Final Glimpse: Battling demons... in space!
It's been almost six years since the last entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series, when western gamers got their first official shot with Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne on the PlayStation 2. Yes, you might have noticed roughly a half-dozen other games bearing the SMT name; but only because Atlus USA has tagged the spin-offs with it. Make no mistake, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey for the Nintendo DS is the true ?sequel? to Nocturne, and would probably be dubbed Shin Megami Tensei IV if it wasn't for the radical departure that Strange Journey takes with its plot and locale. With tons of new demons to recruit and fuse, a return to classic Megaten gameplay, and a unique science-fiction plot, Strange Journey should be a great entry for series fans, and for new players alike.
Instead of taking place in Tokyo, where all kinds of apocalyptic events have taken place over the course of the SMT series, Strange Journey takes place in Antarctica, where a black hole has appeared and it's swallowing up the earth. This ?black spot?, dubbed the Schwarzwelt by the United Nations, is where you spend some of the game, in that there's an ?other side? to it where demons and other creatures roam. In the Japanese version, your silent main character hailed from Japan, but for the US version, our nameless hero comes from America, a first for the series. The move towards sci-fi allows for a lot more creativity from Atlus, as seen in the unusual-looking ?Demonica? suit that not only keeps you from some harm, but also helps you find hidden monsters, secret doors, and the like. Like Nocturne, the game focuses heavily on demons ? while you do have human NPCs, your battle partners are all demons that one acquires through the game.
Getting a hold of these demons can be done in multiple ways. While in battles, the main character can ?negotiate? with enemies, and try to woo them to your side, though sometimes they will initiate the discussion themselves. Nocturne didn't have a lot of it, but Devil Summoner 2 negotiation allowed other demons to help the negotiations, which probably is in Strange Journey too. Also, heavy use of demon fusion is required again ? that being taking two or three demons and making one newer, stronger one out of the process. Like past games, Strange Journey will have a Compendium to repurchase demons you fused, though it usually comes at a high cost, especially for higher level demons. Strange Journey has a new mechanic where you can use items to shape the skills a demon learns, a new step from the old games where sometimes you could spend hours re-rolling the fusions to get the right skills transferred over. SJ also has a really cool ?password? system that allows you to share your unique demons with others, and vice versa.
Though the game has moved to science-fiction, the core mechanics of Strange Journey look to be the same as past games. Likely due to the use of the DS as the platform, all the exploration is done in first-person, like Shin Megami Tensei I and II, or more recently, the Persona remake for PSP. The game uses the top screen of the DS for exploration, and the bottom will be used for the map, which is nice compared to hitting a button to access it on the consoles. The battles also are first-person, though it uses the press-turn battle system you're used to seeing, with an emphasis on exploiting weakpoints to quickly dispatch enemies. Though turn-based battles and random encounters might seem archaic today, it's worked well for years in the franchise and Strange Journey at this point is something of a throwback game, old-school to its core. Like past games, expect a lot of challenge and numerous unforgiving deaths that aren't cheap, but instead the kind of things you learn from and better prepare for the next time.