August 26, 2010

Playing for Time: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Nintendo DS, 2010

As I've been playing the game, the fusion system has begun to bug me in a small way. On the whole it's a brilliant gameplay device that neutralizes the need for excessive grinding: you take two of your demon allies and combine them to make a new demon with, optimally, better skills and a higher experience level than its predecessors.

I have several problems with the system, but before I get to them I must say I don't want to sound like these problems were "real" problems, something that people would universally encounter while playing SMT: SJ. These are my personal failings, and not flaws in the design as such.

Problem 1:
You know the ageless rule of RPG gaming? The one about how you never ever use expendable items like elixirs and mana potions even if your game life depended on it? It's an exaggeration, of course, but it does have its roots in reality. For example, I've never heard of anyone using elixirs in FFVI – the elixirs are rare and they are effective. That means you might need them sometime later, and so you shouldn't use them EVER! Sometime later always means sometime later. The same logic applies to FFXIII where I've kept a plentiful stack of performance-enhancing Aegisols and Fortisols just in case I'd need them. Looking back I can identify several occasions where I should've used them and made my life so much easier (and I'd still have more than enough of the damn things when the game ends.) Incidentally, this very rule accounts for most of the deaths in any given roguelike. Lethal stuff.

In Strange Journey this rule manifests strongest via the Demon Sources. Each demon basically gives you one Demon Source, an expendable item that contains the particular skills of that demon. When fusing demons, you can exhaust a Demon Source and grant the new demon some or all of the skills embedded in the Demon Source.

Sounds simple. But combine that with the aforementioned rule of RPG gaming and you get a handful of unusable items.

But wait, this brings us to...

Problem 2:
In conjunction with the fusion system, there's also password registering. You can choose a demon, output its password and then enter that password to summon the demon anywhere, anytime. This was essentially meant as a method for people to exchange their demons, but the primary function people seem to be using it is to circumnavigate Problem 1. Fuse demons, use Demon Sources, export password, reset the game, load your save, input password and you have the new demon plus your old demons and, most importantly, all your Demon Sources. How delightfully munchkin!

But this is a problem. I'm sure the game designers knew about this when they released the game. Which makes me wonder how much the fusion system actually relies on this exploit. I feel that if I don't hoard my Demon Sources I'll soon extinguish my stock of awesome demon abilities and end up fusing suboptimal demons in hopes of creating something useful. Maybe it's not so. But it feels like it, and knowing about this option makes me want to rely on it. It wouldn't be there unless it was meant to be used, right? Right?

Problem 3:

I am getting perplexed. Using the fusion system is not as carefree and fun as it was in the beginning. It feels like more and more work, exporting passwords, inputting them and managing my increasing flock of demons (in normal fusion two demons make one demon, in this password exploit two demons turns to three demons). I also doubt myself all the time. I keep wondering if I should use the password exploit exclusively or only now and then. I also ponder a lot about when to use the damn Demon Sources and when to just make simple fusions.

I need to solve things soon if I want to keep on playing this game without losing my drive and momentum. My compulsive urge for minmaxing, something I'm usually very good at suppressing, is also trying to interfere: I often don't fuse demons unless I am totally sure I get the best possible outcome.

And to crown this pile of self-caused stoopid is...

Problem 4:

I love the demon illustrations. In fact, I'm obsessing over them. Combined with the personal speech patterns the different demon breeds have, the supernatural NPC's become really intriguing. This is great! But also somewhat problematic. I've found I've skipped many useful fusions just because I haven't liked the demon's portrait. I choose cats over dogs, humanoid over animal-kind, angel over demon and so forth. And my party is a mess in terms of alignment (the game ranks humans and demons on a scale of law-neutral-chaos and there are huge benefits if you have a single-alignment party) because my protagonist is neutral but I tend to favour the manners and visuals of the law-aligned demons.

What to make of all this? Maybe that I should let go of my neuroses, make more fusions and save the damn Earth already!

(If you're wondering what Playing for Time is, see this explanatory post.)


  1. "I've found I've skipped many useful fusions just because I haven't liked the demon's portrait."

    Hey, I do this all the effin' time, regardless of the game. I've actually only now partially shaken the habit out of pure lust for actually winning (if it's a game like GGX2 or SoulCalibur/ the ilk) or otherwise playing successfully. An unfortunate, unwritten rule often seems to be that the cooler the art, the lamer the character.

  2. It really is a pain when you are struggling in a game just because you pick the interesting characters over the useful ones.

    In Strange Journey this is something of a constant problem because all your allies are self-picked, and the pace at which you create and find new ones to replace the older demons is staggering. It makes for a continuous stream of this-or-this-or-this choices.

    And yes! Cool art seems to often stand in for, uh, everything else, really. Like there was a limited amount of cool to go around, and spending it all on art leaves very little to use on everything else.

    There's a quote I really like by the German game designer Reiner Knizia: "When playing a game the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning." which really captures how I feel about the business of games and winning.