Shameful Voyage

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot

HIGH A new Shin Megami Tensei title!

LOW Too bad it's terrible.

WTF A poop demon came out of the ship's toilet. I guess that's not all that WTF for Shin Megami Tensei.

Before I begin to discuss Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, a history lesson is in order. 

The Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series began its life on shaky foundations. The first couple of installments—which appeared on the Super Famicom and never made it to American shores—were unmercifully difficult treks through repetitive first-person dungeons peppered with unremarkable random battles. The central hook of recruiting the same enemies encountered with shocking frequency was nifty, but it did little to raise the overall package above mediocrity. 

What really gave the series legs was its unique setting. With contemporary Tokyo as a backdrop, SMT introduced players to a world where demons roamed the streets and the apocalypse was imminent. The forces of creation warred over what form the world would take after its destruction and players could align themselves with whichever faction they chose, or even remain neutral. Considering that most RPGs were still knights and kingdoms back in the 16-bit era, it's no surprise that SMT managed to pick up a lot of interest.

It wasn't until SMT: Nocturne, the third installment of the series and the first to see an American release, that Atlus saw fit to modernize the gameplay. By the time of the PS2, games had come a long way from knights and kingdoms, and Atlus likely understood that setting alone would no longer be enough to carry the series. With the introduction of the deceptively simple press-turn system (a double-edged sword that awarded combatants extra turns for exploiting enemy weaknesses) Nocturne transformed the series from an intriguing sideshow to an A-list contender. 

Enter Strange Journey. Atlus has not only disregarded the lessons learned since the seminal Nocturne, but also created something that is even more of a chore to play than the series's earliest incarnations.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot

First, and most offensively, the press-turn system has been axed. It's not an exaggeration to say that press-turn (used in nearly every R&D 1 developed game since Nocturne) was primary in elevating the series above a standard turn-based grindfest. The Co-Op Attacks that have replaced it are no substitute, and in some ways are worse than having nothing at all. Like the press-turn, they still revolve around exploiting enemy weakness, only instead of gaining extra turns, party members of the same alignment (Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral) will join together to add a lump of damage on top. Simply put, hitting an enemy weakness causes extra damage, which is incredibly standard practice for RPGs.

What makes Co-Op Attacks worse than having no mechanic at all is that hitting enemy weaknesses does very little extra damage by itself, often only one or two points. This means that players must have a party of similarly aligned demons if they hope to have any success against the game's incredibly vigorous bosses. In turn, the pool of potential demons that a party can be comprised of is significantly limited. Can't find a group of adequately leveled Chaotic demons to cover all your elemental bases? Too bad.

Theoretically, as in all SMT games, the player could collect and fuse demons together until finding one that fills the gaps in their arsenal, but once again Strange Journey has brought unwelcome, regressive changes to the formula.

Typically, a fused demon inherits three or four random skills from its "parent" demons. Repeatedly canceling and restarting the same fusion was the only way to ensure that the resultant demon had the right skills for the job. There are obvious problems with this, the foremost being that it could take dozens of retries until achieving the desired result. Strange Journey attempts to resolve this problem by giving a fused demon exact inherited skills—decided by an esoteric, invisible spreadsheet—that will not vary no matter how many times the same fusion is attempted. While no longer having to play the X, O game is nice, it also became nearly impossible to get the demon I wanted with the skills I needed. Too often I would fuse a high-level, magically inclined demon for healing purposes but end up only with a low-level fire spell instead.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Screenshot

In an effort to give players a little more agency in this process, Strange Journey introduces Demon Sources. After a demon has been fully analyzed—either by being fought many times or spending a stint in the party—they will cough up a Demon Source. These Sources can be used as a third component in fusions, and they will confer a decent spread of the abilities that the originating demon had. While this might have been a workable solution to my party building needs, Demon Sources are in incredibly short supply, with each demon giving up only a single one. There is a infinitesimal chance that a demon will give more sources upon each level up, but the chances are so remote and the time investment is so large that it's not worth the effort.

The flow of the game exacerbates these already serious problems. The scenario of Strange Journey follows a group of elite soldiers and scientists as they explore a mysterious, otherworldly void that has suddenly appeared on the south pole. This void, like many voids in many games, is organized into discrete levels. Once a level is conquered, players move on to the next, and the difficulty of the demons jumps accordingly. Rather than having a smooth arc of difficulty where the party can gradually adapt to new challenges, the challenge of Strange Journey is more like a steep staircase. Once a new level is reached, I could count on my entire party being abruptly obsolete, and would have to spend an annoying amount of time grinding—for levels, for demons, for Sources—just to reach basic survivability.

That one word, grinding, describes Strange Journey better than any other. Even purchasing basic supplies such as healing items requires grinding, not just for cash but for the materials—known as formas—to create each item. Formas can randomly appear scattered across the map, drop from enemies, or be received during conversations with demons. Naturally, there are formas that can only be attained from one of those specific methods, as well as items that require multiple formas in differing quantities. After a certain point I couldn't help but wonder if the game wasn't some kind of malicious joke made at the player's expense.

The list of issues continues. The entire game plays out in the first-person perspective of the first two SMTs, and is still is about as exciting as navigating a maze on graph paper. The only reward for moving to new levels of the void is more obnoxious hazards—damage floors, conveyor belts, pitfalls, and completely darkened rooms that even the main character's onboard computer can't map. Even the narrative has its sights set firmly rearward, dumping the multifaceted philosophies of Nocturne and returning to the Lawful/Chaotic dichotomy of the originals. Honestly, I could go on.

As a dungeon crawler, Strange Journey is abominable. As an SMT, it's unforgivable. Rating: 3.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Nintendo DS. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. The game was not completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, fantasy violence, language, partial nudity, sexual themes and is rated M for Mature. The M rating seems unwarranted here. All of those descriptors are present in some quantity, but the graphical fidelity of the DS doesn't allow for any of it to come off as particularly offensive or gory. I think mature teens could handle the game without any problems.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are no significant audio cues to be aware of. All pertinent information is presented clearly onscreen. 

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11 Comments on "Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Review"

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Anonymous
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Anonymous
2 years 2 months ago

Kinda late to comment here but:
“The first couple of installments—which appeared on the Super Famicom and never made it to American shores—were unmercifully difficult treks”
…you never actually played these games, did you?

JohnRayJr
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JohnRayJr
5 years 3 months ago

This review really sums up how tedious Strange Journey is compared to the best games in the series. Thanks!

Anonymous 2
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Anonymous 2
5 years 4 months ago

I strongly disagree with your opinion about the game, but that’s not what this comment is about. I realize that I’m very late to the game here, but I wanted to thank you for taking the time to respond to critics of your review, and for showing a willingness to engage in an in-depth debate on the subject, including a person that you felt was too combative. As far as I’m concerned, this kind of behavior is a gold standard that video game (and other reviewers) should be held to (at least, from time to time).

Trent Fingland
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Trent Fingland
5 years 6 months ago
It’s a shame that a half-year old review is considered “dated” but that’s the internet for you. I’ll try and address your points the best I can. 1) The primary issue with the battle system is that it never felt sufficiently rewarding for intelligent play. Skillful decision making mostly saw normal progression, and anything less than that was a pure struggle. Contrast this with Nocturne, where poor strategy had harsh consequences, but cleverness could be an incredible tide-turner. It felt as though the only options were a slog or standard level of progress that took a much larger mental investment… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 6 months ago
I came across this review rather randomly, and it’s quite dated now. That being said, there are a few comments I would like to make. 1) Press Turn vs Co-Op attack. Yes, I agree that Press Turn is quite unique and good. But the comments about this is where I fail to agree. – Abusing weakness shouldn’t make the game too easy. That’s one philosophy I can see in this game. Perona 3 was fairly heavily criticized by a few people because their variation of Press Turn system (One-More System) made the difficulty way lower than it should have by… Read more »
Trent Fingland
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Trent Fingland
5 years 10 months ago
The main reason I feel like the press-turn system is so superior to the co-op attacks is that press turns feel like a reward. If you did something right, namely exploit enemy weaknesses, you got a pretty significant reward in the form of extra turns. Used correctly, press turns would allow you to utterly decimate the most serious opponents. What’s more, fights could usually be resolved without extra turns, as long as you were at least covering your own ass. In Strange Journey, co-op attacks feel much more mandatory. The extra handful of damage that comes from an unassisted hit… Read more »
tznz
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tznz
5 years 10 months ago
true, but it also gives more value to a wider base of demons. If youre playing as law then that encourages you to pursue all that law has to offer. Also, you dont have to take advantage of that system, in fact in some cases its better not to. And keep in mind, the press turn system was a trade-off, you got extra turns, but so did your enemies. This is just a different take on it. For me, i think it works. And i know what you mean about the inheritance system, but i enjoyed the game more taking… Read more »
Trent Fingland
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Trent Fingland
5 years 10 months ago

I guess I should’ve been much clearer on this point.

Here’s an example of what i’m talking about. Let’s say you have a single lawful demon in a party of mixed alignment. If the lawful demon uses an ice based attack on an enemy susceptible to ice, the bonus in damage pretty negligible.

In order to get some substantial damage out of an enemy weakness, the party generally needs to share an alignment, which limits the freedom of the player to customize their party how they want.

tznz
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tznz
5 years 10 months ago

“I meant to say that hitting enemy weaknesses only did one or two points of damage MORE THAN attacks that didn’t exploit weaknesses at all.”
Thats just not possible. The hit you see after an exploit isnt the same total, its completely new damage. Are you telling me they hit for a combo attack of 2 damage? So if you hit for 30, and then a combo dealt 32, thats 62 total damage, not 32. Combos typically deal 80-100% more damage depending on the number of similar aligned party members you have.

Trent Fingland
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Trent Fingland
5 years 10 months ago
I shouldn’t have approved this comment, because your tone is pretty combative which is against the GameCritics.com Code of Conduct. I approved it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, your complaint about this line is legitimate: “What makes Co-Op Attacks worse than having no mechanic at all is that hitting enemy weaknesses does very little extra damage by itself, often only one or two points.” It’s actually an editing oversight on my part. I meant to say that hitting enemy weaknesses only did one or two points of damage MORE THAN attacks that didn’t exploit weaknesses at all. As for… Read more »
Zeik
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Zeik
5 years 10 months ago
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard reading a review as I have this one. I’m just going to pick out some of my favorite parts: “What makes Co-Op Attacks worse than having no mechanic at all is that hitting enemy weaknesses does very little extra damage by itself, often only one or two points.” I can only imagine how terrible your party demons must have been if you could only manage to pull off one or two points of damage by exploiting weaknesses. You’d literally have to never bother fusing new demons, or if you did you would… Read more »
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