Shin Megami Tensei today has been a fusion of old and new. The series has brought innovation to the JRPG genre while pulling no punches with its old-school difficulty. However, while the series has garnered a cult following here in the West, we didn't start getting the games until the PS2 when the series at large actually started on the Famicom more than two decades ago. Though it seems unlikely we'll ever see most of them in English, Strange Journey hopes to fill the void.
The first games in the series all shared common threads. They all featured dungeon which were traversed in the first-person perspective, much like the Wizardry games. The dungeon design also hewed close to the Wizardry school in that the games resembled a dungeon crawl. Most strikingly, while all of the games we've seen here have flirted with picking from different societal philosophies, the early games reveled in it, allowing you to side with one of two extreme factions or forging your own path. Unfortunately, most of the games suffer from being products of their time. The earliest games had no saving and instead used passwords. As well, they suffered from many of the balance problems that early JRPGs like Phantasy Star had, meaning that progressing often meant grinding to a higher level or for more demons. Add all that with a list of ancient interface problems and you can see how you would have difficulty playing the games today.
Enter Strange Journey. Playing like a cross between Nocturne and Etrian Odyssey, the game captures the spirit of the old games while being infinitely more playable. You have the same first-person perspective as the older games, but the level design itself is more thoughtful and engaging. Wasted space, a hallmark of the era, is lessened to a greater degree here and a great deal of navigation variety is implemented in the dungeons. Hidden passages can be found and entire maps can be swapped for alternate routes, for instance. Many of these don't work quite as well, like the teleporter mazes and the unmappable dark areas. However, for the most part, the levels possess a sophistication and focus that can usually only be found in a modern game. As well, conveniences such as saving are a given in this day and age, but there are more significant improvements that contribute to the game's success. The older games had automaps, but Strange Journey utilizes the whole bottom screen to provide a robust and detailed automap that marks most anything important you come across. And the excellent status screens for both you and your demons are a far cry from in-game information of the Famicom days of JRPGs. Placing Strange Journey side-by-side with the older games provides insight into just how much refinement the genre has gone through over the years.
Many of these refinements shouldn't be new to Western SMT veterans, however. Demon negotiation and fusion are back and central to progressing through the game. And the battles still rely heavily on exploiting enemy weaknesses. This time, instead of gaining extra turns or knocking enemies down, hitting a weakness causes party members with the same alignment to gang up on the enemy for extra damage. This puts a different twist on combat, but it retains the qualities that all SMT games have: Brutal, strategic gameplay with party customization through negotiation and fusion. This has always been the case in the series, but has been refined to the point where grinding levels is no longer necessary. While the series didn't accomplish this when it began, the intent was clearly there from the beginning, so it's wholly appropriate that Strange Journey realizes that potential.
The story continues this trend of blending old and new. The story involves a dimensional anomaly known as the Schwarzwelt, which threatens to engulf the world. Ultimately, the premise becomes about the standard SMT plot themes, such as rebirth and the state of society. However, the plot is wrapped in a sci-fi motif. The main character is part of a military investigation team, complete with high-tech weapons and scientists. At the same time, the levels themselves have themes that relate back to society's excesses, such as a burning battlefield or a whore house. The juxtaposition between technology, the supernatural, and society freshens up the worn premise while doing it justice. It also doesn't hurt that Atlus has the best localizers in the business, as the writing comes through clearly with just the right tone.
At the same time, an alignment system, much like in the old games, determines which course you ultimately chart, providing three different endings depending on your actions. While this has usually been implemented in past games, here it is linked to gameplay in a more recognizable way than we had previously seen. Not only does alignment help in team attacks, but it also determines how demanding demons become in negotiation. Demons that are the same alignment as you ask for less, while opposite ones demand much more. This creates an interesting tug-of-war between role-playing as the player and gaming the system to become an alignment tailored to the player's play style.
Strange Journey is a deliberate throwback to the earliest games in the series while integrating lessons learned over the years to make it feel more modern. Many fans decry Atlus' reluctance to bring the old games here in some form, but with Strange Journey, it no longer feels necessary. Strange Journey flies its old-school flag proudly while showing that this type of game is not intrinsically dated. Any RPG fan looking for a challenging adventure packed with content would do well to look to Strange Journey. Approach it with an open mind, and you will not be disappointed.