I’m waving goodbye to my 20′s and to celebrate I’m counting down 30 games from the last 30 years. Join me while I countdown 30 great years of game memories.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
The Nintendo DS was the undisputed king of the japanese role playing game for most of its life cycle. It is the close to fact that the traditional Japanese RPG experienced a marked decline this (last?) generation and so those that wanted a taste of roleplaying both old and new were best served by picking up Nintendo’s two screened wonder. While the big boys of the genre were there, the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quests, it also raised the profile of a number of classic series that perhaps didn’t have a mass fanbase outside of Japan, like the long-running Shin Megami Tensei.
It would be disingenuous to give all the credit to the DS for raising the series’ profile, given its prolific presence on both the Playstation Portable and the Playstation 2, it certainly didn’t hurt that publisher Atlus focused on the system. While the world’s collective eyes were firmly planted on the more modern Persona games, and perhaps rightly so, the developers were busy crafting more traditional JRPG experiences to take advantage of the DS hardware. The Devil Survivor series was an excellent take on turn based RPGs, while Strange Journey was very much in the tradition of classic SMT first person dungeon-crawling. They were all excellent games that I highly recommend anyone with an interest in RPGs period, play. But there’s one that captured my imagination like no other.
Strange Journey rose to the top and captured my time and imagination with its sci-fi storyline, excellent art style and addictive exploration. It was also not ashamed to frustrate with its retro, and in some ways archaic, game design. The top screen shows the majority of the action while the bottom screen is home to additional information on your enemies during battle, and an excellent auto map during exploration. If that sounds a bit like Etrian Odyssey, that’s because it shares a developer. In some ways its Etrian Odyssey for dummies.
But that doesn’t mean Strange Journey is a pushover. Far from it, actually. Taking its cues from earlier game in the series, Soul Hackers (recently re-released for the 3DS), Strange Journey takes a no prisoners approach to its gameplay. Enemy encounters are seemingly random and more often than not capable of wiping your party out, and if you happen to die its back to the save point for you. Given the game doesn’t auto save and there are only set places at which you can save your process, that could have well been an hour ago. You’ll learn your lesson soon enough though and once your head is out of the hand holding style of play we’ve become accustomed to over the last few years, you’ll slip into a routine. It’s hard, but fair.
The game is also intuitive despite an appearance to the contrary. The game will throw term after term and gameplay mechanic after gameplay mechanic at you in the first hour or so, mainly comprising a well-disguised tutorial. But once you’ve actually been let loose you’ll find it’s all pretty straight forward. Battles are turn-based affairs, and while they do have some clever twists, are largely in-line with genre conventions. Like other SMT games it employs a demon recruitment mechanic that forms the basis for building and levelling up your party. Negotiating with demons is seldom boring, often hilariously funny, and for the most part rewarding if you manage to convince them to join you. It’s not quite Pokemon but it will, at times, scratch that perhaps latent obsessive collector in all of us.
Where the game will either win or lose you is its polarising art style. There is something about Kazuma Kaneko’s art style that I am instantly attracted to. Its is in stark contrast to a majority of the japanese game industry’s output and stands out as a refreshing change from the doe-eyed, school girl, upskirt-filled art that you often see. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but Kaneko, who also directed Strange Journey, has an art style that feels more mature and distinguished than that of his peers. His work on Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is best in class, but Strange Journey isn’t too far behind.
Strange Journey is a uniquely japanese take on the hard sci-fi genre that is worth experiencing. It is unapologetic in its old school game design and is a reminder that, despite moving forward, there is still merit in the game design tropes of yesteryear. All in all the developer succeeded in making a simple and streamlined throwback to old school RPGs. While it may require patience, but it is an excellent trip back for those of us familiar with the likes of Wizardry, and an excellent faux-history lesson for those willing to get past its significant learning curve.
Have a favourite game from 2010? Tell us in the comments below. Don’t forget to come back soon for the next game in our countdown. Miss a year? Catch up below.