Humanity’s Dark Future has Never Looked Brighter
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey came at what I consider to be an unfortunate time for those of us in the West. Having just been released only a little over a year after Persona 4, and with only the likes of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for Westerners to compare it to in terms of what can be considered “core” SMT games, Strange Journey provided us with a trip down memory lane without the actual memories. You know, since we never got the any of the classic MT and SMT titles (barring the no longer working version of SMT1 for the iPhone).
While it’s understandable that a title like Strange Journey may have, if only partially, slipped through the cracks of its Western market, it’s a shame that it went that way. Because, in all honesty, Strange Journey was great. Really great. Between its back-to-basics dungeon crawling, devilishly complex demon mechanics, and mature, strikingly more adult (and I mean that literally, so get your head out of the gutter) storyline, there was a lot to love about Strange Journey. But hey, none of that matters any more. Thanks to Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, we’ve all been given a fresh chance to gleefully dive into the Schwarzwelt once again. And let me tell you, this isn’t an opportunity you’ll want to pass up.
A Strange New World
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, like the vast majority of other SMT titles out there, features a narrative which quickly thrusts players into an age-old battle of good versus evil. However, there’s something strikingly different about this game which manages to set it apart from the others; its setting. Abandoning its Tokyo-focused norm, Redux takes place within the “Schwarzwelt” — a large, dome-like area located in what used to be Antarctica whose existence, and impending threat to humanity, was quickly discovered by the United Nations. Although initially making attempts to research the Schwarzwelt remotely via drones — all of which were unsuccessful — the UN soon realized that more drastic actions needed to be taken. Thus they quickly gathered up their best, strongest, and brightest from around their respective countries — including you, an elite American soldier — and sent them headfirst into the unknown territory — entirely unaware of the literal Hell on Earth eagerly awaiting for their arrival.
Going hand-in-hand with its unique story is Redux‘s equally unique cast of characters. As far as I’m aware, Strange Journey was the first — and only, to my knowledge — SMT title to feature an all-adult cast; a very cool piece of information which I’m sure has gone largely unnoticed. To those of you who aren’t into this series, and even to those of you who are but don’t give much thought to character development, this might not seem like a big deal. In some ways, you aren’t entirely wrong. As I’ve already mentioned before, and despite its unique story-related elements, this is still an SMT game, and you had best believe that it has the same basic narrative skeleton as the rest of its ilk. However, it’s not the overarching narrative that I’m focused on, but the way in which it develops.
Except for the very end, where things go more than a little crazy (as they tend to do with these games), Redux‘s cast gives players a glimpse of how the series would be handled were destiny not constantly being thrust into the hands of teenagers. By placing players in control of a fully-grown military man — a man who is renowned for his combat expertise, and one with a strong sense of duty — and filling the game with nothing but equally capable adult allies (and a robot) ATLUS is essentially flipping the script on what it means to be an SMT protagonist. And honestly, it’s really cool. Not that there’s anything wrong with teenage protagonists, or anything. It’s just nice to see things form a different perspective every once in a while.
If the original Strange Journey wasn’t already appealing enough, Redux ups the ante thanks to the inclusion of Alex. An all-new character, Alex is a mysterious woman with terrifyingly potent combat capabilities who, after somehow making it into the Schwarzwelt on her own, is determined to carry out her mission. …Her mission being killing you, of course. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot that I can say about Alex. Due to the fact that she’s a Redux newcomer, most of her story takes place outside of the original Strange Journey story. And that’s really too bad, because her reasoning behind what she’s doing is not only interesting in itself, but it makes for great commentary on the SMT narrative overall. Alas, that’s all that I can really say. Just trust me when I say that, at least in my opinion, Alex’s addition in Redux is an excellent example of re-writing a pre-existing story.
Dungeons and Demons (and Traps)
Have you ever asked yourself “how well would a first-person dungeon crawling JRPG on the DS hold up almost a decade after its initial release?” No? Well, I can’t say that I blame you. That’s a pretty specific question after all. However, just in case you were curious, the answer to that question is “very well”. At least in this game’s case. For the most part, Redux‘s actual dungeon crawling has an incredibly retro feel to it — even more so than the original SMT titles in certain aspects. Rather than featuring an interconnecting world, Redux is made up of a number (I’ll avoid saying exactly how many) of entirely separate dungeons. I’ll be the first to admit that this does feel a little awkward for an SMT game. For a series which normally features heavily interconnected exploration mechanics to suddenly segment each explorable area feels incredibly foreign. It might even get some taking used to for some people. On the other hand, given that Redux mixes things up with the narrative, it isn’t too surprising that it would do so elsewhere as well.
Because of its “level-based” layout, Redux ultimately ends up feeling like one of the most streamlined titles in the entire game. Barring the few times where backtracking is needed (and the game is explicit about where you need to go), the newest area is always the correct one to be in. But does that make the actual dungeon crawling easy? Ha! This is a Shin Megami Tensei game we’re talking about. Of course it’s not easy. Or at least, not entirely easy. While lacking in quantity, Redux‘s dungeons more than make things up with quality. And by “quality,” I mean “puzzles and gimmicks.”
To its credit, Redux doesn’t throw its players to the wolves immediately. The first three or so dungeons are fairly tame, allowing the player to learn the ins and outs of one-way doors, floor traps, and the like, but it doesn’t take long for a game like this to take its kiddie gloves off. Less than halfway through the game, these dungeons become incredibly long, and, if you aren’t prepared, pretty darn brutal. And that oh-so-familiar ATLUS-grade difficulty only increases once the game starts throwing in hidden doors (don’t even get me started on those). If there’s one thing that you’ll quickly learn about Redux, it’s that it isn’t a game which you can just “breeze through”. If you aren’t planning ahead and constantly checking your surroundings, you could easily end up dead — or worse, unsure of which wall you forgot to check because there has to be a secret door around here somewhere, darn it!!
You know how some games have extra dungeons that put to the test everything that you’ve learned? Strange Journey doesn’t have one of those. But Redux does! Aptly titled the “Womb of Grief,” Redux‘s brand-new dungeon is quite expansive, and unique in the way in which it works. Rather of tacking the dungeon onto the endgame, the Womb of Grief becomes available partway through the second dungeon. There’s a catch, though — you can’t beat it straight away. Contrary to the largely “one-and-done” nature of the rest of the game’s dungeons, the Womb of Grief slowly becomes more available over time as the player accumulates new apps and levels up. Much like with Alex (who plays a very large role in this dungeon), the Womb of Grief isn’t directly integrated with the original Strange Journey story. It is however an incredibly fun challenge, and offers a lot of nice rewards for players willing to push through it.
Dancing with the Devil
Redux‘s many winding pathways and deadly traps may be difficult in themselves to deal with, but they’re nothing compared to the Schwarzwelt’s inhabitants. I’m talking about demons, of course. After all, what’s a Shin Megami Tensei game without a few thousand otherworldly horrors trying to tear your head off, slice you into bits, or burn you to a crisp? Everyone knows by now that killing demons is all part of the fun — which is good, because by that logic this game is a lot of fun. Redux‘s combat is on par with the rest rest of the SMT series in general, and could probably be most closely linked with SMTIV (although I’m aware that this technically came first). Fights are less about who’s stronger (within reason, of course), and more about who’s smarter. Strategy is absolutely key in a game like this. If you don’t go into a fight fully prepared — especially against bosses — you’re going to lose. Heck, there’s a chance that you’ll loose even if you do go in fully prepared. That’s okay, though. This game is all about figuring out the right strategy. And, more often than not, you’ll only figure out what the right strategy is after a demonic evisceration or two.
I’ve also got a bit of a bone to pick with the game’s main character. As much as I like the MC when it comes to the game’s narrative, I (rather ironically) found him more than a little frustrating to use in combat sometimes. In contrast with pretty much every other game in the series, you don’t get to pick your own stats when leveling up in Redux. Instead, you take a personality test at the beginning of the game which places you into one of five “support types” which, in turn, supposedly dictates how your character levels up. Unfortunately, things still end up pretty wonky. As a heavy magic-user, I was determined to get Technical Support. And I did. However, it wasn’t my MA which skyrocketed like it was supposed to, but my AG. Don’t get me wrong, being fast is important, but I want to actually be able to hurt things with my magic. Eventually, the game did start to correct itself, with my MA passing my AG around Level 65 or so, but by that time the damage (or lack thereof) was already done. This might not be a big deal for some of you, in which case you have no need to worry. But for my fellow min-maxers out there, just know that I’ll be empathizing with you when your character ends up… balanced.
With Friends Like These…
As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the Schwarzwelt is pretty darn dangerous, and certainly not a place where you could survive alone. Especially not with the whole “constantly fighting for your life” thing. So, who do you rely on when you’re out to slay hordes of demons? Other demons, duh! ATLUS’s darkly iconic take on the monster-collecting genre was already in full swing with Strange Journey, and you can bet that there’s even more demonic love to go around in Redux. As always, demon collecting is primarily centered around two things — polite conversation, and horribly grotesque fusion. In lieu of fighting, players are able to shoot the breeze with their demonic foes. Should your conversation partner take a liking to you, you have the chance to sway them over to your side by showing them with gifts. It’s a simple process, but keep in mind that conversations often backfire. Often times, you’re just as likely to upset a demon as you are to impress them. That goes double for demons whose alignments differ from your own. But hey, that’s all part of the fun!
There’s also demon fusion. What is demon fusion, you ask? Well, the simple answer is that it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s fusing two or more demons together to make a new, usually much more powerful, demon. Unfortunately, it’s not actually that simple. Despite its straightforward concept, demon fusion is actually incredibly difficult. The types of demons that you fuse, their levels, and their skills all factor into creating a new demon. I can guarantee that you’ll most likely never understand it 100%. I don’t mean that as an insult, it’s literally just that complicated. Chances are that you’ll understand it well enough to get by, however, and that’s all that really matters. Especially since Redux has Demon Sources — special items obtained from ally demons that can be used to teach fused demons new skills — which can create some seriously game-breaking demons if you know what you’re doing.
Finally, there are passwords. That’s right, the password system from Strange Journey is back and fully functional in Redux! And, best of all, it’s exactly the same! This means that, so long as you meet the level requirements and have enough macca, you can bring those demons that you created almost a decade ago back to life! Personally, I’ve never used any passwords. It almost feels like it’s cheating the system. However, that’s totally a personal choice on my part. Strange Journey‘s password system was a really neat way to obtain rare and powerful demons, and the fact that they brought it back in Redux is nothing short of amazing.
A Redux Done Right
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey was already a great game, and its new-and-improved version has made it all the better. By tweaking just enough things to make what was once old feel new again, and adding in a dash of brand-new, yet still perfectly fitted, content, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux proves that there’s never been a better time to venture into the Schwarzwelt than now. After all, the world isn’t going to save itself.
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/5
Available on: 3DS (Reviewed) ; Publisher: ATLUS ; Developer: ATLUS ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 15, 2018 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.