It’s not often that a game gets the better of me. In the last 18 months I’ve completed dozens of games, conquering a bad habit I’d developed of giving up on games halfway through. During that time I’ve forced myself to play through some real turkeys. Final Fantasy X-2 and Metal Gear Solid IV, in particular, stand out as duds I saw through to the bitter end, while I also gritted my teeth and completed Alien: Isolation, despite what I considered to be an unreasonable level of difficulty and frustration. The only game I haven’t gone back to and completed in that time was the original Dark Souls. One day, perhaps.
But ultimately, it’s important to remember why we play games, and if a game is really not delivering any joy, there is nothing wrong with giving up. In fact, it’s important to be able to do so. Most video games take a lot longer to finish than a movie, or even a TV series or a book, and RPGs in particular can take fifty hours or even more to finish. So, today I decided to put aside Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, a 2010 dungeon crawling JRPG from Persona series developer Atlus. Strange Journey garnered solid reviews when it was released, and what I read about its central conceit was enough to spark my interest. The story begins with a scientific team being sent to the South Pole to investigate the Schwarzwelt, an anomalous phenomenon akin to a black hole which it’s difficult to penetrate and impossible to escape. The Schwarzwelt is growing steadily, with potentially dire consequences for life on earth.
Predictably, things go awry for the scientific expedition right out of the gate, and the player avatar is forced to investigate the Schwarzwelt largely on his own. As this is a Shin Megami Tensei game, the player can recruit and fight alongside demons, thanks to the ‘Demonica’, a funny-looking specialized suit designed to allow you to explore the Schwarzwelt. Initially, the setting is somewhat intriguing, and strongly evokes the story and feel of John Carpenter’s classic horror movie, The Thing. As a fan of Atlus games and sci-fi horror, I was therefore excited to get stuck in.
The problem is that Strange Journey is really not any fun to play, at all. Gameplay consists of exploring crudely designed dungeons in a first-person perspective, triggering random battles as you go. I found the dungeon crawling to be deeply unsatisfying and profoundly dated; playing this felt like a weird throwback to a NES game. At times, playing it even gave me an odd feeling of nausea. I haven’t got motion sickness while playing games before, but the four-directional first-person movement in Strange Journey didn’t sit well with me. Once you start a battle, it’s the usual sort of menu-based, turn-based combat anyone who has played JRPGs will be familiar with. Demons have strengths and weaknesses, and attacking a weakness can trigger extra attacks, but only with those demons who share an alignment (chaos, neutral, or law). Special attacks cost magic points: while you need to be careful not to burn through your magic points in a single fight, enemy demons aren’t constrained by the same consideration, and unlike you they can afford to spam powerful spells without having to worry about the next fight, which is fun. Even worse, you don’t know what your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses are before you’ve fought them several times – and worse still, the first time you fight a new kind of demon, you can’t even see it! It appears as a nondescript mass of blue pixels, and you have to defeat it before finding out what it was.
As with other SMT games, you can interact with many of the demons you encounter on your travels, and try to negotiate with them to get items or even to get them to join your party. However, the demon conversations have a tedious format whereby you have to answer two questions, selecting one of three answers each time. Normally you’ll have to get both questions right to recruit the demon, or it will attack you or leave in disgust. It’s hard to predict what the right answer will be: sometimes they make sense, but sometimes they’re completely counter-intuitive. Even worse, even if you get the questions right, sometimes the demons will just randomly decide they dislike you and refuse to go along with your agreement. All of this makes for a preposterously long-winded and deeply frustrating system, and the over-complication sucks any fun out of the mechanic, not to mention any wit the writers manage to invest in the conversations.
The opaque combat and demon recruitment systems are made even worse by the mind-numbing nature of exploration itself. The dungeon environments are crude and ugly, made up of larger or smaller corridors, and most of the time I found myself navigating by using the birds eye view map on the lower screen. Making progress often depends on finding hidden doors, which are invisible unless you’re facing the correct bit of nondescript wall so that the ‘scan’ command comes up. Later dungeons feature invisible holes in the floor, which can cause you to fall down a series of levels in a multi-storey dungeon. Other dungeons have entire sections where you can’t see anything and where you have to figure out the path by bumping against walls until you’re able to make progress.
This kind of game design went out of fashion almost entirely in the mid-1990s. I guess there are “diehard” fans out there who dig these sorts of mechanics, but it baffles me that Strange Journey was able to get such a good critical reception despite the laughably dated nature of its design. Thing is, I could probably have forgiven a lot of this if the story and writing was up to the standard normally associated with Atlus’ games. (Like when I recently played Persona 2: Innocent Sin.) Unfortunately, Strange Journey’s story and script are almost as bad as its abysmal gameplay. The growth of the Schwarzwelt is related to the pathological aspects of human society (greed, war, pollution, selfishness, etc), and the game has an irritatingly preachy and simple-minded approach to getting its point across. What’s worse, the dialogue and characterization are dreadfully simplistic and cliched, largely lacking personality or charm. This is really a surprise coming from a studio known for the quality of its writing.
Apart from its setting, the demon design is about the only thing that Strange Journey has going for it. As with other SMT games, the demons you encounter are varied and inventive, and some of them are genuinely disturbing. The demon fusion system also has some appeal, as you can fuse existing demons into new, more powerful companions. However, the difficulty of acquiring demons in the first place really limits the fun you can have with this system, unlike something like SMT: Devil Survivor where acquiring a demon is as simple as throwing a few macca at it. To conclude: Strange Journey is a very poor game which was a massive disappointment to me, and I’m just glad that I have finally allowed myself to give up on it. It took me almost two months to get not even halfway through its 50-60 hour story; and with a growing backlog of games featuring the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles X, Bayonetta 1 & 2, Yakuza 0, Fire Emblem Fates – never mind Resi 7, Breath of the Wild, Persona 5 and ME: Andromeda – Strange Journey can, frankly, fuck off.
Last week news emerged that Atlus are releasing a remake of Strange Journey for the 3DS later this year. Needless to say, I’ll be giving it a miss.