By now, ATLUS’ long-running Shin Megami Tensei series should be a familiar name for 3DS owners; from the Sega Saturn-remake of Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers to Shin Megami Tensei IV and its direct sequel Apocalypse, these darkly stylish, demon-collecting JRPGs have delivered some of the most engrossing experiences on the platform. It may be getting on in years, but the 3DS isn’t quite done with MegaTen yet, thanks to latest entry: Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey Redux, a remake of a 2009 DS dungeon-crawler. While the upgrade lacks some of the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect - such as stereoscopic 3D and an English dub - this is still a top-tier, atmospheric adventure, a standout Shin Megami Tensei title, and a must-play for RPG fans.
Trading in MegaTen’s typical Tokyo trappings for something a bit more remote, Strange Journey sends players straight down to icy Antarctica. Something’s not right on the southern continent; a mysterious blight called the Schwarzwelt is slowly creeping its way up from the South Pole, threatening to envelop the entire globe in darkness and destruction. As part of a secret, international crew sent down to investigate, you’ll fill the shoes of a young cadet charged with protecting the team from any potential dangers. It doesn’t take long for things to heat up from there, starting with the revelation that the Schwarzwelt is hiding more than just darkness, instead appearing to be a multidimensional war zone for angels, demons, and the unfortunate humans caught up in the middle.
Strange Journey is aptly named, and its twisting narrative makes for an engaging, winding ride. It features the allegorical storytelling Shin Megami Tensei is famous for - with characters that represent ideological ideals like Law and Chaos as much as their individual personalities - but its unique setting also allows for a genuinely intriguing sci-fi. It deals with themes of artificial intelligence and agency, environmental disaster and religion, and it’s all backed up by excellent worldbuilding and memorable characters.
Once you settle into Antarctica, you’ll be able to head out from your ship and explore the Schwarzwelt proper, and it’s here that the main gameplay loop opens up. Strange Journey is a dungeon-crawling JRPG that plays a bit like a cross between mainline Shin Megami Tensei games and an uncharacteristically dark Etrian Odyssey. From Shin Megami Tensei, it takes the demon-gathering team-building (think biblical Pokémon), weakness-based battles, and moral alignment system (more on all these in a bit); from Etrian Odyssey, it takes an expedition-based mission structure, discrete dungeon areas, and intricate, dynamic level design. Instead of the navigable overworld of most MegaTens, here you’ll jet off into discrete ‘sectors’ from a menu, exploring and mapping out (automatically) each area as you go, pushing your team as far as you can before heading back to retreat, refuel, and jump back out again.
It’s a satisfying cycle, and the excellent level design keeps everything feeling fresh, with traps, mazes, portals, and plenty of NPCs and on-field scenarios to keep you on your toes. More than most MegaTen games, there’s a sense that the map is as much an enemy as the demons in Strange Journey. There’s also an addicting feedback loop of rewards, as resources you’ll find in the Schwarzwelt can be used to develop new items, armour, and weapons, and to upgrade your high-tech Demonica Suit with new ‘apps’ - programs that open up new locations, new gameplay features, and tweaks to adjust everything from difficulty to drop rates.
Of course, the Schwarzwelt is more than just empty space, and along with mapping out its multidimensional mazes, you’ll spend plenty of time fighting for your life against its inhabitants: the angels, demons, and mythological creatures that make up Shin Megami Tensei’s massive menagerie of monsters. You’ll use these monsters to fight as well, putting together a team by negotiating with enemy demons to convince them to join your cause.
Demon negotiation can be a bit hit or miss in Megami Tensei games, but Strange Journey is on the more satisfying end of the spectrum. The dialogic gymnastics you’ll engage in to court your creatures range from abrasive to flirty to downright absurd, but they’re always a good time. Once you’ve gathered a few monsters, you can also ‘fuse’ them together to create more powerful creatures, passing down skills as you go. Demon fusion is oddly compelling, and it’s easy to spend hours trying to manipulate the system to put together a perfect team.
You can field a party of up to three demons at a time alongside your human avatar, and with physical attacks and guns, an elemental magic system, and an outsized focus on debuffs and status ailments, the turn-based combat in Strange Journey is a snappy, fun, and satisfyingly strategic affair. It’s also one that stands out even from other Shin Megami Tensei games, thanks to the particular importance it places on alignment. The alignment system is a key piece of Strange Journey in general; dialogue choices you make and actions you take throughout the game affect your character’s moral compass, which runs on a spectrum from Law to Neutral to Chaos. That alignment in turn affects the story progression, the endings you’ll see, and even your battle and recruitment strategies. Not only is it significantly easier to recruit demons of the same alignment, once on your team your ideological allies will also help you out with additional ‘Demon Co-Op’ attacks after you hit an enemy’s weakness.
These follow up attacks - Strange Journey’s version of SMTIV’s Press-Turn system - allow you to pile on any time you can suss out an opponent’s weak point, and learning to exploit them to their fullest is an absolutely essential part of battle. You could field an all-Neutral team and get three follow-up attacks to every critical hit, for instance; or you could spread out the damage potential by fielding a 2-2 split. It’s a wonderful little wrinkle that helps ensure you’re changing your strategies as you progress through the game; conversational choices we made had us hopping between alignments several times, so that the all-Neutral team we fielded in the early game quickly became no help at all after we made one too many Law-abiding decisions.
Between the ever-shifting alignment system, the dynamic level design, and the difficulty of the combat - it’s easy to party-wipe even from standard battles, and bosses are beautifully brutal, try-again affairs - Strange Journey nails the feeling of tension that makes the best dungeon crawlers so hard to put down. As one example of this that will tax even franchise veterans, the first time you fight a particular demon it appears only as a ghostly glitch, with no information about what monster it might be. This means you won’t be able to see a Jack Frost, instantly call on years of Shin Megami Tensei experience to know that Agi attacks will hit a weak point, and cheat out a cheeky victory; instead, you’ll have to first fight a round blind, bringing back the thrill of seeing a new foe for the very first time even if you’ve been summoning demons since the Super Famicom.
Of course, this was all true of the original DS release as well, so what’s new in this remake? Most importantly, Redux adds a significant chunk of narrative content, including a new key character and storyline, an excellent new dungeon, lots of new demons, and several new endings. It’s a sizeable addition, but even better, it’s smartly integrated into the game; rather than a tacked-on epilogue or extra episode, Redux’s new story beats are woven relatively organically into the experience. Whether that’s worth a replay in and of itself will depend on the player, of course, but for us, Strange Journey’s already-engrossing gameplay and branching paths make a return trip an appealing proposition.
Another significant upgrade is the addition of multiple difficulty levels. The ‘Normal’ default is plenty hard, so while masochists will get some mileage out of the new ‘Hard’ mode, the rest of us will appreciate being able to drop down to ‘Casual’ when needed. That welcome option is accompanied by several smaller quality-of-life tweaks; you can now save anywhere in a dungeon, for instance, and many of the new Demonica apps are geared towards lowering the challenge level. Strange Journey is never going to be an easy game, but we very much appreciate these extras making it more accessible.
Graphically, Redux isn’t a massive leap over the original release, but it is a noticeable one; crisp new character portraits add a lot of expression to dialogue scenes, the newly dynamic battle backgrounds are much more exciting, and the updated HUD makes for a gorgeously stylish interface. A few lower-res textures and blocky objects betray its DS origins, but overall, this is a very attractive game.
There is, however, one significant flaw in Redux’s presentation on the 3DS: it’s not actually presented in 3D. While this seems to be turning into something of a trend in the system’s twilight years, it’s especially disappointing here; a first-person dungeon-crawler with a slick visor-based HUD is practically crying out for stereoscopic support. We kept instinctively trying to turn the slider up when we’d come across new Schwarzwelt sectors, hoping to see them pop in 3D like Etrian Odyssey’s labyrinths; it isn’t a dealbreaker, but it is a notable disappointment.
The audio is also a bit of a mixed bag in terms of upgrades. Most significantly, Redux adds full voice acting to the story for the first time - but only in Japanese. The Japanese track is excellent, and it certainly adds to the experience, but if you’re used to playing 3DS Shin Megami Tensei games in English, the lack of a dub here feels like a missing option. The music, on the other hand, required no updating at all, and remains as hauntingly brilliant as ever. This is a special soundtrack from Shoji Meguro, with orchestral instrumentation, ghostly choirs, and occasional bursts of memorably melodic riffs. It’s appropriately unsettling, and delightfully different.
In fact, ‘delightfully different’ is a good descriptor for Strange Journey Redux in general. It’s very much Shin Megami Tensei - with demon negotiations, dungeon crawling, and weakness-based combat - but from its setting and soundtrack to its gameplay and story, it stands out in the series. That unique nature makes it a rewarding play for series veterans, but also a perfect place to start if you’ve never played a MegaTen title before; no matter where you’re coming from, you really can’t go wrong.
From its demon collecting and killer combat to its sci-fi South Pole setting, Strange Journey Redux is a fantastically engrossing adventure, and an excellent reason to get lost in your 3DS once again. As a remake of a DS classic, Redux adds in enough new content to make a replay worth your time, along with plenty of welcome accessibility tweaks to help let newcomers in on one of Shin Megami Tensei’s best kept secrets. The lack of stereoscopic 3D and English voiceover is disappointing, but these are small complaints; Strange Journey is a can’t-miss trip for JRPG fans.