Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux Review
Back when Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey was first revealed for the Nintendo DS in 2009, speculation on what exactly the game was 'going to be' was a little bit frenzied. The SMT series had found a home on the PlayStation 2 with games like Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, as well as Persona. While the original Devil Survivor spinoff was released earlier that year, seeing the series continue to move to dedicated handhelds was certainly a change in direction.
Unlike the Devil Survivor strategy RPG, Strange Journey seemed to follow more traditional series' combat gameplay while featuring a mapping system somewhat similar to Etrian Odyssey. We even know that Strange Journey was originally given consideration to be Shin Megami Tensei IV, although it was ultimately given a sub-title instead due to the fact the plot was not set in Japan. Despite this commotion, Strange Journey ended up being not only a respectable title in the series but perhaps one of the best entries with a fascinating narrative and robust gameplay systems. Now Strange Journey is getting a re-release on Nintendo 3DS as Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a first-person dungeon crawler, which effectively works as a sort of call-back to the style of the original Shin Megami Tensei games on the Super Famicom. Everything is done in the first-person perspective, including both dungeon crawling and combat. The story takes place in a spatial distortion in Antarctica known as the Schwarzwelt, which has been steadily growing in size and threatens to consume the world. A global task force has been sent to investigate this strange anomaly, looking for answers and hopefully a way to prevent a global catastrophe.
The structure of the game is relatively straightforward. You continually progress through various 'Sectors' of the Schwarzwelt, mapping out each area in a step-by-step fashion. Many demons inhabit this strange place, and you encounter stronger and stronger demons the further in you go. Just like in most other SMT games, you combat demons by also recruiting them to fight by your side, and they can be fused together in order to obtain more powerful ones. Also like most SMT titles, various decisions made in the game will alter the player's alignment - Law, Neutral, or Chaos.
The original Strange Journey was decidedly not an easy experience. It would often test the player's understanding of the game's alignment system, elemental affinities, status buffs and effects, and team balance in order to succeed. There was no hand-holding to be found here - if you weren't properly prepared, you'd find yourself becoming well-acquainted with the Game Over screen.
Strange Journey Redux, like most Atlus re-releases, features numerous additions and changes from its original version. For the most part, the changes made are there to make Strange Journey more approachable and less unforgiving. Not only is the default difficulty considerably easier this time around, but plenty of additions lighten up the restrictions that were placed in the original game. You can save anywhere on any map, and setting up demon skills is simpler overall, to name a couple of examples.
Just about everything is a bit more effortless in Strange Journey Redux, often achieved with the sub-app system. Like in SMT IV, sub-apps are almost like in-game cheats you can buy that offer a variety of bonuses to the player. Redux has several new sub-apps that lighten challenge a bit, such as the removal of an automatic Game Over if the MC (main character) falls in battle, and there's even a way to see where teleport squares will take you (which veterans of Sector E will certainly understand the benefit for). Not only that, but you can now equip all sub-apps simultaneously, which means you can have HP&MP regeneration, better level ups, better money/item drops, and more, all at the same time.
For those looking for a challenge, the Expert difficulty level is in line with what you would find in the original. However, even with this difficulty selected, many systems are still there to make things easier on yourself, though you don't have to use all the sub-apps available.
Several other SMT titles - such as Shin Megami Tensei IV - use variants of the 'Press Turn' battle system, which gives the player extra turns when they strike an enemy's elemental weakness. Strange Journey instead uses a different mechanic known as Demon Co-op. How this works is when you hit an enemy's weakness, all demons of the same alignment in your party will follow up with an extra attack to deal additional damage.
So, this coerces the player to use teams with a uniform alignment in order to deal the most damage. Redux makes Co-op even more powerful, with new sub-apps allowing Co-op to take place after critical hits, or to follow up on a second target demon.
I'd be lying if I said Demon Co-op was my preferred SMT combat gimmick. One thing I appreciate about the Press Turn system is that it is reciprocal; enemy demons can exploit the gimmick on your party just as easily as you can use it against them. Demon Co-op is not reciprocal in this way, as there is no way for enemies to use it. Despite a slight reservation here, it's still an effective system with similar rewards for managing element affinities properly.
The narrative in Strange Journey is a little tricky to describe. It's not especially plot-driven, and it's not quite character-driven either, at least not in the traditional sense. It feels more like a horror mystery with some abstract philosophical elements. As you progress through the Schwarzwelt, you'll meet a handful of strange angels and demons as the mystery of this realm becomes more and more clear.
You experience the enigma of the Schwarzwelt with two other primary characters in the game, Jimenez and Zelenin, whose behaviors and responses to the world around them ultimately connect to the story's branching ending paths. The main hook comes from this sort of 'wonder' of what the Schwarzwelt has in store, as well as an intriguing balance between clashing viewpoints that develop over the course of the adventure.
As for new content in Strange Journey Redux, it revolves around a newcomer character named Alex. Partway through the normal storyline, Alex will appear and the player will find themselves in a new dungeon area known as the Womb of Grief. This area is essentially accessed parallel to the original content. You can't complete it fully when you first get access to it, so you'll have to revisit the Womb of Grief periodically during the main story to make more progress. Here, the goddess Demeter asks for your help in acquiring six pieces of a magical fruit, and you'll take on numerous new boss demons in order to achieve her goal.
The Womb of Grief features dungeon puzzles that are just a notch above what you find in the normal game. It's a satisfying labyrinth of tricks and traps that don't overdo any one gimmick to the point of tedium, for the most part. The most confusing puzzle here is one regarding warp portals that require you to go through them in a certain order. I was okay with a bit of trial and error here in figuring out the workings of things, but note it does require some patience.
I found myself pleasantly surprised with the new content available in Strange Journey Redux. Alex's story is not very substantial on the whole, but it doesn't really need to be. As you might expect, you learn more about her goal as you complete the Womb of Grief, and if you manage to clear it, you can choose to go to a new ending sequence once you reach the end of the game. The very nature of Alex's intentions and how they tie to a new set of endings is tough to describe without spoiling it, but ultimately I was fine with how it incorporated into the prevailing storyline of Strange Journey. It's non-essential but interesting enough for those who simply want more Strange Journey to play through.
One slight oddity that pops up thanks to the new dungeon is how the difficulty curve is managed. Oftentimes when you jump back into the Womb of Grief, you'll face off against monsters that are a notch above where you should be by that point. Then, if you manage to brute force your way through a new section gaining experience and new demons, you'll find yourself a bit overpowered when you jump back into the normal storyline. You might just chalk this up to be a side-effect of having a new, optional dungeon incorporated into the game, but it does introduce some slight non-linear difficulty to be aware of.
In my playthrough for this review, I went the Chaos route and compared the old and new Chaos version endings. If you decide to take one of the new ending routes, you end up in a new ultimate final dungeon known as the Empyrean Ascent with a new ultimate final boss. This area is not quite as sizable as the Womb of Grief, but it features the strongest demons in the game alongside one of the trickiest dungeon puzzles, giving an appropriate environment for a new finale. To be blunt, this final dungeon gimmick is probably the most obtuse & frustrating in the game, but I still felt it was a suitable obstacle put in place and doesn't overstay its welcome for too long.
In actuality, the new ending cutscenes are not dramatically different from their old counterparts, at least for the two endings I chose to compare. It's enough to be a meaningful difference, however, especially when noting the original endings were quite succinct to begin with. It's not going to turn the outcome of the game on its head, but it's a neat addition to see, especially after conquering a new final dungeon area.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is still as great and robust a game as ever, now more accessible for those not looking for something quite as demanding. Several quality-of-life additions are certainly welcome to have, and the new content sufficiently bolsters what was already in place. Whether you are new to Strange Journey or are looking for a good reason to revisit it, this release is worth checking out.