Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux review

It's a mighty long fall.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey has always been an odd duck within an already pretty unusual series. The game sports most of the SMT hallmarks: negotiating monsters toward your side, a darkly philosophical tone, and combat based on exploiting elemental weaknesses.

Yet the game doesn’t take place in modern (or near future) Tokyo. You don’t play as stressed out teenagers. There’s homework involved, but it’s not in service of in-game dating sim elements. I’m referring to all the time you’ll likely spend on fusion, conversation, and boss fight guides in order to navigate this awfully brutal JPRG.

I won’t reprimand anyone for diving into GameFAQs a few dozen times for this one, either. Strange Journey was obtuse enough when it released on Nintendo DS nearly 10 years ago. Its recent re-release, Strange Journey Redux, mercifully smooths many of those rough edges, but it doesn’t reinvent SMT’s savage yet rewarding wheel.

Those rewards appear most often in the story sections of the game. Strange Journey sees its cast traversing the Schwartzwelta black hole that’s suddenly eating the south pole. Instead of trendy high schoolers, the cast consists of soldiers and researchers. It’s a well-equipped, professional operation to stop the world from being literally swallowed by darkness, rather than your typical JRPG’s ragtag world-savers.

Naturally, things go horribly wrong. The Schwartzwelt is chock full of demons hell-bent on retaking the Earth from its clumsy stewards. Generations of pollution, war, excess, and greed have triggered the black mass as a sort of planetary antibody. It’s up to you, the silent hero among a cast surprisingly well fleshed out team members, to stop its spread.

This mission raises all kinds of questions, and Strange Journey does its level best to address them all. If the demons are triage for a dying Earth, doesn’t that make humankind the baddies? What does that say about your mission to stop the Schwartzwelt? If the world is screwed on its current course, what’s the best philosophy to right the ship?

The answers to each of these questions take the same three-pronged shape as in most SMT games. Depending on some dialogue choices in-game, your character starts to lean in favor of law, chaos, or neutrality. It’s the sort of stuff that’s long determined players’ endings since this series began.

Strange Journey, however, takes the ethical question one step further. Your morals don’t just determine which cutscenes you get and which bosses you fight toward the end. They play into the action.

Gone is the traditional “press turn” system from other Shin Megami Tensei gameswherein targeting a demon’s weakness in turn-based combat grants a free action, as well as bonus damage. Strange Journey replaces them with “co-op attacks.” These trigger the same way as in other Atlus developed RPGs, like Persona and Shin Megami TenseiIV, but do so automatically. Sparking a foe that’s weak to fire with a flame attack, for example, causes any party member with the same alignment to follow-up with a secondary attack. Rinse, grind, and repeat.

It’s a stripped-down system that just doesn’t do it for me, Personally. The Shin Megami Tensei series has a long history of tweaking and remixing press turn combat from game to game. But those revisions nearly always feel in service of one core doctrine: determining and exploiting different enemies’ weaknesses rewards the player with greater options.

Landing a heavy lightning attack might kill a foe while also buying you a turn to resurrect a fallen comrade. Or maybe you want to use the grace period to heal the protagonist? Maybe you can even end the whole random encounter now by pressing the attack. It’s a risk (perhaps your carefully considered turn order will collapse thanks to a missed attack) that rewards with creativity and a sense of mastery over otherwise bog-standard turn-based combat.

By contrast, Strange Journey limits your options from the get-go. Your sole human character is only ever lawful, chaotic, or neutral for combat purposes. The same goes for the demon allies you can persuade to your side, or breed by fusing two or more together. So if you like the stats and/or design of Thor, the thunder god, but don’t match his predetermined ethical tribe, the character is mathematically less useful than characters at a similar level. As a result, the absolutely enormous roster of usable characters is less of a draw than in typical SMT games.

Co-op attacks still add flavor, and even some strategy, but they feel more like an evolution of Dragon Quest’s grind-and-bulldoze power fantasy. It’s just not typically why I come to this series.

Thankfully, there’s plenty else that does keep me coming back to this particular entry. The Antarctic setting is just the tip of its narrative iceberg, for one. Strange Journey blends the paranoid, otherworldly horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing with the stoic approach to environmentalist anxiety of early Godzilla flicks. But unlike the game’s spiritual successor, Shin Megami Tensei IV, this game also maintains a ground-level focus on its supporting cast.

You’ll instantly recognize the archetypes. Warrant Officer Jimenez is a pragmatic grunt who speaks his mind. Lieutenant Zelenin, on the other hand, defers to structure and authority to solve the stranded research team’s predicament. You can probably guess which characters inevitably represent which moral routes, chaos or law, as the game progresses.

Neither Zelenin nor Jimenez have much in the way of backstory, but their actions in-game are thoughtfully textured. The former isn’t a God-fearing robot and the latter doesn’t believe the strong should dominate the weak for its own sake. Rather, both avatars slowly succumb to their ethical partisanship with the best of intentions—protecting their friends, colleagues, and the world. Strange Journey spends plenty of time making both the angelic and demonic methods of achieving that goal seem reasonable under unreasonable circumstances. Not that that stopped me from playing neutral, like I always do.

And most a decade later, there’s still plenty of new stuff to see on that middle, or any other story route. Strange Journey Redux makes tons of small improvements to its predecessor. Much of the 2D art has been redone and looks fantastic. Kazuma Kaneko’s pale, angular human characters now hold their own against the zanier demon design—like lava women seemingly hooked up to their own breast pumps.

There’s also a whole new set of passive and active abilities that make a huge difference in what can be a very unforgiving adventure. Because despite Strange Journey’s lack of tactical options, it’s still full of patented, grade-A “Shin Megami Tensei Bullshit”: one-hit kill attacks, brainwashing spells, demons that refuse to join you even after successfully giving them everything they request, and so on.

Much like the classic JRPG grind, a lot of the satisfaction in Strange Journey comes from slowly learning to mitigate that randomness with new skills and better-bred monsters. Teleporting floor traps in a particular dungeon got you down? Make sure to complete the side mission that warns you before you’re about to step on one. Demons ditching you despite your constant bribes of health and money? Time to craft the item that forces them to stay true to their word.

Redux’s tweaks strengthen that ever-growing competency fantasy. But by far the remake’s biggest addition is The Womb of Grief. This titanic new dungeon only lacks visual variety. Otherwise, it might as well be an entirely new game stapled onto the 2009 cult classic. The Womb sports new bosses, new loot, more cutscenes, and a mysterious woman named Alexwho happens to wear tech that looks a helluva lot like the Schwartzwelt investigation team’s.

Alex’s addition to the plot feels seamless, but still hits with the over-the-top shock of a new Dragon Ball villain. I love it. Exploring her totally optional story also rewards you with three new versions of the original endings, depending on your alignment. So, while Redux isn’t a totally ground-up remake of the original, together the new story and dungeon crawling make it feel 50 percent of the way toward a sequel.

That’s hard to pass upwhether you’re a fan of classic JRPGs, Shin Megami Tensei, or the original Strange Journey. My highly specific misgivings about this particular branch of the series’ combat aren’t enough to overshadow that for me. For everyone else, this is absolutely worth a first (or second) trip through the black hole at the end of the world.