Having found a new source of income in recent weeks, I was able to afford a copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey and hence continue feeding my dungeon crawling compulsions.
Unlike Digital Devil Saga or Persona, Strange Journey is part of the mainline SMT series, falling in the cracks between SMT: Nocturne and SMT IV. Which means I can expect: demented Pokemon gameplay mechanics, characters reaching Colonel Kurtz levels of insanity, a bizarre morality alignment system, and edgy attempts to shock my delicate Christian sensibilities.
I have a love/hate relationship with mainline SMT, as documented elsewhere here. It really does seem to simultaneously embody the best and the worst of the JRPG genre, so it can be quite the emotional roller-coaster. You might even say that SMT and I have been on a Strange Journey together. Anyway, these are my thoughts on the initial hours of Strange Journey.
Unlike every other mainline SMT, Strange Journey doesn’t have the player control a Japanese teenager in pre or post apocalyptic Tokyo; rather, you’re an American soldier on an expedition in Antarctica. A mysterious spacetime distortion called the Schwarzwelt has appeared at the south pole and is rapidly expanding, threatening to engulf the world. You are part of an international team of scientists and soldiers sent in to investigate and neutralize it. Naturally as soon as you get there things turn disastrous and you find yourself gunning against supernatural forces in a desperate attempt at survival as you press forward in this unexpected, nay, almost Strange Journey (har har, I’ll stop).
The first thing to note about this is how un-JRPG it is. Strange Journey’s premise is ripped right out of the western FPS playbook, hewing closer in conception to the likes of Doom, Halo and Half-Life. The game is quite open about the influence of sci-fi horror stuff like Aliens and The Thing. Apparently SMT mastermind Kazuma Kaneko is a big fan of military action games, so this may have been his attempt at doing homage to them.
Anyway, the genre juxtaposition is both really quirky and a breath of fresh air. I complained previously that Nocturne felt a bit constrained by its need for a teenage protagonist with a Destiny, and swapping that out for an adult soldier stuck in a harrowing situation feels much more fresh to me. The antarctic setting is also probably the ideal place for SMT’s more Lovecraftian elements to get down, given that Lovecraft himself used it for At The Mountains of Madness.
On that note, Strange Journey feels retroactively exciting in the wake of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (which was released three years later). That movie was more or less an unofficial adaptation of At The Mountains of Madness which also wanted to be this incisive, deep exploration of religious and philosophical themes. It could have been really cool, but it was a terrible movie. Given SMT’s own obsession with religious themes and imagery, and its sci-fi horror premise, it kinda feels so far like Prometheus as it should have been. I mean, I’m pretty sure that I’m gonna be critical of how the religious themes in SJ play out, given series precedent, but at least its unlikely to be aggressively dumb in the manner that Prometheus was.
Although having said that, I like what the game’s been doing so far on this angle – the Schwarzwelt’s dungeons are based on the seven deadly sins, giving the satire and commentary an almost Dantean feel at times. And apparently Plato’s demiurge shows up as a potential enemy, making me feel that SMT is defying causality in an attempt to troll me. So I’m interested to see how this plays out (although, again, as with Nocturne, the heavy occult imagery and dark themes make me flag this for mature, non-impressionable folk only).
Anyway all this is to say that I’m enjoying the story/setting more than Nocturne and with what I’ve seen of SMT IV, and I’m kinda hoping that this will be the one that doesn’t leave me feeling cold by the end.
Gameplay wise, Strange Journey is something of a hybrid. Along with Persona 4, Atlus had another, somewhat lesser, but perhaps even more surprising success: their Etrian Odyssey games for the Nintendo DS. Etrian Odyssey was an attempt to resurrect 80s Wizardry style RPGs with the conveniences of modern game design. It was an unexpected hit, spawning a whole franchise that is still strong. SJ, which was also released for the DS, runs on EO’s engine and attempts to wed its old-school philosophy with SMT mechanics.
The bad news is that Nocturne’s Press Turn system is out the window, replaced by the more traditional turn-based approach: at every round of combat, you input all your commands to your party, the enemy does the same for his, and then the RNG does dice rolls to determine the order these commands are executed. I’m less crazy about this approach because its more luck based: for instance, whether I can heal a critically wounded party member before the enemy kills them boils down to whether the dice roll favors my healer. I like having a definite, explicit turn order that I can plan around.
This gripe is offset by how much the EO design philosophy improves things. Although it feels more old-school than Nocturne, SJ is by far the less cruel, less punishing game. EO allowed the devs to hone their skills when it comes to making an experience that is challenging yet accessible enough to work in a portable pick-up-and-play format, and it shows here.
Aside from that, it’s more of the same. There are minor tweaks, but the core mechanics are the usual. The enemies are the usual pan-mythological/religious bunch, and you recruit your party members by negotiating with them, or fusing them together. Exploit enemy weaknesses, rinse & repeat. Although the dialogue trees for negotiation are often even more surreal and silly than they were in Nocturne:
Graphically, I think the switch to a lower-powered medium actually helps things. Mainline SMT is less about telling a cinematic story than it is about, well, allowing the player to role play in the setting. SJ’s cutscenes are told entirely through text and static, 2D images, with the game locked into a first-person perspective for its entirety. It requires a lot more imagination than most other 2009 games would, and the effect is pretty immersive. I feel like my character, Mycroft Raleigh, is more of a character I’m role playing as, than an avatar I’m controlling.
So I’m hoping that SJ will be the one to address the issues I had with Nocturne. That hope may likely be in vain, but at least, at the end of my Strange Journey, the game may be generous enough to give me a “nuke the site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure” option.