Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – Love & Hate Review

Before I even start my review I have to say that I love this game but I also hate it. Thankfully I love it way more than I hate it but by god, it’s hard having mixed feeling about something and trying to put them into words. In Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey you have some aspects that are so incredibly good, immersive and captivating but on the other hand there are some things that are so infuriating…

Bear in mind, I consider myself big fan of the Megami Tensei games and while I love most games of this franchise I’ve played, there are some things in some entries that I can’t help but criticize.

Some of my complains here may seem like a rant, and in a way they are but bear in mind that even having a big and growing fandom, not all fans enjoy the same qualities of the games equally. While my complains are not restricted to Strange Journey I think it’s pertinent to talk about those here because of all the games I’ve played, they are most apparent in this title.

The game starts when a distortion appears in Antarctica, some sort or a black-ish hole, engulfing it and named the Schwarzwelt. This area is steadily growing and threatening to eventually cover the entire planet. To stop it, the United Nations sends a special team to go inside, look into it and somehow try to find a way to stop it, however they could not possible imagine what they would find once they enter it.

Inside the Schwarzwelt, your only safe haven is in the ship you arrive in, the Red Sprite. In the beginning your main interactions will be Arthur, the supercomputer the ship is equipped with, Commander Gore, Zelenin and Jimenez. I’ll stop my brief introduction of the story here because if there is one thing I loved in this game from beginning to end it was the story and its characters. I thought all of them to be relatable and interesting. Sure, there will be moments you may not agree with them but their characterization is top notch and that’s probably why they are such a big part of this narrative.

With all the praise the story deserves comes my first complain: the pacing. Surely every event is evenly spread out but the exploration is so hard and demanding that you may go for hours without seeing another scene. The difficulty in this game is above the roof. People often talk about some hard games like Dark Souls, Ninja Gaiden, and you see people complaining that games have become too easy but there are also games like Etrian Odyssey, SMT Nocturne which are not for the faint of heart. Sure, the difficulty here is different from an action game but even so, it’s still just as hard, just a different kind of hard.

This is the part where I start my personal complain with many SMT games, not just Strange Journey but it doesn’t apply to all of the ones I’ve played and before I even say anything, the counter arguments for my complains are completely valid as many times I think of them myself but sometimes I can’t stop but wonder why some things are like this. First, why is money so hard to come by in these games? The short answer is to make it rewarding when you adquire it. Sure, and it is but money is so important yet so rare I can not fathom why this particular resource is so hard to come by. I had this exact feeling while playing throught Strange Journey, Devil Survivor 1 and Nocturne. Money in these games are necessary to upgrade your equipments, to heal, to buy usable items but most importantly to fuse demons. If you are a SMT veteran you may argue that this is wrong as all you need are the demons but fusing demons is for me one of the most fun and rewarding parts of SMT games and being able to experiment and discover some new demon by yourself is part of the fun but given how hard money is to come by, you are instead encouraged not to try out but to look up a guide to see which demons you should have for the next boss as buying demons from the compendium is too expensive to be reliable. 
Now one can argue that you can just grind for more money, and certainly, in Devil Survivor 2 I did grind for hours at the same spot just to be sure I would have macca (the game’s currency) to try out different demons throughout the game without having to worry about it any longer. However in Strange Journey, Nocturne and some others, even grinding is too hard and time consuming to a point it hurts the game more than it helps it. In the case of Strange Journey, for example, when you enter a fight you have the option to fight the demons or talk to them. The talking mechanic is one of the other things I love about the franchise, although in some games like Persona 2 Eternal Punishment it can be a little to complex for my tastes. In Strange Jouney I think that the talking mechanic is nice but it still has a big RNG feel to it. Without making it too long, as it already is, you can talk to demons, ask them to join your party, ask them for money, for items or fight them. This helps the game to not became stale but since in many games you will need mostly a lot of all those options I think the rewards could have been a little higher to make you progress just a bit faster.
I personally rarely ask for items from demons but money and having them joining you is crucial but doing so you don’t get exp, which you’ll need because the demons you can recruit are capped by your level, so even though you can’t brute force your way through SMT games, which is fantastic, you still need levels to get better demons for your party.

Random encounter are high, surprisingly high but unfortunately, like I said, the rewards are on the low end, so you can be fighting for hours on end just to get to somewhere. In my personal opinion, just giving you a bit more money in encounters would solve a lot of those issues, which I admit are personal but I doubt I’m the only one here. To make my case, I can point to example like Persona 3, 4, 5 and Shin Megami Tensei IV. Sure they are considered to be on the easier side and I won’t argue but they are not a cakewalk either, specially if any of these are you first SMT game. And even though you are rarely swimming in cash in those games at least I think in these you have much more room to experiment and make some mistakes on your own without having to grind for hours on end just to correct them.

Another thing with Strange Journey that I have a big problem with but just in part are its map design. The game is a grid based dungeon crawler and while I do admit I’m not crazy by this grid based gameplay I do enjoy many games of this nature, like the Etrian Odyssey series. The game can be somewhat divided by 8 main areas you will be exploring, these areas with many floors each and many thematic looks, which all look particularly nice, intriguing and most of the times immersive, which is somehing I highly enjoy in this game. The problem for me is that while in the beginning it all starts okay, soon enough the game will start throwing a bunch of mechanics that will make you pull your hair out. Sure it’s expected the game to add new stuff and challenges as you go along but they went way over the top in Strange Journey. For example, on the top of my head I can list: damage floors, poison floors, sleeping floors, invisible walls, teleport floors, insivible holes on the groud, invisible parts of the way, changing layouts and I’m probably forgetting something. On sector 5, Eridanus, which is somewhat agreed to be the hardest area, the game throws so many of this stuff at you at the same time you’ll go insane trying to find your way.

I have to admit, the first time I played Strange Jouney, I reached sector 5 and I honestly gave up. Even though I loved the characters, music, story this level of frustration was too much for me but for whatever reason, many years later I decided to try and finish the game, probably because I had forgotten how hard this area of the game was. Thankfully this time I was a little more determined and had over these years gathered a better knowledge of the SMT games so I would not get pummeld every two steps. I will admit though, when I finished this sector, a sense of joy and accomplishment took over me and from this point on I knew I would beat the game but I still wonder if I had fun on this part of the game. Luckly after this things become a lot more manageble.

The encounters themselves, mainly bosses, although no slouches, with proper planning can be beaten without you banging your head against the wall, unlike the mazes you are thrown in. Just bear in mind that people like me, who at that time had played mainly Persona and maybe Devil Survivor 1, this is a big step in difficulty. However I still think Nocturne to be harder, as unlike this one, I could not beat that game as of this writting, but I’ll get to it someday.

Contrary to my many complains about the game’s map layout, the music I though to be fantastic. It has a foreboding feeling that helps create the mood and immersion of the game. You really feel like the world is doomed and  you are humanity’s last hope of salvation. One of my personal tracks is the one that plays whenever Mastema shows up. I don’t know what it is about it but it makes me feel incredible suspicious of him which is another feat of the game, making me suspicious of a characther based just on the music.

Lastly the graphics. Being this a Nintendo DS game, I think it’s unfair to expect it to look much better than it looks but I honeslty like the graphics. The enviroments are 3D while demons and character are either portraits or sprites. I think this was a smart strategy on the part of the developers so it makes navigation easier (as if it wasn’t hard enough) yet they manage to mantain many details on the demons which I think it would have been hard to if they were all in 3D.

I know I have made a bunch of complains about this game but I still love it. Contrary to what it seems I may even buy the re-release for it on the 3DS which is soon to come as Shin Megami Tensei: Deep Strange Journey . With all my personal issues and complains about the game I would still recommend it, of course, with a big disclaimer to make sure you know what you’ll be getting yourself into but since a remake of the game has been announced, containing more stories, more characters, a graphic overhaul and hopefully an easier mode, I would wait a little to jump into a Strange Journey to the Schwarzwelt.

Pros:
+ Stellar soundtrack.
+ Story is great and engaging.
+ Highly rewarding.

Cons:
– Mind bending puzzles.
– Too grindy.
– Can become excessively frustrating at times.

I’m looking forward to it!

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