Sunday, 17 October 2010

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey - Game Design Review

Just finished this clocking in at 80 hours. I'm a big fan of Shin Megami Tensei fan even though I've only finished the first Shin Megami Tensei because the atmosphere and gameplay is different from your usual save the world fare, even if that's what you do in the end anyway. Warning, there are some spoilers below.

Some background about the SMT series. The gameplay is your usual dungeon crawl but with demons as enemies. Demons here includes to supernatural creatures such angels or monsters rather than specifically evil creatures. What makes it unique is your ability to converse and negotiate using your demon summoning program so you can actually convince them to give you items, macca (the money in the series), leave you alone or even join you. You also have an alignment (Law, Neutral and Chaos which determines how smoothly relationships go. As you can imagine, similarly aligned demons will treat you better than demons of an opposing alignment. In this game, you're part of a 4 vehicle investigation team entering a mysterious phenomena occurring in the Antarctic to try and stop it from growing. Unfortunately your vehicles are soon separated and you're forced to fight for survival in a mysterious demon-infested dimensions that mirror the world of humans.

Despite being a fan, I feel that Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey isn't a game to celebrate about. If you're a fan like me, you'll probably enjoy it but there are glaring issues with gameplay design and pacing really let it down. What worries me is that despite all the games inbetween the first SMT and now, the gameplay design has really evolved about half a step and taken a step back in some respects.

  • Storyline is linear and cliche for a Shin Megami Tensei game. There's the Law hero, the Chaos hero and then there's the Neutral Hero and its obvious who they are and what will happen eventually. The Chaos hero will continually talk about how powerless he is before being fused with a demon and becoming a half demon, the Law hero will be touched by the divine and become a messiah for the Law God or you can choose to follow the Neutral path and fight for humanity by defeating both sides.
  • The standard SMT plot twist of choosing the Law, Neutral or Chaos paths occur right at the end of the game and only for the final sector in the game meaning you have to replay the entire game just to unlock that different path. Why couldn't they have created several diverging paths through the game?
  • The storyline is certainly thought-provoking but I think it could have done more in some ways to express the issues a bit better, maybe with even more situations or plot development. Part of the plot revolves around another human expedition entering but only with profit in mind rather than saving humanity like your expedition which I thought was good and wondered if they could have done more of that instead. I think they killed off the other 3 ships and crew a bit too quickly rather than fully exploiting their story potential.
  • The game is very hard and can be quite punishing. Due to the hard difficulty there can be hours before any real plot development occurs.
  • Demons first appear as blue fuzzy images until you defeat them at least once and need to be repeated encountered or defeated or fused before you can get more info and increase your analysis. What I don't understand is when a skill is clearly weak against an enemy (it actually flashes the words 'weak'), why can't your system automatically record it down rather than requiring you to reach a certain analysis level?
  • The Demon source and skill inheritance system means you can create unique demons, however once fused, it becomes difficult hard to change demon skills. Demons may occasionally change skills when they level up but the skill they gain is random. You can actually use special demons to change skills and improve stats but it is still quite tricky as those special demons need to have skills you want to transfer. This is partially solved by the demon password system where you can share demons with their skills with other players.
  • Bosses are very annoying due to the rigid skill system, if you've accidentally set your demons to the wrong skills. Some people would say this adds to the challenge. I'm not one of those people.
  • In the game the Demon Co-op mechanic rewards players who choose demons of the same alignment as each other however nearly all the bosses and powerful enemies, which you can fuse after defeating them once, are Chaos and Neutral demons. I was playing as Law aligned player and felt penalised as a result. There aren't any actual party or fusion restrictions due to alignment like the older games but it makes Demon Co-op less powerful when it kicks in during battle.
  • There are several teleportation puzzles in the game but there's no record of which teleporters lead to which other ones. This particularly gets annoying when you have 6 or 7 rooms with 3 teleporters each.
  • In the game, you have to collect forma from enemies and the environment but what you get can be random. This annoying particular with rarer demons as it is hard to predict when they will appear. They will appear in the same places usually but sometimes you have to go through 15-20 encounters bfore they appear. What makes it worse is that sometimes you need 3 or 4 of the forma from them! Also taking to or defeating normal demons won't necessarily guarantee you get the forma as enemies can drop up to 3 different kinds of items. When you consider that you might be fighting groups of enemies that are made up of two or three kinds of demons, getting that forma you want can be frustrating.
  • You can dispose of forma and items in the lab to get more macca but its hard to know what forma is required to create certain weapons, armour or items unless you return back to the armour and weapons and items screen and scroll through carefully. It usually isn't an issue but some items use the same specific forma as weapons or armour.
  • Moon phases do affect your demon conversation but unfortunately the system wasn't transparent enough for me to understand. Would it be good if they actually covered that.
Overall, if you're a fan you'll definitely enjoy the game with about 300 demons to fuse and the mostly polished skill system. It is a solid game but the issues I mentioned mean only hard core RPG players who don't mind really working for their rewards will enjoy this game. Casual players should definitely stay away.

Probably a 5/10 overall or a 7/10 if you're a fan of the series.

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