Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

This is the first SMT game I’ve reviewed that was made after Devil Survivor, so we’ve finally caught up to my first exposure to the series! Let’s see if the series improves or if DeSu proved to be the high point after all, shall we?

This game was originally planned to be SMT4, but was rebranded as a spinoff due to how different it ended up compared to the mainline games. Instead of an ordinary high school student, you play as an elite soldier tasked with investigating a portal to Hell that’s appeared in Antarctica and threatens to swallow the entire planet.

As someone who’s gotten pretty sick of high schoolers, this was a welcome change. There are a lot more supporting characters, but as your fellow squad mates they are all very professional and competent, and provide just enough narrative substance without overshadowing the player. I even found the Yuzu of the cast surprisingly tolerable; he does not argue in favor of dooming humanity by abandoning the mission entirely, only making a tactical retreat so they can try again with better equipment, which is actually quite reasonable when the mission goes FUBAR almost immediately. It helps that other characters actually criticize him for his cowardice and he is willing to shut up and cooperate when the chips are down. Shockingly reasonable and nuanced character work, there.

The hyper-detailed painterly demon designs are back from Soul Hackers, but this time they are properly animated, which fixes all my complaints! I can only imagine how much work that must have been, and I congratulate the animators on a job well done. All the animations feel incredibly fluid and natural, and bring the demons to life way more than in any other game.

Sexy BDSM Angel is still here, though. Can’t have everything. And…

This little girl is Demeter. A goddess who is, rather famously, a mother. Can SMT get a new character designer, please?

Gameplay bears more similarity to Nocturne than Soul Hackers: Parties are limited to four characters, you only get one human party member, and there are no spatial mechanics. Nocturne‘s Press Turn system had been changed to something much simpler: Any time you hit a weakness, all demons on your team with a matching alignment will perform a free follow-up attack. Interestingly, enemy teams don’t get this benefit, so it’s an asymmetric mechanic this time. I’m ambivalent on this; it is much less strategically complex than the Press Turn system, and the fact it’s player-only makes it feel more like a generic bonus than something the whole battle system is based around. But I do like how it makes you care more about alignment and subtly encourages you to use demons matching your own.

We’re once again back to the protagonist being unable to use magic, but they do throw you a bone this time: Each gun you can equip grants you special skills in addition to a regular gun attack, many of which are effectively identical to the elemental damage spells. The only issue is that, apparently, they don’t scale off of Magic, so Magic is still worthless to the PC. So close and yet so far, Atlus. Why did you do this.

Another weird choice is that you can’t customize your stat build anymore. Instead, you’re given a personality test at the start of the game that assigns you one of several stat growth distributions. I’m pretty confused why they did this when custom stat builds have been a core feature for the entire series. Moreover, the stat cap has been raised from 40 to 99, so individual points matter less and characters gain multiple points per level up. Again, why? This just makes it harder for me to judge power levels after getting used to the 40-point scale.

The big mechanic they added this time is that you now learn more about demons by interacting with them. When first encountered, demons are marked as “unknown” and show up as white noise on your viewscreen, with no stat or affinity information. Beating them once will reveal their identity, and studying them further (either by fighting more or recruiting one for yourself) will reveal their elemental affinities, then their skills and drops. When a demon is fully analyzed it’ll give you its “Source”, which can be used in fusion to give the resulting demon extra skills. I thought all of this was very cool; the initial masking of identities ensures even veterans of the series who would otherwise be able to guess demons’ abilities will be in the dark, and the goal of maxing out analysis encouraged me to actually use every demon I got instead of immediately fusing them off. You can also learn affinities piecemeal, as the game will record the effects after every attack you use. This is even incredibly fitting with the story framing, which is that you are specifically investigators sent to explore and document the unknown. The whole system encourages experimentation and thoughtfulness, which is really great.

I’m more ambivalent about the demon source mechanics. See, after DeSu said “Why don’t we just let players choose which skills to inherit?” we’re back to skill inheritance being out of your control… unless you use a demon source, which lets you configure skills as normal. I presume this was done to encourage use of the new mechanic, but it’s still disappointing. Demon sources are in very limited supply, as you can only hold one of each and if you use it up you can only get a replacement very rarely as a gift from its demon. This led to a classic loss aversion scenario as I kept wanting to save my sources for a demon that could really use them, especially since I was cognizant I’d have to fuse off the result eventually anyway. This led to me having a ton of them by the endgame, most of which just held early-game spells that were useless by that point anyway. (It also badly needed a “search for sources with a particular skill” option. So much scrolling because I couldn’t remember if I had a source with the skill I wanted…)

Of course, when I did use the good ones I often ended up kicking myself later because that really good skill I needed just wouldn’t show up again. (This is especially bad with caster demons, as, inexplicably, the vast majority of them have no innate attack spells — you are clearly supposed to supplement them with demon sources, but there’s only so many -dyne spells to go around!) I think their rarity would have been more reasonable if you could do custom inheritance without one, which would also alleviate the sting of them feeling “wasted” when you fused off the result.

Speaking of fusion, they made the absolutely baffling decision to remove the fusion search ability from DeSu. Why. Why. They already designed and coded it for DeSu, which means they actively chose to remove it for this game. This is especially bad when alternate combinations actually matter this time thanks to them reusing the old inheritance mechanics. I wasted so much time scrolling through the fusion previews to see if there were any alternates.

Fortunately, they did do one nice thing: Special fusions got overhauled! I didn’t talk about this in previous reviews, but the games have always had “special” fusions that bypass the typical fusion rules when you use certain specific demons; there’s a list on the wiki here. However, these functioned mostly as gimmicky Easter eggs; the games give no indication when you pull one off or even that they exist at all. Here, they’re made front and center, with their own menu tab that lists every one currently available to you. You unlock recipes by beating bosses and completing sidequests, and if you’re missing a demon, the recipe will even give you a hint without spoiling it wholesale. Like the analysis mechanics, this encouraged me to pick up lots of demons I otherwise wouldn’t care about, and also makes unlocking special fusions feel like an actual reward and a goal to work towards instead of just “Well, I guess if I stumble over you while doing normal fusion I’ll know why.”

Remaining miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Why are they called “UMA” when “Cryptid” was right there. The localization team continues to make the weirdest decisions.
  • The converters were a much better way to provide access to the rarer races than the insane convolutions Soul Hackers required.
  • Sub apps in general were awesome. I liked the part where they realized adjusting encounter rate made way more sense as a menu toggle than a demon skill. I especially liked the part where you could have more than 2-3 active at a time unlike in Soul Hackers. (This is apparently a feature of the remake, which makes me wonder why they didn’t do the same for Soul Hackers.)
  • Free home base healing good thanks. (Apparently this was not in the original, which is dumb. Why does the medic need to burn macca to treat you?)
  • Gathering forma is such a grind. They should have done the same thing as with the demon compendium and just let you buy forma you already discovered.
  • I’m disappointed they stuck with SMT3’s four-character limit, but I’ll concede that was probably necessary to keep co-op attacks from getting out of hand.
  • Nice to see they finally figured out that bosses need counters against reflection magic, but Tiamat is particular is just awful. Giving a boss a counter to a game-breaking strategy is fair, giving absolutely no indication what triggers the counter isn’t.
  • I can understand the idea behind Mem Aleph using every element to test your coverage, but in practice in the likely event you don’t have a team that resists everything it just becomes a game of Roulette.
  • Why are the ending cutscenes so badly-animated. They look like Babby’s First Flash Animation, not something from a professional studio.
  • Soundtrack was pretty bland this time around. Felt more generically fantasy/jRPG than the synth rock I’ve come to expect from the series. Especially odd because DeSu did do a synth rock style. Did they switch composers between games?

Storywise, this was surprisingly good, though still not great. The premise: A portal to Hell has opened up at the south pole, which is rapidly expanding and threatens to engulf the entire planet. The UN has enlisted the best scientists and soldiers from around the world (you) to enter the portal, investigate, and find a way to stop it from destroying the world. Once inside, the demons inform you that this whole thing is only happening because humans screwed up the environment, and the demons are acting as the planet’s immune system against humanity.

I found this to be a solid premise. All the characters are professional adults who are focused on the mission, and we get to move through the initial “What do you mean, demons and magic are real???” charade pretty quickly. The environmental angle grounds the plot in a real-world issue instead of the overly broad and poorly-defined philosophical conflict in other games, and even casts some doubts on the typically-favored pro-human position by pointing out that the status quo is not a viable solution either.

Of course, this wouldn’t be SMT if they didn’t get spooked by nuance and flatten everything. Despite the central issue being much more realistic and complex than in earlier entries, they reduce it to the standard ecofascist false choice of “all humans must die because we are the virus!!!” or “change nothing everything will be fine”, which is just eye-rollingly childish. I was pleased when the remake added a criticism of the “cure the symptom not the disease” Neutral ending by pointing out the portal to Hell will just reopen because humans are still doing the behavior that triggered it… then saw red when it immediately revealed the solution is that we just have to blow up Hell every time it reopens for the rest of time, because it’s not like the thing it was reacting to was an equally existential threat or anything. The writing has fully and completely devoured its own tail: We have an allegory for climate change alongside actual climate change, and the resolution is to fix the fantasy allegory but not the real problem. (Well, you can fix it in the Law/Chaos endings, but only by fundamentally changing human nature, because destroying the planet is just an inherent property of humanity and not the fault of a tiny group of humans with wildly disproportionate power, because the SMT writers are ecofascist pissbabies.)

And because this is SMT, they still pigeonhole everything into the same law/chaos conflict, with those two terms being just as incoherently defined as usual.

The biggest issue, I think, is that they conflate a lot of different things into a single position. I actually ended up solidly on the Chaos side due to my dialogue choices, even though I didn’t actually agree with the ultimate goal and ending of the Chaos route. This is because there are a lot of separate philosophical positions that all give you Chaos points:

  1. anti-God
  2. pro-demon
  3. pro-personal power
  4. pro-violence and social Darwinism.

You may notice that these positions are only superficially similar. Being anti-God does not necessarily mean you are pro-demon, nor does wanting power mean you want to use that power to oppress the weak. I got my Chaos points by being really solidly a) and b), even though those two are the most far removed from the actual philosophical tenets the narrative abruptly claims you must also agree with. This culminated in the Neutral representative never even giving me the choice to help him, even though I was absolutely willing to hear him out.

There is even one memorable point where these positions actively contradict one another: During the endgame, you discover another group of soldiers sent into Hell with you, but they’re only in it for capitalist and imperialist reasons rather than trying to save the world. They’re initially cooperative, but then you discover they’re subjecting demons to horrific torturous experiments, so of course you feel morally obligated to stop them. You release the captured demons, but in the next section of the game you need to ask those same demons for a favor, which they will only grant if you murder the humans who tortured them.

The options given at this point are:

  1. Do as they ask and execute your prisoners in cold blood.
  2. Flip off the demons and murder your way through them.
  3. Ask an angel to torture the demons into compliance with holy magic.

a) is considered Chaos, b) is considered Neutral, and c) is considered Law.

Now, if the three alignments only represented which of the three tribes you favor, this would make sense. But they don’t; the game tries to attach greater philosophical meaning to that division. For Law, that greater philosophy means favoring charity and nonviolence, while for Chaos it means social Darwinism and might-makes-right. Yet for this decision, those philosophies are actively opposite the actions you actually take. In this scenario, the demons are objectively the injured party and the humans are the oppressors; helping them is a rejection of social Darwinism and an expression of the pro-social behavior Law supposedly embodies. Murdering your way through them out of tribal loyalty to their oppressors feels far more social Darwinist than that. The signifier and the signified are in complete opposition. It does not compute.

And of course, if we want to go further, even the signifiers of God vs. demons don’t fit this, because God as portrayed by SMT is a tyrant who responds to any disobedience with murder while demons are an extremely varied group, many of whom demonstrate pro-social behavior. The former sure sounds like might-makes-right social Darwinism to me. (This becomes even more blatant in the remake-exclusive fix-it fic for the Chaos route, which is accomplished by reminding a character who is fused with his demon that both him and his demon displayed altruistic behavior for one another, because he somehow can’t realize that on his own.)

Then on the Chaos route they resolve the issue of how the main cast would keep supporting you by brainwashing them, even though brainwashing was established to be Law’s thing and the prime reason why they were evil. But it’s okay when Chaos does it I guess? Is the point supposed to be that everyone’s a hypocrite? It would have been so much stronger if the named cast actually left you over your decisions (instead of the only traitors being faceless and nameless background NPCs), like in DeSu2… God, how do the main games keep making DeSu2 look good by comparison?

Similarly, Jiminez and Zelenin’s betrayals fell completely flat to me. Probably a big part of that was them being so obviously telegraphed as the Chaos and Law heroes that I knew not to get attached, but honestly I never liked either of them nearly as much as the minor characters. They take every possible opportunity to bicker, sow doubt, and drive wedges between the crew, so it just felt like good riddance when they finally left. Maybe it was because I’m philosophically closest to Neutral, but geez, they do not do themselves any favors. Jiminez is incredibly unprofessional and dickish and Zelenin is a raging demon racist who rushes to drink the Evangelical kool-aid. I’m more favorable to Jiminez since he displays at least some redeeming traits in his interaction with his demon buddy, but eh, I still wasn’t about to shed a tear if I had to kill him.

A big thing that could have helped here is if Jiminez and Zelenin were playable characters like the Law and Chaos heroes of the original game, so that you developed an organic sense of camaraderie with them through them materially helping you. It occurs to me how odd it is, actually, that so far not a single game in the series has revisited that idea of making the future villains playable, especially when that was quite probably the best idea the original game had in my opinion. Why are the designers so dead-set against trying that again? Was it poorly received in the original or something?

At least we got to see a bit of the new world this time — thank you for reminding me I can’t take that for granted, Nocturne — but it’s still so vague and open-ended compared to DeSu2’s endings that the ending still feels bland and anticlimactic. I truly do not understand why the writers keep doing this exact same plot over and over again when they have such clear contempt for actually following through with it.

I feel confident in saying this has become a pattern with the series at this point. Despite the premise of every game being “make a new world”, the writers consistently refuse to engage with what that new world would actually entail, even while acknowledging the status quo is nonviable. Given how blatantly centrist the series’ politics are, I can’t help but see this as philosophical and intellectual cowardice. They are too afraid of a change to the status quo to seriously consider what such a change would look like, instead falling back on caricatures so ludicrous they don’t really map onto even the most extreme real-world political positions. They can’t seriously conceive of any real person picking anything but Neutral, so they don’t have to put any effort into the other sides beyond making it clear they’re the villains. This remains the case even when they revisit an old game to add fix-it fic making the Law and Chaos routes less evil; they can only do so by eliding specifics such that the changes to the status quo become broadly agreeable but meaningless platitudes. The New Chaos ending didn’t seem to me like it would lead to a meaningfully different world than the regular Chaos ending, but despite having no way of ensuring it the characters say it’ll totally work out so it’s fine don’t think about it.

I wonder if this could be alleviated by reducing the emphasis on non-human factions. When the choices are angels, demons, or humans, that naturally stacks the deck in favor of humans, because the inherently fantastic factions inevitably stray farther and farther from any real-world applicability, ending up as blue/orange morality at best and space whale Aesops at worst. The worlds proposed by the angels and demons are so beyond the realm of real possibility that they just become incomprehensible. Maybe it could work if the writers had any self-control, but they can’t seem to portray the factions with any consistency within games let alone within the series. By making the demons take a backseat and having the primary conflict take place between humans, it would be easier to ground each faction in real-world philosophies and oh I’m just describing Devil Survivor now aren’t I.

So… sigh. Started really strong, but completely fell apart by the end thanks to the writers’ continued refusal to engage with their own premise. I have a very low opinion of the series at this point; this game came after Devil Survivor, so I can no longer excuse its failures as the series still finding its footing. It has solidly found its footing, and its footing is phoning in its own premise while wallowing in disgusting centrist propaganda. As I feared, the series has not improved past Devil Survivor, and it is looking increasingly likely that it was a complete outlier. At this point I’m still willing to look at the spinoffs, but I don’t think I’m going to continue with the main series unless I’m told they address my specific gripes.


  1. Seed of Bismuth says:

    the SMT, the COEXIST bumper sticker in video game form.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      I think that’s much too generous. COEXIST denotes tolerance, but SMT’s Neutral route is consistently extremely intolerant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *