Reviewed: January 7, 2005
Released: October 14, 2004
There is much to be said for Japan’s ability to turn just about anything into a fine art. I give credit to the wonder that is Japan for its fascinating ability to do this, even when it comes to video games. A popular argument I’ve heard that denies the very idea of video games as an art form, is that this particular medium started out with Pong; that it is, always has been, and always will be, a form of simple entertainment. I always tell these people to play a good RPG game, usually something from the Final Fantasy series. Then I see if they still snub their noses at such a notion of video games surpassing their early days of Pac-Man and Pitfall into something that can truly be art.
Even visual art, such as painting and sculpting, started out as a means of communication. It morphed over the centuries into something that can really touch human emotion, as well as spark further inspiration. With an RPG, a good one that is, you have many of the same components that make up an excellent written story - a game that can do just what art does, in a way. There’s character development, plotlines, imagination, and innovation in this genre in particular. This is the main reason that I am such a fan of RPG’s.
This said, I’m always excited to see what new RPG’s I can get my hands on. The most recent title, coming straight from Japan of course, is Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Does it measure up to my expectations for this genre as many have in the past? I am pleased to say that, yes; Shin Megami Tensei has carried the torch quite gracefully. It also is, as good video games (no matter how artfully done) have to be, a blast to play.
The storyline of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a dark and mature one. I enjoyed the creepy and often heavy themes that this game had to offer. On one hand, there’s horror, fantasy and sci-fi elements, with an emphasis on world mythologies. On the other, there’s human drama, some comedy, and plenty of action, which makes for a nice mix and a fascinating story that is a lot of fun to play. In Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, you will be controlling the protagonist, a young boy from Tokyo, about 15 to 16 years of age, whose name is up to you to decide.
The beginning of the game is a bit mysterious, but the basics are that your character arrives in the Yoyogi district of Tokyo and in passing, investigates a nearby park in which several people had been killed that day in a supposed riot. You meet a journalist there, who speaks of two opposing cults being responsible for the deaths, as well as informing you of an idea one of the cults believes in called the Conception, an impending event in which the world will be born again. You shrug it off, take a magazine about the occult from him, and head off to meet your friends and a teacher at a hospital (Why? Well, that unfolds during the game, so I’ll leave it for you to find out.).
When you get there, some of your party is missing, and to top it all off the hospital is creepy, and strangely empty. All hell breaks loose, as the Conception proceeds to take place, and more mystery is added to the mix when your character is spared while the rest of the world outside of the hospital is not. Your character is then turned into a demon, a demon who is supposed to hold great importance now that the world as we know it has been erased from existence, and a new one begun. And it gets stranger; believe me.
The battle system in Nocturne is pretty standard turn-based stuff. There are four elements which oppose and balance each other, as well as holy and unholy spells, status ailments and so on. I don’t mind the simplicity of this, as I think that this game has a lot to offer, and would make for a great introduction to RPG’s. Even those of us that are familiar with the genre should have a blast, considering there is still a lot of innovation. For example, some of the status ailments are pretty inventive, including Panic, an ailment that causes affected characters to either stand around looking dumbfounded, or freak out and drop money all over the battlefield.
The ins and outs of battling are simple enough to figure out, but still have some hidden depth to them. For instance, each side gets a number of actions each turn equal to the number of characters in their party (up to four can be in yours). Passing on an action only spends half of that action, effectively giving an extra turn as a trade-off. Performing a critical hit or exploiting an enemy’s weakness also drains only half a gauge. On the other hand, missing an attack or attacking a character with a skill that is useless against it eats up two whole actions. These rules apply to enemies and allies alike. And the stronger a skill is, the more likely it is to miss, generally speaking. It makes for interesting, dynamic battles that don’t bog down in the complex micromanagement of many RPG’s, something that a lot of casual gamers should be able to appreciate. It’s also got enough depth to keep true RPG fans happy.
Probably one of the best aspects of this game is the ability to recruit demons by talking to them in the heat of battle. (The word “demon“ is used here in the Japanese sense; that is, it is a term to describe any powerful, sentient, non-human being, whether good, evil or otherwise. Angels are even considered demons for the purposes of this game.) In fact, recruitment is one of the only ways to get any characters in your party at all - there are no unique player characters in Nocturne, at least not in the traditional sense.
However, there are a huge number of demons to recruit. Some will join your party for a price, others will ask you questions that you have to answer correctly, some will take a liking to you and join without your consent, and others can only be convinced to join by certain demons. It is a lot of fun to try to figure out new strategies for recruiting more stubborn enemies, and makes fighting in a new area all the more exciting when you can’t wait to see who you can recruit next. Each demon you recruit will have different stats, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, so it’s easy to get a variety in your party. Be warned about fairies and sprites, though. Those little jerks will ask for item after item and then leave you in the dust. Cute little bastards, anyway.
Of course, as with all RPG’s, that is just the tip of the iceberg. As your party levels up, your demons will learn various inherent skills and also raise their statistics, but after a certain point, a given demon will have no more skills to learn. At that point (or heck, at any point, really), it’s time to take the game’s demon fusion system for a spin. At special facilities called the Cathedral of Shadows, you can bring any of your recruited demons before an altar and fuse them together to create an entirely new demon, usually with substantial stat and level boosts. Some of the old demons’ abilities are also carried over during the fusion, and everything can be viewed before the fusion takes place. That way, not only do you know exactly what you’ll get, you can also keep queuing up your demons until the new demon gets the transferred abilities you want it to have.
A simple level cap system keeps players from somehow fusing a level 30 demon when the main character is still on level 8: demons with a higher starting level than the main character’s current level can be viewed, but not created. This definitely makes for some anticipation between leveling up and boss battles. (Psssst…speaking of boss battles, at one point, there is a certain demon hunter clad in red that all you gamers are sure to recognize from another game. Level up…A LOT.)
And the main character? Unlike other demons, he can’t be fused with anything or anyone, ever. Instead, he levels up much faster than other demons, and he uses objects called Magatama. Magatama are creepy insect thingies that look a lot like the tracker bug in Neo’s stomach from The Matrix. Various magatama impart various strengths and weaknesses, as well as various stat modifiers.
For example, one might null ice attacks but make the hero weak against fire, and raise his magic and agility while equipped. Magatama also impart skills related to their type (the ice Magatama imparts ice spells, and so on), and can be found in all sorts of places. Some are given to you, and many can be bought. It’s fun to see what magatama you’ll find next, and what abilities each one can teach. They are sort of like weapons and armor, only, in my opinion, better. While stats change between different magatamas, once you learn an ability that that particular magatama has to offer, those abilities stay with you, even when you switch to another. I cannot tell you how useful this was, and how delightfully simple.
I’m so used to titles like Final Fantasy, that when I play video games of such a serious caliber, I expect to see realistic looking characters, with a whimsical and fantastic edge. Of course, that doesn’t mean that more fantasy and less realism is any less a sight to behold. In Nocturne, the character designs are very much anime inspired. Human and humanoid characters have strikingly large eyes, hair that defies reality, and a generally sleek and smooth appearance. The more whimsical characters have a heavy emphasis on traditional eastern and western beasts of folklore: A levitating fox demon, adorable sprites and spirits, unicorns, elementals and demi-humans.
I found myself eagerly fusing demons and being excited to see what crazy character design this game could come up with next. There is a lot of variety in character designs, and even the silliest of designs (every RPG has to have a blob-like enemy of some sort. It’s a cosmic rule) are fun. As for our nameless hero, once he becomes a demon, his eyes glow shades of red, and his body is covered in glowing black and green tribal tattoos, making even this scrawny 15 year old kid look like a force to be reckoned with.
The overall quality of the graphics in Nocturne is really quite impressive as well. Cel shading over high quality 3-D models makes for a unique and vibrant world that is a lot of fun to play in. Everything is crisp, clear, and impressively detailed. Characters move differently from each other, cloth flows in the wind, and facial expressions vary to make for a great deal of individuality. If your character has low hit points or suffers from a status ailment, he clutches his chest and staggers slowly, even on the map, until healed. The amount of variety and detail that went into Nocturne is truly impressive, and really does boost the level of enjoyment that comes from playing it.
My only complaints in the graphics department are minor, and mostly come down to a matter of personal taste. For example, on the world map, your character is nothing more than a small arrow on a static overview of the landscape. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the simplicity of this, but it would have been neat (and normal) to see a smaller version of your character running about on the map instead, going from destination to destination. Or perhaps a more detailed and well designed map to explore, at the least. Still, turning the main character into an arrow on the lackluster world map is excusable when considering the high quality of the graphics in most of the rest of the game.
There’s a notable lack of interesting backgrounds in some of the areas that you will explore as well. They’re detailed and nicely done, but there are usually a lot, and I mean a lot of areas where everything looks more or less the same, and there are a million doors to explore behind. If I can give you any advice when playing Nocturne, here it is: Use your map. If you’re like me, and you get hopelessly lost often due to a poor sense of direction, the map command is a must. Other than that, it’s easy to enjoy how fun this game is to look at and explore.
Okay, complaint time. Voice acting. Where the hell is it? I know, I’m spoiled and have gotten used to the magic of hearing video game characters with voices to give them more personality, and there are plenty of games before this became the standard that are excellent, though the characters are silent. Still, many of the characters in this game are just begging to be given a voice, and that simply is not what happened. Sure, your fairies giggle, your brutes grunt, and so on, but there is no real speaking in Nocturne. It doesn’t take too much away from the game, but it’s obvious that the characters have a lot of personality. A little bit of voice acting could have made that personality all the more vibrant.
The best thing about the sound is the music. I especially enjoyed the battle music. It consists of synthesized piano and rock guitar music, with some synthesized guy yelling in the background, heavy metal style. It’s a bit odd, definitely silly, yet does its job in psyching you up for battle. The rest of the music in Nocturne is a mix of metal riffs and traditional, more ambient music, which is dramatic, yet sort of fades into the background for the purpose of creating a mood. It works well quite well.
For what this game lacks in the department of voice acting, it makes up for in sound effects. Demons make their own little noises in battle, which range from chilling to charming, cool to downright funny. There is of course, nothing wrong with that, and I guess that one could argue that the lack of voice acting gives it a slight old school charm. Again, I suppose it comes down to taste.
The value of Nocturne is yet another area in which this game shines. Depending on what you do in the game there are different endings. Since this game is so high in quality and such a blast to play, playing through again and seeing the different endings should be quite an exciting aspect to this game. With so many variations in recruiting and fusing demons, acquiring new skills, and returning to all the places you missed the first time around, Nocturne’s value runs very high. This is a game in which you will get your money’s worth, guaranteed.
Shin Megami Tensei is an impressive game, both for its genre, and for a video game itself. I stand firm in my belief that video games can be great pieces of art, and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne only affirms that belief. With an imaginative story, characters rich in personality, a beautiful design, and an impressive array of themes to explore, this game shines in a genre that already knows how to make video games the best they can be. I can’t recommend it enough.