First impressions of Strange Journey Redux (and minor spoilers)

Apologies again for the long break. My life as a lawyer is so thoroughly soul-draining that it is hard to find the motivation to make an effort at anything else. Thanks to Atlus, I can at least find an escape into an apocalyptic hellscape with the recently released 3DS game Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, a remake of the infamously difficult 2010 DS title Strange Journey. Three dungeons in, I can say that I’m enjoying it so far – for the most part. Strange Journey Redux is a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game that plays as you would expect. You fight and recruit demons while trying to either save humanity, follow God/YHVH and create a world of light, or join Lucifer and plunge the world into chaos. (This is not a spoiler – it’s the plot of every SMT game.) Strange Journey and Redux both differ from other SMT games in that they take place in Antarctica with a cast of space marines rather than in Tokyo with a cast of students (or knights/samurai in SMT4.) SJ is also much more of a dungeon crawler than the other SMTs – the lower screen of the DS/3DS is dedicated to the map, which is filled in as you explore.

Redux features a new coat of paint and a bunch of extras – voice acting, improved graphics, new demons to fight and fuse, a few anime cutscenes, some DLC that isn’t worth buying. All that stuff (aside from the DLC) is great. What isn’t so great, at least so far, is the new character Alex, a young woman in a red coat who drops in on your player character and murders him. She is pretty aggravating. Not very interesting either, if she’s supposed to be what I think, which is a Sarah Connor type-“I have to kill these people to save the future” girl. Bleh.

The main character is revived in the Womb of Grief, a Labyrinth of Amala-style optional (I think) dungeon, by Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest and fertility. Why they decided to design a fertility goddess as a little kid is beyond me.  Someone should ask new character designer Masayuki Doi.

Anyway, Strange Journey Redux is good so far.  I hope I’ll survive my job long enough to finish it.

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse to be released 9/20

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Just a quick one today, to alert my multitudes of readers to the fact that Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is being released in three days.  This spinoff of SMT4 is getting excellent reviews all over the place.  I’m reading as little as I can about the story of Apocalypse in order to go in fresh, but the general consensus about the game’s quality seems to be that it’s not merely a spinoff, but a full game in itself, and that it corrects some of the shortcomings that the good but somewhat flawed SMT4 suffered from (see here for more on my opinions regarding the original.)  So needless to say, I’m excited as fuck about this development and have preordered a copy.  I encourage any and all fans of the Megaten series or of stupidly difficult JRPGs in general to do so if you haven’t already.

In the meantime, I’ll be playing Hyper Light Drifter, a 3D isometric action game released earlier this year that looks and sounds amazing so far.  Between these two games, I should be able to distract myself from my crushing depression when I’m not busy with work to think about it.  That’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?

Four portable games not to play on the plane (because they’re perverted)

I’m taking a long plane trip tomorrow, about as long as a plane trip can be while still staying inside the 48 states of the contiguous Union. The plane sucks ass and is horrible, mostly because I’m not a rich man and cannot afford even business class.

One of the things that makes a 7-hour plane ride more bearable is the fact that I can bring along my Vita or 3DS. The stupidly difficult Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl alone should take up a lot of my time and attention while shoved like an anchovy in my godawful coach seat. However, the plane being an incredibly public place, there are certain games that I feel I simply would not be able to play on it for reasons of embarrassment and public decency. The following Gamespot/Target/Walmart-sold, legitimate triple-A video game designer-made portable titles are unsuitable for travel-play for all but the most shameless and fedora-wearing-est of gamers:

1) Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed

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This one’s really not as bizarrely fanservicey as the cover or title suggest. Akiba’s Trip is really more of a nerd’s fantasy sort of game, involving an anime/game/figure-obsessed young man who meets a cute vampire girl (but she’s a good vampire, kind of like Twilight) who must strip the clothes off of secret evil vampires pretending to be normal people to protect the nerd-paradise Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara from… something.

The thing that makes Akiba’s Trip not so bad in the embarrassment department is the people you’re fighting and stripping are of both genders. This still isn’t much of an argument for playing the game on the plane. Especially not when you play dress-up with your several female companions, one of whom is a Finnish weeaboo fangirl who always wears a maid’s dress but can also wear this apparently (warning: not really safe for work.)

2) The entire Senran Kagura series

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You might think the above image doesn’t really suggest much of anything, and you might be right. But Senran Kagura is a game series that entirely involves schoolgirls beating each other up with ninja punches so hard that their clothes get torn off. This process is lovingly displayed in mid-fight cutscenes. There’s not much more to say than that. The games themselves look like decent enough Dynasty Warriors-style massive beatdown games, and from the bit I’ve played of Shinovi Versus that’s what they pretty much are, but without the thick layer of fanservice it’s questionable whether anyone would care about them.

3) Criminal Girls: Invite Only

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This bizarre title involves a young male protagonist sent to Hell and forced, for some reason, to take charge of an assortment of cute animal-eared girls who also live in Hell and lead them in battle, or something.

I haven’t actually played Criminal Girls, but I don’t think I have to play it to get the basic idea of the game, because the gimmick of this one is that you have to “punish” the girls to motivate them, and you do that by simulating a BDSM session by rubbing a lewd picture of said girls on your Vita’s screen.

I would say the purpose of Criminal Girls is obvious – from watching a short gameplay video on Youtube, the actual gameplay parts kind of looked simplistic, rushed and tacked on (though maybe it gets better as you go on, I don’t really know.) However, NIS America decided that the best way to avoid controversy with the NA and EU releases was to keep those BDSM scenes but cover them with a translucent pink fog (note: censored, but still incredibly not safe for work.) At this point, you may ask yourself whether it’s even worth the effort to try to play this game with one hand, as it was obviously intended to be played. I can’t answer that question, but I can say that you sure as hell shouldn’t play it on the plane. Especially considering how, let’s say, not mature some of the animal-eared girls in the game look. You might actually get your name on a list if you play Criminal Girls while anywhere even remotely near a public place.

4) Monster Monpiece

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I’ll be honest with you. And not just because this is an anonymous blog. I did buy Monster Monpiece. I bought it for a bargain price and mostly for the sake of journalistic curiosity, but that does not erase the fact that I bought a game in which you must rub a monster girl’s naughty bits through her clothes until somehow parts of her clothes are removed.

It’s really no help that the game itself is actually a pretty good tactical card/board game that involves some serious thinking. If you play this on the plane, the only thing your neighbor will notice is you furiously rubbing a picture of a large-breasted spider-girl on your Vita’s screen. This does have the effect of changing the monster girl’s stats in battle, but it doesn’t matter. Saying you’re playing Monster Monpiece for the card battle parts is like saying you read Playboy for the articles: it could certainly be true, because both Monster Monpiece and Playboy have legitimate non-fap purposes. But no one is going to believe you.

The new Nintendo 3DS: $200 better than the old Nintendo 3DS (I guess)

Maybe. Or maybe it really isn’t. It’s hard to say.

I earned the money for the new 3DS by writing articles about rehab centers in New Jersey.  That's not a joke.

I earned the money for the new 3DS by writing articles about rehab centers in New Jersey. That’s not a joke.

Something happened to my old 3DS. By “old 3DS” I mean the original one with the smaller screens, and by “something” I mean my now ex-girlfriend broke it in half, on purpose. All I can say is thank God I still only buy physical copies of games. I kept the box, because why not?

I haven’t played the old 3DS XL, so I can’t say how it compares to the new one, but supposedly the 3D on this one is a lot better than on previous versions. Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but it still gives me both eyestrain and a headache. Still, the incident that happened a few months ago gave me an excuse to upgrade, and this is a real upgrade: the larger screen alone is worth it.

The damn thing didn’t come with a power cord though. What’s that about? I still had my old one, but still, really. It’s a simple courtesy, Nintendo. Will you deny us that?

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The stuff next to the E rating is a little confusing. Mild Cartoon and Fantasy Violence? Is that a baseline rating for all 3DS games as a whole or something? Or these might refer to the built-in stuff that I haven’t tried yet. I instead played Fire Emblem: Awakening for a few hours, and it looked really nice.

I know this is pretty old news, but if you were wondering whether you should buy a new 3DS, I guess the answer is yes. It’s just a few dollars more than the old XL model, and it’s got a bigger screen than the original. It’s also going to host Fire Emblem: Fates coming out sometime next year, and if you don’t own a Vita, Zero Escape 3 is coming out on both platforms over a year from now, and the 3DS is probably just as good a platform to play it on. If you already own a 3DS, though, maybe consider whether you have $200 that you don’t need. Especially if you own the old XL model. Again, people are swearing by the new 3D system and the button in the upper right that apparently does something, but I’m not sure those are worth such an expensive upgrade. And again, the 3D effect still gives me a headache. Am I holding the system in the wrong place? Did I not calibrate it or something? Whatever.

So I now have to pick up the pieces of my crap life, but the 3DS gives me a little solace.

A review of Shin Megami Tensei IV

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After 5+ months of playing SMT4, I’ve finally finished it as far as I care to, meaning I got one out of the three endings. I could have easily blown through it in one or two weeks if I weren’t a student, but that’s life. My open memo and exams prevented me from doing much of anything else through the months of October, November and the first half of December.

Firstly, I can definitely say that SMT4 was worth what I paid for it. A lot of people were surprised at the $50 price tag on a 3DS title, but that $50 was for the deluxe package. And those of us who’d been waiting for an SMT4 for years were more than happy to throw our money at Atlus.

So fine. I’m a huge Shin Megami Tensei fan and I loved the game. But how does the game hold up in a more objective light?

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First, the story. It’s nothing special. The plot is the kind that anyone who’s played an older SMT game will recognize and the characters aren’t interesting – in fact, they’re so one-dimensional that I don’t think the designers even meant them to be interesting. SMT4 is an RPG, but it’s not about the story. Its gameplay is the main selling point.

So, the gameplay: it’s solid and mostly consists of the same old demon battles/negotiations and frustrating boss fights that SMT vets are already familiar with. Pretty much every fight in every game in the SMT series, including the Persona titles, hinges on the elemental strengths and weaknesses of your party and the party you’re fighting. As a result, most non-boss battles in SMT4 are extremely one-sided, and having a strong party that balances out its weaknesses is a must.

This is all pretty standard for the SMT series. But I do have a few complaints about SMT4 – aspects of the game that knock a couple of points off its score.

1) The pace

For the most part, the game has a pretty good pace – from the “late early” to the “late mid-game” sections, I guess; maybe from 8 hours to 40-50 hours in. But the early and late games are a different matter. SMT4 takes about 6 to 8 hours to really get started and to get interesting. This isn’t such an issue, but it could turn off gamers looking for an immediate hook. (By contrast, SMT3’s “hook” comes about half an hour into the game – so the makers don’t have an excuse here.)

The late game is a more serious issue. If you plan to pursue the Law or Chaos paths, you maybe won’t have to worry too much about it, but the Neutral ending piles requirements on the player that essentially force him to grind. Granted, Atlus added a paid DLC add-on that makes late-game grinding quick and easy, but we shouldn’t have to pay extra for it, should we? In any case, the grind that the Neutral path required of me really put me off. I’m a student, Atlus – I have shit to do other than play games. Okay?

2) The boss battles

SMT4 uses the Press Turn system that was created for SMT3: Nocturne, its PS2 predecessor. The way it works: your player character, your own demons and enemy demons have unique strengths and weaknesses to the different elements, including physical attacks. If you happen to hit an enemy with something he blocks, you lose two “turns” where you’d normally lose one. If it’s an element he repels or absorbs, you lose all your turns and he acts immediately. If, however, you hit him with in a weak spot – for example, he’s weak to wind and you hit him with wind – you only lose a “half turn”. So you can accumulate turns and wipe out most enemy parties before their turn comes around. SMT4 compounds this effect with its “smirk” mechanic, which will sometimes give a guaranteed crit to a demon (or the protagonist) if he hits a weak spot or gains a critical. The same goes for enemies, by the way: they can also crit/hit your weaknesses, gain more turns and wipe out your party thus.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

So what’s the problem? The bosses are the problem. Specifically some of the later bosses. The especially strong ones can and will abuse this system to wipe you out utterly. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal but for two issues:

– One of your allied NPCs also often fights with you, and he (or she) is completely fucking stupid when it comes to fighting. This means he’ll hit a boss with a physical attack after he’s cast Tetrakarn, a spell that reflects physical attacks. This means the boss will get a smirk on the next round, and he will crit and possibly destroy your party through no fault of your own (unless you get lucky and the boss wastes his smirk on a buff or a debuff spell or something similar.)

– Bosses will sometimes make the first move. This really, truly makes no sense to me. Nocturne and the other SMT titles always gave your party the first turn in a boss fight, the idea being that you could prepare yourself for his or her attacks by throwing up shields, buffing/debuffing, and so on. Here, however, a strong boss – and that’s a whole lot of the bosses in SMT4 – will, if he gets first shot, destroy your party or break it to the point that you won’t be able to recover on your turn. All you can do at this point is reset the game. Why Atlus chose to do this is beyond me, because all it adds to the game is pure frustration. It’s the difference between a tactically demanding and difficult boss fight and a downright cheap one. Sadly, quite a few of the boss fights in SMT4 comes down to either pure luck or brute force.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole.  Okay, not really a spoiler.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole. Okay, not really a spoiler.

3) The quests

Most of SMT4’s quests are interesting and make sense within the story, but a few are completely stupid and nonsensical. Just wait until you’re forced to take a picture of a particular building for some jerk for no reason at all. This won’t be a problem if you’re going Law or Chaos, but Neutral and just plain completionist players will find it almost impossible to manage without the help of a guide.

It seems like all I’ve done is complain about SMT4 for a thousand words. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s bad, though. It’s a very good JRPG. The music and art are classic SMT, even without the work of the amazing Shoji Meguro on the soundtrack. The gameplay is pretty fun, and anyone who’s obsessive and weird enough to want to recruit and fuse every demon in the game (like me) will love the good old negotiation system, which can produce some strange results. The story and atmosphere in SMT4 are lacking when compared to those of Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and some other SMT titles, but they’re not bad in themselves – just in comparison to older, better games in the line.

The fact that I find SMT4 lacking probably has a lot to do with my growing up with classic PS2 SMT titles. Nostalgia isn’t something one should consider when trying to fairly judge a game (or anything else for that matter) so I’m not in the best position to judge this title. Still, these are my honest opinions, six months after the fact. If you’re an SMT fan and you own a 3DS, you’ve already played SMT4. If you’re not a fan but the above sounds appealing to you, and you don’t mind some old-school style cheapness and frustration, I’d say go for it – the game might not be worth the unusually high sticker price to you, but it’s probably being sold used at this point. It will give you dozens of hours of gameplay, so you’ll be getting plenty of game for your dollar.

How to talk to a demon

As I play through Shin Megami Tensei IV at a snail’s pace, I find that one of the most interesting and frustrating parts of the game is the demon negotiation function. SMT veterans will know what I’m talking about, but here’s a basic explanation for newcomers.

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Some SMT titles have a feature that allows your player character to talk to demons during battle. Talking to a demon can be a really good idea sometimes – depending on the course of the conversation, a demon might give you an item, money or a piece of advice. It might also choose to quit attacking you and run away – if you already have a demon of the same type with you, for example, it will recognize its “friend” in your party and leave you alone. Some of the conversation branches can get extremely strange. Depending upon the demon’s type and personality, you might have the opportunity to threaten it, bow down to it or even to hit on it (female demons only, as far as I’ve been able to tell.)

Nekomata joining your party in Shin Megami Tensei III.  She's one of the best early-game demons to have around for her skills.

Nekomata joining your party in Shin Megami Tensei III. She’s one of the best early-game demons to have around for her skills.

Most importantly, though, negotiation is the only way to recruit new members to your party and get the components needed for demon fusion – a whole other subject in itself. As you play SMT IV (or any other SMT game with the recruitment function) you’ll most often find yourself negotiating with demons to recruit them. Recruitment involves a both asking and answering questions. Most often you’ll start things off by asking one to join your party, and then the demon will begin to ask for random items, amounts of money, or portions of your HP/MP to take for themselves. This whole process can be pretty frustrating just for the fact that giving the demon items is no guarantee that they will join you. Sometimes they’ll ask a final question, and your answer will piss them off and make them attack you, breaking off negotiations. Sometimes they’ll simply run away with all your items and money. There’s usually nothing at all you can do about this (the Detain skill in SMT III is a nice exception to that rule.) Occasionally, they’ll lead off with a question and your answer will make them so happy that they’ll join you straight up, no haggling required, but these instances are rare.

A pretty typical SMT demon question from Devil Summoner.

A pretty typical SMT demon question from Devil Summoner.

SMT III is even more fun in this respect because it lets you attach negotiation skills to demons, something you can’t do in SMT IV or any of the others (as far as I can tell, at least.)

SMT III lets you fuse Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who has the unique ability to offer booze to potential recruits.

SMT III lets you fuse Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who has the unique ability to offer booze to potential recruits.

Demon negotiation is easily one of the most entertaining parts of playing an SMT game. It’s a feature that really sets SMT apart from other game franchises. You go into every fight not knowing whether your enemies will attack you, join you or run off with a bunch of your stuff. It adds an element of unpredictability – and sometimes of humor – that really lightens up an otherwise pretty dark series of games. And if it goes well, you’ll have a new friend.

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