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 lard pirates dawt cawm  §  Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (Nintendo DS) / by Spoony Spoonicus
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 ~Spoony Spoonicus on 04:57pm 04/22/10 (04:21am 03/31/10) in 1h15m53s  §  2096 eyeballs
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Well, it's been a pretty big month for RPGs. For a lot of people, anyway. For the ever-picky Spoony, almost all of them were struck from the list before he even played them. Final Fantasy XIII was right out since it went back to everything I despised about the series. Fragile Dreams looked interesting, but then I saw the words "Namco Bandai" on the box (creators of the god-awful Tales series) and immediately lost all interest. Ditto Resonance of Fate, but replace "Tales" with "Star Ocean" and "Namco Bandai" with "Tri-Ace". Sakura Wars was intriguing, but got delayed just enough to push my preordered copy into arriving next month instead. Bummer. Ogre Battle 64 got a Virtual Console release, but I'd never really gotten into that series. Only one game managed to keep my eye throughout the month, and was actually released on time to boot - that being Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.

Ever since the early Playstation days, the Megami Tensei series has been in something of an experimental phase, branching out into new settings, premises and gameplay styles while keeping the core elements of demon fusion and difficult dungeon crawling intact. Nocturne attempted to add a heavier emphasis on exploiting enemy weaknesses and battle tactics via the "Press Turn" system, the Persona games had a heavier focus on characterization, Devil Survivor combined it with elements of a strategy RPG, and there have even been a few forays into the Online MMORPG realm, generally with disappointing results. As for Digital Devil Saga... well, let's just not talk about those, they were a huge letdown on every level. Suffice to say that they're the prime example of dumbing a series down for a wider audience.

Strange Journey is something of a return to the series' roots - first person dungeon exploration with an overarching story about the darker side of humanity. Rather than your abilities being determined as the game unfolds, you're asked a handful of questions to determine your alignment (which affects what demons you can most easily relate with) and your "role" (what stats and abilities you earn). Once all that's determined, much of the rest of the game is just tackling various dungeons and bosses, with your choices throughout determining whether your alignment changes (and ultimately what ending you will receive).

The staple of the series has always been your ability to converse with and recruit enemies, and Strange Journey is no exception. This mechanic is reliant on figuring out the various demons' personality types, and puzzling out what things you can say will either interest or offend them (largely a trial-and-error process). For instance, Jack Frosts will be intrigued if you tell them that your armor is for combat, but most demons will take offense at it (thinking you're planning to attack them). Once you've gotten on their good side, you can ask for an item, Macca (money), or for them to join you; the last of these often entails giving them things they ask for, usually some of your HP, MP, Macca, or certain items. Fortunately, demons aren't quite as finnicky this time - they're much less likely to simply take your items and leave, and they'll often forgive you saying something wrong if you have a compatible alignment.

Another familiar element is demon fusion, allowing you to combine two or more demons together into a more powerful one. As always, this is an essential tactic - while demons can gain levels and skills, they level up at a much slower rate than your main character, and once they've gained two or three new skills, they won't be getting any more. Hence, you'll want to fuse them together to get a demon with a higher base level and stronger abilities. They do carry over some skills from their "parent" demons, however, and adding a "source" item to the mix allows them to gain spells from another demon you've taken the time to raise, even if that demon isn't a part of the fusion.

But while the game is a throwback, it does bring a few unique elements to the table. First is the item creation system, which is actually more reminiscent of Class of Heroes or the Etrian Odyssey games. By exploring dungeons and defeating demons, you'll come across items. Once you've collected a handful of items, you can bring them to the lab at your home base and use them to build new weapons, armor and items. Weapons and armor serve as your means to customize your main character - different melee weapons have differing attributes (number of attacks each turn), guns impart different elemental skills, and armor determines your own elemental strengths and weaknesses. So in this way, it breaks a bit from the usual "upgrade your equipment at every opportunity" RPG formula and makes you consider whether you should keep that older piece of armor around in case you run into any enemies that toss lightning around.

Another noteworthy mechanic is "followup attacks", which are reminisecent of the Press Turns or "1 More" turns from the newer games. When one of your characters strikes an enemy's elemental weaknesses, all of the other characters of like alignment in your party will launch a followup attack, dealing extra non-elemental damage to the enemy (or enemies) whose weaknesses you struck. These only become more effective as more of your party members participate in them, lending a bit of incentive to have as many demons in your party of similar alignment as possible.

Last of all is your armor, the "Demonica". At first it's not capable of much, only allowing you to slowly regenerate HP as you walk around in dungeons. However, as you find new key items, you can create new programs for it that grant you numerous additional abilities. These range from finding more items after battles to granting you better chances of negotiating with demons, and even upgrading your crummy basic regeneration ability to one that's much more useful. It's also a key mechanic to moving forward in the game, allowing you to unlock gates, analyze demons and find hidden areas, among other things.

The story takes place in Antarctica, where a strange dimensional phenomena called the "Schwarzwelt" has appeared, rapidly expanding and threatening to swallow up the entire earth. As an unnamed member of a multi-national task force, you're sent in to enter the Schwarzwelt and find a way to stop it before the entire planet is destroyed. Upon entry, you quickly find your group seperated and yourselves under attack by demons, a large contingent of which seem to believe that the Schwarzwelt is the Earth's way of purging the "disease" that humanity has become. But to the credit of the game (and the series, for that matter), this point never comes across as preachy - it's ultimately left up to the player to decide whether they'll fight with or against the forces at work in the game, and all choices are perfectly valid - you're not going to get slammed with a game over simply for siding with one philosophy or the other.

In short, Strange Journey is a throwback to the series' roots as a dungeon crawler with an emphasis on monster recruiting and fusion, but with enough new elements to keep it fresh and interesting, and the choices left open to the player definitely give it some additional challenge and replay value. If you're a fan of Shin Megami Tensei or you're looking for a good game to start in on the series with, this is a good bet.


Megami Tensei is the new RPG series to watch, always bringing in fresh new ideas without losing sight of what made made it great to begin with.
 rawks  §  rad comments, dogg.
 ~Azul Rojo  §  at 05:52pm 03/31/10
Sounds like a fun game. It's nice to see a series of RPGs that can add new things without completely ignoring things from previous games. Putting fun into an RPG series seems to be a foreign concept to some companies (HI, SQUARE-ENIX) nowadays, too. When I find a job, I'll have to go looking for one of these Megami Tensei games.
 ~Spoony Spoonicus  §  at 04:32pm 06/07/10
One more helpful feature I forgot to mention: the password system. Every demon has a password that tracks their race, stats and spells, so if you're stuck on a boss, you can input a password from one of your friends (or a guide) to get a copy of their demon and use them yourself. You'll have to pay a lot of money before you can use them, but it's still a nice way to lessen the boss frustration the series is infamous for.

Oh, and make sure you're doing all of the sidequests (or at the very least the ones that upgrade your Forma Search). The last dungeon (and especially the final boss) will annihilate you if you're not making the best equipment you can.
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