Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today we’re checking out Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, specifically the way its soundtrack utilises haunting, oppressive vocals to make this difficult RPG that much more distressing. Eep!
2010’s Nintendo DS SMT spin-off Strange Journey (playlist / gameplay / VGMdb) — which the devteam thought was good enough to potentially become Shin Megami Tensei IV — follows an exploratory group sent by the United Nations to study a phenomenon known as the “Schwarzwelt.” While from the outside the Schwarzwelt looks like a simple black mass hovering over the Antarctic, the soldiers and scientists of the U.N. mission discover that the slowly expanding region harbours an alternate dimension. As this is SMT, they eventually learn to control demons, face off with several gods, and fight for the future of humanity.
Despite being a turn-based game on a handheld system, Strange Journey is stressful. Every new area embodies a certain negative aspect of the human spirit. At one point, you may be traversing a fiery battlefield littered with slain corpses, while the next you’re picking through the grimy back alleys of a red-light district or a shopping mall plastered with posters demanding consumption. The claustrophobic experience is made all the more disquieting by the soundtrack.
While Strange Journey’s soundtrack is standard fare for the early portions of the game, the soundtrack really kicks into gear when your character steps out into the Schwarzwelt. The prior orchestral stylings give way to pounding, percussion-heavy tracks like “Burnt Kingdom,” all backed by unintelligible chanting. I always imagined that the demons were watching as my character explored the inhospitable surroundings, their voices combining into a raucous, reverberating chorus.
Strange Journey is full of such tracks. I remember playing the game when it first released and marveling at the way composer Shoji Meguro, a frequent Shin Megami Tensei contributor, used vocals to impart such a compelling sense of dread to the adventure. I felt like an audience was watching my every step, remarking on the main character’s fight for survival in a language both ancient and frightening. Demons of this universe are said to have been born of mankind’s sins, and that heritage is lambasted in the names of subsequent tracks like “Kingdom of Decadence,” “Squandered Kingdom,” and “Rotten Kingdom.”
Atlus / Megaten Music (YouTube)
As the game continues, these bombastic tracks eventually give way to more of the orchestral themes that opened Strange Journey, but the chanting returns in the final boss fight by way of an arrangement named “Take the Shield, Raise the Spear.” I’ve forgotten the intricacies of the narrative over the past several years, but in relistening to this track, I can feel the desperation of the journey as it comes to an end and the main characters play their parts in the eternal war between law and chaos. Humanity may have contributed to the existence of the Schwarzwelt with their lust and greed, but we’re nothing if not persistent, even in the face of total annihilation.
Atlus / Megaten Music (YouTube)
I’m actually not a huge video game music person. It’s usually the last thing I notice while playing a game. But Strange Journey was a notable exception, a game that so dramatically bombarded me with its soundtrack that it became an integral part of my experience. I haven’t played Strange Journey in quite some time, but Meguro’s reliance on vocal accompaniments really sets the mood in a way that games rarely do for me.
While I may not be back around these parts for a while, let me know how your day is shaping up in the comments and maybe share some of your favourite tracks from Strange Journey, too. It feels like we’re all on separate paths of a difficult adventure these days, but for the next few minutes, let’s just chill and talk about some good music. Till next time!