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Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux

"Players who embark on this supernatural sci-fi tale will find a serious, thought-provoking narrative intermixed with challenging dungeon-crawling gameplay and an addictive demon collecting and demon fusion mechanic."

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is exactly what is advertised: a strange, phenomenal journey into the unknown. Players who embark on this supernatural sci-fi tale will find a serious, thought-provoking narrative intermixed with challenging dungeon-crawling gameplay and an addictive demon collecting and demon fusion mechanic.

Set sometime in the Earth's near future, a mysterious dimensional phenomenon known as the Schwarzwelt appears in Antarctica and threatens to very quickly engulf the entire world. An international investigation team comprised of the best and brightest is sent to investigate the Schwarzwelt from the inside. They end up finding angels and demons waging war on one another for the fate of both the world and the humans who reside there. In true Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) fashion, the crucial decision of who to side with falls on you, the player, as a nameless member of the investigation team. Will you ultimately pick a route with either the more lawful-minded angels, the chaotic demons, or have humanity solve their own problems?

The narrative in SMT: Strange Journey Redux is a thrilling, intense one about extremes. The idea that humanity brought the Schwarzwelt on themselves through their tendency towards self-destructive actions was compelling, and I found it especially relevant given so many of the more troubling headlines we see today. Personally, I loved the science fiction undertones intermixed with the supernatural, though I know that is certainly a bit different from the norm as far as SMT storylines go. Another thing that is unique is that the crew all consists of older, more mature characters, which I felt fit the general tone of the game's storyline really well.

Because this game is so focused on extremes, all of your decisions and the endings tend to never be that simple or easy. As such, the characters represent philosophical ideals instead of feeling like actual people. I found them to be likable, but also hard to approach. Zelenin and Jimenez both have moments when they stand out, but I often found those moments to be when their actions almost went counter to the routes they represented (Law and Chaos, specifically); for example, Jimenez's fondness for Bugaboo and the main character's friendship, despite the "only the strong survive" mentality he so often took. Gore is an even more extreme example of this philosophical modeling, given his otherworldly connections later on in the plot. Even Alex, who seems to represent humanity's selfishness even in the face of extreme change and danger, can sometimes suffer from this. I came to like the characters all in their own ways and I was truthfully torn when it came to having to decide their fates, but it is in a different sort of manner to how you might grow attached to, say, the Persona characters (to name another SMT spinoff). The only characters that truly seem to be "real" in a sense are the crew members of the Red Sprite, and they're pretty minor in the plot's grand scheme.

Dungeon-crawling and demon fusion are the staples behind SMT: Strange Journey Redux's challenging gameplay. This is best exemplified in the plot itself, as the player's character wears a special suit of armor called a Demonica. This suit gives the player access to the Demon Summoning Program, thus giving them the ability to summon and control demons to fight in the party. Having a strong set of demons at your side is invaluable in the trials that await gamers over the course of SMT: Strange Journey Redux. Demons are acquired by one of three ways: talking to a particular demon during a battle in a demon negotiation; fusing existing demons in your roster together in order to create a new demon that inherits the skills of its predecessors; or generating passwords that summon demons you can then put into your party lineup. Players can even share these passwords with fellow gamers, so others may call forth your tailored demons during their own playthrough if they desire. Demon negotiations are quite a bit of work as every demon has its own distinct personality. Winning a demon over during a negotiation is no easy feat, but it is definitely worth trying if you wish to use acquired demons in the fusion process since you can create some truly powerful allies! You can spend a great deal of time fusing demons together, especially if you're looking for a future demon to inherit a particularly useful skill or ability. I found the demon collecting and fusion mechanics to be highly addictive, and I put quite a bit of thought and strategy behind my reasoning for fusing certain demons together since I always needed to be mindful of which skills or statistics would work best in a particular dungeon or boss fight. While I didn't take full advantage of the demon password system until the final portion of the game, I truly appreciated its implementation during some very challenging boss fights.

Dungeon-crawling in SMT: Strange Journey Redux can be a time-consuming affair as every new map is complex and often features more pathways and puzzles than one can shake a stick at. Adding to the nuances already in play in these puzzle-laden expeditions is the fact that the player's character is tasked with retrieving Forma, a special item that is either found lying around the various dungeon areas or that is being held by hostile demons. Forma allows you to gain access to new items and equipment, which is vitally important as the only way your character's abilities and skillsets improve or alter is through upgrading your Demonica and weaponry. Some of these upgrades include special Apps for the Demonica that gives the player entry to areas of dungeons that otherwise would be completely blocked off. These dungeon altering special Apps may simply unlock doors or deactivate traps, or they may shift the layout of an entire area so that you gain access to new terrain.

It is easy to look at the sheer amount of things to do in SMT: Strange Journey Redux and feel overwhelmed, but every new puzzle blocking the way has a cleverly crafted solution waiting to be uncovered. I often found myself getting overly frustrated with a dungeon's design or the tediousness associated with level-grinding, and had to shut off my 3DS for a while to avoid throwing it against a wall. Then when I'd go back a little while later, I was in sheer awe when I figured out what I needed to do in order to actually advance. There are certain areas that are much more frustrating than others (looking at you, Eridanus), but the sense of accomplishment and relief I experienced when I surpassed those challenges made me feel downright giddy. Thankfully, while there are more traditional save points populating the dungeons, the game allows for a quicksave feature when you're out on the field, which is great for those with only a limited amount of time to play. I found that to be a very handheld-friendly feature, especially since you will no doubt be spending quite a bit of time level-grinding in each new area.

As Strange Journey Redux is an enhanced 3DS port of a 2009 DS title, there is new content to be had: new demons were added to the existing roster, Japanese voice acting was included, and the character designs were revamped. The in-game graphics are serviceable and haven't been altered much from the original Nintendo DS release, but the updated character artwork and illustrated scenes are quite gorgeous. The musical score, both tracks from the original release and the new route pieces, are well-done and add to the atmosphere of the game wonderfully. Naturally, the biggest addition is the extra story content as the game's total endings are brought up from the original three (Law, Chaos, Neutral) to six (New Law, New Chaos, and New Neutral). Because the storyline is built upon moral and philosophical extremes, the new story content expands on that notion to make further commentary on the original game's narrative and endings. In a way, it's a creative approach to the additional plotlines, though it isn't without its fair share of weaknesses either.

Perhaps the biggest of these weaknesses is the fact that the Redux content is largely unconnected to the main game. Newcomer Alex does in fact show up in the original story a few times, but most of her scenes are entirely skippable if one opts to not do the Womb of Grief dungeon, easily Redux's biggest addition. The Womb of Grief has levels that can only be advanced depending on where the player is in the main story and what Apps are available to you, but going back to it time and again feels as though it takes you out of the main plot. The Womb of Grief also has several dungeon features found throughout the main quest's dungeons, such as warp puzzles and invisible floors, though very rarely do they feel as well-implemented as they do in the main game's areas. I often felt like taking the time to traverse this lengthy optional dungeon was a chore, at least up until the later portions when everything comes together in both the main plot and Alex's quest.

That being said, partaking in SMT: Strange Journey Redux's new content is the only way to access the new endings, so it is worthwhile it if you wish to see them instead of any of the previous ones. As with the old endings, the new ones are sure to garner mixed reactions from gamers. I reached the New Neutral Ending myself on a blind playthrough, though I apparently teetered quite a bit between Law and Chaos with my decisions. I knew the New Neutral Ending wasn't quite as well-liked by some compared to the previous Neutral ending, but I rather enjoyed the realistic way it covered the final story moments of the game and the way it approached my character's moral neutrality. Someone might not like the new routes at all, or vice-versa. The endings are purely up to one's interpretation, however the fact that there are now six endings is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Special mention should also be made of the new final boss, whom I came to have quite a few feelings for as a result of several lengthy and difficult first attempts. Eventually, I devised a strategy that worked well against them, but I certainly felt I'd earned that New Neutral Ending when all was said and done!

All in all, I really enjoyed the time I spent with SMT: Strange Journey Redux. The plot and characters really make you think about philosophy and morality and, as a result, I became addicted to playing just a "little more" every time I saw another story scene. It's a game that stayed with me well after having finished it, and the sense of accomplishment that I felt at surpassing the many challenges that awaited me during my playthrough was incredible. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux isn't a game for everyone, but those with the patience and resolve to trek into the Schwarzwelt will find a journey well worth taking.


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