Looks pretty damn sweet. Check the link for pics.Atlus recently brought the U.S. version of the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey by our office, and thank god for that. I've been playing the recently released import version of the game, and it's kicking my butt. It's not that the game itself is terribly difficult -- though what with it being a MegaTen game, it's certainly not short on challenge -- but the Japanese text is so dense. This is a complex RPG, packed with story, gameplay options, characters to recruit, and statistics to develop. In fact, word has it that Strange Journey was designed as the next "real" MegaTen game -- the sequel to 2004's Nocturne -- until Atlus decided to relegate it to spin-off status. But seriously, don't be fooled by the fact that it's a portable game; this is an adventure with more complexity than most console RPGs. It is, in the parlance of the Internet, Serious Business.
Strange Journey is a curious creation, because it has more than just MegaTen in its DNA. It can also trace a good portion of its heritage to Atlus's Etrian Odyssey games, as it seems the programming work on Strange Journey was provided by Etrian developers Lancarse. You can definitely see the similarities: Like Etrian, Strange Journey plays out as a first-person dungeon crawler, with the lower screen working as an automap -- and no, you don't have to sketch out the map yourself. Strange Journey has a different focus; where the Etrian games are about surviving extended dungeon dives and making incremental progress into hostile territory, Strange Journey is more of a contemporary RPG with plenty of mid-dungeon save points and plot events. The challenge isn't to survive the long term so much as it is to last through each individual enemy encounter. Because, again, it's MegaTen, and that means enemies are vicious, and balancing your party's strengths and weaknesses is of the essence.
Sure, that's true for any RPG, but doubly so in MegaTen. Knowing -- and capitalizing on -- an enemy's weakness is essential for victory, because enemies certainly aren't shy about capitalizing on your party's vulnerabilities. And no matter how carefully you build a party (in this case, a team of three demons who accompany your human hero into a dimensional rift beneath Antarctica), someone in your group will be vulnerable to some element or attack type.
As in recent MegaTen games, exploiting enemy weaknesses does more than simply inflict extra damage; it may also offer you an extra turn. This works somewhat different than it did in Devil Survivor, though. Rather than combat initiating a separate round strictly for characters who make effective attacks, hitting an enemy weak point initiates something called Demon Co-Op: A bonus action in which all party members of the same alignment (order, neutral, or chaos) join together for an instantaneous second attack against the affected enemy.
This, of course, means that party alignment is a huge factor in combat. Your unnamed hero begins as a neutral character, and your first demon ally -- a Pixie -- shares his type. But as you descend into the dungeons, you'll meet demons of all alignments, each with different strengths and weaknesses. While it might be tempting to load out your party with allies who share the hero's nature (which may change along the way, depending on your actions), there will inevitably be powerful demons from other factions whose powers or specializations complement your needs. Is it better to have a party capable of dealing massive combo attacks, or is it better to spread the talent around and prepare for any eventuality? And, naturally, alignment comes into play in other ways; you'll have an easier time talking similarly-aligned demons into joining your team, for example.
RPG fans tend to be dismissive of portable RPGs, as handheld systems still haven't completely shed the misperception that they're meant for kids, but Strange Journey is a decidedly serious science-fantasy epic. Unlike previous MegaTen titles, the story revolves not around kids in post-apocalyptic Tokyo but rather around a militarized scientific exploration team descending into a bizarre phenomenon -- the Schwartzweld -- that has appeared in the South Pole. The player's base of operations is the Red Sprite, an armored personnel carrier that plays a role similar to the towns of Etria or High Lagaard in the Etrian games: You can return to heal up, stock up, sell loot to forge superior items, and more. Since Strange Journey adheres to the standard MegaTen party concept of teaming up with demons, Etrian's Wizardry-inspired character-building is absent. Yet there's still tons of customization to be done; the hero can equip a wide array of skill-enhancing options in addition to his standard combat abilities, and demons can be fused together into more powerful forms.
All of this is set in an eerie sub-antarctic world that quickly shifts its tone from hard sci-fi to something more mystical. The Schwartzweld phenomenon is divided into regions (not unlike the strata of Etrian Odyssey's dungeons); while the first level of the opening region is precisely the sort of icy cavern you'd expect to find beneath the South Pole, descend to the second level and you'll encounter a bizarre realm that resembles a bombed-out village dotted with raging fires as planes fly through the sky overhead -- this, despite the fact that you're well beneath the polar ice by that point.
Strange Journey is likely to be the most intense and demanding RPG on DS when it launches in March -- not just in terms of difficulty, but also with its serious, sci-fi-tinged aesthetics. Hopefully, its close proximity to the Final Fantasy XIII juggernaut (which launches one day before Strange Journey) won't cause RPG fans to pass it by, because it's exactly the sort of game we're always pining for more of.
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Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Preview for the Nintendo DS from 1UP.com