The Megami Tensei series made a name for itself in Japan in the 90s, and since then its popularity has only grown. In North America, the series is known as Shin Megami Tensei and it is thanks to the Persona games that its fame has been brought over to Western shores. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, however, is not a Persona title, but one of the few games from the main series to be localized in the West and it's packing the action the series is known for into Nintendo's handheld for an on-the-go RPG experience. Nevertheless, the question still remains if Strange Journey is able to hold its own among a new audience.
Strange Journey follows a brand new story along with traditional RPG elements like a turn-based battle system. Set in the near future, overpopulation has become a major problem and pollution has begun destroying the planet. Meanwhile a mysterious portal has opened up in Antarctica, unleashing hordes of demons from within its walls. The story is fairly conventional, yet it does have enough appeal and serves as more than just a vehicle to drive the game forward. Even so, there are times when the story slowly evaporates, losing its original essence and plot into the mission structure of the game. It all simply gets wrapped up on the demons and the means to escape, putting the main plot on the back-burner for quite a while.
The game offers a rather good experience on the DS for any RPG fan. However, instead of utilizing the DS' touchscreen and stylus, Strange Journey employs mostly the buttons for its control scheme. There are no gimmicks attached and it's one of the features that has been well implemented. As mentioned before, the battle system is turn-based and allows for up to four characters in a party at any time. In addition, combat is done entirely on explorable dungeon-crawler style levels.
What's unique about the battle system, and should be familiar to fans of the Persona games, is that players can interact with the demons they encounter in battle. Speaking with them may gain items, money or they might even join the party if they warm up to players. The main party consists of the game's protagonist along with three other demons that he can summon to his side. It's a very interesting system as demons can even be fused to create stronger variants as long as they don't surpass the player's level. However, this interaction system can tend to be quite random as an encounter with two different demons of the same type won't necessarily yield the same result even if players answer the same question. This offers variety in the encounters but can also get frustrating at times.
As players battle through the areas of Strange Journey, the levels and dimensions will begin to alter. Each level has quite a few missions that require players to revisit deeper parts of an earlier level in order to obtain key items, new equipment and materials to improve stats. While each level does initially have a fairly unique feel and good design, revisiting them on multiple occasions can get either rather monotonous or give a sense of familiarity to the task at hand.
The visuals are decent with 3D rendered environments and 2D illustrated backdrops. The presentation is satisfactory considering the graphical limitations of the DS. Moreover, dialogue is exchanged through illustrations and, although this can be the norm for many Japanese games, it doesn't feel as interesting as it could be at times. However, battles are very well done with demons having intricately designed sprites.
While the visuals of the game can be a hit-and-miss in terms of quality, one aspect of the game found lacking is in its sound design. The soundtrack doesn't necessarily feel out of place, but it does tend to become repetitive rather quickly and since the majority of the levels require a rather long play-through, the experience can suffers from the recurring humdrum tracks. Demons also converse in with their own little noises, most of which are nothing more than simple squeals and noises.
The story is of a good healthy length, lasting up to about 40 hours or more. Aside from the main story, the game also offers plenty of side quests for players to net extra cash and items. While there is no multiplayer available, there is a Demon Registry program wherein players can share the demons they've created. However, the registry doesn't seem to add much unless players are close in level.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is one of the better RPG experiences available on the DS. It packs the full-featured gameplay of a console title into the accessibility of Nintendo's handheld. The game isn't without flaws though as encounters with demons can seem quite random and the soundtrack can become quite repetitive. Even so, those itching for a new RPG experience on the DS will find some solace in the adventure that Strange Journey offers.