Strange Journey Part 7: The Ordered World

At last we come to the first world that doesn’t represent a failing of humanity. Sector E, Eridanus, looks a little bit like some depictions of heaven – it’s an ordered place filled with rows of trees and mysterious vaguely electronic-looking obelisks. The Red Sprite crew all comment on how it looks human-made, but definitely wasn’t – an artificial, ordered land of unknown provenance. Everyone on board is excited about the prospect of the sector containing the “Vanishing Point” – the bigwigs at the command center broadcast some kind of beacon laser, which the Red Sprite is able to pinpoint to determine its relative location in space-time. Which is to say, Mr. Command Computer, Arthur, was able to spot the laser from the sector, pinpointing the location by which we can theoretically escape.

It’s worth bringing up the character of Arthur and the likely context he draws from. I’ll point out that this is 100% my speculation, and has no basis in interviews. It’s also 100% experiential (i.e. I’m drawing only from my experience). I think Arthur’s meant to channel some part of HAL 9000, but his voice seems inspired by the soothing background announcements in Japan’s train systems. The voice is suitably artificial, the terminology is often shared (he has some “canned” sounding dialogue regarding transit between sectors), etc. Which is to say, he’s a creation of humanity that is meant to guide and advise it. Although he’s relatively subdued, and obviously comes off cold from a decision-making point of view, he’s nonetheless a source of comfort and guidance for the entire crew – and, being a man-made creation, is trusted implicitly even as things get stranger and more dangerous.

Normally, at the entry point of Eridanus, I would expect some being or other to come forward or announce its presence, and make it clear this is “Law” territory – given how subtle Shin Megami Tensei typically is with its messaging. Oddly there isn’t anything indicating who/what owns this territory, for now.

The first section of Eridanus involves finding a myserious teleport device, then having to find a special Forma to activate it. It’s a pretty simple key-and-door scenario, although Zelenin’s enthusiasm for the mystery device adds a little extra flavor. Once you find the key and activate the teleporter, it gets you to another mystery teleporter (guarded by a stubborn demon) and finally to a hub zone with save/heal points. Eventually you reach “Eridanus Top”, where you find the area where the Vanishing Point is, but there is no way in. At this point Arthur detects an unknown signal from Carina, and you get routed back there temporarily.

The “unknown signal” prompts wild speculation from the crew. After all, four assault vehicles entered the Schwarzwelt, and only three are accounted for. The unknown vehicle is approximately the same size, but doesn’t respond to communication on expected channels. It must be approached on foot. Jimenez tags along for this section (I don’t recall whether Zelenin does, for sure).

Another little tangent… It’s ambiguous where Zelenin and Jimenez are most of the time. During some quests they offer to help out, but only infrequently are shown actually helping vs. just being an outside narrative perspective. They show up occasionally during plot events in the Schwarzwelt, but never assist in combat (in one instance, Jimenez comments he was “just a bit too late” when you beat a sector boss). I feel like Strange Journey could’ve benefited from occasionally having strike team members join in for big fights; it would’ve added to the “brave crew united in the unknown” flavor, although it would’ve likely decreased the feelings of isolation which is another place that Strange Journey excels. Oh well.

Once you make it to the location of the unknown signal – which is up an elevator that I hadn’t realized I never checked – you discover that it is, in fact, another ship that is just like yours. It’s not, however, the missing Gigantic. Instead it’s a prototype Red Sprite that was purchased by a private organization (presumably funded by a cabal of billionaires), outfitted with even more cutting-edge weaponry, and sent into the Schwarzwelt looking for riches to exploit.

This band of merry men is Captain Jack’s crew. They’re ominous enough in appearance, dressed in black Demonicas, like shadows of your own strike team. When Captain Jack starts speaking, you’re sure to feel uncomfortable. Jack is more ominous than a demon. He’s a mercenary, and he makes that plain – he’s here for cash, and he’s not particularly interested in the fate of the world. If that alone isn’t unsettling enough, his tone and demeanor are polite – too polite – for a mercenary. He offers a deal. His team has developed a more advanced Door Search app, and will trade it in exchange for three specific forma (and your Forma Search app). Having little choice, your team agrees to the deal.

I know I’ve already waxed eloquent, or what passes it for me, on Captain Jack. It’s hard to overstate his (and his crew’s) importance. Here’s a man absolutely emblematic of the kinds of problems that (demons say) caused the Schwarzwelt to appear. He’s a representative of the rich, outfitted with the finest (most destructive) weaponry known to man – Arthur indicates it’s much more powerful than the Red Sprite – and he’s only in the Schwarzwelt to make more money for his sponsors. You get to speak with his crew in a few spots, and they’re somehow worse than he is. Even Jimenez seems creeped out by the guys (and in other circumstances, he might’ve been on their crew). The Red Sprite crew mentions Jack the Ripper in passing shortly after meeting with Jack, too. That’s subtle.

Even worse than his vaguely skeletal appearance and cold, polite dialgoue, Captain Jack sends you on a search for the three forma, and you enter the worst part of Eridanus – which is the section everyone complains about in Strange Journey. It’s a teleporter maze that’s particularly obnoxious – because it has so many nodes, it’s impossible to go through randomly and expect to get to the other side. Redux added a feature (found in the Womb of Grief) that allows you to click on a teleporter and see where it goes. Even with that feature, it was a slog; I ended up looking up a map and tracing teleporters back from where I wanted to go.

Upon locating all three forma, and dropping by Captain Jack’s one more time, you are given the new Door Search function. It’s somewhat implied that it wasn’t a particularly good trade – not that you really had any options, much like working with Mastema earlier.

The Door Search allows you to access the central, hidden sanctum of Eridanus, where you find Ouroboros. It’s an easy boss fight, but Ouroboros regenerates upon death. Luckily, you have access to a new set of side doors that let you defeat the minions powering Ouroboros’ regeneration. Doing so feels like a meaningless side quest in the already relatively bogged-down Strange Journey environment, but at least it is relatively quick. When you defeat Ouroboros for real, it seems to change New Gore’s outlook from “determined that humanity will lose” to “lost without his ‘Mama'”. Who “Mama” is, is not yet clear.

Defeating Ouroboros also reveals the “Vanishing Point”; in a cutscene, the Red Sprite attempts to (finally) escape the clutches of the Schwarzwelt. Through some weird time-space shenanigans, it turns out that knowing the way out isn’t sufficient to navigate it. The Red Sprite crashes once more. While knocked out, you (and the rest of the crew, for the first time) see the mysterious three figures from the beginning of the game. They show you that the Schwarzwelt Investigation Command went ahead and detonated the deployed nuclear bombs, and vaguely chat about the hubris of humanity. The crew feels (naturally) betrayed by the Command, and also unsettled by the three mystery figures, but the radio is again damaged from the impact, so there is no way to get back in touch with Command.

At this point, we find outselves in Fornax.

Time Elapsed: ~30 hours.

Meta-commentary: I have largely cooled on Strange Journey. While I love the vibe, and the story of “brave crew stranded in the unknown” is great and well-executed, the actual day-to-day combat starts out lackluster (especially compared to “Press Turn” or “One More”) and only gets more boring with time. Being largely unable to customize the main character (minor resistance tweaking aside) AND making it more difficult to customize demons makes most demons feel more expendable. The alignment system makes non-aligned demons (e.g. Law/Chaos if you’re playing Neutral) in particular less valuable except combined – and given that you have to use precious Source items to customize demons, it’s rarely useful to customize a non-aligned demon.

The world design feels pretty rote (especially given how wild you could get with the “world of mankind’s desires/excesses” – but then, Shin Megami Tensei has always been surprisingly subdued with that). Exploration is pretty boring, even compared to similar-genred Etrian Odyssey or other blobbers. Most games of the genre have a tighter gameplay loop (frequent returns to base for crafting), while Strange Journey (especially later on) seems to incentivize staying in the dungeons longer, because as you progress the possible benefits of upgrades are lower. If you needed to return to base to fuse demons (or if it offered e.g. slight benefits to fusions) then that could be an improvement on that front.

That said, the Redux additions do make much of the game more palatable. Demon sources seem slightly more plentiful/helpful, the randomized Leader skills add more flavor to the combat (even if the “command” skills aren’t very useful)… the Womb of Grief is largely more “even more annoying” content, but with the ability to turn encounters down/off, it is at least more bearable than existing content.

Plot-wise, Strange Journey starts out strong and continues that way for the first couple of sectors; but the time it’s obvious there are more than three sectors, everything feels extremely formulaic. Even the attempts to make it appear otherwise (e.g. “lesser Rosettas” in Delphinus) just add in sections that feel like padding. Jack’s Squad is the only relative “adrenaline shot” storywise in the game; the attempt to up the stakes with the “Contact with Command” where they’re lining up a mega-nuke feels laughable. While the Red Sprite Crew adds flavor, it’s pretty much the only thing the story has going for it at this point. The “haha, arrogant humans” bit the demons have when they whip out yet another ability humans can’t possibly counter (and end up countering) is mind-numbing.

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