It’s close to the middle of 2018, and there really isn’t a major JRPG release that wowed and challenged me since Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Yes, there was Ni no Kuni 2 which we reviewed a while back, but it isn’t as gripping and as challenging as I thought it would be despite its highlights.
Then Nintendo and Atlus (and Sega, technically) decide to release the English version of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux without much fanfare. I honestly didn’t know about this until late last week.
That’s a crying shame because it’s the best JRPG right now and a perfect entry point for people who are too scared or daunted by the Shin Megami Tensei slew of JRPGs.
What The Hell Is A Shin Megami Tensei?
We say “arguably” on this feature’s title because it’s the 3DS port of the 2010 title of the same name. In a nutshell, you play a soldier who leads an expedition sanctioned by the United Nations to explore and deal a scientific anomaly in the Antartica called the Schwarzwelt. The Schwarzwelt is a giant black void that threatens to destroy Earth, so you have to go inside using your special “Demonica” suit to solve the problem.
Little do the team know that they’re entering a world where demons and angels reside, and the inside of the void is made up of the many vices of humanity in physical form. Lust, environmental callousness, war, excess consumerism: it’s all there in labyrinth form in which our heroic expedition have to play Homer’s Odyssey in.
What results is a 50+ hour of JRPG goodness in the veins of a first-person dungeon crawler ala the early Ultimas and Might & Magic PC titles. I’ll tell you personally why this Redux version for the Nintendo 3DS is worth the effort and the extra Amazon surcharges -it’s pretty hard to find in Singapore at this point in time.
#1. It’s Brutal
You’re stuck in the Schwarzwelt with no means to escape, so you and your Red Sprite crew have to find a solution within the hellish world. Well, it’s mostly you doing the heavy lifting: you explore and uncover the area, you fight demons, you recruit demons through the art of conversation & coercion, and you collect rare materials called Forma to power your Demonica Suit and weaponry up.
You can also fuse two demons together to create a stronger demon, or a set of demons (from 2 to 5 specific ones) to create one mega legendary demon. And for those who want to bring up the Pokemon analogy, don’t forget that Shin Megami Tensei’s fusion feature & demon-collecting-slash-compendium-completing mechanic showed up in the early 90s on the SNES way before Pikachu and Charizard did in 1998.
After the initial tutorials have been presented to you, the game slowly drags you to the deep end from the second world onwards. You will get stuck in rooms where the door behind you doesn’t open, forcing you to find an alternate route that’s laced with poison traps and tougher demons. Surprise encounters can potentially wipe out your party before you can even attack. Some enemies are even resistant to most of your attacks, and can even reflect/absorb them, which means you have to start grinding for a new party of demons.
Speaking of attacks, Strange Journey’s combat system allows you to pull off follow-up attacks if you exploit an enemy’s weakness. Use an ice spell on an enemy weak to that element, and you’ll have two to three demons pull off a non-elemental co-op attack that will damage them regardless of their resistances and immunities. The problem? Your enemies hit harder and usually faster than usual, and they also have instant death spells -Hama and Mudo elements- at their disposal. So be like Cobra Kai in this instance: strike fast, strike hard, and no mercy. As well as no second thoughts to spending your mana points/energy if it means killing an enemy first.
It’s times like these where I appreciate and revel in the challenge because complacency is what gets people killed in Strange Journey. Even if you have explored an area a couple of times, you still need to be wary of powered-up demons and the occasional trap you missed out. Above all else, take a break in your ship and recharge if your team is out of mana and your curatives are at a low.
You could just change the difficulty down to Casual mode, but where’s the fun in that? SMT games revel in their hardcore mechanics, so you’ll be doing it a disservice by toning it down. Granted, it’s not as insanely punishing as the Etrian Odyssey series (goddamn FOEs), but it’s pretty close.
#2. It’s Insightful & Intriguing
Throughout your adventure, you’ll come across the forces of Law and Chaos who will help shape the final ending of the game. Most of the minibosses and big bosses of each realm within the Schwarzwelt will pose a question regarding humanity’s place in the “new world”. It’s up to you whether you think they’re worth saving or not. You see, the worlds inside the Schwarzwelt represent the vices of humanity. The demons are just making due with what is formed since they don’t have direct control.
There are also some story bits that make you contemplate more about Strange Journey’s message about the world we live in. There’s a scene described in words where a bunch of demons help “perfect” your kidnapped squad members by removing their innards, in the Schwarzwelt’s version of a pleasure palace. Like an effed-up version of Amsterdam.
There’s also a bit where a soldier befriends a demon, only to see it get tortured by another UN crew stuck in the Schwarzwelt because they want pure control in the world they’re stuck in. Say if you have a phenomenon like the Schwarzwelt happening, should it be taken as a sign that humanity deserves to be wiped out, or should humans fight this sort of progress to gain a second chance?
Your 50+ hours with Strange Journey will make you ponder more than any other triple-A blockbuster game can. Only, in this case, you get killed more often because you brought a demon squad weak to fire in a realm filled with Phoenixes and Peles.
I also give props to composer Shoji Meguro. Instead of the contemporary jazz soundtracks he crafted for the Persona games, he created an orchestral, dark, and mature score that feels like a mash-up between a military anthem, an angelic choir, and a gothic horror soundtrack. Tfillsalone fill players like myself with a sense of confusion, mystery, and intrigue.
#3. There’s New Content For SMT Veterans
For those who have completed SMT Strange Journey back in 2010, you’re in luck because the Redux version has a couple of worthy additions.
The biggest one includes a new plot character: a Demonica user named Alex and her AI pal George. Not only do you get to fight with her in intense boss fights, but you also get to experience an expanded story that introduces new Law, Chaos, and Neutral morality endings.
New demons in the story mode include Zeus, Amon, Anahita, and Demeter. They look damn cool and have insane abilities when they have all of their skills learnt.
I totally want these guys in my demon party.
You also get to explore a new dungeon called the Womb of Grievance with lots of spanning corridors, traps, and closed-off pathways you have to endure through for that sweet, sweet rare Forma.
This version of Strange Journey also features new demons: Anat, Isis, Ixtab, Vasuki, Vritra, Kali, Kikuri-Hime, Cybele, Zaou-Gongen, Shaytan, Jack Ripper, Thanatos, Tsuchigumo, Night Stalker, Nadja, Nebiros, Hypnos, Belial, Beelzebub, Volvo, Master Therion, Mada, Mad Gasser, Maria, Lucifuge, Sandalphon, and Armaiti. They’re most likely the versions from Shin Megami Tensei IV and SMT IV Apocalyse, but I’m not complaining because it’s fun to see how the new boys and girls work in Strange Journey’s combat system.
So there you have it: three solid reasons why you should dust off your 3DS -or borrow your pal’s since he or she is busy on their Nintendo Switch with that new Zelda Dynasty Warriors game- for this JRPG diamond in the rough. Sure, the graphics are a bit old-school for some, but don’t let that stop you from the Shin Megami Tensei experience, especially if it’s your first time.
And for the record, “Shin Megami Tensei” means “True Rebirth of a Goddess”.