Megaten returns to its roots with a game that is held back only by its portable nature, not by its designer's ambition.
For Final Fantasy it was the 7th game and its trimmed down gameplay mechanics and emphasis on cut scenes and story.
For Shin Megami Tensei it was Persona 3 and its emphasis on social links, NPC interaction, dialog trees and de-emphasizing of both demon summoning and the adult subject matter that was once a series staple.
Whereas Persona 2's first part had you fighting a resurrected Adolf Hitler and the second part involved a murderous student wearing a blood covered paper bag, the third Persona centered around a very "emo" main character whose main mission was to cultivate loving relationships with his friends and score high grades on his high school exams while occasionally navigating incredibly repetitive random dungeons whose floors were claustrophobically small.
Shin Megami Tensei gained a lot of fans thanks to the run-away mainstream success of Persona 3 (And later, 4) but it also alienated old fans like me who were plowing through the SNES Megaten games thanks to a couple fan translations and replaying the original Persona for the umpteenth time. To us, the series felt empty and hollow without the violent, destructive, demonic, bleak, hopeless world and its equally morose people. Even Shoji Meguro's music seemed to change and become much more upbeat.
Many of the Megaten fans on my side of the argument blame this change on the departure of Koji Okada in 2003, but the "Return to form" the series made in the two Playstation 2 Devil Summoner games seems to blow a hole through that theory.
Regardless, a very small but very unhappy sub section of Megaten faithful exists that are displeased with this new emphasis on teen romance and forced melodrama, which is why there are fans like me who suffer silently and are afraid to speak up in the community lest they be labeled a troll or a "hater". We all assumed the series was dead and had left us behind...
...But then, as if answering our prayers, Atlus gave us Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.
Strange Journey is, in essence, Shin Megami Tensei 4. It isn't a spin-off, it isn't a side story and it most certainly isn't Persona 5. Instead, the game is an ancient relic from an older time when large wizardry-esque dungeons and laborious level grinding weren't "cons" on a game reviewer's score sheet but were instead a feature that helped it sell to obsessive JRPG loving malcontents like myself. Just like the 2004 mega-hit PS2 game "SMT: Nocturne" before it, Strange Journey is an old style Megaten game that oozes hopelessness and is nearly bursting at the seems with unnecessary violence and depressing NPC dialog. It is, in short, a true SMT sequel and worthy of carrying the name.
Unlike the last two Persona games (Or even 2009's Devil Survivor), Strange Journey is a game that stars adult people saying and doing adult things. There are no social links to manage, no test to score an A+ on, and no overly-needy friends calling your cell phone and causing your persona creation skill to decrease just because you didn't eat a burger with them the night before. Gone too are the small repetitive dungeons and the overly dramatic story filled with teen angst and faux hip-hop music.
Instead, we are left with a game that is nothing more and nothing less than an exact carbon copy of SMT:Nocturne only with a Etrian Odyssey style dungeon layout and a spruced up demon fusion system. Like the two PS2 Devil Summoner games from a couple years back, Strange Journey feels like an Okada style JRPG and shares nothing in common with the series' recent offerings. If you're an old school Megaten fan who wants a return to those days then you can stop reading here and buy the game.
Though if you're still unsure, let me take the time to explain things in further detail.
Strange Journey takes place deep in the Antarctic, where a strange temporal disturbance has been eating away at the surrounding area. This odd black vortex of nothingness has slowly begun to stretch out and threatens to engulf the entire planet unless something is done to halt its expansion. You play as a soldier in a small military detachment that is sent to investigate the anomaly and destroy it before it's too late.
As you'd expect, things go awry pretty quickly and you find you and your team separated from the others. Like the other "Main" Shin Megami Tensei titles, a strange being gives you the unique power to command demons and your mission begins anew. With the ability to understand and control the demons that live within this ever-changing void you now stand a chance, albeit a remote one.
Though the story isn't winning any awards, it stays fairly true to series lore and manages to incorporate the same "Man V.S. God" theme that has always made Megaten stand out in the crowded JRPG genre. You'll see your partners go mad and be forced to kill them, you'll be given karma measuring questions by boss demons and even be held accountable for your race's sins...all the kinds of things we used to expect in a Megaten game, only now in portable form.
While I've often been accused of being biased against the DS, I have never been afraid to praise a game that manages to break the shackles of this restrictive hardware and Strange Journey easily managed to do that. Though the animations are very "8-bit" and the dungeon graphics are a bit blurry and repetitive in some areas, Shoji Meguro's music and Atlus' typically impressive monster designs help remind you that you're still playing a Megaten game.
Essentially, Strange Journey brings a bit of the series former glory back into the present day by focusing on creating a foreboding atmosphere with its spooky chant-heavy music and gloomy post-modern dungeon settings.
With Shoji Meguro back composing "spooky" music again and Atlus playing up the whole "Mankind is scum" thing again, Strange Journey feels more like a true Megaten game than any Atlus title I've played since Nocturne.
Still, the game isn't without its faults.
Like the rest of the "main" SMT series, Strange Journey is incredibly grind heavy and doesn't do anything to alleviate the burdensome need for leveling. Though I didn't mind this and still found it to be fun thanks to the quick and easy to learn combat system there are many who would be turned off by this. Though it wasn't as bad as Etrian Odyssey it still came close and those who would prefer talking to NPCs and watching cut scenes might want to skip the game due to this alone.
Another possible detriment would be the spikes in difficulty that are experienced when sometimes entering a new area. Though this is something the old SMT titles were once known for, newer fans may find themselves aggravated by its inclusion in the game. The designers seem to have wanted to balance it out by including a password system that allows you to summon demons you don't have access to (Which is why using an FAQ and grabbing people's passwords on message boards is a huge help), but the game can still get a bit tiresome in areas. Some may enjoy the added challenge and others will be turned off by it, so consider this a warning to anyone raised on the more recent (and more forgiving) Megaten games.
Lastly, and perhaps most disappointing, is the fact that the game feels like it is being held back by being on the DS. While I know most gamers find the portables to be more comfortable and convenient than home consoles, old people like me might see it differently. Due to the game being made specifically for a hand-held device it seems to be a bit more low-fi than it should be. With a small number of background sounds that endlessly repeat, repetitive dungeon tiles, poorly animated sprites and sub-par spell effects it just doesn't reach out and grab you the way the home console Megaten games always have. I can't help but wonder how amazing the game would have been if it had been a console title and had a full machine's worth of resources to draw upon. Combine that with the small screen and underpowered speakers of the DS and there was a part of me that kept wishing I could have played this on my TV.
Regardless, Strange Journey is a fabulous game that shouldn't be passed up by old school dungeon crawler fans or beleaguered Megaten faithful who have strayed since the release and subsequent crowning of Persona 3 as king of the modern JRPG landscape. For those two groups Strange Journey is a breathe of fresh air in a series that has now become an teenage anime marathon.
For the rest of the gaming world, Strange Journey is probably not what you're looking for. It's a relic of a bygone age and is likely to be the last Megaten game of its kind, especially given how lackluster the sales were and how low the review scores happened to be.
Enjoy this present from Atlus while you can.