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Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Though still mostly a cult phenomenon here in the west, the Shin Megami Tensei series is steadily expanding outward. Atlus now hits us with their latest installment of the series, and Nintendo’s handheld proves to be the perfect platform for one truly Strange Journey.

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Devil Survivor was the first time the franchise came to DS, and it was an interesting mash-up of tried-and-true RPG and strategy gameplay that garnered praise from both critics and fans alike. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, however, harkens back to more traditional RPG roots, yet it’s an adventure that is brimming with gameplay goodness.

You take on the role of an elite soldier sent to Antarctica as part of a team investigating a strange and dangerous anomaly code named: Schwarzwelt. Ultimately, your crew ends up trapped within the Schwarzwelt, and it’s left up to you to find a means of escape, as well as discover the true nature of this hell on Earth.

The story of Strange Journey is compelling and poignant, though the dialogue is often filled with adolescent one-liners and gratuitous profanity. The game’s rated M, but the content can be less than mature at times. There are certainly some chilling moments, however, and if you can grin through the cheap stuff, there’s a thrilling adventure here to get caught up in.

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Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the game’s story is how it is weaved into the gameplay. Rather than simply giving players a splotch of dialogue and then sending them on their way to grind, the plot steers you toward new elements of combat and exploration that feel relevant. There are a few text-heavy exchanges between crew members, but these moments never came across as filler. You’ll gain new abilities, as well as insight into your predicament each leg of the way.

At the heart of Strange Journey’s gameplay is your Demonica suit, along with the Demon Summoning Program (DSP) that powers it. When out in the field, the Demonica suit is your lifeline, giving you the ability to map out your surroundings, locate enemies and items, as well as summon and fuse demons. The Shin Megami Tensei series has always revolved around a “collect ‘em all” formula, with demon farming as its shtick. Some folks have labeled the games as being “Pokemon for grown-ups,” though Strange Journey falls more in line with the likes of Dragon Warrior Monsters, to put not too fine a point on the matter.

The devil’s in the details, though, and Strange Journey has lots and lots of meat on its bones. You’ll need to lull demons into your confidence in order to persuade them to join your cause, but you can also use your negotiating skills to acquire items or simply to avoid combat altogether. There’s a bit of trial and error involved in the process, but it’s nice to have meaningful options when it comes to engaging the enemy.

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Your party will generally consist of you and three demons, and you make your way around environments by moving along grid-based paths, á la Etrian Odyssey. Your Demonica suit features an auto-map function, and as the story progresses, you’ll acquire new applications for the suit that will aide you in exploration. It’s an absolutely excellent system, one that cuts through most of the level grinding and unnecessary busy work. The more you encounter or work alongside certain demons, the more you learn about them. Demon data is presented on the bottom screen when in battle, along with any weaknesses and strengths you may have uncovered along the way.

There’s a lot to digest in Strange Journey – various ways to fuse demons, which plays into your strategy on the battlefield – and hunting for elements known as forma can become a consuming part of the gameplay. You’ll constantly be treated to new gear and apps, though Strange Journey comes together as a well-balanced experience that doesn’t rely too heavily on one particular device.

Combat is fairly straightforward, presented from a first-person perspective similar to the Dragon Quest games of yore. Elemental strengths and weaknesses, status effects, as well as various spells and skills – all the standard RPG fare is pretty much here. Combat is fun, though, and doled out accordingly. The dungeons are interesting and enjoyable to navigate, and there are ample demons eager to put you to work on side quests.

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On the production front, Strange Journey is one heck-of-a-tight package. The menus are attractive and easy to sift through, with loads of new log entries appearing in your DSP from time to time. There’s lots to see and do in the game, and though there seem to be quite a few sprites recycled from Devil Survivor, the overall visual presentation is quite lovely. Dungeons consist of detailed, 3D/2D environments that are varied up nicely, and the few CG cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game make Strange Journey feel like a complete RPG package.

I found the sound design to be especially pleasing, as it’s chock-full of tasteful sound effects and moody themes. The breadth of music is quite robust, and themes are matched up well with the story and gameplay at hand; battles are exciting, whereas the music that accompanies most character interactions aboard your team’s ship feeds a vibe of frightened desperation.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a wonderful follow up to last year’s Devil Survivor, and it will likely prove a to be a better value for fans hungry for a more conventional-RPG experience. The dialogue can occasionally be a stumbling block, but the underlying theme and gameplay ease past any bumps in the road. The game has its own quirky nature, though, and some folks might not fully appreciate its brand of monster collecting. Strange Journey does its own thing, but boy, does it do it well. If you’re looking for an interesting challenge that will keep you rapt from start to finish, this is one adventure you won’t want to miss.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in August 2008.

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