Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (PlayStation 2) review
"A once-verdant landscape is no more than a barren desert. And thus the scene is set. The plot twists its way through more than 80 hours of gameplay from that point, never overbearing but always gnawing at your consciousness from behind the scenes. As interesting as the sequence of events that gradually unfolds is, though, this game isn’t about plot. It’s about old-school, ‘punch you in the face and laugh when you cry’ role-playing."
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne will suck out your soul and leave your body a lifeless, bloody husk. I can’t think of a game released in 2004 that I’ve enjoyed than this Atlus-developed ode to chaos. It’s that damn good. People sometimes ask me what my favorite genre is, and I alternate between “I play all kinds of games” and “Probably role-playing games.” Should you happen to wonder why I sometimes utter the latter, you just found the answer. It’s involving. It’s ingenious. It’s darker than anything else I can remember playing. It will own your soul.
The soul seepage begins almost immediately, as you’re introduced to the hero while he wanders the streets of modern-day Tokyo. Some cult was getting busy the night before, so most people are focused on that. The hero hears briefly of this from a mysterious journalist, but he’s so anxious to join his teacher and classmates at the local hospital that none of it really registers. When he arrives, he initially finds the hospital empty except his two friends. No nurses, no doctors, no patients. No teacher. When he explores the building’s bowels, though, he learns he isn’t so alone as he thinks. A mysterious man named Hikawa prepares to slay him, but then the lad’s teacher finally appears. She states that she won’t participate with Hikawa’s plan if he doesn’t show mercy, and so he does. But what is his plan? Within moments, you find out. The loon plans to destroy the world! So here you are, at the start of another massive role-playing game where nothing less than the world as we know it is at stake, right?
Minutes later, you’ll find yourself standing on a rooftop and watching as unholy beams of light streak down from the sky and obliterate the world around you. The only survivors are those in the hospital building itself. Those and the demons unleashed from the underworld. Everyone else is but a memory, save those few who cling tenuously to the world in spirit form. A once-verdant landscape is no more than a barren desert. And thus the scene is set. The plot twists its way through more than 80 hours of gameplay from that point, never overbearing but always gnawing at your consciousness from behind the scenes. As interesting as the sequence of events that gradually unfolds is, though, this game isn’t about plot. It’s about old-school, ‘punch you in the face and laugh when you cry’ role-playing.
First, there are the dungeons to consider. Right away, they feel different from the normal, in ways difficult to explain. The viewpoint is behind the hero, who can strafe when necessary, or just run around while you direct the camera with the shoulder buttons. The right analogue stick lets you get a closer grip on your surroundings. Look skyward and you might see sewage cascading down toward the murky waters lining the tunnel beneath you. Or perhaps you look right to blood-soaked walls that surround a door that throbs like a pulsating heart. All of this works together with a soundtrack that features grinding guitar and psychedelic beats to set a grim mood, but it’s the puzzles that will have you reaching for the security blanket.
Consider an early example, a large room in one of the game’s optional five dungeons known as kalpas. You look across a dimly-lit corridor and everything looks peaceful, almost safe. So you start forward and suddenly the ground turns to mush at your feet. Just like that, you drop down to the floor below, where you must climb a ladder to repeat the process. A quick look at your map shows the pitfall’s location notated, but you only get a few steps further before you’re sinking through the floor yet again. There’s a trick to it all, but by the time you learn it you’ve probably backtracked more than you would have liked. That’s just one example, and there are numerous others. The game almost never stoops to ‘fetch the key then cross back over the dungeon you just cleared’ tactics. It doesn’t have to, not when there are sinkholes all over the place, strange teleports, alternate realities and more.
This barren new world is about more than that, though. Dungeons link towns and towers. They provide a way past the remnants of rubble that once were the freeways of today’s world. A park you visit early in the game is connected by a series of tunnels to a demon outpost you’ll find much later, and all of these pathways make perfect sense. Perhaps most important of all, though, is the realization that you’re never, ever entirely safe. Period.
In most role-playing titles, you head to the local town and you’re most likely free to relax. Not here. It’s quite possible to head for the healing fountain, restore the troops, then start toward the save point only to find yourself locked in a standard battle that you lose. Yes, it’s possible to die even because of a ‘normal’ encounter, even when you start with full health.
Perhaps I should explain why I can say that so cheerfully. Shouldn’t I be cussing the game and calling it cheap? Not when it’s this good. You see, the battle system actually is one of the fairest and deepest I’ve ever experienced. It works like this: you start the game with just the hero, but as you fight other groups of monsters you can talk to them and they may join you if your level is equal to theirs or higher. At any given time, you can have three other monsters in your active party, with more in reserve. If one bites the dust, you can pull out another from your group of cohorts. This seems generous, but remember something: the minute the hero loses his last bit of health, the game is over. Even if you have a gaggle of demons at your side equipped with revival spells, they’ll just leave you for dead. Then it’s back to the title screen. You’ll see the game’s logo quite frequently, even on ‘Normal’ difficulty (masochists can choose to make things even harsher than that).
But let’s get back to talking about those demons, shall we? Suppose you pick up a fairy early in the game. She’s pretty sexy and all. Like all demons, it’s apparent the developers weren’t stingy with polygons and textures. Still, she’s mostly wimpy. And that slime character is kind of nice, what with his resistance to certain magic, but overall he’s just not what you would like. Why not join them? Monster fusion plays a major role in the game. Though you lose something from each demon involved when you do it, the fused monster (which is often a different beast entirely) can become your new best friend. And you can always recruit more demons to join your cause, so experimentation isn’t just optional; it’s required.
So now that you have a badass group of monsters fighting at your side, you’re ready to head off for some tougher dungeons and boss encounters. Suppose a monster you’re fighting is a water monster. Luckily, you have a demon with lightning. So you cast a maziodyne spell and suddenly ‘Weakness’ flashes on the screen. For your clever tactical move, your group gets an extra turn in that round (like a lot of old school role-playing games, you take turns exchanging blows with the enemies, first everyone in your party, then everyone on the opposing team). Thrilled, you foolishly cast a water-based spell. The word that appears this time, ‘Void,’ makes you shiver because you just lost the turns you had and now the monster is owning you with a water spell you couldn’t quite absorb. And so it goes. Enemies can reflect spells back to you (or even physical attacks). They can absorb damage and grin as their health meters rise. Every time your attack goes awry, the devious opponent gets that much stronger. And really, it works both ways.
This system, which at first can be overwhelming, soon becomes a large part of what gives the game so much of its charm. Though you can build levels for hours on end, it’s just not going to help you like it would in other games. Here, there’s just no substitution for sound battle strategies. After all, a death spell can wipe you out when you have 900 HP just as easily as it can when you have a fraction of that. And when you consider no character can possess more than 8 spells at a given time, you have to choose not only which spells to cast in the midst of battle, but also which ones you want to assign to characters for the long haul and which ones you are content to abandon for all eternity.
Now, so far I’ve done nothing but heap praise on this game. It does have flaws, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. I can think of things I’d change. For example, it wouldn’t bother me if my cohorts actually stopped farting around and revived me from time to time. That would be pretty cool. And for the first hour or two, I hated the camera and map system. Also, some of the scenes in the optional dungeons weren’t so much fun as they might have been. But honestly, these are small flaws. And I’m not really sure you could ‘fix’ a single one of them without ruining some other aspect of the game. When a game is this tightly constructed, change can be bad. I think I’ll just be content with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne precisely the way it is, warts and horns included.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (November 17, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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