Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne


Review by · February 20, 2005

I think it’s safe to say that among the population of gamers, RPG fans are likely the pickiest of the bunch. Ever since RPGs rose above their humble beginnings of character-building stat-fests and bare-bones plotlines into more cinematic experiences with deep, complex storytelling and heightened production values, RPG fans are constantly searching for something different; something unique or revolutionary. There are many cookie-cutter RPGs out there, many of which claim to bring something different to the table, but end up being the same-old same-old to jaded RPG fans.

Enter the Shin Megami Tensei series, Atlus’ flagship subseries in their umbrella “Megami Tensei” series- which includes other series such as Persona, Demi-Kids (Devil Children), Devil Summoner, and others. Since 1987, this RPG series has marched to the beat of a different drummer and is easily one of the most prolific RPG series in Japan. Instead of sword-and-sorcery medieval fantasy worlds, the majority of Megami Tensei games take place in modern or post modern settings. The series also allows players to talk to their enemies and entice them to join their party, either as demons themselves (Shin Megami Tensei, Devil Summoner) or as summon spirits (Persona.) Some of these ideas, such as collecting demons for your party and storing them in a computer, have even found their way into other RPGs such as Pokémon.

The US has seen very few games in the Megami Tensei series. The Persona and Demi-Kids subseries are probably the most well-known among US gamers and even then, the series is still very much an underground cult series. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is the first game in the Shin Megami Tensei subseries to see a US release. While this game is Shin Megami Tensei 3, it’s actually the fourth game in that series, which includes Shin Megami Tensei, Shin Megami Tensei 2, and Shin Megami Tensei If… ; If… is a gaiden of sorts and a spiritual prequel to Persona (the heroine of If… makes a cameo as Tamaki/Tammy in Persona.) The version of Nocturne we US gamers got is the updated “Director’s Cut” Maniacs version which features a cameo from Devil May Cry’s Dante, revamped difficulty levels, a massive optional dungeon that helps make sense of the overall plot, and a sixth ending.

So enough about all that, let’s get on with talking about the game at hand. I will say right off the bat that even though this game comes from the same umbrella series as Persona it is a wholly different animal. The Persona series (particularly the Persona 2 games) appeals more universally to RPG fans because it features more character drama, character growth/development, character interaction, and generally a more fleshed out cast of human characters who are the thrust of the storyline. Shin Megami Tensei, on the other hand, is a series that really doesn’t have much in terms of character drama or anything like that. Instead, the setting and the world around you is the main character and its development is the thrust of the story. Scenes such as death scenes, which would normally be poignant and dramatic in most RPGs (Persona included,) are handled quite nonchalantly in Shin Megami Tensei since as sucky as the death of someone close may be, it’s meaningless in the greater, more global scheme of things. Such a perspective is one that you don’t see every day in RPGs and takes some getting used to. Even I needed to get used to it. There are also times when events happen that seem major, but wind up being insignificant in the greater scheme of things. While there is a form of closure on these events, they still remain mysteries we’ll never know. Such things are difficult to accept in fantasy worlds where everything seems to happen for a reason, but such is life… and Shin Megami Tensei.

Traditionally in a Shin Megami Tensei game, you explore not only the world, but the different ideologies within the world and which ending you receive is based on which ideology you go along with. While you are not the only agent of change in the world, you are the catalyst and it can be a lonely role to play. This game is no exception.

The game starts out with you, a male Japanese high school student, having a strange dream while riding a subway to Shinjuku. You are en route to the Shinjuku Hospital to visit your teacher, Takao-sensei. When you exit the train at Shinjuku, you find the district cordoned off. It seems there were some riots at Yoyogi Park where people were killed. There are even rumors that demons were present and there is mention of a man named Hikawa. At Yoyogi Park, you meet a journalist named Hijiri who gives you a copy of an occult magazine. Already late in meeting your friends Isamu and Chiaki, you high-tail it over to the hospital. You find Chiaki in the lobby but something is strange. There are no people in the hospital save Chiaki, you and Isamu- who’s looking for Takao-sensei. Chiaki seems interested in your magazine and decides to read it while you look for Isamu.

A short while later, you stumble into a hidden lair where Hikawa is doing some kind of dastardly deed. He’s about to kill you when Takao sensei comes in and saves your hide in the nick of time. She then tells you about “The Conception” where the current world is going to end and from the ashes a new one can be born. So the world ends and you wake up to a strange old woman and a child, whom you saw earlier in the hospital. The child force feeds you an insect-like thing called a Magatama (more on this later) and when you wake up, you’ve become half demon.

Welcome to the post-apocalyptic Vortex World- a fetal version of the world that still needs to develop before being fully reborn. Gone are the sprawling metropolises and in their stead is a vast expanse of desert with pockets of civilization. There are only a handful of humans in this fetal world: You (well, sort of), Isamu, Chiaki, Hikawa, Takao-sensei, and Hijiri. Although you find Hijiri in the room next to the one you woke up in, the other humans are nowhere to be found in the vicinity of the hospital (though you do meet up with them later on in the game.) The world is primarily populated by demons and the souls of departed humans. And at the heart of it all is you- a demon/human hybrid and the catalyst who will determine how the new world will be when it is born.

As you explore the world, you will be privy to the myriad ideologies of the various factions who wish for the new world to be on their terms. There is the faction who believe that might is right and that the strong and privileged should inherit the world. There is a faction that believes everyone should be as equal parts in a well-oiled machine, where everybody is at one with the world. Another one is very isolationist and believes each person should have a private little world of their own. No one faction is decidedly right or wrong and it is up to you to decide which one you like best. If you do not wish to follow any of the established factions, you can remain ‘neutral’ and carve out your own path. You are presented with many choices throughout the game, from the obviously major to the subtle. Some choices influence your alignment towards a particular ideology. Other choices question whether you are ruled more by your human half or your demonic half. All, however, require a surprising amount of thought; I don’t recall many (if any) that were “no brainers” since each faction makes highly convincing cases for their respective ideology. At the end of the day, it is truly up to you how the world will end up, and which of six endings you receive. It’s also up to you how much you choose to even learn about the many mysteries of the world you’re in. I like that the alignments in this game are less ‘push and pull’ than in previous SMT games. Moral ambiguity has always been a hallmark of the Shin Megami Tensei games, and this one certainly follows suit.

The only real caveat I have with the story is that I feel it thrusts you into the post-apocalyptic world much too quickly. In contrast, Shin Megami Tensei 1 didn’t pull the apocalypse on you till about 1/3 or so into the game. It let the events leading up to the apocalypse simmer and gave us a better sense of what was going on. In this case, I would have liked to explore the pre-Vortex world further and perhaps see the series of events that led Hikawa to want to perform the Conception and why Takao-sensei went along with him. Still, the sudden transition from familiar to strange does enhance the game’s immersive nature.

The game strikes a nice balance between linearity and freedom. A game like this cannot be too linear since a good portion of the storyline is up to you. However, a game that is too nonlinear can be overwhelming. Like previous Shin Megami Tensei titles, the game balances linearity and freedom very nicely with both clear (or at least semi-clear) objectives and tons of freedom to carve out your own path.

Gameplay is standard RPG fare with a few twists thrown in for good measure. Veteran Megami Tensei fans may be displeased with the streamlining, and in some cases simplifying, of the series’ trademark systems. While I too am a bit miffed with some of these as well, they do not hinder the game in any way and may help the game move along at a speedier clip.

The change I’m most displeased with is how demon conversations are handled. In SMT1, you could choose whether to start the conversation by talking in a friendly or threatening manner and after that, conversation trees would branch off every which way. In Nocturne, your only talk option is “talk” and the conversations aren’t much more than the demon asking for stuff before appeasement then occasionally asking you a philosophical opinion question. While these abbreviated demon dialogues help speed things along, I do miss the more involved conversations I had with demons in past games.

I do like that some of the demons in your party can do the talking too. Some have conversational skills that must be earned through level-building. They may not always be able to do the talking right off the bat, but their skills can come into play while the conversation has been going on for a while. There is a wide variety in the types of ways demons can talk from nagging to flirting to intimidating to whatever else.

The demon fusion system (where you combine a pair of demons into a hopefully stronger demon) has been streamlined as well. No longer can you fuse 3 demons at a time. You can only fuse two. Okay, you can semi-fuse three during Sacrifice Fusions, but those can only occur under certain conditions and the third demon only increases the base level of the new demon you’d normally get from the two you were originally going to fuse. However, unlike previous SMT games, you can level up your demon companions and as they gain levels they can learn new skills; some can even evolve. The higher the demon’s level and the higher the number of learned skills, the more skills that can be transferred over to a new demon during fusion. However, the level of the new demon will always be at its base level; meaning that if you fuse a level 99 Kushinada with a level 99 Onkot, the resultant demon will still be a level 47 Kaiwan rather than a level 99 Kaiwan. Besides, most demons become outdated anyway, so it is in your best interest to keep updating your demon entourage rather than level up lowbies too much, unless there is a skill in one of those demons that you really want to transfer over to a new demon. The carry-over skills are randomly selected, so if you don’t like the set you’d get on a potential demon, try again till you get a carry-over skill set you like. And logic will tell you that some demons are more useful than others.

I spent loads of time in the demon fusion rooms, not only playing with demon fusions, but perusing the Demon Compendium as well. In the Compendium, you can buy demons you used to have, read a blurb about each one to learn about which mythology it came from, and view them from various camera angles. I learned quite a bit about various mythological beings thanks to the Compendium. Many of the demons you hire into your party aren’t really “demons” per se in their respective mythologies, but “demon fusion” sounds cooler than “minion fusion.”

Speaking of levels, one thing I didn’t really like was that in order to summon, say, a level 44 demon, your main character must be level 44. While that may seem logical, realize that in other Megami Tensei games, you can invoke demons/personae up to FIVE levels higher than your main character. This alleviated the need to power-level somewhat and I cannot figure out why this staple of the Megami Tensei system was taken out of Nocturne. It’s not like keeping it would’ve made the game any easier. Even at its easiest difficulty level, it’s quite a challenging RPG. Okay, perhaps it’s relatively easy for Megami Tensei veterans, but most US RPG fans aren’t Megami Tensei veterans. Even a Megami Tensei veteran such as myself found the game challenging and I got “Game Over” many times. For what it’s worth, the “Game Over” sequence is pretty cool.

One change I liked in Nocturne was the dropping of the Magnetite system. In previous SMT games, when you summoned a demon out of your arm-computer it would continuously consume magnetite while ‘outside’ and if you were out of magnetite, the demon would lose HP. While this added a challenging strategic element, I found it a pain in the neck to monitor how much magnetite I had and how much each demon consumed. Speaking of change, it’s nice that save terminals aren’t as scarce as they were in past SMT games. I’d still have preferred a save-anywhere system as in Persona 2, but Nocturne does allow instantaneous travel between save terminals so jumping to and from previously visited areas is easy.

Since your main character is part demon, he operates more like a demon than a human. He carries no weapons and wears no armor. Throughout the game, there are insect-like things called Magatama to be found in dungeons, bought in junk shops, or earned in major battles. Depending on which magatama is equipped (you can only equip one at a time), your main character will have certain resistances and can learn certain skills as levels are gained. For example, Wadatsumi is an ice-based magatama. If you have that equipped you will learn various ice-based skills, void any ice attacks, but be vulnerable to electric attacks. You have 8 skill slots to fill with acquired skills be they spells that consume MP, offensive skills that use HP, or even skills that boost certain stats or give you resistances even once the magatama is unequipped. However, once you’ve unlocked a skill in your magatama through level building, regardless of whether you take on that skill or not, you cannot ‘re-learn’ it, so choose your skills wisely. Some magatama may be more useful than others in terms of both resistances and learnable skills. However, the usefulness of any magatama is mostly dependent on how you want to ultimately develop your main character’s skill set. I found the magatama system reminiscent of other skill development systems used in other RPGs. It’s effective and never needlessly complex.

Otherwise, the gameplay is pretty standard fare. There are lengthy mazelike dungeons to explore, puzzles to solve, beings to talk to, items to buy, mini-games to play, loads of sidequests to do and all that good stuff. Your active party consists of you and three demon companions. You also keep a stock of demons that can be switched in and out of the active party. Only the active demons gain experience in battles, unless they have the ‘watchful’ skill where they can earn EXP from battles even if not in the active party.

The battle system is a standard turn based battle system with a brilliant twist. If you exploit an enemy’s weakness or get a critical hit, the game rewards you with extra turns. But be careful, because if the enemy exploits your party’s weaknesses and/or gets critical hits, their side will earn extra turns. The random encounter rate is a tad high, but a radar on your screen alerts you if battles are coming up. Also, this series is one of the few where I welcome a high encounter rate, as that allows me to train my demons more effectively. I’d be more frustrated if the encounter rate was low, because then I’d be going nuts looking for fights wherein to train my demons.

Oh yeah, make sure you have the appropriate magatama equipped during boss fights. It can mean the difference between winning and losing. That’s one thing I love about the game- it’s challenging but never cheap. If you lose a battle, it’s your own fault for not utilizing effective strategies. This is one of the few RPGs I’ve played where your defense is just as important as your offense in battles, if not more so. There are some enemies who can give themselves extra turns, so if they screw up by, say, casting a fire spell on a fire immune party member, the enemy loses turns. Setting up your defenses to counter their offenses can be the key to winning or losing control of the battle.

The graphics in this game are terrific. While they’re not filled with jaw-dropping, uber-flashy special effects, they are very stylish. I love Kazuma Keneko’s highly stylized character and demon designs, and they’re here in full force. Not everybody likes his distinct art style, though. Anyway, the game employs very cool shading (I’m not sure if it’s cel-shading, toon-shading, or what) on the playable and non-playable characters making them look edgy enough to complement the game’s eerie atmosphere without the over-the-top cartooniness you see in many cel or toon shaded video games. The demons are based on beings from various world mythologies and generally look like they would in said myths. However, Kaneko does use some creative liberties here and there, such as dressing Angels in bondage gear. The environments are mostly fully rotatable polygon environments while some are prerendered. Some environments tend to have more lush colors than others (the Amala Network dungeon for example,) but no matter what, the overall dour atmosphere of the game permeates its every being, so expect to see mostly drab colored environments. If you want bold, bright “happy” colors, play Katamari Damacy instead. Shin Megami Tensei is a more serious-minded RPG that deals with dark subject matter and it looks the part.

I only have a few complaints regarding the graphics. One is that the CG in some of the FMV cutscenes could have been better. The other is that when the prerendered backdrops are used, the camera is panned too far out and makes your character so tiny that he’s almost impossible to see. An optional pointer like the one used in FF7 to show where your character and the doors/exits are located would have been great.

Sound is another area where the game excels. Sound effects sound as they should. Slimy demons sound appropriately slimy, sword-wielding demons have sword-wielding sounds, etc. There is minimal voice acting save for a few cries here and there from demons. I’m glad the game doesn’t have full voice acting, as bad voice acting would ruin the awesome atmosphere of the game.

The music in the game is excellent. Since you spend much of your game time in battle, there is a wide variety of battle themes, all of which are nicely punchy with some cool overdriven guitars. Electric guitar is an instrument I don’t hear enough of in RPGs and it was nice to hear it in this game. And while there is overdriven guitar, it’s never so crunchy that it would grate on one’s nerves. Along with the driving rock during battles, atmospheric electronica is the order of the day in the various locales. The music really lends itself well to the atmosphere of the various environments and often makes creepy places even creepier. There are also many places where redone versions of previous Shin Megami Tensei tunes are played. My personal favorite tune was the music that plays when you’re in the demon fusion rooms. In short, there was not a single music track I didn’t like. While some tracks may stand independent of the game better than others, all are terrific. Either way, rock and electronica are two styles of music you don’t hear often in RPGs and more modern sounding music lends itself better to a gritty “modern” RPG than, say, classical music from a bygone era would.

So despite whatever objections I have with the game, I love it. It has that old-school Shin Megami Tensei feel with a fresh new-school coat of paint. In the sea of “me too” console RPGs in the US market, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne truly does offer something completely different, even from its sister series Persona. The only RPGs I can think of that can offer a comparable experience would be other Megami Tensei games and perhaps the Shadow Hearts series to a different extent.

Nocturne is not for everyone. The way it approaches storytelling is unique, and said uniqueness is likely to polarize gamers. Even those RPG fans who are great fans of the Persona games may or may not like Shin Megami Tensei as both series are surprisingly different. The gameplay offers some nice twists on traditional RPG gameplay, but since the game is driven as much, if not more so, by its gameplay system as by its plot, you will not enjoy the game if you can’t get into the whole demon recruiting and demon fusing scheme. Also, even at its easiest difficulty level, the battles are quite challenging. Even regular random encounters require savvy and the tried & true “hack and heal” method will not always see you through. The game is also very long, and much of the game’s length is spent in the long, sprawling, and sometimes obnoxious dungeons. There are puzzles in many of the dungeons, but nothing I found too difficult to figure out. Depending on how involved you get with the various aspects of the game, it can take upwards of 75- 85 hours to complete, even with much of the side stuff unfinished. There is replay value, but the motivation to play a game this long and this difficult again may be low. To ease things somewhat, there is a New Game Plus mode called “New Cycle” where some things get carried over, such as your Demon Compendium. Your stats and level, however, are reset.

If you are a Megami Tensei fan, you likely have this game already and I’m just preaching to the choir. If not, I recommend this game if you truly are open-minded to RPGs that defy convention and whatever preconceived notions you may have. Nocturne earned its M rating for the mature way it deals with some heavy philosophy and touchy subject matter such as demonology and demonic possession. While the game certainly does not have the kind of universal appeal that a title akin to Tales of Symphonia or the later Final Fantasies may have, I think this game is a must-try for every RPG fan who owns a PlayStation 2 console. You may love it for its uniqueness or you may hate it for its uniqueness, but it is a game whose uniqueness must be experienced. You might even learn something too.

Overall Score 91
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Neal Chandran

Neal Chandran

Neal is the PR manager at RPGFan but also finds time to write occasional game or music reviews and do other assorted tasks for the site. When he isn't networking with industry folks on behalf of RPGFan or booking/scheduling appointments for press events, Neal is an educator, musician, cyclist, gym rat, and bookworm who has also dabbled in voiceover work and motivational speaking.