Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (Shin Megami Tensei 3: Maniax)

Think Silent Hill mixed with Final Fantasy and you'll have a glimpse of this RPG gem.


The Lowdown

Pros: A genuine twist on the RPG formula with excellent art design and a clever battle system.

Cons: In the middle of the game the story takes a backseat compared to other RPGs and the difficulty may be too intense for some.

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The name Shin Megami Tensei is probably unfamiliar to most gamers and even RPG lovers out there, but it's a name that gamers in the US will learn fast. Atlus has been making Shin Megami Tensei titles since the days of the Famicom. Although, these games have been deemed too dark and confusing to leave Japan. Finally, Atlus has given the series a chance in the US and they haven't picked a better time to do so. With so many knights in shinning armor and spiky haired heroes dominating the RPG market Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a refreshing change.

Even before you can input the name for the main character you find out that the world is coming to an end. A young maiden explains the Conception, an event that will give rise to a reborn Earth. In the middle of Tokyo, dressed in normal street clothes, you're in no condition to stop her. The world ends, but you're sparred with a small side effect. Thanks to a blonde lad and his gift of Magatama you've changed into a neon tattooed demon. Being a demon does have it's advantages. One of them being deciding the fate of the world. The choices you make throughout the game will determine if you make a quiet world of stillness, a world where the powerful live or cease it's existence.

While the story is generally cool, it's not as in your face as other RPGs like Xenosaga. Instead it maintains some distance and leaves mysteries for the player. Even with all of the plot twists, the story does seem to disintegrate in between long dungeons.  Shin Megami Tensei goes between a couple of hours of maze walking to get to a few minutes of actual story. Some diehard RPGers will enjoy this throwback to the old school, but gamers weaned on plot heavy cinematic RPGs might get frustrated. One thing that does make Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne so long are the sheer amount of random battles. It seems like you'll be in a fight every few steps and if you run away enemies will appear even faster.

Combat is essential to any RPG and with so much of it in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne Atlus did a good job making it interesting. The in game system called the "press system" is a essentially turn based, but incorporates a fair amount of tactics. You start out with four turns, but you can gain more turns by exploiting the weaknesses of your enemies. If an enemy is hit with a critical attack or if you utilize it's weakness you won't use up a turn. With practice you can finish an entire battle without even getting hit. On the other hand if you're not paying attention and use the wrong attacks they can cost an additional turn. At the beginning of the game you can potentially ignore how the press system works by selecting "fight" all of the time. When you're near the end of the game understanding and using the press system is the only way to win. So even though the battle system may sound simplistic compared to other RPGs, it still has a fair amount of depth to it.

Another interesting addition to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is that you don't have a static party. All of your party, if any is made up of demons that you recruit. By using your innate talk command you can negotiate with a demon to come join your side. Although, these bargaining with a demon isn't as easy as giving it some macca (the game's currency) to join.  Some demons will settle for a bit of money and others will ask for items before joining. Yet other demons will rob you of as many possessions as they can get then not join you. Even later on in the game demons will ask you philosophical questions, such as "do you believe that the weak can survive?". If you respond to them how they would expect then they'll join, if not you still might not get them on your side. It's a bit complex and time consuming to persuade every demon your way so the other option is utilizing the Cathedral of Shadows. This mysterious church allows you to meld two demons in your party to make a potentially stronger one. This way you can avoid all of the talking and get straight to having a new demon. Also some demons, like the Hell Biker, can only be obtained at the Cathedral of Shadows. So it's to your advantage to try as many combinations as possible.

On top of alternating your party, you can customize your character through magatama. Each magatama offers bonuses to alter strength, magic, stamina and luck. Better yet different magatama offer elemental resistances, which can make battles much easier. As you level up different magatama grant you different skills. You can learn spells like hellfire, physical attacks like Javelin Rain and support abilities like mana refill. Your character does have an eight skill limit and with over 80 skills in the game you'll have to choose wisely. The magatama system works so that players can play the game however they want. If you want to have a magic user all they have to is choose magic based abilities. Or if you want a physical fighter then you select skills like HP up and attacks like deathbound.

Shin Megami Tensei has one of the slickest visual styles in an RPG to date. Kazuma Kaneko, the game's lead artist, has made a robust world full of enigmatic demons. Each demon looks great and has a personality all of its own. Even Devil May Cry's Dante is remade with a new sense of style in the world of SMT: Nocturne. The game is full of great environments too with unique styles at each different location. The only area where the in game graphics suffer is the world map. The map is a huge overworld instead of an engaging world. On top of that the cool looking main character is replaced with a little person icon. You won't be spending too much time on the desolate world map, so it's not too bad.

The music in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is another excellent feature of the game. There are a bunch of different tracks most of which have a rock feel to them. Best of all the game actually switches battle themes for different areas. Other RPG designers take note, that even though a battle theme is good having a handful of songs keep one battle theme from being overplayed. The game's soundtrack is really immersive and keeps with the flow of the game.

Even when you're done with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne you can go back and play it again to seek out one of five different endings. The game also has two different difficulties and a new game plus feature that registers all demons you had on your side. There are loads of secrets in the game that will keep a single play through in the 30 hour range, so you'll be getting plenty of playtime with this game. Something else to note is that even though the English version of the game is in English it has heavy Japanese influences. It's one thing that all of the areas contain the appropriate Japanese names and its another when all of the demons still retain their native names. To truly get everything out of the game you will need to have some understanding of Japanese culture and better yet an idea of Japanese folklore. The US localization isn't exactly user friendly, but Atlus still has done a job retaining the cultural references.

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne has been one of the best RPGs to come out in a long time. It's an amazing game that blends shades of grey with capable gameplay. At times it seems a bit hardcore in terms of battles and in it's mixed localization. However, gamers looking for something in between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy 1000 should check this title out.

Import Friendly? Literacy Level: 0/5

If you're picking up the US version of the game, it's all in English. On the other hand if you're picking up the re-release of Shin Megami Tensei 3: Maniax you'll be in for a real language challenge.

US Bound?

Fortunately for gamers in North America, they'll be able to try out a Shin Megami Tensei game for the first time. On top of that, he US version includes an extra ending, Dante from Devil May Cry and a soundtrack CD. Not a bad package at all.

Overall

If you even remotely like the RPG genre, pick up Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. It is one of the most innovative and stylish RPGs in the PS2 library.