What a Long, Strange Journey It's Been

Edward Moore | 9 Nov 2010 08:28
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The meta-franchise of Japanese role-playing games known as Shin Megami Tensei (or "MegaTen" for short) encompasses many different sub-series of games. Like pitch black coal from the bedrock of Hades, these games are edgy, dark, and hard as hell. However, patiently chip away at them and they reveal their diamonds: vivid, demonic creatures that serve as friend or foe, an insidiously addictive balance between fairness and challenge, imaginative settings that blend elements of science and mythology, and compelling notions of player choice. The latest title in the mainline MegaTen series, Strange Journey for the Nintendo DS, expands the unique elements that have made MegaTen a success story for the JRPG genre in modern times.


The primary factor that distinguishes the MegaTen franchise from other JRPGs is its trademark assortment of demons. In this context, the term "demons" doesn't just refer to the "horns and pitchfork" variety from Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, the term encompasses an imaginatively conceptualized menagerie of supernatural beings and deities from numerous mythologies, religions, folklore, and cultures from across the globe. Much more than mere combat-fodder, MegaTen demons have distinct personalities and adhere to nuanced belief systems. They question players' personal philosophies and moral outlooks, barter for favors in exchange for items, or may even pledge their fealty as active party members. The developers have implemented multiple layers of interlocking mechanics to emphasize the central importance of these creatures, and the key to success is learning how to properly exploit these systems. Players steadily expand their arsenal of demons (recorded in a "Demonic Compendium") either through demon negotiation or by merging two or more creatures together through "demon fusion."

"Strange Journey consists of many different systems, but the game is designed so these systems form a lattice toward one goal: to defeat strong enemies and conquer tough parts of the dungeon so the player can move on," explains Eiji Ishida, Director of Strange Journey for Atlus Japan. "We decided to implement a simple paper-rock-scissors style battle system where the outcome relied heavily on the preparation made prior to the battle, not the tactics. We designed the system so the players would think, 'I lost because I didn't plan out my party right ... I'll work on demon fusion and make a demon that helps me win the battle.' It's not the battle that the players need to put their thoughts into, it's the demon fusion!"

As the famed "Demon Designer" for Atlus Japan, Kazuma Kaneko (credited as Producer & Original Concept for Strange Journey) has been the primary creative force behind the MegaTen franchise for more than 20 years. He's responsible not only for researching and crafting the visual appearance of the story protagonists and demons (in an iconic and often provocative style) but also envisions the plot, settings, and themes of the games.

"When I design demons, I start by researching their profiles in legends and folklores," says Kaneko. "Gods and demons that appear in myths greatly reflect the environment, culture and customs of the area they originate from. For example, both Zeus from Greek mythology and Thor from Norse mythology are thunder gods, but their attire and equipment are quite different. I get all that information in my head first, then give the demons new form, sometimes in accordance with their traditional image, and in other times giving them a modern interpretation."

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