Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Imagine, if you will, a typical life in the thriving Tokyo metropolis. Accompanied by several of his friends, an average high school student decides to visit a teacher in the hospital. Along the way, he encounters a reporter who presents him with a mysterious magazine on the occult. The tabloid sparks interest in one of his friends, who proceeds to examine the articles further. Upon their arrival, they find the hospital completely vacant; patients and doctors alike are no where to be found, and their teacher is missing as well. To the students, it seems as if the prophecies in the magazine have begun to manifest before their very eyes. The hero rushes to the hospital roof where he solemnly witnesses the destruction of the world.
Fortunately, a mysterious power grants him the ability to survive the seemingly absolute devastation. Opening his eyes, he finds himself in the presence of an ominously stoic child and an old woman wearing a veiled mourning dress. They insert a bug into his eye, tearing at his flesh and drowning his vision in blood. The hero slips out of consciousness and reawakens in an alternate world known as the Dysen Sphere, the dry and inverted husk of that which once blossomed with life. At the center of this world is Kagutsuchi, an immense sun-like entity which is prophesized to give birth to a new earth once properly fertilized with a particular ‘kotowari,’ or philosophy of life. The chosen kotowari will serve as the foundation for a paradigm by which all life and forms of existence in the new world shall be governed. Various factions have emerged, each representing an individual kotowari, in an attempt to gain sovereignty over Kagutsuchi. To the hero’s amazement, these factions are comprised of demons Ð and as he observes his body pulsate with a deep neon blue aura, the protagonist begins to realize that he has become a demon as well.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne presents the player with an array of ethical dilemmas in selecting the kotowari which best suits his or her beliefs. The ‘Yosuga’ attempt to seduce the protagonist with Social Darwinism; under their philosophy, those who are strong will survive, while the weak will find no home in the new world. The ‘Shijima’ believe in a harmonious existence based on principles of Buddhism; the world will be veiled in silence as mankind serves to provide for the earth, rather than take from it. The ‘Musubi’ present an isolationist philosophy through which each person will exist within his own individual paradise, a safe haven from the outside world. If the player finds himself unattracted to the kotowari, he also has the option of remaining neutral and seeking out his own path. Every decision made in the world of Nocturne will inevitably sway the protagonist back and forth between the various philosophies and ultimately determines which of the game’s multiple endings is received.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne features the Press-Turn Battle System, a modified version of traditional turn-based combat. In this system, players and enemies alike are rewarded with extra turns for exploiting the weaknesses of the opponents. Casting a fire-based spell on an ice-based enemy, for instance, will result in an extra opportunity to attack. These bonus turns are finite in number, however, which keeps combat balanced at all times. Likewise, executing an attack which a particular enemy has a resistance to will result in the player being penalized. For such careless mistakes, Nocturne is less merciful; not only will the enemy deflect or regain health from the attack, the player will lose all of his remaining turns for the round. In addition to meticulous tactical planning, it quickly becomes important to maintain a balanced party in order to succeed.
The player’s party consists of only one ‘human’ character Ð the hero. It is his responsibility to recruit and train demons to fight alongside him in battle. This is usually accomplished by talking to enemies, rather than killing them. Demons will frequently interrogate the player or request monetary bribes in exchange for their services. Once recruited, demons function as a full-fledged member of the party; they are able to gain levels, use a variety of skills, and improve their arsenal of attacks. Only three demons are able to fight alongside the protagonist at any given time, although they may be swapped out for one another mid-battle if the need arises. Finally, two demons are able to be synthesized together in order to form a completely new ally based on the level, skills, and race of those which comprise it. ‘Sacrifice Fusions’ are possible on a full moon, in which a third demon is sacrificed in order to power up the initial combination. Furthermore, the majority of Nocturne’s demons are derived from a multitude of mythological sources; a wide spectrum of allies is represented, from Baphomet and Beelzebub to Titania and Dionysus. With several hundred of these demons available, many of which are only obtainable through advanced fusion techniques, the player can spend hours and hours experimenting with this unique and engaging system of party management.
On the other hand, the hero is only able to improve his battle prowess through the ‘Magatama,’ a system not unlike Final Fantasy VI’s Espers. Each Magatama, a sentient being which exists within the protagonist, provides particular stat bonuses and abilities when equipped. Upon leveling up, they also reward the hero with new skills depending on his level. There are eight available slots for skills, and once they have been filled, it is necessary that the player overwrite a previously learned ability in order to gain access to a new one. Unfortunately, once a skill is discarded, it is lost forever; therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the player make intelligent decisions regarding the skills which he decides to keep. A seemingly mediocre ability could become infinitely more useful as you proceed through the game.
As expected, dungeon exploration in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is an equally rewarding, albeit challenging endeavor. Each area features unique puzzles which are sure to keep the most astute gamers occupied, while the addition of a freely rotating 3D camera makes navigating a pleasure. Casual gamers, however, are advised to take note that Nocturne offers a significantly greater challenge than your average RPG. Dungeons are long, bosses are menacing, and the random encounter rate is typically high. Enemies exhibit a fetish for surprisingly effective instant death attacks, and there are very few ‘safe spots’ free from combat; the player will engage in battles throughout town areas as well as dungeons. For some gamers, these obstacles will serve to sweeten the nectar of triumph, while others may become easily discouraged and frustrated with the seemingly cheap tactics employed by some of Nocturne’s nastier foes.
Although screenshots speak louder than words, Atlus has managed to deliver absolutely incredible artwork, character designs, and environments. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne utilizes a truly avant-garde cel shading technique to breathe life into the Vortex World. Every character animates with superb fluidity and gorgeous lightning effects serve to flesh out the psychedelic, new-age designs of the various locales to be explored. Musically speaking, Nocturne’s OST surpasses all expectations; the sheer variety and originality in composition to be found here is simply breathtaking. There are a multitude of battle themes brimming with energy; in particular, the final boss music is more reminiscent of something to be found in Sega’s Rez rather than a traditional RPG.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is a rare title that manages to do most everything right. Gamers who have been craving a dark, mature RPG experience will find satiation this fall when Nocturne is released stateside.