Let me share a little secret with all of you. While I have loved most video game RPGs ever since my younger self slid a copy of Dragon Warrior into his NES, I have always been a little apprehensive about the Shin Megami Tensei series. Don’t get me wrong – I have always found them to be excellent titles but at the same time I feel that SMT games are about as brutal as turn-based RPGs can be. I am not a newbie to the genre or to handheld gaming. Hell, I even carried my 3DS in a holster on my belt at MAGFest back in the day. Despite all of that, one entry in the SMT series broke me. Specifically, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. To this day I have not beaten that game and that has always been on my mind when I picked up subsequent entries in the series; at the very least I could expect a grueling challenge that would demand all of my attention to overcome. Yeah, I was a little apprehensive when I received a copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux to review. I predicted fiendish dungeon design, unforgiving combat and a story that would challenge my concepts of humanity, demons and spirituality. For the most part this game delivered and I loved the experience so much I played through it twice for this review.
SMT: Strange Journey Redux tells a story set within a bizarre subspace anomaly called the Schwarzwelt located close to the South Pole. The Schwarzwelt is consuming the Earth as it expands and the outer rim is protected by a wall of plasma energy which has a nasty tendency to destroy unmanned probes sent to investigate the situation. The United Nations puts together a team of scientists and soldiers to investigate the Schwarzwelt and your character is part of the strike team. The commander of your team takes orders from Arthur, an artificial intelligence unit. You are given four hi-tech amphibious vehicles with limited airborne capabilities. The idea is that the team will make a jump worthy of Evil Knievel over the rim of the Schwarzwelt and explore what is inside.
As you can probably guess, things go wrong very quickly. The vehicle you are assigned to breaks down within the Schwarzwelt, the other three vehicles landed in different locations and several crew members have gone missing. Your first priorities are to get your vehicle operational, locate the missing members of your crew and find a way out of the anomaly. Along the way your character will have more responsibility thrust upon his or her shoulders and form some very unusual alliances with demons with unique powers. As is often the case with Shin Megami Tensei games, the story is superbly written.
I have not played the original 2010 release of SMT: Strange Journey Redux on the Nintendo DS so I do not know if the game’s graphics are significantly improved on the 3DS. I can tell you that while the game has some wonderful art – particularly the character portraits and some of the backgrounds – there are a few images that I suspect were brought over from the DS version with minimal upgrades. With a 240p screen the 3DS is a very low resolution device but the artists were able to provide some truly beautiful images for the game and these moments outweigh the uglier visuals. From colorful cityscapes with neon lights to… Unfortunately, SMT: Strange Journey Redux does not provide any 3D visuals so you may as well keep that slider down. I consider this to be a minor nitpick as I rarely use that feature but I do like to at least check out how a game looks in 3D.
Scenes that take place within your vehicular headquarters look like typical visual novel fare albeit very well done. The demons you encounter within the Schwarzwelt are diverse with nicely detailed sprites. We only get to see them from one angle and their animations are fairly basic but that is common for turn-based RPGs so I won’t be too hard on the developers for that. If I had to nitpick about any aspect of the visuals it would be that the textures of the dungeons can be a little on the bland side.
All of the voices in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux are in Japanese. Don’t worry, the dialogue is accompanied by subtitles so you will not have any trouble following the story. My own understanding of Japanese is limited but the voice actors have turned in adequate performances. There are a few over the top moments when characters are expressing anger or disbelief but the overall performance is roughly on par with voice performances in anime shows. The music is lovely and non-intrusive but not very memorable.
I am going to be blunt here. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is deep. Ridiculously deep. On the surface it appears to be a standard turn-based RPG but there are a myriad of options to tailor the gameplay to your tastes. It all begins with your Demonica suits. Far more than just battle armor, these suits can run apps that give your characters functions and allow for tweaking the gameplay to your satisfaction. You can even use these apps to adjust the frequency of items surrendered by defeated enemies or the game difficulty. As you explore the Schwarzwelt you will find new apps as well as items you can use to craft new equipment.
As is the norm in an SMT game, combat is turn-based but there are enough intricacies in place to keep genre veterans intrigued. There can be up to four characters in your party (up to three party members will be demons). You have your typical “normal” attacks along with a form of “magic” attacks. Victory is often achieved by depowering enemies with toxins, slowness and similar manioulations of their status. Battles tend to focus on the weaknesses of your enemies and you will find yourself recruiting all manner of demons to your team. Yes, that’s right. The game offers you opportunities to negotiate with the demons you encounter and skillful conversations can result in receiving items or even a demon joining your team – allowing you to us its powers in battles. If you manage to recruit demons with the same alignment as your own you can team up in battle to create combination attacks. The conversation trees for recruitment can be tricky to manage but the writing here is strong enough to keep you amused throughout the process. Those of you with a taste for breeding monsters can choose to fuse recruited demons to create offspring that has the powers of its “parents”.
Make no mistake here. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is a brutally difficult game. You will become intimately familiar with the sight of your entire party wiped out by powerful enemies and some of the bosses in this game will make you want to tear your hair out. The difficulty of this game is exemplified by the level design of its dungeons. There is no overworld to explore here; you instantly travel to each dungeon. Don’t worry, the lack of an overworld does not mean you will be breezing through this game’s dungeons. This game has some of the most fiendishly complicated dungeon designs I have ever seen in a video game. You will think I am exaggerating about the difficulty of navigating these dungeons and that even with teleporters and hidden pathways it can’t be that bad. Yes, the dungeons are truly that complicated. The level named Eridanus is particularly difficult to figure out and has brought quite a few gamers dangerously close to quitting during the title’s original run on the Nintendo DS. My best advice here is to literally map every step you take but even that tip is questionable due to being warped around to various parts of a dungeon. However, that sense of accomplishment you feel when you have finally cleared a dungeon can’t be beat.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux offers an intriguing story along with gameplay that will satisfy veteran RPG players. The game still manages to be accessible to new players thanks to the ability to adjust the difficulty and other aspects of gameplay via apps for your Demonica suit. It is still quite challenging due to its intricate level design and a combat system focused on debuffing your enemies.
+ A strange and intriguing story
+ Deep gameplay mechanics such as fusing demons and customizing character abilities through apps
+ Accessible to newcomers to the Shin Megami Tensei series.
– No 3D visuals
Review copy provided by the publisher.