Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Updated Hands-On

It's time to fight, recruit, and negotiate with demons of all shapes and colors in the latest entry in the SMT series.

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Last month we had the opportunity to get a quick look at Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, the fourth game in the Shin Megami Tensei series after Nocturne--if you don't include all the spin-offs. We managed to get quite a bit of info from our short visit, and now that we have our own build, we have a better idea of how the game plays and what to expect. It took us several hours to get to the area featured in the initial demo, but we were able to spend quite a bit of time learning the ropes and negotiating with demons so that we could explore the South Pole with a solid team of fighters.

Fight and recruit demons as you explore the Land of Ruin.
Fight and recruit demons as you explore the Land of Ruin.

We didn't learn much more in terms of the story. All we know is that there is a massive black void in the Antarctic region called the Land of Ruin that is slowly spreading and engulfing Earth. As a strike team member on the Red Sprite, we were sent to investigate the area but ended up crash-landing inside the enigmatic area. In addition to staying alive, the surviving members of the team must find answers and save humanity from being swallowed by this void. Demons run amok in the Land of Ruin, but not all are bad. Like in other SMT games, you can analyze and eventually negotiate with various demons and recruit them to fight on your side.

The game is a first-person dungeon crawler that uses the Etrian Odyssey engine, but you don't have to map out your progress, because there's an automap feature that does it for you. A large grid on the touch screen will show you where you've explored, what doors you've entered, and other notable checkpoints like teleportation stations and healing stations. There's no way to mark down your own notes, but there's really no need to because you'll spend a lot of time going back and forth, so you should become quite familiar with the area. Those who have played other SMT games know the drill of having to negotiate with demons before they'll agree to join your party. Your alignment in the game, which is determined by your actions, will help you win over demons of the same alignment. Be aware of the moon phases, because demons get a bit too excited to want to negotiate anything when there's a full moon. It's beneficial to all be on the same side because of demon co-op, a feature where if you or your party members attack a demon's weakness, everyone in your party that has the same alignment will join in for an extra attack.

We were able to fuse a few demons together to see what the results were. Strange Journey does a great job of documenting everything for you so that you can access the information if you need a refresher. Because you can't have more than one of each demon type in your party, there's a lot to play around with when it comes to demon fusion. If you don't like the results, invite the next one you come across through a series of conversations and be prepared to fork over some cash and health as well. As demons level in your party, they'll give you items and sometimes give you the option to change their skills. Some demons that you meet in the dungeon can also give you side quests to complete, whereas some just want to beat you to a pulp--so approach with caution.

Scan your surroundings for helpful materials.
Scan your surroundings for helpful materials.

What makes Strange Journey's dungeon crawling interesting is that early on you'll receive a forma detector, which acts as a radar as you explore the caves to pick up random pieces of forma, or items. Bringing these items back to your ship can yield new weapons, armor, and accessories for you to equip. Each time you leave an area and come back to it, there will be new forma available, so even though you've been running back and forth in the same area for hours, at least there's always something new to find.

We've really enjoyed what we've played of Strange Journey and look forward to uncovering the secrets behind the Land of Ruin. What's unique is that the story ventures into the sci-fi realm (and outside of modern Japan), which is a slightly different approach than the other games, but it still includes all the demonic and mythical elements that SMT fans have come to expect. The game is set to be released on March 23 2010, so be sure to look for our full review then.

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