Strange Journey Redux: Synthesis

It’s now been several months since I beat SMT Strange Journey: Redux, making it the second of my resolutions that I managed to beat in 2022. While I’d pat myself on the back for making (reasonably) accurate resolutions, I actually feel a little more like I set myself an unrealistic goal (beat a dungeon-crawler I knew I had failed to beat before) and somehow managed to complete it after more than 6 months of play.

In an unusual move (for me), I actually kept an ongoing journal of my Strange Journey progress. In 11 entries, I broke down the game as I went along, providing commentary (relatively sterile by journaling standards, knowing me) on characters, themes, and mechanics. This entry will serve as a synthesis of those, trying to bring the various impressions around into a single cohesive whole. In the end, I feel disappointed in the game, in part because it opens on such a strong note and in part because it is so different from most Shin Megami Tensei games.

I think that the 11 entries combined form a better, comprehensive view of the game (and more emotional, less analytical content – looking back, I feel they are certainly more interesting to read than this post), but since they were written over the course of 6 months, my views on the game evolved and I didn’t get a chance to “look back” beyond the callbacks to earlier plot points. So here’s something vaguely resembling a review.

The opening of Strange Journey establishes both the problem and the core cast. It’s transparently inspired by science fiction adventure stories. The unnecessary amphibious vehicles which never touch water, the “best and brightest” crew recruited from across the world and the semi-sentient assistant AI Arthur would be at home in a movie theater anywhere. It oozes an atmosphere that’s both nostalgic and feels missing in modern games. But in introducing the Schwarzwelt, a mysterious rapidly-expanding zone in Antarctica, Strange Journey also unsubtly hints that the problem was caused by humans. It’s a “mystery” that is poorly handled throughout the game – and not actually confirmed until the finale.

Thankfully, while the nature of the problem is transparent, Strange Journey Redux has a well-developed cast of characters to join us on our adventure. Unlike most Shin Megami Tensei games you can return to the Red Sprite any time to see some friendly* faces, offering their commentary on the most recent developments. Talking to the crew after each event is one of the low-key joys of the game, and you see negative emotions – guilt, anxiety, anger – as much as positive ones. Even those without many lines, who don’t stray off the ship feel like they were along to support your journey. Zelenin and Jimenez telegraph where they are going early, but by the time they get there the development feels natural.

*actual friendliness may vary depending on your alignment route. for example, in some routes your crew requires supernatural convincing to be friendly, an act that by that point in the game is meant to feel heinous. You’re not allowed to take a vote, but you are allowed to feel bad by going against the will of the crew.

Shin Megami Tensei games have always been big on atmosphere, and Strange Journey is no exception. The early difficulty fighting demons mirrors the crew’s horror at being attacked upon entering the Schwarzwelt, and the pseudo-mythical SMT designs hint at the Schwarzwelt’s human-derived origins. Just as the first sector seems predictable, Strange Journey starts throwing new things at you – a new cast of demons, areas with new designs, one-way doors – in a way that keeps things fresh from a gameplay perspective, but also hints at the oppressive environment that your team is exploring.

Even conversations with demons feel oppressive and unknowable. Demons have varying personalities, but most are capricious – asking you about the state of the Earth in one encounter, then asking why you’re wearing strange clothes in the next. In many cases – especially early on – they will attack you during a negotiation. Though some may join you, and many seem sympathetic to humans, you’re on their turf.

Strange Journey stands apart from most Shin Megami Tensei games simply by not being focused on high schoolers in Tokyo. Not only does the core series obsess over this one place and demographic, but many of its spinoffs have as well. Going to Antarctica and showing a crew from several different countries – although some areas of the world are better represented than others – is a big step forward for the series. I hope Atlus will try again in the future, as I’m getting really tired of seeing Tokyo Tower.

Strange Journey also represents a departure from SMT’s modern “press turn” battle system – there it fares worse, though. The replacement “alignment co-op” system is less fun as it makes party building more restrictive. Demon fusing is a near-constant problem for three reasons:

  1. The Demon Source system (where keeping a demon in your party for ~20 battles gives you some of their skills to use in fusing) incentivizes swapping out for new demons whenever your current ones are “analyzed”
  2. Demons have only six skill slots, which includes passive skills, and many have 2-3 “innate” skills which can’t immediately be removed
  3. Co-op attacks are only available if multiple demons in your party match alignment – to maximize party strength, this means you typically want to use the 1/3 of demons that match your alignment
    For these reasons, you’re often fusing demons either to gather more sources or get rid of demons you’ve already “harvested”. Unfortunately, the fusing interface was not improved in Redux, and it is far less helpful than most other modern SMTs. Being able to pick the resulting demon and work backwards to the ingredients – or, better, pick from a list of unfused demons – woudl have gone a long way and saved me perhaps hours over the course of the playthrough.

Unfortunately many of SJ’s story strengths also reveal some of its mechanical limitations. Conversations with the crew flesh them out, but like most video games (especially RPGs), you, the player are doing the bulk of the work. The crew or Arthur will periodically talk about how the strike team (the combat force that you are merely a competent member of) has taken casualties, or fought off an attack, but it often comes off as smoke and mirrors. Jimenez is the only crew member explicitly shown using demons, and although you rescue countless of your fellow crew you never see them come to your aid. Strange Journey could have built upon the “brave crew in a dangerous place” feeling much better had it shown your crew capable of survival even in small ways.

It’s important to note that Redux does improve considerably upon the base Strange Journey; although there are some minor losses (some Jiminez art in particular stands out), most of the crew have much more personality in the form of portraits and (Japanese-only) voice acting which drastically improves their characterization and the atmosphere. It also has many minor QOLs (distributed as sub-apps, which no longer have a cost), most of which are present in the new dungeon accessible in the second sector. While the added dungeon and plot are just okay, they do add some subtlety to the story that it probably could’ve used.

Phew. This got longer than I expected! I’ll wrap up this meta-commentary with a little on the plot. While the development of Arthur is relatively subtle, Arthur is an excellent AI NPC / quest-giver. The two primary crew members Zelenin and Jimenez are excellent, building slowly over the course of the game. The core plot, unfortunately, bills itself as a mystery but is practically announced by every demon lord along the way (“Humans are the bad ones!”), eventually leading into a weird backstory where humans were once in a (demon-aligned) Garden of Eden before they made their passions worse by civilizing them. Or something. So yeah, we should save the Earth. For a story that so clearly favors the neutral path, it really is unclear about what humanity can do better – I suppose one way to interpret it is that, by trying to curb our worst excesses of violence, lust, consumption and waste, we can be better. That’s an argument I can get behind – moderation in all things.

Be cool, internet.

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