Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

Shin Megami Tensei: NocturnePlatform: PS2
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus
Release Date: 10/12/04
Genre: RPG
Players: 1

The Shin Megami Tensei RPG series, or MegaTen as it’s commonly referred to as, has been extremely popular in Japan for quite some time now. Up until now, not a one has been brought stateside, except for the Persona games from the PlayStation One days, but they were merely spin-offs of sorts. But now thanks to Atlus, US gamers can finally get a taste of what the hit series is all about with the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for the PlayStation 2, and you definitely aren’t going to want to miss out on this stellar RPG.

In Nocturne, you play as an average, no-named Japanese high school student in Tokyo as he is traveling to visit a few of his friends and his teacher at the hospital. Along the way, he runs into a reporter for an occult magazine named Hijiri, who tells him about some kind of riot between two cultist groups at a local park and how he believes it is tied to something much bigger. Afterwards, the main character continues towards his main destination, but on arrival at the hospital he finds the building to be oddly deserted, save for his two friends Chiaki and Isamu.

With no sign of the teacher, they decide to search around the hospital’s floors and look for her. Eventually in your search, you meet up with a man named Hikawa, the leader of a major cult, and your teacher, Yuko. After this encounter, a cataclysmic, world-reincarnating event known as the Conception takes place and the world’s population is completely decimated. Of course the main character survives, but only on one condition: he has become partially transformed into a demon. As this semi-demon, you set out on an adventure to fight against the demonic forces now inhabiting the universe and bring order to the world’s ultimate rebirth.

What really stands out with this storyline, besides the fact that it is well told and highly intriguing, is its dark and mature tone that earns every bit of its Mature rating, which is a rare sight for the RPG world. Nocturne’s narrative is steeped in mythology and philosophical questions, making for one intelligent game that is meant for the adult audience.

While the plot is damn good, it really isn’t the overriding focus of Nocturne. Unlike most RPGs these days, Nocturne isn’t filled with flashy cinematics and lengthy dialogue sessions, but instead is weaved together by brief moments of storytelling that do a great job of keeping your interest without putting you to sleep with endless periods of downtime. The balance between reading through dialogue (no, there is no voice acting) and actual gameplay is absolutely perfect; other developers should take a hard look at this.

Speaking of gameplay, that is where the majority of Nocturne’s emphasis lies. This game is all about duking it out in intense and strategic turn-based battles that will kick your ass if you aren’t prepared. That’s right boys and girls, Nocturne is one brutally difficult game that is not for the impatient or faint of heart. But although the game is unquestionably challenging, it is never unfairly so, as completing the game requires smart battle planning and is almost entirely a skill-based affair. Sure there are many frustrating moments when bosses seem cheap or downright impossible, but there is always something you can do as a player to turn the tides in your favor. That sometimes leads to trial-and-error gameplay, especially for boss fights, but overall the game is very fair in its stiff difficulty.

What makes Nocturne so challenging is its frequent — sometimes too frequent — random battles that function on what looks to be a standard turn-based combat system, but as you play onward you realize that it is anything but. In battle, you are allotted one turn per character (four is the max allowed), and the same goes for the opponent. With the set number or turns, the best, and usually only, way to achieve victory is by exploiting the weakness and negating the strengths of the attacking enemies. Each demon has certain elemental, affinity-based strengths and weaknesses that, when taken advantage of, extends your party’s round of fighting, thusly allowing you to dish out extreme amounts of damage.

For example, an opposing demon might be weak to fire-based attacks. Using a fire attack on that creature will result in heavy damage as well as an additional turn for the party. On defense, the system works much the same, only turns can be lost if you play into the enemies’ strengths. And while you have to worry about working around the enemies’ defenses, the opposing forces use the same tactics against your party, so being prepared for any given situation is a must.

To aid in your combative adventures, you must ally with demons in order for them to join your cause. In total, there are over 100 demons to recruit in the entire game, and doing so starts out pretty simple, but in the later stages it becomes somewhat tricky. Recruiting demons takes place from within a battle. During every fight the main character and certain demons have the ability to talk and negotiate with enemy demons. When negotiating with demons, they will ask for items, money, and sometimes even ask you to answer a philosophical question. Meeting every one of their demands or answering their inquiry correctly results in them joining your team; however, the recruiting success rate isn’t 100 percent.

Some demons won’t join you no matter what, will just give you an item, or simply can’t understand what you’re saying. That’s where the Cathedral of Shadows enters in. At Cathedrals, which are scattered in the town-like areas of the world, currently recruited demons can be fused together, ala Pokemon or Monster Rancher, to form more powerful or otherwise unattainable demons. Later on in the game, something called a Demonic Compendium is available at the Cathedrals. The Compendium allows you to register and summon any demon you have successfully negotiated with, so the option to toy around with demon fusion without mistakenly losing valuable teammates is available.

Once you have a party ready to go, there are quite a few character advancement and customization features to explore. Firstly, there is no buying of weapons and armor like many RPGs. Customizing the main character is done via the ingestion of demonic parasites called Magatama. The many Magatama to find throughout the quest come in a variety of different types, each of which grant certain elemental advantages and disadvantages, as well as a number of unique abilities that can be learned with experience. After leveling up, in addition to learning Magatama-related abilities, you are awarded stat points to add to any of the RPG-familiar character attributes, such as strength, magic, vitality, agility, and luck. While you have full control over the hero, the demons of you party follow a set path of development that you don’t have much control over. Demons’ earned stat points are allotted automatically, as are new abilities. Gratefully though, you do have a say when it comes to some of the important customization options, such as whether to allow demons to evolve or change abilities.

On the lengthy adventure that is Nocturne, you will find most of your time is spent fighting through extensive labyrinthine dungeons that embody the term dungeon crawl, and that is really where Nocturne starts to suffer a bit. For one, some of the dungeons can drag on for too long, especially towards the end of the game, and they can also become a little confusing. Making matters worse, random encounters occasionally occur far too often, sometimes happening after literally taking a step or two following the previous encounter. To say the least, this high encounter rate makes for some tedious stretches along the way, but thankfully it behaves itself the majority of the game.

Extending the over 40 hours worth of story is a bunch of awesome bonus content not seen in the Japanese version of the game. You see, the US version of Nocturne is a director’s cut of the original version, which means besides just following the main story there are a ton of cool side quests and a massive optional dungeon to contend with. Also new are two difficulty settings and a total of five different endings to see according to certain decisions you’ve made earlier in the game. Probably the most hyped bonus feature added to Nocturne is the inclusion of everyone’s favorite badass, Dante from the Devil May Cry series, who surprisingly feels right at home in this demonic world. Disappointingly though, Dante’s cameo is limited to less than a handful of encounters, and after a battle against him early on he practically vanishes from the game. Dante does, however, become a recruitable character towards the very end once certain requirements are met.

As for Nocturne’s audiovisual capabilities, they generally receive high marks across the board. Graphically speaking, Nocturne has a sort of gothic anime appeal to it, with a heavily stylistic art design that shines with creativity. Most notable are the character and demon designs, all of which contain uniquely detailed characteristics and styles, ranging from archangels, snake-like nagas, and titans to bird-like beings, four-armed skeletons, and pumpkin-headed flying wizards. Although the character models look great, the environments could have used some extra detail. Overall, many of the dungeons’ architecture are blocky and squarish, and there also isn’t much in the way of interesting set pieces to see or interact with.

Picking up for some of the game’s slight graphical misgivings is the absolutely amazing audio design. Nocturne’s soundtrack is incredible, featuring mostly heavy rock and techno tunes that accompany the story’s subject matter perfectly. As a cool bonus, the 30-plus song soundtrack comes bundled with the game. The only conceivable downside to Nocturne’s audio efforts is that there is no voice acting for the dialog whatsoever, and I have to admit I was disappointed with that fact early on. However, as the game progresses it becomes apparent that having no voice acting isn’t much of detraction from the entire experience after all.

When all is said and done, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is one of the best and most refreshing console RPGs to come out in years, and is definitely a worthy candidate for RPG of the year. The frequent random battles, long dungeons, and brutal difficulty make for a game that isn’t easily accessible to the average gamer, but for those same reasons hardcore RPG veterans will absolutely love it. Additionally, Nocturne’s story is unfamiliarly mature and treats you like an adult unlike the ravage of RPGs that seem like they were written by five year olds. If you are in the market for a great new RPG and feel up to the challenge, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne should be at the top of your list.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!