Right from the beginning, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne dispenses with one major RPG cliché [team of youth band together to save the world]. Within 40 minutes of starting the game, the world as we know it has ended. The protagonist, by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, is one of only a few humans who survive the Conception; however, he has become a partial demon, and can
now 'ingest' what is called Magatama, the sourceof magical power. Tokyo is still Tokyo, except that now there are only scattered buildings, vast
wastelands, and of course hordes of demons roaming the city. Since the world we're familiar with has ended, what does a lone human in a demon-occupied wasteland do? Well, that's up to you--as you play the game, decisions you make in the game will either cause the human world to be Reborn in some form, or obliterated.
If you're the only human in Tokyo, how can you survive? This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the Megami Tensei series. Rather than beginning the game with a set of characters, leveling them up and possibly occasionally switching characters as the storyline unfolds, as you encounter demons in random or fixed battles, you can choose to Negotiate with them. Negotiating with a demon could result in their attacking you, their giving you items/money or requesting same from you, or their joining your party. Many demons, once they join your party, can also Negotiate with demons, and depending on who's doing the negotiating with which enemy,
your results may vary. The demons responses generally have a great deal of personality, and are more 'lifelike' and realistic than many of the human NPC's in standard RPG's. More than once I found myself chuckling or taken aback by a demon's response. Negotiating with demons can be a way to
increase or better your party [which consists of up to 4 active members including 'you', with up to 12 total members], gain items or money, or simply avoid a fight [a lifesaver in those long dungeons].
Once you get the demons in your party, you can 'mix and match' them using special game zones called Cathedrals, and a technique called Fusion. When fusing demons, you combine two or three demons in the hopes of getting a stronger/better/more useful demon. Using fusion,you can create demons you could not convince to join your party, or create demons that have skills they wouldn't normally be able to get. Since there are about 178 different
demons, some having different evolutionary paths and 'rank up' identities, you will be doing a lot of fusion and negotiation to experience even half
of them. The fusion interface is incredibly user-friendly and intuitive, giving you the opportunity to see exactly what you would be getting before confirming, and trying another combination is as simple as hitting Cancel a
couple times. In Nocturne the other members of your party are tools to an extent, to be used, shaped, fused, and mutated as you need. This aspect of the game requires a mental shift
on the part of the player; with the exception of one demon you should keep and attempt to level up, if you form any long lasting attachment to a
specific demon/party member, you will be missing out on new fusible demons and new, useful skills. However, not far into the game you gain access to
the Demonic Compendium, which allows you to record the current status of every demon you have, so you can buy another copy of that demon as needed.
Due to this 'collecting' aspect, along with the Compendium which shows how many demons you 'know', there have been comparisons to the other
'collecting' type games, most notable Pokemon. I'll admit, I have never played a Pokemon game. But from what I've seen, the similarity ends with
the concept of 'collecting'. Nocturne's demons are taken from Japanese and worldwide mythology and legends; they each have a distinct personality [one male demon I negotiated with tried to put the make on one of my female demons] and skill set, and since Fusion will allow you virtually unlimited customization with regards to demons and skill sets, it is a major component of the game. The demons are not cutesy, single-purpose avatars.
Graphically, Nocturne definitely will not compete with any of the interactive movies that generally fill up the RPG shelf. There are no CGI cut scenes, there are only intermittent, brief story scenes, and those along with the in-game graphics are animated in an almost cel-shaded
style. But Nocturne's graphics are still very attention getting. Certain areas, such as when you're exploring what used to be an office building, are very sparse, with nothing to catch your eye other than random boxes or shelving units, and nothing to interact with except doors, treasure chests, and switches. However, since this is a demon-occupied post-apocalypse
Japan, there are many areas that are truly bizarre and unique, along with NPCs that are just slightly 'odd' [the living manikins, for instance, while
possessing a human form, have enough of a 'puppet' animation to them to be disturbing.]
The demons you encounter range from awe-inspiring to frightening to just the plain bizarre, and may inspire you to explore some of the myths from which they are derived. One thing's for sure, they didn't get to 178 demons just by performing some color palette swaps. The variety of demons is a
definite motivation to attempt to register ['collect'] each demon.
Aurally, Nocturne stands out as well. Rather than being classical, orchestral type music, the music varies from operatic and haunting organ themes, to hard rock/power metal guitar tunes during battles. While you're exploring an area, the music takes more of a back seat, only to come rocking in when you encounter an enemy. The graphics, sound effects, NPC's, and music come together in really creating a Dali-esque atmosphere throughout the game. [As a bonus, the first printing of the game comes with a soundtrack CD packed in; check the lower part of the back of the game case to see if they're still available.]
Combat is an integral part of any RPG, and I believe Nocturne offers one of the best combat systems I have ever played. First, when you encounter a demon, there is very little load time [this is true throughout the game, actually]—the screen changes from the third person dungeon explorer view to a more typical RPG combat screen, the enemy demons appear in a flash of lightning, and you're on. Combat is turn based, with a twist; it offers the “Press Turn system”, which is very flexible, but stated simply, it offers you one turn per party member, giving you bonus turns if you perform a Critical hit or attack an enemy's weak point, taking away turns if you
attack using something they're resistant to, and counting a character's “Pass” as ½ turn. The same, of course, applies to your enemies. No longer will merely power-leveling and hitting Attack get you through the game. If you're ten levels above an enemy, and he hits you with something you're weak to, you might be seeing that dreaded Game Over screen [your demons can
die, but if 'you' die, Game Over]. The Press Turn system, combined with the variety of element or status based attacks/defenses, makes it essential
to know your party and know your enemy in almost every battle.
Each demon has access to a physical attack, and up to 8 Skills. Some of these skills will be familiar to any RPGer [things like Ice Breath or Dia, which is a heal spell], and others are unique to Nocturne [such as Bright Might, which causes every physical attack to be Critical 1/8 of the
time]. Skills can be latent, or use Magic Points or Hit Points, and can do direct element-based damage, heal, or cause status changes both pro and
con. This is the first game in a long time where I have actually found a benefit in using status-change spells/skills. These issues come together so that Nocturne is also the only RPG in a long time in which I have died more than once and not just due to some stupid error; I believe I have died 5 times in less than 13 hours of gameplay. But unlike many other RPG deaths, they aren't cheap deaths—every one of them I could have survived without leveling up, had I played it correctly.
The general flow of gameplay is similar to many other RPGs: enter an area, explore it, deal with the demons via battle or negotiation, fight a boss, and try to explore the world while making decisions that can affect the rebirth of the world. But Nocturne tweaks that formula so much, with its unique music and graphical style, Press Turn battle system, the huge amount of wildly
diverse demons who populate the after-world, the Negotiating aspect, the Fusion of demons [which could be a game in itself], and of course its core
concept [what happens *after* the world ends?], that if you are looking for something different, you should definitely give Nocturne a try. I will
admit, it's likely to be a 'cult hit' and not get the mainstream appeal it deserves, due to its mature subject matter [you are a demon, who may or may not revitalize the human world], at-times mature dialog [we are dealing with demons, after all], its lack of CGI or voiceacting [personally, I think VA would have ruined the atmosphere], and the necessity of collecting at least some demons and changing your party configuration, but I think
Nocturne has a lot to offer an RPG'er who's ready for something a little out of the ordinary, and especially one who has a bit of the 'collector'
mentality and likes to use some strategy in his turn-based RPG.
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