Version tested: DS
Recently, a friend of mine asked me what the attraction was with RPGs, because as a devotee of Call of Duty and FIFA, all he could see was grinding drudgery. After half-heartedly conveying the usual arguments about tactical battles and general escapism and quickly deciding this was just another case of "each to their own", I got sidetracked, discussing the importance of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in Japan. What I didn't expect was his follow-up question: "what's the third most popular RPG series?"
Instinctively I said Pokemon, which in terms of sales figures could even be first, but straight afterwards my thoughts turned to Megami Tensei, a.k.a. MegaTen. Highly successful in Japan but not as popular in the West, this series slightly predates Final Fantasy and includes a staggering number of spin-offs, including Shin Megami Tensei, Devil Summoner, Digital Devil Saga, and Persona. A quick look at my inappropriately named "bookshelves" turns up seven English-language MegaTen games on the PlayStation 2 alone, which incidentally is the same number of incorrectly spelt Armored Core games.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is the second MegaTen game on the DS after last year's Devil Survivor, but rather than being a tactical RPG set on an isometric 3D plane or an action-orientated RPG, Strange Journey harks back to the series' roots of first-person dungeon crawling. The story is also a substantial departure from the anime high-school shenanigans of Persona 3; rather than building relationships and attending class in between Dark Hour combat, you'll find a more mature and grittier experience in Strange Journey.
Essentially, we're in the realms of demonic science fiction, as the game begins with a team of soldiers, engineers and scientists being sent to Antarctica to investigate a strange anomaly called the "Schwarzwelt" which is gradually enveloping the surrounding area. After venturing into this purple-hued dome in hovering APCs everything quickly goes tits-up, as the four vehicles are forced to crash-land by some unknown force. The death toll then quickly racks up as the teams are attacked by demons.
The focus shifts to a nameless soldier on the Red Sprite command ship, who after mysteriously acquiring a Demon Summoning Program which allows him to see the otherwise invisible demons, quickly sets about cleaning house. What follows is an evocative traipse through eight dimensions as the military team search for a way to halt the impeding Earth invasion and ultimately return home.
The plot is fairly text-heavy, with static cut-scenes. The localisation from the original Japanese text has been handled well; the narrative isn't particularly original but is nonetheless absorbing.
But everything in Strange Journey plays second fiddle to the combat system. On the face of it, this is an easy-to-understand, turn-based set-up where the player fights against different types of demons by selecting various attacks and buffs from an immediately familiar menu system. But Atlus mixes up this classic formula with the fusion and summoning systems.
In battle, the player takes control of the human protagonist who, in addition to summoning a party of three demons, can go toe-to-toe with the demonic ranks thanks to his Demonica combat suit. However, getting a demon onto your team isn't a simple case of hurling an endless barrage of brightly coloured balls. Instead, you have to strike a bargain through diplomacy. So by selecting the Talk option the player will stop fighting and start conversing with the demon through two multiple choice questions, and if the demon likes your answers, things will progress to negotiations.
The key to the system lies in the fact that each demon has two inherent alignments: light, neutral or dark, and law, neutral or chaos. So if you're chatting up a demon with a light/law alignment it may be best to describe the Demonica suit as a research tool, whereas a dark/neutral may prefer a more combat-orientated answer. Your own alignment, which starts off as neutral but adjusts to reflect your in-game actions, also has an impact on which type of demons will talk to you, and although the system can sometimes feel hit-and-miss, it nonetheless injects personality into each confrontation.
Despite being less numerous than Nintendo's barrage of Pocket Monsters - whose tally now runs to 495 cutesy creations - MegaTen's back catalogue of otherworldly inhabitants is arguably more diverse and more evocative. With around 318 entries in the demonic Pokedex, Strange Journey has an impressive headcount including classics like the phallic Mara and Misaguji in addition to new creations like Grendel and Manticore. Every demon is also categorised into one of 44 different species. The sources of inspiration for these demons are also incredibly varied, and include everything from Shinto, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu deities, to entities from Greek, Egyptian, Norse, Balinese, Aztec, Babylonian, Canaanite and even Shakespearean mythology.
For those who dislike the idea of multiple choice conversations, the demons can also be procured through Demon Fusion. You can only ever have a maximum of 12 at a time; once you've coerced a few into your service, you can combine two together in an attempt to create a more powerful alternative.
This fusion system is exhaustive, with thousands of different possible combinations, and when you consider all the variables - including the race, level and skills of the fused demons - it'll take many hours of experimentation to breed the best results. Well, either that or a comprehensive online fusion calculator. This also makes Strange Journey an acquired taste; although it's highly accomplished with lots of statistical depth, add on a 70-hour completion time, give or take, and you're looking at a pretty hardcore package.
Furthermore, with Strange Journey being a joint venture between Atlus and Lancarse, it's not surprising to find the first-person dungeons have a striking resemblance to those in Etrian Odyssey. Indeed, as the player moves across the angular 3D landscape on the top screen, the bottom screen automatically maps the world onto a 2D grid, noting key points like empty boxes and doorways. Many of the worlds are also themed around aspects of human sin and our detrimental effect on the planet, with the early Carina sector being a dimension that's just one big shopping mall, whereas the subsequent Delphinus sector is a giant landfill.
The development team has done an excellent job of breaking up the random-battle-infested maps with a number of passive exploration mechanics. These range from the Gate Search program which helps to uncover secret rooms, to the Enemy Search program which can be used to locate rare demons to bolster your team. Demon Summoning aside, Strange Journey has its fair share of RPG staples including health and magic gauges, a levelling system, equippable gear, consumable items, status ailments, currency, the ability to craft new equipment and eight different types of elemental attack.
The game also gives you the freedom to revisit locations for further exploration and level grinding, which is often the best way to build up a team capable of tackling a new sector. The included Mission Log makes sure you never get lost, as a main mission is always active for story progression. Furthermore, conversing with the crew of the Red Sprite and talking to demons in the field will turn up a selection of side-quests which can be completed for extra money and rare equipment.
Strange Journey has a lot of substance, and although its handheld production values don't quite reach the heights of Plantinum's recent Infinite Space, it's a solid RPG with an underlying addiction that grows from one sector to the next. The only criticisms I can of think are the fairly bland wall tiles used to construct the 3D dungeons – a minor issue which is overshadowed by the excellent sprites used in the 2D combat – and the highly repetitive music which steadily becomes chalk-board irritating.
If you can look past a few of Kazuma Kaneko's genital monsters (hey, at least Arioch stayed home this time) and aren't the sort to be turned off a by a hardcore challenge, especially with regard to the last two dungeons, then Strange Journey is a worthy MegaTen game and one of the better RPG experiences on the DS. In many ways it feels like an adult-themed Pokemon, complete with a cast of demons that, though not as adorable as Pikachu and company, nonetheless have their own dark charms. So, atrocious US boxart aside, this is one import worth the extra shipping.
8 / 10
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is out now in North America. There are no plans for a European release.