Shin Megami Tensei is, at its heart, a classic rpg: turn based, menu driven battles with items to use and MP for casing spells, a world map you travel around and dungeons to explore with random battles and far spaced out save points and no journal system...etc. But then you get into the heart of the games and you realize that Shin Megami Tensei is special. Well among the titles in the series, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne is special.
Nocturne is, in many ways, a traditional RPG: Menu-driven battle system, running around dungeon maps, navigating a big world map, dialog boxes, save points...the works. But then the flavor seeps in and you get the full Shin Megami Tensei (henceforth, SMT) experience: Monster collecting, cross breeding, talking and fighting all come together to support a brutally tough battle system. The thing is, I've never beaten Nocturne...and maybe someday I will (read: LIES), but that didn't matter when I decided that Nocturne will always be in my possession.
So Nocturne was technically my 2nd game in the SMT series, the first being Digital Devil Saga, a 2005 entry in the series. Nocturne was the year before, and had just passed by me somehow. It wasn't until Otakon 2009 when my friend Andrew suggested I pick it up if I see it. I hadn't even remembered playing Digital Devil Saga at that point. When I got into the con I stumbled across the game at a used game booth. I was only somewhat prepared to drop the 60 bucks I spent on it...but I felt relieved when I got accolades from nearby shoppers. "Good buy, man...game f*ckin rules." and so on. I returned home triumphant and gave the game a spin with my best pal Mike. "This game is hard!" he warns. "I've spent so many hours!" he says. Ignoring his warnings, I press on. I couldn't tell you how far I made it in the game though, because my progress came to a screeching halt when I met this ghastly and fashionable figure:
And it was because of Skull Matador that I realized this game may just be a few levels above my pay grade...
Ready for some nerdy logic? Here's a good one: Nocturne is to Shin Megami Tensei what 2.0 is to Dungeons and Dragons. It's a point in the series where there was a high point, a spike in the price of entry that everyone remembers well. Lovingly, even. THACO players will swear up and down that it was the real adventurer's D&D, and SMT players look at the lessons Nocturne taught the series and thank it for being such a freakishly brutal experience. There's a spell (Hama) that has a chance to just kill you. Save points are spread out. Sometimes a second wave of monsters appears right after the first one and you have no health left and you don't have time to summon the next wave and they use your weakness and you buy the farm. And if that isn't enough, Dante (of Devil May Cry) just shows up right in the middle of the game and starts schooling on you. Damn. The battle system lacks the little touches that later games in the series give you out of the gate (Free Analyzing, Team mates stepping in to take insta-kills for you...). It demands attention to items, ingesting the right Magatama for the right occasion, a powerful memory for all the weaknesses and strengths of the various demons you'll be slinging around the post-apocalypse.
But here's the icing on the demonic cake: It's beautiful in every way. Nocturne is eye candy with cel-shaded graphics; the genius behind SMT's monster design shines with each attack and animation. The soundtrack is a great blend of wandering ambient and rocking hardcore. There's no voice acting, but the sound effects from the monsters all fit the look and feel, and the general feeling you get is that every inch of Nocturne was designed with love. It's a rare feeling. SMT in general tends to maintain that feeling through all of their games, and the art direction of Nocturne immerses the player in the situation of the game: It's just after the end of the world...and everything's gone to hell.
Nocturne is an RPG worthy of anyone who calls themselves an RPG fan. It's a tough as nails, but worth the journey ride through an imaginative world, with true danger lurking around every corner. This blog was inspired by my friend Cary Zhang borrowing the game to play for class. He's a big fan of the Persona series from SMT, and immediately latched onto Nocturne (clocking some impressive hours). He had some really great things to say about SMT as a whole, (which we recorded here), but he agreed with me: Nocturne is a challenge. Climb this mountain and you'll feel like a king.
[Pictures from hardcoregaming101.net, video from YouTube]