Reaching A Somber Horizon
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey never connected with me when it came out on the original DS. It was one of those games I played for maybe an hour, then moved on without a second thought. Knowing that, I approached this Redux port with some trepidation. As the last of a trilogy of RPGs Atlus released on the 3DS earlier this year, I knew that it would be difficult. The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is not known for being easy, after all. And with the other two (Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology and The Alliance Alive) being so different – I was prepared for something that might seem too bleak and oppressive in comparison.
For the most part, my fears were unfounded. Though Strange Journey is definitely bleak and mature in tone, I found that was something I actually came to appreciate a lot about the title. In everything from subject matter to execution, it’s a game developed with an older audience in mind. One that has some patience in their DNA. It does not pander to a younger audience, nor does it apologize for being what it is. A sci-fi title to the core, it’s in the vein of Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a slow-burn, but it seeks answers to a question common to all kinds of speculative fiction. What if the Earth, tired of all the pollution and destruction of nature, decided to fight back?
This question is posed with the use of slow, creeping terror that blends well with its old-school RPG mechanics. In this story, the “fight” is through the appearance of a black mass called the Schwarzvelt that slowly covers the globe. Inside another world filled with Demons who used to rule the Earth, and have grown resentful of human consumption. The player character is a member of a strike team in an international group of researchers sent into the Schwarzvelt to analyze it and see what can be done. Obtaining the answers they seek will be harder than they expect, as before long there are Demons to fight and moral choices to make – important choices that can lead you down the paths of Law, Chaos, or true Neutrality in the blink of an eye.
Most crucial of all, you’re not the only member of the team making decisions. Your fellow comrades are right beside you, offering their opinions, going down their own paths. You can follow one of them, or try and go your own way, but be warned: plot twists thrown into the story turn what may seem innocuous or the “right” choice to make into mistakes you regret later. At the end, you may find yourself hoping for the best result, knowing it will never come, or restarting the game to avoid the consequences of your actions.
Anyone who’s played older RPGs, or the Etrian Odyssey series might be familiar with Strange Journey’s approach to dungeon crawling. It’s all done through a first person perspective, with a map that gradually fills in over time the more you explore. What some might not expect, however, is the Pokémon-like system of talking with demons and convincing them to become your allies – or at least giving you an item or some money in exchange for not killing them. Demons have different personalities, so it often takes a few tries to understand how to talk to them. This system works well, especially when you’re recruiting Demons to fuse together to see what powerful monsters you can come up with. But it can also be annoying – should you find yourself more focused on getting through a dungeon than talking, the random encounters might make it so the Demons will talk to you – and there’s no simple way to back out of it.
Working with Demons seems like a no-brainer at first. They are your only defense against what’s out there and help you grow stronger as you investigate the various levels of the Schwarzvelt. But is it really right? Can the demons, who inherently hate humans and spread Chaos, really be trusted? That’s just one of many moral situations the game uses to confront the player, which helps the narrative move beyond a simple execution of a thesis (“using Demons for combat is wrong”) and turns it into a broad question, where you get to make the final judgment call based on the evidence presented.
This impressive narrative scope makes it feel like you’re getting a true console experience on a handheld. However, the story is not without its problems. The more levels of the Schwarzvelt you investigate, the more the story seems to come unfocused. Yes, you have a main objective always present, but more and more you get called away, asked to investigate something else, or told that another objective must be completed first. This makes the game seem more dynamic in theory, as it doesn’t rely on the regular “investigate a dungeon until you figure it out, kill the boss, and move on” loop found in many dungeon crawlers. However, in practice, this makes the game feel bloated and artificially padded. It ruins the pacing, which can make the game drag a bit, even when the story content is interesting, which it usually is.
Logically, it would follow that any added content to the main story, such as the content designed for this Redux port, would make this bloated feeling even worse. This isn’t the case though – it actually blends well into the game. The subplot, centered on a woman who comes from a distant time bent on murdering you and your crew like a Resident Evil Tyrant, creates a lot of tension that keeps you on your toes. She could be around any corner, waiting to take you down, and she’s powerful enough for a lot of the game to do just that. Her unrelenting devotion to her task also provides another human element to the story, giving players another character to connect to, if the other supporting characters seem a tad too extreme for them.
Overall, Strange Journey Redux is a solid RPG experience. It balances its negative points (like Demons that sometimes are more difficult to deal with than Pokémon are) with a lot of positives, and frankly doesn’t care about any qualms you may have. It’s not about to apologize for being what it is, and if it doesn’t click with you the first time, that’s okay. Playing this game can feel like crossing the horizon into the unknown if you’re not ready. If anything, you’re just like sixteen year old me, who just needed the proper time and mindset to get why people like these kinds of games. That time came for me seven years later. For you it might be next week, next year, or next decade. Or never. And that’s okay, you just cross that line when and if you’re ready. The game will always be here, waiting for you.
This review was conducted using a retail copy of the game and DLC that I purchased.