crafted a game that's more than addictive. There's not much about the game that's new, but that doesn't keep the gameplay from being absolutely fantastic. If you're a fan of any previous games with the Atlus logo on the front, you'll want this one.