For years, one of Japan's great series of role playing games was almost completely unknown in the West. The Megami Tensei
series began on Nintendo's Famicom; the first one was an adaptation of a popular trilogy of horror novels of the time, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei
by Aya Nishitani. A sequel unrelated to the novel was then developed and released. When the Super Famicom released, Atlus was gearing up to develop a new game in the series, but there was no more source material to draw from. Nishitani worked with Atlus on a completely new story in the same universe, and it took on the Shin Megami Tensei
moniker. These early games stayed locked up in Japan, due to Nintendo of America's vehement censorship of anything and everything religious. A game where you talk to literal demons from various global mythologies, recruit them, and use them as your party members never had a chance of being released outside of Japan. Western gamers did not even see the Shin Megami Tensei
name on a game until the Playstation 2 had been out for a few years. The third game in the main series finally released in 2003 in Japan, and it followed in 2004 in Western markets. Atlus has been toying around in the shadows for decades.Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
starts with a bang! After seeing a strange vision from his teacher, that calls herself 'The Maiden', the player is able to explore a small bit of Tokyo while learning about occult activity in a nearby abandoned hospital, the Shinjuku Medical Center, from a mysterious man named Hijiri. Given that the player and his group of friends are into occult activity, they decide to investigate the hospital. The player makes his way to the basement, where he meets a powerful businessman named Hikawa, who seems ready to kill him before his teacher intervenes. After that, the player makes his way to the roof with his teacher, where the game truly begins in an apocalyptic fashion. The Conception happens, with Tokyo being ripped apart and folding in upon itself, taking on a shape similar to an egg ready for fertilization. The player is knocked out from the events, but has a strange dream where a little boy and an old woman plant a strange creature inside him that gives him demonic powers. The player has become the Demi-Fiend.
After these events, the Demi-Fiend starts his journey in the Vortex World by leaving the hospital, and is introduced to the basic mechanics of the game on the way. The main means of progression in the game involves talking to demons, recruiting them, and then fusing them into better demons. Not all demons can be recruited by speaking to them, but these can be frightened and coerced into joining as a result of random events in battle. A small, handful of humans survive the Conception: the Demi-Fiend's friends, his teacher, Hikawa, and Hijiri; they all make it through this event and begin to explore the Vortex World of their own accord. The rest of the inhabitants of this new world are either demons, or Manikin, human-like beings created by demons for slave labor and food. A feeling of isolation quickly seeps into the atmosphere, as even areas that resemble the traditional towns in other RPGs are swarming with enemies and battles.
The atmosphere of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
is brought together by a combination of the cel-shaded, but still grounded and more realistic design of characters and the music. If video games can be directly compared to albums, then Nocturne is the Led Zeppelin IV of video games. Shoji Meguro drew upon the old demonic controversy against early, heavily blues inspired Rock and Roll and Rockabilly, with the added distortion of later acts. Some other inspirations fill out the soundtrack, including plenty of Gothic inspired organ work. The rest of the industry seemed to more openly embrace sweeping orchestral movements with its musical design, while the sound team at Atlus decided to rock out as hard as they could.
The combat in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
is the Turn Press system, and it's been the base of the modern combat design of the series and its spinoffs, if not the outright combat system. Getting critical hits and exploiting enemy weakness earns extra turns. The player is punished for a failed attack and other effects. There is a limit of four turns, and these extra turns flash in the corner of the battle screen, and cannot be replenished. Balance is achieved through the complex web of buffs and debuffs, on top of the various, different elemental affinities present throughout the game's vast cast of demons. The player needs to stay on their toes to achieve long term success, and even success in the short term . A familiar obstacle in the form of a powerful, early boss is present, as dancing past the Matador will unlock the game's full scope. The player may even find the ability to fuse a Matador of their own if they have the right demons, and visit the Cathedral during the correct moon phases. These phases also determine the general random battle chance, since the demons are more aggressive during a full moon.
Like most Atlus games, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
ends up becoming quite a long journey, and there were some growing pains when the company worked with creating a large, 3D world for an epic like Nocturne. The pacing in the beginning of the game feels fine, but as dungeons get bigger, longer, and more difficult, the pacing between bits of story drags out. As the dungeons get longer, they gain added features, and puzzles become the norm throughout many of them. The early ones mostly involve running to the end and fighting the boss, but the latter puzzles add a degree of depth to keep the player engaged with exploration. The amount of new information revealed between dungeons and areas of exploration stays relatively constant throughout the game, so it keeps the feeling of following bread crumbs through the entire story. Each new development does make sense in the grand scale of the world, and there are plenty of smaller stories to follow while the Demi-Fiend works out just what the world actually is now, and what he can do about it.Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
holds up incredibly well, and remains a unique experience that is hard to deny. Nocturne was released as one of the PS2 Classics for the Playstation 3, and a late reprint dropped the price of a physical version for its original system. However, it's not always seen on local store shelves. Its price is around $15 for a complete physical copy, and its digital price of $10 is a little less for owners of the Playstation 3. Given the amount of time a single playthrough will take, this is both a much deeper time investment than a financial one, and it makes the ending much sweeter to attain.