Publisher: Atlus USA
Release Date: October 19, 2004
Buy 'SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: Nocturne': PlayStation 2
Next generation, the genres we currently know and love will become to grow stale. In the past, we had massive jumps in technology from platform to platform: 8-bit to 16-bit gave us improvements in resolution and memory, which affected gameplay greatly; 16-bit to 32/64-bit gave us the third dimension, which changed the way even sequels to popular franchises played (Mario 64); and the jump to the current consoles gave 3d games the same leap in polish that the 16-bit systems gave us years before.
So now what? Well, this time, it’s going to up to straight human ingenuity to make gaming feel fresh and new once more. And one of the most stale genres this generation is Japanese RPGs. Having the same boring fantasy settings isn’t an issue like it was in years past, but currently most of the games out there play similarly, have an almost identical amount of playtime (40 hours), and try their best to play like either: 1) the previous game in the game’s respective series, or 2) play like the previous game in another game’s respective series.
Lately, RPGs have been all about long, boring cinemas, contrived storylines with whiny, “emotional” characters that I find to be completely lifeless, and battle systems completely devoid of any sort of creativity or, more importantly, fun-factor. I’m tired of watching eight hours of philosophical clap-trap in my RPGs (and I liked Metal Gear Solid 2’s presentation, so that says a lot about the state of RPGs these days). We need more gameplay, we need better stories, we need more creativity.
And while none of these games are the saviors of the genre, three recently released RPGs have made massive steps in the right direction: Tales of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Tales brings the best attempt at an action-based real-time battle system in a traditional RPG yet, and Baten Kaitos makes a battle system driven by cards actually work; yet both of these games have a major weakness in their contrived, boring stories. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, on the other hand, tells a fantastic, if slightly convoluted tale – perhaps even a controversial one, in the eyes of some types of gamers – and presents a myriad of ideas never before seen in its genre. Some of these ideas are not executed perfectly, but surprisingly, most are. The only major chink in Nocturne’s armor is its mostly orthodox battle system, but what is there is so nearly flawless and fun that, when coupled with the innovative communication system that makes Nocturne so unique, it manages to feel fresh nevertheless.
The Shin Megami Tensei series, or MegaTen, as it is affectionately referred to by the word-combining aficionados in Japan, has not seen a stateside release from it’s main series until Nocturne, although the Persona side-story series did make its way here. Each game is driven by very dark, cultish storylines, Nocturne included: The game tells the story of a teenage boy (who is officially nameless; you must give him your own title) who happened to be in the right place at the right time to avoid the destruction of the world, referred to here as “the Conception”, but in the process is transformed into a demon. You aren’t trying to save the world, nor do you ever really know what exactly is going on until much later in the game. Nocturne is about a young demon trying to figure out what to do with himself after the Conception. To survive his dangerous journey through the inverted sphere that was once Tokyo, he must convince other demons to join him on his path. The lines between good and evil simply do not exist in this game. This concept stretches through all facets of the game. This is best presented in the random battles. Many are not necessarily “battles”, as they might just be demons who need spare health items, or want to chat about the philosophy of demonhood, and sometimes even approach you to join your party. For a game with its concepts entrenched in the idea of mass destruction, Nocturne has more life in it than any other RPG for the Playstation 2. You never stop having interesting conversations with some character or creature throughout the game.
As with most RPGs, however, you will be spending a large portion of the game in violent battles. Nocturne’s battle system is a fairly straightforward turn-based affair. Players are given a list of actions to choose from for each character, and since there is no active-time engine in place, they have as much time as they want to make these decisions. The amount of different options available within this is what makes the battles more fun than they sound, however. For the main character, you are in control of his skills, which statistic his experience points go to after each level up, and which items will be used in battle. Unlike many other games, though, your other party members are in control of themselves outside of their in-battle decisions. They choose where their experience goes, which skills to replace an older one with, and whether or not they want to stay in your party, in some cases. You can give them advice on certain things, such as whether or not they should choose to replace a skill or not, but mostly they handle everything themselves. If they like you enough, they might even give you an item or two that they’ve been hanging on to as a token of their affection!
Converting enemies is a simple matter of speaking with them instead of attacking. This is a very complex process in itself. Each demon has different ways of approaching demons to change sides, one type being no more effective than the other in the long run, as long as you know how to use them. The main character can simply “talk” to enemies, which has a moderate chance with any demon. Male demons are especially susceptible to female demon’s “seduce” command. There are even commands that serve only to ask for items. If your inquisitive demon is cute enough, he or she just might make off with an item or a bit of money, and be on the good side of that demon.
If you convert too many demons to keep with you, there are easy ways to deal with the overflow. Besides, who wants to train and manage hordes of these creatures besides RPG freaks that prefer to spend 100+ hours with every game? The easiest way is to simply let the creatures go free. They disappear from your party/summon pool, and that’s that. Even better, you can go to a crazed cultist and have the monsters fused to create a new creature, eliminating a single slot from your lineup and giving you a new, likely more powerful creature to compliment your party.
All of the aforementioned features of the game are affected in one way or another by the moon phases of the new Tokyo. At the center of the inverted sphere is a moon that goes through 16 different phases. Depending on which phase the moon is in, many things are altered. The contents of mystical chests, battle frequency, the friendliness or violence exhibited by fellow demons; everything depends on the phase of the moon. Full moons are the most dangerous. Battles are extremely frequent and demons are driven to horrifying bloodlusts. They refuse to speak reasonably. Your characters are affected, too. They will never run from battle, no matter what the circumstances are, during a full moon.
Nocturne has an art style like no other game I have ever seen. Semi cel-shaded art with strong character designs and adequate environments is the developer’s mode of operations, and it is all refreshing to look at. The characters are fairly flamboyant in appearance, although not anywhere near the over-the-top level of Final Fantasy X, or any other recent Square release. The environments are actually somewhat sparse, which works in this game, since the world has just been destroyed. In dungeons, it is nice to have simple but strong layouts with understated art. I have grown tired of the visual assault of most big-budget releases. If Nocturne has no reason for stylization, it does not present itself that way. And when reasons arise, such as in dreamy, confusing story sequences set in surreal locations, the surroundings will take a large jump in style accordingly.
Though strong in almost every other department, Nocturne is only average when it comes to sound. The music and sound effects sound muffled and cold on any sound system imaginable. The same canned yelps and grunts are heard again and again throughout the game. Some of the music is actually very clear and shows a great sense of composition, but the tunes heard most often are completely flaccid. Perhaps Nocturne’s sister game, Digital Devil Saga, remedies these sonic difficulties? Either way, sound is Nocturne’s weakest point by far.
It’s odd to have such an influential series in Japan only now have a game appear in this country. It’s almost as if we have received every game but the root of the series – side stories like Maken X and Persona made it over, so why not the game from whence they came? And now Nocturne is here. Perhaps it is a blessing that we only receive our taste of this great game now, at a time when role-playing has grown thin in terms of ingenuity. Hopefully both this and Digital Devil Saga meet the success that the release of their spin-offs did not, and we are allowed to experience more of what this series has to offer. While Nocturne is slightly flawed because of its straightforward battles and disappointing sound quality, it is a flame that will hopefully reignite a trend of creativity in RPG storytelling and concepts.
Score : 8.9/10
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