You'd expect a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei games to be highly anticipating the next title in the series proper, but for whatever reason I just haven't been stoked over the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. It should be the game I've been looking forward to since Nocturne blew me away five years ago. It returns the series to its first-person dungeon-crawling roots. It has demons and future-tech and moral choices and will probably let me choose how the world is reshaped in the end, but it wasn't even on my radar. That's all changed now. After playing this game for eight hours, I'm looking forward to its release more than I'm looking forward to any other RPG in the crowded spring 2010 market.
"This is an RPG everyone should keep on their radars even in the midst of the $60 behemoths coming out around the same time."
The story gripped me immediately. I always wonder if Atlus's reuse of similar themes will get old, but apparently there really are a dozen interesting ways to combine religion, science fiction, and the end of the world. Strange Journey is straight science fiction at the start. You play as an experienced, elite soldier from America joining a strike force of the world's best grunts, scientists, and military minds to investigate and hopefully destroy a growing space abnormality that recently appeared in Antarctica. The opening events are compelling and so well-paced that I won't spoil them here, but the plot is more than serviceable. Sure, it explains why you need to explore dungeons and recruit demons, but so far this ranks on par with The World Ends with You when it comes to the best storytelling I've seen in a DS game, and could easily surpass it once the inevitable moral choices kick in and the plot thickens.
There are a few cool gameplay mechanics that are new to the series. A personality quiz at the start determines how the main character levels up. It fits into the plot rather than feeling tacked on, working as an introduction to the awesome abilities of the Demonica suit all soldiers in the game wear. You have no control over how the protagonist's Demonica gains stats; fortunately, the AI distributes them evenly with a small edge going to the primary one determined by the personality test.
The Demonica's multi-faceted demon analysis system adds a level of mystery and danger to new encounters, supports later battles, and helps with demon fusions. When a new enemy is encountered, its identity is unknown. Killing it will reveal the demon's name and image the next time it is encountered. As the same demon is killed, recruited, and used in combat, its analysis level increases, eventually revealing more information and maxing out. When a demon in the player's party levels up and its analysis is at the maximum, it gives you an item which can be used in future fusions to pass skills on to a newly created minion. This all feels very natural, and paying attention to the analysis level of demons is an important part of the game.
Demon negotiaions are much more engaging here than they were in Nocturne. They hit a happy medium between Persona's unpredictable, personality-based system and Nocturne's mindlessly rigid, alignment-based one. Foes have different personality types, but where Persona cheesed out by outright telling them to you, Strange Journey expects you to ascertain them by paying attention to how the demons speak. It's cool noticing that a demon talks in a condescending manner, and trying to answer its questions in a way that would make it warm up to you. Demon negotiations have been the highlight of Atlus USA's translation so far. The writers put a lot of effort into creating widely different mannerisms for the demons and it shows. Rather than just speak in different ways, demons often comment on the story's themes of environmentalism and war, and it's nice to see the setting reference itself, stay consistent, and regularly remind the player of the messed up and scary situation in the game.
To toss out some final points, Meguro's soundtrack is unlike anything I've heard from him before, and it's great. Not only does the ambient score sound like an ongoing military march, but he often uses stark silence and choral chanting in ways which augment the game's eerie setting. Some of the sprite work is very detailed, for bosses specifically, and the game looks great overall for a DS title. The company has come a long way since Etrian Odyssey's simple dungeon backdrops. I've died three times already, which I would call low for an SMT title, and overall the difficulty is more reasonable than SMT games tend to be. The alignment system was upgraded some, eschewing the standard Law-Neutral-Chaos continuum for D&D's three by three alignment matrix that adds a Good-Neutral-Evil component. I'm looking forward to discovering how the more sophisticated alignment choices affect the plot later in the game. So far, I have no reservations or complaints about Strange Journey, the pacing and balance between storytelling and exploration have been outstanding for a dungeon crawler, and I have to make myself put down the DS to go to bed at night. This is an RPG everyone should keep on their radars even in the midst of the $60 behemoths coming out around the same time.