Strange Journey Part 8: The Abstract World

After being rudely rejected by the Vanishing Point emergency-exit, we find ourselves in Fornax, the sixth world of Strange Journey. This world has a relatively muted, orange-ish design with lots of floaty shapes, and the music is actually identical to the second part of Antlia, so in terms of actual aesthetics, it is the most disappointing world so far (although to be fair, I’ve quit the game midway through Bootes twice).

The opener section of Fornax is at least relatively action-packed, since you end up fighting a boss within the first half hour of exploration. This demon makes itself known as Moloch, Morax reborn. It becomes evident that Fornax is some kind of demon breeding ground, and although it may not be the only source of demons, the “Mother” that lives in Fornax created Morax, Mitra, Horkos and Asura but they weren’t able to retain their strongest forms in the upper layers of the Schwarzwelt.

This actually was a fun way to present mythology where deities went by multiple names, or had multiple forms, throughout history – Mitra/Mithra having multiple different forms in different regions, but likely a similar origin. For all of their obsession with weird mythology, SMT often “casts” mythic figures in a single way, and allowing them to have multiple “forms” is a good way around that.

One thing that makes Strange Journey exhausting, or at least odd in comparison to its companion games, is that characters are rarely “on stage” for more than a few minutes. It’s mostly about defeating them as you meet them. Mitra/Mithras is the only one I can think of that you meet more than a minute before you fight. The “friendly” cast, the Crew, largely doesn’t do much other than Zelenin/Jimenez – they’re mostly taking the place of narration. Although you encounter the Strike Team in the field relatively frequently, SJ doesn’t really let other people do things. One contrast would be to something like SMT4, where you have human faction leaders you meet over the course of the game, or SMT5, which has lots of disposable demons but several neutral or even hostile side characters you don’t immediately fight.

The only non-crew characters that have been around for more than one sector are Mastema, the divine representative, the mysterious Louisa Ferre and Three Figures, and Jack’s Squad. While Mastema’s all right, he says a lot of words that amount to very little (although as of this writing, that’s likely to change in Grus). Louisa Ferre serves mostly as sort of foreshadowing – it’s not clear how she/it fits in with the Mysterious Three Figures. It’s not clear what the Three Figures are, whether they’re part of the Schwarzwelt or exist beyond it. Jack’s Squad is probably the best, or most interesting, group so far even if they’re a bit one-note. So you really have three categories: Divine, Mysterious/Unaligned, and a kind of foil for the expedition squad.

The constant dwelling on “Mother” seems kind of awkward in Fornax, because I seem to recall that Gore also referred to Ouroboros that way in Eridanus, or seemed to. Maybe I’m misinterpreting what Gore said. I’m not sure if there’s some kind of Motherly Onion that demons are birthed from, but there’s definitely a weird paradigm here where we’re getting through increasingly motherly figures. Here, the “Mother” is Tiamat.

Fornax is pretty straightforward compared to previous regions, a welcome respite from the previous sectors. There are three doors, and you fight to the bottom of each and take on the boss. Although there are a few minor navigation wrinkles and plot-related interruptions, it feels like all pretense of being anything other than a dungeon crawler has been dropped and it’s kind of refreshing.

After fighting the second boss in Fornax, you find out that Jack’s Squad has established a permanent base in a home-grown subspace of the Schwarzwelt. Cool! And ominous. Arthur requests you drop by to check in and see what they’re doing, because Jack’s Squad remains incommunicative over radio. Jimenez comes along, and does most of the talking. In the end you’re not even able to see Jack himself. His lieutenant Ryan does most of the talking. Back at the Red Sprite, after a brief discussion, Jimenez decides to stay behind and keep an eye on them while the rest of the crew continues exploring Fornax.

More exploration ensues, and another fight with a rejuvenated Horkos (Orcus). Afterwards we discover Jimenez has been captured by Jack’s Squad. Details are unclear, but for once there is a radio transmission; Jack lets us know that Jimenez will be a part of their next experiment.

After brief discussion on the Red Sprite, Arthur admits that there is no viable alternative to sending the Strike Team to rescue Jimenez. It feels a little bit like there isn’t any consideration of potential casualties, given that Arthur claims Jack’s Squad has better weaponry (although that’s a general complaint, not specific to this issue – the Strike team is sent after one person consistently).

During the rescue we discover that Jack’s Squad is running experiments on demons. You can choose to set them free, although this doesn’t appear to have any effect later. Deeper in the base, you find Jimenez and Bugaboo each trapped in a cell; Jack’s Squad has evidently been attempting to fuse them together, since they are “on the same wavelength”. Bugaboo is clearly in poor shape from the attempts, and Jimenez asks you to assist in the fusion to save Bugaboo. Regardless, Jimenez gets fused into a half-demon form. He doesn’t seem the worse for wear – to the contrary, he immediately runs up to get revenge on Jack’s crew. After a brief fight against Jack himself, Arthur decides to spare his subordinate Ryan and allow Jack’s Squad to continue their exploration, under supervision from a Red Sprite skeleton crew. Jimenez is sent to the medical bay for examination, and the crew debates whether he should remain a part of the mission in his new, half-demon state. Although he seems to still “be” Jimenez, he is more reckless than ever. You can choose to push in one way or the other, but either way the result is the same – he’s held in the Red Sprite, for the time being.

After the rescue, you have received the third Forma you need to see a hidden monster in Fornax. Irving assembles the pieces, and we carry on our way. After fighting the hidden monster, you can take on Asura’s new form Asherah, which would be hard and frustrating except for the no-ailments leadership skill added in Redux.

With Asherah down, you can (and do) take out Tiamat as well. She is relatively easy, as most bosses. Gore, once again, seems distraught at the loss of a mother figure and moves on. The Rosetta received from Tiamat allows us to pierce still deeper into the Schwarzwelt.

Overall thoughts: Jimenez finally becomes the first rep to lose his humanity, partially as a result of sentiment for his favorite demon and without knowing exactly what will happen. His “fall” to chaos being a result of the actions of Jack’s Squad just adds another layer of context; the closest thing to a demon among humanity is the cause. We’ll see the contrast to Zelenin shortly.

Time Elapsed: ~35 hours.

Mechanics commentary:

Boss fights, at least in SJ: Redux, have been relatively easy or even boring affairs – aside from some unique status effects, offense seems to be stronger than defense and the hardest thing is surviving the first few rounds. The longest boss fight so far lasted around 10 turns, so none of them are (thankfully) the marathons that are Persona boss fights. The new leadership “passives” added in Redux add a layer of randomness, but the active leadership skills give the hero more to do than just act as a backup healer/attacker. The ailment resistance one is definitely key for some boss fights, and actually I wish it weren’t quite so powerful, because it completely neutralizes the threat from some bosses.

The demon fusion differences in Strange Journey are tricky to work with, especially after Shin Megami Tensei V. Most abilities inherited in fusion by default are worthless, since if a demon has affinity for a specific damage type (for example, fire) they are likely only going to inherit more of that damage type (say, agidyne). If they have that affinity, they likely already have a damage skill of that element and don’t need another. Demon Sources let you pick a set of skills, but they preclude you from inheriting other skills from the fusion – so you are actually disincentivized from using a Source in the rare case where you get a useful ability from a “natural” fusion. It’s a combination of factors that makes it very hard to get a demon useful for more than one thing.

One reason offense seems stronger is that getting Mediarama and the bonus healing passive on the same demon – ideally one of your alignment – is tricky, and Mediarama without the healing passive isn’t very helpful. A buffing/debuffing strategy could be useful, but Luster Candy and Debilitate (while available at this stage) are heavy on the MP, and again – getting either one on a demon of your alignment is possible but means building a character specifically around one or the other. It doesn’t mean totally forgoing damage, but it does mean you have to specialize enough that it makes your demon situational. The result would be a demon used exclusively for boss fights, which I’ve tried to avoid where I can. So far I’ve preferred generalist demons to specialized ones – Frost Ace, for example, comes loaded with two elements and it’s easy enough to get it a couple more and keep it in your party much of the time. The better strategy is likely to create specialized demons for boss fights, especially since (re)obtaining demon sources is relatively easy, but it’s a little more fiddling than I’d like in a game where you already have a tough enough time getting a team that fits your alignment.

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