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.