Though Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) games have been available in the West since the initial 1996 Playstation release of the first Persona spinoff title, localized as Revelations: Persona, the series failed to garner much popular attention until the 2007 release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (P3) for the PS2. Though the PS2 titles Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (2004), Digital Devil Saga (2004) and its 2005 sequel, were appreciated by a close knit community (which included myself), it was with Persona 3, that Atlus was able to truly assemble a following. The third title in the SMT franchise's sister series combined the time tested hallmarks of challenging dungeon exploration and addictive monster collection with an endearing pop-Anime aesthetic. Though P3 maintained the dark atmosphere and mature storytelling of its predecessors, it was by many accounts a more warm, welcoming, and accessible role playing game. This overall feeling would be pursued further for the equally well received 2008 sequel Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, and the DS strategy title Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. This edition of First Impressions, however, is about the series' newest entry, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (SJ) for DS. This fresh but seemingly regressive title is an odd step for the people at Atlus, but is no less enjoyable than its cousins.
In many ways, Strange Journey boldly abandons some of the alterations that lent the previous three series entries such broad appeal. The wide-eyed, stereotypical, Anime-style characters are replaced by the unique renderings of series veteran Kazuma Kaneko. For the music, versatile composer Shoji Meguro abandons the light hip-hop and catchy J-pop flavor that stood out in the previous three titles for a collection of truly dark, foreboding tracks that feature tribal drum rhythms and a disturbing chorus of unearthly chants. The most notable alteration, however, is SJ's return to the classic first-person perspective for its dungeon exploration and battle sequences. In many ways, this latest SMT title represents a nostalgic revisiting of the series' roots. The good news is that the challenge, style, and tight, addictive gameplay that has always been part of the franchise has not gone anywhere. Unfortunately this traditional and very bare-bones approach may not resonate well with those who first got on board with the pop-infused Persona 3.
(Strange Journey returns to the traditional first-person view)
For those unfamiliar with the SMT franchise, the pervading concept of nearly all of the games can be described as "dark Pokemon." The series is obsessed with mythology, folklore and demonology. Players are generally tasked with preventing or dealing with the aftermath of some sort of biblical scale apocalypse by taking advantage of their ability to communicate with or control a variety of demons that have been assembled from any number of legends and religions from around the world. These creatures are collected, and trained, and can be fused to create new, more powerful types. The themes of the games usually revolve around human civilization and the psyche, with the demons often resembling elements of the human condition of which the developers have a grim opinion. SJ distinguishes itself from its predecessors by filling its world with technology. This sci-fi setting, however, does not detract from the game's atmospheric accomplishments. I have caught my own heart racing during several play sessions in the past week. The bizarre music, the curious world around me, and the impending challenge of the next tough fight often fills me with a palpable dread.
Metroid like twist on an otherwise cut-and-dry RPG formula.
Battle in SJ is a standard turn-based affair. The screen displays the enemies as stylish, lightly animated sprites. If it is your first time encountering a type of demon, they will appear as nondescript blocks of code. The more a certain variety of enemy is fought, the more information, such as their elemental affinities, is gradually revealed about them. Players build a party of four that consists of themselves and three demons from their collected roster. One of SJ's unique characteristics, the "Alignment" system, is unfortunately one of my few complaints with the title. Taking advantage of a method of classification with its roots in classic Dungeons & Dragons rules, players and demons are given an alignment based on their characteristics (chaotic, lawful, or neutral). If an character deals damage that takes advantage
of an opponent's particular weakness, any other party members with a matching alignment will hop in and hammer the foe with a "back up" attack. The more similarly aligned members, the more opportunity to launch bonus hits. This system allows for considerable strategy, but I cannot shake the feeling that it is extremely limiting. SJ is a difficult and unforgiving title, and without resorting to grueling hours of grinding, it is almost impossible to win against stronger foes without taking advantage of "back up" attacks. As a result of this tactical emphasis, it is advisable to make alignments your foremost consideration when building a team. I am no longer able to use the demons I want to use, but am often forced to take particular creatures into battle simply because of their compatibility with the rest of my team. This system seems an odd choice on the part of the developers for a game in a series so often associated with free-range customization.
At roughly seven hours into the adventure, I can say that my first impressions of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, are positive. The scientific, tech-focused story is a fresh take on the long running franchise, and the step back to the classic first-person dungeon crawling formula is a welcome return to the series' hardcore roots. Those RPG fans who expect to pick up a title and play from beginning to end with little resistance, however, may want to beware. SJ is a harsh game that moves at a snail's pace and violently punishes the tiniest tactical mistake. The casual player, and those with short attention spans, should not embark on this particular journey. Even with my complaints about the restrictive qualities of the "alignment" system considered, the dedicated dungeon crawling enthusiast in me cannot help but give Strange Journey an enthusiastic thumbs up. Atlus's usual generous choice to include a soundtrack CD with every launch copy makes the recommendation all the easier. Those of us hoping for a Western release of Etrian Odyssey 3 will find many an hour of challenge here to keep us busy. Strange Journey slaps on a fresh coat of paint, and provides a slow moving but satisfying look at at the fundamentals of a long running, celebrated series. This approach is something that few role-playing enthusiast should have trouble getting behind.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga
Shin Megami Tensei Digital Devil Saga 2
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona(an excellent updated port of the original Persona for the PSP)
Shin-Megamitensei Illustrations (Shin Megamitensei Posutaa Bukku) (in Japanese)(an attractive collection of Kazuma Kaneko's illustration for the SMT series)