A little less than two months ago, I talked about how I started up a game of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and gave some initial thoughts. Now that I’ve crossed what I assume to be the halfway milestone another update seems in order (and I’m gonna assume you’ve read my previous post here).
I love this game so far; it manages to get to me in a way that its predecessor, Nocturne, failed to do.
A lot of that has to do with how Strange Journey is grounded in genre in a manner that Nocturne is not. Nocturne, as I mentioned in one of my posts on it, has a unique dreamlike quality. And what I’ve noticed is that that is as much a liability as it is an asset; beyond a vague sense of being an (anti)hero’s quest, the game just feels too abstract to be invested in its narrative.
The stakes, while theoretically astronomical, never really feel important. Most of the characters appear to be operating under some sort of moon-logic which makes them rather unsympathetic. And finally, the absence of any real genre rules just makes it kinda feel like one weird, messed up event after another.
So while it features some of the most memorably atmospheric design in gaming, the end result is very much like a dream: when it’s over I’m like, “whoa that was crazy” and then just resume my day.
Strange Journey, on the other hand, feels much more grounded. The sci-fi horror premise establishes the right amount of realism to make the weird, uncanny stuff feel appropriately spooky; the characters, while very broadly painted, are normal enough to feel like real people. More than that – they’re comrades in arms. It’s much easier to care about them when the game has you all fighting together for a common goal. I mean, SMT games are pretty procedural. I know its only a matter of time before Jiminez and Zelanin become as insane as Isamu and Chiaki did in Nocturne, but this time I’ll actually care.
Which is kinda strange, because SJ is, if anything, even crazier than N. You’re exploring various Lovecraftian hellscapes rather than post-apocalyptic Tokyo, and there’s a sense that just about anything can happen. Even the first-person perspective seems to reinforce this: like Danny riding his tricycle through the Overlook hotel in The Shining, there’s always the possibility that you could turn around a corner and run into something really surreal: you could find your undead XO running around in a tuxedo and raving about the end of humanity; you could run into the the devil’s drag persona, Louisa Ferre (no really), you could meet a girl called Alice who is currently in pursuit of a rabbit. But because the game never forgets the human element of all this, and because it keeps at least the trappings of military realism, it works as a story.
And its exactly the sort of gonzo horror schlock that appeals to me.
Of course, most of the time you’re just exploring more corridors with traps and random encounters.
This is probably one of the most aggressively niche titles I’ve played. Even by SMT standards, its difficult to find a game that tries this hard to alienate people, from the appropriately sanity-blasting dungeon design to the fact that it looks like some obscure, mid 90s PC game. Well, perhaps it would have fared a little better today with our current fascination with punishing retro game design. And also if Atlus had just called the game Shin Megami Tensei IV (the actual SMT IV could be Shin Megami Tensei V: Samurai Boogaloo or something).
There’s a kind of scorched-earth approach here which demands that you either fully commit yourself to its mechanics or go home. As such, it defies traditional recommendability. I can reasonably say that, if you’re ok with some questionable content, you stand a good chance at having a good time with an SMT title like Persona 4. SJ, on the other hand, only seems to exist for the people who like the franchise’s mechanics and trappings for their own sake.
Speaking of questionable content, it still feels a little too early to pass judgment on all the religious themes (SMT typically doesn’t pull out the big guns until the final third or so). But they feel less out of place in a sci-fi horror setting than they do in the series’ usual cyberpunk mysticism. The series’ desire to function as a metaphor for shaping your beliefs through your moral decisions actually works better when the literal aspect is more grounded in a concrete narrative, and I find that makes me more forgiving of the franchise’s pecadillos, if that makes sense.
More to the point: often an artist’s storytelling capabilities exceed their own philosophical limitations and wind up being more universal than their idiosyncrasies. A good story tends to to be more universal than its philosophical scaffolding, which is why I don’t need to, say, find the political and social views of Asimov or Le Guin particularly toothsome to nevertheless find their works deeply meaningful for me.
That’s a notion that really requires more than one paragraph to unpack, but I’ve got things to do, so maybe another time.