Highly regarded in Japan, the Megami Tensei series (sometimes referred to as MegaTen) is one of that country's most popular and long-running role-playing game (RPG) franchises. Despite spanning approximately seventeen years and over fifty titles, its religious imagery and moral questions are practically unknown on domestic shores with the exception of two overlooked PlayStation discs, Persona: Revelations and the amazing Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. Now, with the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, American players can sample a bit more of what they've been missing. It's delicious, but an acquired taste.
The scene is set in modern-day Japan. A huge chunk of the country has been decimated by a religious cult trying to reshape reality, and the player is thrust into the role of Nocturne's protagonist; one of the few humans surviving the cataclysm. It's too late to save the world, but he is fated to be the one who ultimately decides what shape the new world will take. This bold game combines elements of religion and philosophy from a non-Western perspective and marries them to an utterly elegant, yet highly sophisticated battle engine. The result makes Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne a lean, lonely, post-apocalyptic tale quite unlike anything else on shelves today.
Initially appearing like a standard RPG adventure, the differences become apparent almost immediately. The evocative celshaded graphic design of Kazuma Kaneko will certainly dazzle at first glance, but graphics are the least significant area where Nocturne deviates from the norm. Reshaping the heart of the traditional RPG experience, the usual ragtag band of angst-ridden teenaged teammates is nowhere to be found—instead, the keys to the game are the wild demons roaming across newly-created urban wastelands.
Vaguely similar in nature to the mechanics of Pokémon, this design choice is the absolute core identity of Nocturne. Handpicked from practically every pantheon and myth system across the globe, the creatures encountered run the gamut from noble and pure, to vile and diseased. Humanoid, godlike, animal, infernal… the game's bestiary seems almost endless.
These demons can be recruited by approaching them in combat, bribing them, and then properly answering their questions. Once on your side, they gain levels and skills like normal characters in other RPGs, but the hook is that the demons can be combined with each other through an easy-to-grasp fusion process. With skillful manipulation and creative animal husbandry, demons can gain power in leaps and bounds without tedious leveling-up. Besides better stats, selective mixing and matching is essential in carrying over the proper mix of skills from the components to the offspring.
This system and the infinite customization options available through it are not only rewarding, but intensely addicting. I could hardly wait to mix and match my new acquisitions and the mechanic as a whole is a superb one. But, I have to be honest in saying that the rest of the game doesn't quite match the ingenious creation displayed in demon combining.
For example, since most of the word has been reduced to rubble, there are very few people around to converse with, and the majority of playtime is spent with the hero scouring blasted cityscapes and delving in dark dungeons alone. I'm not saying the storyline isn't there—it is, and it's a very sophisticated and intriguing one. The premise that there is no absolute right or wrong, no monotheistic good or evil is a viewpoint that rarely appears in videogames with the religious slant it does in Nocturne. Even when it does appear (usually in a highly edited or truncated form) it's almost never handled with the maturity and deft supposition that R&D 1 exhibits.
However, the bulk of exposition and drama doesn't come until after the 30-hour mark. As a result, the overall game suffers from a hugely delayed emphasis on characters and dramatics. As interesting as the demons and plot are (and also recognizing that vast amounts of the game are already optional) I would have liked to see an even shorter main quest. The combining mechanic alone is not enough to sustain such a long playtime without more frequent support from the peripheral elements.
The game also suffers from a few other things that hinder the experience. A minor irritant was that sometimes it just wasn't clear where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do. I don't mind a bit of exploring for leads, but the occasional lack of clarity was compounded into unpleasantness by the hard-to-navigate, mazelike overworld.
Even more concerning were the boss fights. Though Nocturne is without a doubt the easiest of the R&D 1 games available in the U.S., beating Nocturne's bosses is solely a matter of having the right skills at the right time. The problem is that there's absolutely no way of knowing what will be needed to triumph until you've run into an impassable brick wall and been annihilated. It's far too easy to breeze through the game and have all progress halted by a fight that's impossible to win because you simply don't possess the right skills or immunities. Even after the chance to analyze your opposition, it can be like the proverbial needle in a haystack trying to blindly find the right demon or magic necessary to advance.
As such, I feel compelled to say that anyone who's thinking of getting into Nocturne absolutely must purchase the strategy guide. Looking like nothing so much as a miniature phone book, the charts, tables and spell listings are invaluable in dealing with Nocturne's vast amounts of data. So much data, in fact, that the average or even above-average gamer has no chance of keeping up with it. (Even trying to remember simple spell names was hopeless… to this day I can't recall the difference between Sukunda and Rakunda or Tentarafoo and Mamudoon without flipping to the relevant pages and looking them up.) I suppose it's possible to go into the game unarmed and muddle your way through, but my guess is that doing so would at least double the already too-long playtime, if not triple it. But don't feel guilty. The concept of "cheating" by using the guide isn't even applicable since the game provides only a shred of the resources necessary for reasonable management.
Regardless of my complaints, I'm in awe of the game from a strictly intellectual standpoint. I was infatuated with the art, the existential mood and ambiance are second to none, and my hat is off to the amount of detail and work that went into crafting the demon system. For more than forty hours, I was intensely addicted. However, although there's a lot to love and even more to respect, my gut feeling is that a player would have to be a compulsive masochist with endless free time to really get the most out of it. As for myself, I put the game down before completion in spite of my appreciation because the appeal of exploiting the demon system had ended before the game did.
Players craving the classic Japanese RPG will probably find its eccentric identity empty and uninviting, but those patient few willing to find sustenance in the battle system, customization, and unique atmosphere will find Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne impressive and overflowing.