More so than almost any other big Japanese RPG franchise, you can always count on the Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series to do something original and thought provoking.
To err is human
More so than almost any other big Japanese RPG franchise, you can always count on the Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series to do something original and thought provoking. The series has always been known for its dark subject matter, unique settings and substance, so this isn’t much of a problem.
Although the lion’s share of the series’ focus has recently been going to the game’s Persona spin-off series (Japanese high-school teens tackle mature themes and psychological dramas while dealing with violent, overarching mystery plots and plenty of demonic presence), the newest entry in the MegaTen series is one of the most interesting and relevant to date.
For starters, Strange Journey takes place in the near future, at the South Pole, where a massive energy force known as the Schwartzwelt is slowly devouring the earth. With the series’ penchant for atypical subject matter (religious themes, existentialism, morality and individualism vs. collectivism, to name a few) this isn’t entirely out of the ordinary, but nonetheless Strange Journey‘s Antarctic setting stands out as different.
This isn’t a typical doomsday scenario, either. Yes, the Schwartzwelt will consume the world if the U.N.-assembled team of soldiers and scientists deployed to Antarctica can’t find a way to stop it, but after catastrophe maroons the group at the site of the anomaly, they find there’s more to this force than meets the eye.
As it turns out, the Schwartzwelt is a portal of sorts into an alternate dimension, and that means plenty of the series’ trademark demonic encounters. But rather than just leaving it at that, Strange Journey‘s dungeons provide some interesting commentary-through-example on humanity’s various Achilles’ heels, from vice and materialism to war and environmentalism.
“Well-written” and “heavy-handed” are two adjectives that may be thrown around a lot when talking about a MegaTen game, but when peeling away Strange Journey‘s sci-fi exterior, its underlying themes seem both frighteningly timely and emblematic of the desperation that, more often than not, defines our modern times.
The plot isn’t the only thing designed for the patient gamer, either, as Strange Journey is almost purely old-school MegaTen. Expect a lot of first-person dungeon crawling, recruiting demons to join in your party, lengthy exposition between characters and (sort of) random battles.
As is often the case with DS-based JRPG titles, this one is not for the faint of heart (insofar as your tactical and intellectual fortitude in the genre will be challenged, over and over, by Strange Journey‘s mechanics and gameplay).
The demon-fusing systems (combining demonic allies together to produce stronger ones, as well as the resultant battle strategy switch-ups this process entails) alone will add hours on to the game’s 40-ish-hour length for dedicated players, but the MegaTen veteran will be engrossed for the duration.
Cutting your teeth on Strange Journey, however, is not recommended, unless you can keep an open mind about the differences between old-school RPG design and modern, more streamlined mechanics.
But the real treat to the game, and what will likely keep you coming back for more, is seeing just how the events of Strange Journey unfold, and, more importantly, thinking about the gravity of its social implications.
In a genre consistently overrun with anime tropes and bubbly J-Pop, Strange Journey ‘s refreshingly alarming ideas stand tall with the best examples of sociological critique—only this one has demons.