The Shin Megami Tensei RPG series first appeared on the Super Famicom in Japan in 1992 and has enjoyed success for many years. For many people outside of Japan, the latest Atlas release on PS2, Shin Megmami Tensei: Nocturne, will be their first experience with the series. You take on the role of a young, nameless boy in Tokyo. A series of local events, possibly caused by a cult, lead the world into an apocalypse, known as the Conception. The protagonist then sets out on a journey to find answers and possibly either save or destroy the world. Nocturne is an engaging RPG with a great story, character design, play mechanics, and a well-earned ?M’ rating for some of its content.
Nocturne’s 2-D field overhead map is a little reminiscent of Unlimited Saga. You move around an indicator to different areas of the map and when you are either over an NPC you can talk to or an area you can enter, you press X. In the upper left hand corner of the screen is the moon phase indicator or “Kagutsuchi.” Phases of the moon affect battles, conversations, events, fusions, enemy appearances, dungeons, treasure inside mystic chests, and items found in shops. In the lower right hand corner there is the enemy appearance gauge. As the indicator turns from yellow to red, a monster encounter is more likely. There is also an indicator in the lower left that gives the characters position in the Vortex World, the name of post-apocalyptic Japan. When entering mazes or dungeons, the game switches to a 3-D third-person view, with both the moon and enemy appearance gauge still displayed in their place. The left analog stick or digital pad controls character movement while the right analog allows you to look around. The O button centers the camera behind the protagonist while the square button brings up a menu with the typical RPG selections such as Party, Status, Skills, Items, Configuration, as well as Magatama, the items equipped to the protagonist to give him his powers.
The battles in Nocturne happen frequently in dungeons, which can be frustrating when trying to figure out where to go. The dungeons often consist of traps, platforms, lifts, warps, disappearing walls, cache cubes and mystic chests (both containing items), stairs, elevators, and ladders. When navigating the games area, players will often find themselves backtracking again and again, all the while having some tough encounters with the world’s evil denizens. There are also many NPCs scattered here and there and the occasional saving point and healing point. Many will also find making their way deep into a dungeon with party health dwindling very difficult, looking for the elusive save point.
Though turn-based, the game does a few things a little differently than many RPGs in its many encounters. Icons at the top of the screen indicate how many turns there are for each side in the battle. Each enemy in the game has a certain weakness to things such as fire, ice, lightning, force, etc. This is nothing new, but how it effects your turn in battle is. By using a weakness against an enemy, only ? of a turn indicator is used in the round. A critical hit also only uses ? an icon, while just using any attack against an enemy uses one whole icon. On the other hand, a complete miss uses two. So, in theory, if all four party members exploit an enemy weakness or get a critical hit, it is possible to attack twice in a round. This adds quite a bit of strategy to battles and forces the player to learn enemy and party member strengths and weaknesses. Also, the protagonist is the only party member who can use items. This can make for some interesting decision making in battle, especially if none of your current party members can heal. If fighting is not an option, you can also attempt to escape from battle or try to negotiate with enemies.
The negotiation feature in Nocturne is one of its most important. Instead of traveling the countryside and finding other adventurers to aid you on your quest, you negotiate with demons in battle to gain their favor and persuade them to help you. The negotiation process usually involves a little talking, and then demons will request an item or macca (money). Depending on your level and the phase of the moon, the demon will become more persuaded as negotiations move forward. Finally, the demon may ask a final question. If answered to the demon’s satisfaction, he or she joins your party. You have a limited amount of demon’s you can carry in your current demon “Stock” as the game calls it. These allies can be switched in and out of battle at will or also when not in battle. Once a demon dies, it simply returns to the Stock and you will have to find a Fountain of Life to bring it back from the dead. Later in the game, you can record all demons you have invited or fused into the Demonic Compendium. With the Demonic Compendium, demon stats are displayed and for enough macca, a demon can be summoned as an ally or for a fusion.
Another unique aspect of Nocturne is raising demon levels. As demons evolve and gain levels, they sometimes begin to change appearance and enhance skills. As demons become more powerful, you can use fusion at the Cathedral of Shadows to form new, more powerful demons. There are several different types of fusion, some of them affected by the moon phase. There are also other factors that affect fusion and skills transferred, such as the appearance of the product demon. The right fusions can be invaluable and create powerful allies. The possibilities may seem endless and can take several hours to mess around with and take advantage of completely. This aspect of the game may turn off casual RPG gamers because of its depth and complexity but the rewards are worth the effort.
The protagonist, being a human boy, is also given powers in the game. After the apocalypse, the boy is infused with demonic powers from Magatama. Each has a different affinity and boosts certain stats. Powers can be learned while one of these is ingested through gaining levels and growth of the Magatama. These powers range from healing, fire, ice, and enhanced physical attacks to name a few. The number he can learn is limited so you have to pick and choose powers wisely. The Magatama you master determines your character’s race. Also after gaining a level, just like with demons, a stat can be enhanced such as strength, agility, magic, vitality, and luck. There is also a slight chance of being cursed as the Magatama becomes unstable during the character’s growth. The Magatama system adds a wide range of customization to the character to suit your style of playing and adapt to certain encounters.
Nocturne’s presentation is superb. The graphics are cel-shaded, stylized, and very anime-like. Characters and bosses encountered all feature a unique and interesting look, some comical, while others looking very deadly. Many of the enemies in the game seem to be taken from old Japanese myths and legends. Nocturne conveys its post-apocalyptic Tokyo well, with very detailed environments. The mood is set just right with great lighting effects in its many areas to explore. Movement in the expansive environments also doesn’t skip a beat, with nice, smooth frame rate. Spell effects and animation of all the characters looks very good. My only gripe with the game is that the 2-D overhead map is a little bit boring.
The music in Nocturne is simply breathtaking. Exploring dungeons is set against some very moody background music. Many of the tracks are orchestrated and sometimes contain voices singing or the sounds of a pipe organ. Other tracks are simple piano melodies. Yet other tracks feature techno-like ambience. If that’s not enough, there are also metal guitar tracks, sometimes mixed with a little jazz, during battle sequences. Luckily, at least as far as my opinion is concerned, there are no voice-overs in this game. Sound effects are also good, from the smack of your fists up against a demons head, to their yelps as they die. All in all, Nocturne features a good audio presentation.
Along with the recently released Shadowhearts, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a breath of fresh air. It has a unique premise, great game play, and high production values. Then there is the gripping storyline, the most important part of any RPG. Not only does the game have an adjustable difficulty level, a play through the game a second time yields a different experience, with some slight changes and the ability to choose the protagonists outfit. Then there is the Burial Chamber, where bosses previously fought can be fought again to gain high scores. For those tired of Final Fantasy or just looking for a little something different, Nocturne is well worth its price and should definitely be checked out. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a new franchise in the U.S