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A First Experience with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

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Video games have prepared me for all sorts of apocalypses by now.  I'll know how to keep my fellow humans alive for when zombies roam the earth, which supplies to stock up on for the nuclear holocaust, and that the crowbar is a man's best friend once aliens enslave humanity.  Now I've got a new type of apocalypse under my belt:  the giant-fake-sun-wiping-out-humanity-and-perpetual-cycle-of-world-ending-and-being-recreated-and-demons-roaming-the-earth apocalypse.  Yeah, that's right.  Where will YOU be when a suit-wearing child visits you in a dream and drops a demon-converting slug into your mouth? A lot of good that stocking up on ammo and food while hiding in your bolted-up house did you.

"HEY HOW'S IT GOIN BUDDY"

Five minutes after pushing start, a nice lady nonchalantly points out the impeding destruction and rebirth of the world as you know it.  Then it actually happens (for real), and somewhere between you surviving the impossible and a visit from some strange people in your barely conscious state, you awaken as a demon-human hybrid that can see and converse with the souls of the dead.  If the game's subtitle didn't already tip you off, these opening moments should make it 100% apparent; Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a dark, dark game.

You don't see games like this anymore, thematically speaking.  Not a single line of recorded voice goes along with the gargantuan amounts of text and dialogue, creating a sense of solitude outside of battles.  On the flip side, combat scenarios are packed with grunting, screaming, the loud "smacks" of physical strikes, the explosions of magic, and like any good game whose soundtrack is helmed by Shoji Meguro, angry music full of heavy guitar chords.

Probably my favorite part about Nocturne's setup is how it inserts you – playing as one of the few beings left on the planet resembling a human – into a society of demons and angels without removing you from familiar man-made surroundings.  The first "dungeon" of the game is a hospital.  Your bases of operations are full of random encounters just like the areas more resembling isolated dungeons, even though they're still shopping centers and subway stations.  Only now they're all occupied by demons and wandering souls.  They have their own customs, their own mannerisms, and even their own currency.  It's their world;  you're just living it.  And at first, that entire world is against you.  It only takes one benevolent Pixie who offers her assistance to get the ball rolling, and from there on out, your survival hinges on making the rest of the world work for you instead of against you.

I hope by "riches" you mean you and that fat fire sword of yours.

I hope by "riches" you mean you and that fat fire sword of yours.

The reason I find this gameplay setup so brilliant is how it directly falls in line with the motivation of your character and the others you encounter, but it's all entirely on a subconscious level.  See, a couple of humans did survive the apocalypse (they call it "The Conception" here), and they've figured out how to take that mysterious ball of light in the sky and manipulate it to their will in order to re-create the world all over again to their liking.  Think of the ball of light as a genie that grants you one wish, so long as that one wish is "I want another apocalypse to happen, only this time the world comes back the way that I want it to."

When you encounter these survivors along the way, you'll have to make some dialogue options that slightly nudge your "reason" – your personal reason for re-creating the world – in a certain direction.  It's definitely more vague and shades-of-grey than your typical good/neutral/evil spectrum, but there are three main paths you can take nonetheless.  Everyone just wants to be king of the new world.  Meanwhile, you're already manipulating the current world to your liking with every demon you recruit for your cause, so it's no surprise that the "true" path to the ending involves you saying "screw you" to all three of them and leaving the world as is.  If you've ever had aspirations of world domination (and let's be honest, who hasn't), Nocturne not only lets you do that, but also lets you screw over three other aspiring conquerors in the process.

This arid, uninhabited wasteland aint big enough for the two of us.

This arid, uninhabited wasteland aint big enough for the two of us.

Nocturne can seem like the most simplistic of RPGs at times, and at others the most complicated and brutally difficult.  On one hand, you don't equip armor or weapons, and inventory management is kept to a minimum.  The only ways you can manipulate your character are by boosting his allocating different amounts of points to his five stats upon leveling up, and equipping one "Magatama" at a time – the things that determine which elements you are weak and resistant to, as well as which new skills you can learn upon leveling up.  And once you realize that the key to victory in just about every fight is forcing the enemy to waste turns by blocking and dodging attacks, only the enemy's dumb luck will get you killed.

On the other hand, the game is FULL of enemies having dumb luck.  It could be a lucky string of critical hits that award them extra turns.  It could be an instant-death spell that you weren't aware the enemy would have going in.  Or you could spend several turns buffing your strength and lowering the enemy's weakness, only to find out that the enemy repels physical attacks when you finally try to hit them, resulting in you killing yourself in one fell swoop.  It can all be over in an instant, and you just have to deal with the consequences.  Plenty of bosses triumphed over me in my first attempts, but I never had to go to round three with any of them, because it only takes a better awareness of which attack types to prepare for to turn the tide in your favor.  One boss even has a non-elemental insta-death attack that no one can block, but he only uses it every 8th turn, it hits a random target, and it also has a chance of healing the target for full HP instead of killing them.  But still, it's a tiny percentage of you losing instantly, and no amount of buffs, elemental shields and careful preparation can save you from it.  If there's one thing I've learned about SMT, it's that you are at the mercy of random chance and luck.  You just have to influence that luck the best you can.  You could probably say the same about many other RPGs, but maybe you'll change your tune when a stray low-odds-of-success insta-death spell strikes your main character and sends you back to the title screen.

Something I should have done more often.

Something I should have done more often.

The lack of direction can also leave you with a sense of aimlessness.  There's a fast-travel network between major towns and dungeons, and you can always visit one specific NPC for a hint as to where to go to progress the story, but it's very easy to miss some crucial piece of information as you constantly press X to skip through the dialogue.  There were a few instances where I was sure I was in the right place, but the game would throw up a "there's nothing here; go away" message because I had not yet talked to the right NPC to tell me that such a place exists.  There's nothing worse than getting lost in an RPG; it's one thing to have random battles break up your journey from point A to point B, but when you don' t have any idea where to begin searching for point B, any random battle popping up just makes your heart sink.

Get used to the dungeon map screen; you'll be bringing it up a lot.

Get used to the dungeon map screen; you'll be bringing it up a lot.

This is one of those RPGs that can occupy well over 100 hours of your time.  Some find that type of commitment to a game unreasonable, but I ate it up.  With a final recorded time of just over 115 hours, I hadn't even collected two-thirds of the 184 total possible demons.  How much time you spend mostly depends on your willingness to get over-prepared for the uncertain situations that await you.  But if you're like me and get paranoid about enemies ever touching you, you spend quite a bit of time making your own demons by fusing two or three of them together.  In one instance, I spent close to an hour making a single demon, just because I refused to compromise which skills I wanted him to inherit.  That's a lot of pressing O to cancel and pressing X to try a new random set of inherited skills.

You can buy back the demons you fuse away, but the game is too smart to let you get away with that too easily, so the costs of re-summoning past demons is usually prohibitively expensive.  This can lead to many more hours getting tacked on from "money diving" – re-playing a brief coin-collecting minigame in the different levels of the optional Labyrinth of Amala several times over in order to make cash quickly without dealing with battles.  Between those who aim to power through from start to finish without interruption and those who possess the patience to spend more time fusing new demons than fighting with them, I think I fall somewhere in the middle.  Passing on skills that block elements was definitely a priority for me, but I rarely felt the need to make every demon invincible.  I was pretty anal about passing on two particular skills, however: Watchful (the demon will gain experience points and level up even while not in the frontline party, albeit half as much) and Mana Refill (the demon restores its own MP as you walk around in dungeons or the world map).

That's one thing about Nocturne that it admirably maintains from my love of Persona 3 and 4: the sense pride that your well-crafted demons can instill in you.  This is my demon, and I got him just the way I wanted him, and it may have taken me nearly an hour and I spent almost all of my money to do it, but I got him.  And after all of that work, you naturally want to show off the fruits of your labor with others.  That pride and attachment to your demons also facilitates the constant sense of progression.  That favorite demon of yours isn't going to learn any more skills after a while, and he's falling behind everyone else's levels.  It can be hard to finally let him go, but knowing that you're going to pass his best skills on to a bigger, badder, better demon eases the pain in the end.  Nocturne is nothing if not customizable.

Dionysus knows how to party.

Dionysus knows how to party.

The alternative to making your own demons, and the tactic you must rely on to build a stable early on, is choosing to talk to the demons you encounter instead of attacking them.  For a system I despise so much for its arbitrary nature, I have to admit there's a lot to explore here, and they're bound to give you some amusing stories to tell others.  184 demons, each with their own unique personalities and affiliations that you must consider before engaging in conversation with them.  Earlier this year, the negotiation system in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey thoroughly annoyed me when all of the demons began their conversations by posing me with subjective questions I couldn't possibly answer "correctly," because I can't read the personalities of mute, static 2D sprites.  Nocturne's system is a little more bearable because the demons are way more animated and talkative, so I can better understand their intentions before answering their questions instead of blindly throwing a dart at the target and hoping for a bull's-eye.  Getting asked questions happens with vastly reduced frequency on the whole anyway, since they ask you for money and items before popping one last question (it happens in reverse order in Strange Journey).  It can be fun to experiment with, but I was more concerned with creating effective demons with useful skills than amassing an army of weaklings, so I never touched the negotiation system after the first ten hours or so.

There's a small chance that he'll just take off after I give him that Bead.  But some demons have skills that convince them for a second chance.  But if that demon's alignment isn't compatible with... yeah, it gets complicated.

There's a small chance that he'll just take off after I give him that Bead.  But some demons have skills that convince them for a second chance.  But if that demon's alignment isn't compatible with… yeah, it gets complicated.

Anyway, the only reason I and several others decided to play this game for the first time in 2010 (besides the Persona games turning me into an SMT nerd last year) is because Atlus recently printed another run of disks, and a new copy of the game ran upwards of $120 before that, so do yourself a favor and get one of the finest RPGs for the PS2 while it's still 30 bucks.  Unless, of course, you are opposed to the idea of squeezing over 100 hours of consistently challenging and dynamic gameplay out of your less-than-full-price games.

Oh yeah, he's in this game, too.  Don't ask me why.

Oh yeah, he's in this game, too.  Don't ask me why.


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