Well I know it’s been awhile since my last post, but I did warn you. I had to move all the way across town, so I’ve been a bit indisposed–but I didn’t come to give you excuses. I came to give you…excitement! Excitement in the form of a written review of a mostly 2-D first person RPG dungeon-crawler! The thrills never end!

Right, so, Strange Journey.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a bleak, apocalyptic first-person dungeon crawler. As the trailer informs, the basic premise is that some…thing…is happening in Antarctica, creating an enormous dimensional anomaly that is swallowing up everything that we know and love. If it isn’t stopped then this anomaly, called the Schwarzwelt, will consume the entire planet. You are part of an international team of scientists, soldiers and engineers sent in to research and analyze the phenomenon and attempt to figure out what it is and how to stop it.

Of course, naturally, everything goes to shit as soon as they say “go” and you end up getting marooned inside the Schwarzwelt and beset by terrifying, invisible monsters with a taste for human flesh. A mysterious force gives you access to a computer program that can identify and communicate with these monsters, called “demons”, and only by using this mysterious program can you explore the Schwarzwelt and maybe, just maybe, save the world.

The game’s plot is actually surprisingly good. New characters come and go, everyone is at least decently-written and fairly likeable, and the atmosphere is pitch-perfect. When a game opens with a third of your crew getting slaughtered or driven insane, you know that you’re dealing with a story that doesn’t pull punches. It’s preachy at times, but in a non-intrusive way–most of the demons you encounter lecture you about how humankind has “failed”, either to take care of the environment or care for each other–but at the same time, the creature that is lecturing you is a little winged girl who cracks open human skulls and sucks out their still-warm brains. The dichotomy is surprisingly effective, which keeps the “humanity is ebil” speeches from grating too much.

Yet still I love it.

It comes in a really awesome box with a soundtrack CD! Hurray for gimmicky packaging!

For newcomers to the Shin Megami Tensei who whet their teeth on the Persona titles, there may be some culture shock here. Gone is the J-pop, Japanese honorifics, the high schools and the party dynamics. Instead, the game opens with ominous gregorian chanting and has you telling jokes to angels and devils, getting kidnapped and experimented on, witnessing atrocities and nightmares at every turn. You’ll wander impressive, enormous labyrinths with floors that teleport you, drop you down to the floor below, damage you, or launch you halfway across the map on a conveyor belt. Gamers familiar with Etrian Odyssey will be right at home here.

Like EO, you navigate 3-D maps and battle 2-D monsters in random battles. You’ll have plenty of hidden items to find, hidden doors to open, and the game slowly, steadily gives you more and more tools to use as you proceed deeper into the Schwarzwelt. Getting new weapons and items involves scavenging for materials, called “forma” hidden throughout every map. Hidden enemies, bosses, bonus quests and missions give you new “rare” forma, which allow you to upgrade your power suit and open new doors, fuse new demons, and kill God.

Hm? What’s that? Fuse new demons? Ah, I forgot to mention: this game is a monster-raising sim. Yeah, if you took Pokemon and mixed it with Satan, shot yourself full of Heroin and watched a documentary about the effects of pollution on wildlife, you’ll have this game. There’s over 300 demons to recruit, usually by negotiating with them. Negotiation is basically answering questions–you get three possible answers, with only one or two right answers (and sometimes the right answer changes). Use your charm, money, influence and strength to win demons over to your side, then level ’em up, collect their crystalized souls, and mash ’em together to get more. You won’t ever use any one demon for very long–most have enough weaknesses to counter-balance their strengths, and fusing demons together is often the only way to recruit the powerful boss monsters you defeat, or to learn new, more powerful skills.

Combat is turn-based with an emphasis on exploiting weaknesses (an SMT mainstay) and combos (less so). Every demon has an alignment–Law, Chaos or Neutral–as does your character, based upon moral choices you make throughout the game. Yes, there is a moral choice system, yes it affects the ending, no it isn’t stupid like Bioshock’s. You aren’t deciding between good and evil, but rather–basically–anarchy or fascism. Demons and angels basically convince you to either serve God unquestioningly or try to murder him, and if you pick either option, you’ll have your demonic pals love you a lot more. Same-alignment characters and demons can perform combo attacks together, dealing additional damage by striking elemental weaknesses. Careful party selection can allow you to unleash devastating combos at the cost of a single attack.

Basic combat screen. Note that at the bottom, the name's are colored--those correspond to alignments.

If you’ve casually heard of SMT games, you’ve probably heard that they’re very hard. To be fair, to anyone who hasn’t had a lot of experience playing RPGs before, they can be incredibly daunting. Strange Journey is definitely a challenge–whilst initially forgiving, it quickly punishes you for mistakes without mercy. Later mazes feature conveyor belts that dump you into holes that drop you down two whole floors and force you to spend ten minutes climbing all the way back to where you where to try again. You’ll be relying heavily on the automap feature to decipher some of the more complex mazes, all the while being assaulted by more and more powerful demons at every turn. Yet this game rewards just as much as it punishes.

If you put the effort into it, the game opens up like a warm, inviting souffle. The game discourages grinding much by scaling exp, but grinding for levels is useful when you are trying to farm individual formas, level up demons to get their crystals, or just get up one more level so you can fuse that swamp monster from Algonquian mythology you saw earlier. You never have to do any of this, but doing so gets you more items, more weapons, stronger demons and better abilities. There’s many different ways to approach any given problem–brute force is always available, but you have such wide varieties of demons to choose from that you can, with a little work and patience, put together a specialized team to exploit an enemy’s weakness. There’s nothing more satisfying than defeating an enemy far, far stronger than you just through clever strategy and pre-planning–and that’s the sort of satisfaction that makes Strange Journey great.

It isn’t a game for everyone. It’s light on plot, focusing more on its gameplay, and you’ll be spending more time on the Demon Fusion screen than you will exploring the dungeons. The game is long and very grim, and its turn-based combat and text-heavy, voiceless cutscenes can be off-putting. But if you’ve read everything up to this point and think “hm, that sounds kind of cool” then by all means, check this game out. It’s loaded with content, the story is great, the atmosphere chilling, the monster designs are absolutely fantastic and the soundtrack is phenomenal. It’s hard, sure, and slow-paced definitely. The graphics are a bit antiquated and sometimes the dialogue just turns into reams and reams of exposition–but if you stick with it, when you make it to the end of this Strange Journey, you’ll find it well worth the effort.