Videogame Review: SMT Nocturne

Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) :Nocturne is probably one of my favorite games of all time and it is a game that many should be thanking.  Persona 3 and 4, Digital Devil Saga, they all owe their fighting mechanics to Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne.  Oh yes the system has been there at least since the first Persona hit United States shores, but this is the system and graphics engine that has been used and reused constantly since Nocturne’s Ps2 debut.  This game is pretty much an under appreciated piece of history.

SMT: Nocturne is a turn based RPG with a large world that is explored in sections.  The biggest difference between Nocturne and other RPG”s is the inclusion of a robust demon fusion system, consisting of around 200 fusable demons.  Add a skill inheritance mechanic and the customization options are fairly limitless.  For the world you explore the inner side of a sphere filled with demons and various factions all petitioning god to remake the world in their own image.  Did I mention it is a highly philosophic game as well?  Unfortunately the adult working a 40-50 hour work week will probably never have the time to fully explore the game.

Before I get too involved in writing about Nocturne, I should give a brief history of the Shin Megami Tensei series.  First off, there’s a lot of arguing about what the series should be called.  In Japan the original series is the Megami Tensei series.  Later when the series went to 16 bit game conoles the name was changed to Shin Megami Tensei.  There is a lot of arguing over what games go in which category and seeing as I do not speak or read Japanese I’m good with any of the above.  Clear as mud?  Good.  So if you’re reading this then the series is Shin Megami Tensei since that is what it is published under in English and really none of what I just wrote matters unless you can read Japanese.  Now maybe you’ll get it when I tell you that MegaTen is also a common nicname for the series.

And MegaTen is a series by the way.  Its been around a LONG time.  Well, longer than the PS2.  The first MegaTen game was released in 1987 for the computer and is titled Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei.  The game is based on a novel by the same name.  While we have only received maybe a dozen MegaTen games in English, there are closer to 50 released in Japan.  The first MegaTen game that was released States side was Shin Megami Tensei: Persona: Revelations, which was a modified version of the first Persona game.  It was recently released on PSP simply as Persona and the PSP version is a direct port with a new translation.  Persona Revelations had some funny and racist transitions over to the states.  One character was turned black and made to speak in a certain fashion for instance.

Shin Megami Tensei seems to be the socially accepted name of the primary series.  Nocturne is the third game in the primary series.  The games are related about as much as one Final Fantasy is related to another.  That is, none at all except for similar themes and game mechanics.  The first Shin Megami Tensei was released for the Famicom in 1992 and has never been released in English.

Okay so onto Nocturne!

The story in Nocturne is a bit abstract in how you interact with it.  Your main character is turned into basically a half-demon to survive the end of the world.  When he wakes up, the world is an inverted sphere and covered in demons and other races.  There are around a dozen or so primary NPC’s that you will interact with throughout the course of the game, all with their own goals and motives.  It is up to the player who to side with if anyone.  Like most SMT games, the protagonist remains silent and only makes decisions during conversations that are left up to the player.  The game has 6 endings that all change depending on your choices.

There are two different variations in level style.  The first is the overworld map where the character is represented by a pointer.  This functions like the normal world map in any other game where you traverse to towns and dungeons except there are NPC’s available to talk to as well as the occasional treasure or fight.  The second is the third person perspective dungeon crawl, which is pretty self explanatory.  Note thought that the game recognizes a degree of time in the form of moon phases.  Chest contents and demon interactions will change depending on the phase of the moon and the moon changes phases in relation to movement in the dungeon.

The battle system is turn based.  The main party consists of your main character plus up to three demons.  Demons can be changed in the course of battle.  The battle system uses what is called the “Press Turn” system which was started in this game and used in some variation in pretty much every SMT game since.  Basically each character receives one turn icon per turn (there are ways to increase this).  Every time you score a critical hit either by chance or by hitting the enemy’s weakness, you get an extra turn.  Non-attack commands typically only use half a turn icon.  The enemy also gets the exact same benefits.  There is a list of around 10 elements that characters and enemies alike can have as weaknesses so there is a lot of planning ahead involved in winning any battle in this game.  There is also a series of minigame challenges present that involve beating certain enemies within so many turn icons.

The main character and demons all level up and have five stats.  Each stat can go up to 40 and each level you get to distribute the points for your main character.  Demon points are done automatically.  Skills are learned automatically by demons.  The main character learns skills by equipping magatama when leveling up.  Skills can also be transferred to demons through fusion.

The demon fusion system is the part of the game that is present in almost every MegaTen game.  Again, Nocturne has somewhere around 200 fusable demons.  Some demons you have to beat before you can use.  And during the first play through you can only fuse demons that are equal to or less than your main character’s level.  All the demons in the game are from folklore, classic novels, myths, and religions.  Yes this does mean you can have the angel Metatron in your party along with Beelzebub, Vishnu, Oberon, Thor, Loki, and Mot.  Demons can then be saved to the Demonic Compendium and used at a later date for a monetary trade.

On top of all this, you can talk to and recruit demons in mid-battle at any point!  Or you can trade for items or Macca (the currency).

The graphics in the game are stylized in such a fashion that they still hold up decently today.  They holds up so well in fact that the art style is still used in MegaTen releases such as Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.  The levels, mazes, puzzles, and demons you traverse and come across have such a distant look that they all add a ton of flavor to the game.

Whew!  That’s a lot of info.  The game is hardcore and brutal.  The boss battles are all fairly challenging.  While you could beat the game in 40 hours, its going to be a lot harder.  My time through was somewhere around 120 hours if I remember correctly.  If I started the game now I would have a difficult time finishing it.

So one last nugget for you.  Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne was originally released in Japan minus quite a few features and quite a bit harder.  It was later re-released as the Maniacs edition.  Basically they added quite a few features and made the normal mode the hard mode if that tells you anything.  The Maniacs edition is the English edition.  They also randomly paid Capcom and included Dante from Devil May Cry in it as a recruit-able character.

So is there anything I don’t like about that game?  My biggest complaint is that once you learn a skill for the main character, you lose whatever skill it replaces permanently.  This has been changed in pretty much all the later MegaTen entries.  I think for a lot of people they couldn’t get into the game because the story isn’t prominent and there is no voice acting.  There’s a lot of lore to the world created in Nocturne but you won’t know that unless you explore and talk to everyone.  Personally, I loved that aspect of it especially since the story is so good.  But the story is impersonal.  Its more about the world and the prominent figures in the world than your character.  While ultimately your character will shape the world and everyone is after him in some fashion, it never feels like its about you.  Which again, is something I quite enjoyed but I don’t expect the average audience member to enjoy.

Now I’ve written too much and all over my lunch break.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and I will post more reviews on my favorite games as time goes on.

Also a great article on the Megami Tensei series:

http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/megaten/megaten.htm

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About MusiM
Musician, writer, Gundam model hobbyist, video game lover, host of The Carousel Podcast, and all with a day job.

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