Retrospective: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

smt3

Shin Megami Tensei III (alt title: Nocturne in North America, Lucifer’s Call in Europe) is my favorite SMT title and one of my favorite games of all time. This 2004 RPG for the PS2 is moody, atmospheric, expansive and a whole lot of fun to play. It’s also tough as nails and occasionally cheap.

The Megami Tensei series started on the NES as a first-person view dungeon crawling RPG based upon a fanatsy/sci-fi novel about demons being released into Tokyo by the protagonist, who then has to stop them from destroying the city (or something, I never read more than a synopsis and I don’t think it’s translated anyway.) Ever since, every SMT game and spinoff has dealt with the border between the real world of humans and the supernatural world of demons and what happens where they intersect.

SMT: Nocturne was originally titled SMT3 because it’s the third in the line from the first Shin Megami Tensei on the SNES. Why the two Megami Tensei games on the NES aren’t included in this line I have no idea, but that’s how it is. Actually, the numbering system the SMT series uses is stupidly complicated considering all the many spinoffs the series has produced (Persona, Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, Devil Survivor, the list goes on.) Nocturne counts as a main line SMT game, though, because it follows the old “demons break through a rift into Tokyo and the apocalypse happens” scenario. This time, those events are reversed in order, but the effect is pretty much the same: Tokyo has become a demon-filled wasteland closed off to the rest of the world and it’s up to our hero, a surviving human who has been turned part-demon himself by a mysterious young boy, to take control of that world and shape it according to his desires.

This is your protagonist in Nocturne, the guy in the middle.  Official art by Kazuma Kaneko.

This is your protagonist in Nocturne, the guy in the middle. Official art by Kazuma Kaneko.

Nocturne is a typical JRPG in that you spend most of your time running around fields and dungeon areas fighting enemies. Combat is pretty standard in that sense. You can hit your opponents with elemental attacks, physical attacks or INSTANT DEATH attacks (both light and dark) that never seem to work when you use them, but that always seem to work when your enemies use them against you. Both you, your allies and your enemies have strengths and weaknesses to certain elements that can spell the difference between a clean victory and a bloody defeat, so it’s important to have a good lineup of demons ready to swap into your party to cover all circumstances.

One of Demifiend's party using a curse spell against some angel-type demons.  This will probably kill all of them instantly, since they're weak to dark.

One of Demifiend’s party using a curse spell against some angel-type demons. This will probably kill all of them instantly, since they’re weak to dark.

However, you don’t always have to fight your enemies. You can usually try to recruit them. Demon negotiation is one of the most interesting parts of Nocturne. Taken from older SMT games, the negotiation system here starts when you (or one of your demon allies, assuming it has a Talk skill) approach a demon on the enemy side and engage it in conversation. This process includes lots of back-and-forth exchanges and negotiations for money, items and the drawing of the player character’s HP and MP in exchange for the demon’s support. Sometimes the demon will instead give you advice, money or an item for free. Sometimes the demon will run off with all your shit, and you usually won’t be able to stop it. Demon negotiation can be frustrating, but it’s mostly fun. Fortunately, the game tosses an automatic ally your way at the beginning of the game to make the whole thing a little smoother.

You can also fuse your demons to create new demon allies. This is the only way to turn out really good demons to place into your ranks. Sacrificial fusion, in which a third demon is sacrificed and gives up its own skills to the resulting demon, is also an option.

Pixie, that automatic ally I was talking about.  Protip: DON'T GET RID OF PIXIE.  You'll meet her near the beginning of the game.  You can let her evolve or fuse her, but don't sacrifice her or kick her out.  This is extremely important.

Pixie, that automatic ally I was talking about. Protip: DON’T GET RID OF PIXIE. You’ll meet her near the beginning of the game. You can let her evolve or fuse her, but don’t sacrifice her or kick her out. This is extremely important for the very late game.

It might just be me, but Nocturne has a wonderful atmosphere that really envelops you as you play. I’ve gone through this game seven times since first playing it in 2006 or so, and it hasn’t gotten old somehow. I still enjoy it, I think in part because of that very atmosphere. The empty hospital, the ruined malls and office buildings, the weirdly desolate parks, the bizarre, mutated Diet building that leads you down wrong turns and tricks you with false doors, all of these environments really make an impression on you. Okay, what I just wrote made no sense at all, but I’m not sure how to put this into words. Just play the game and you’ll see what I mean.

You'll get real sick of seeing this place, I guarantee it.

You’ll get real sick of seeing this place, I guarantee it.

The game’s feel also owes a lot to the work of artist Kazuma Kaneko, who designed this game’s characters and demons. His designs are fascinating and sometimes offer interesting takes on mythical creatures from traditions that span the entire world. Graphically, Nocturne itself doesn’t look extremely impressive from today’s standards, but the look of the characters and the environments is really nice. It all comes together very well. Again, you’ll have to play the game to really know what I mean.

Speaking of, the game itself can span from 60 to well over 100 hours depending on how expansive your playthrough is – whether you finish the optional long-ass Labyrinth of Amala, complete the Compendium of demons, max out your player character, complete the relatively few sidequests this game offers, etc. I won’t spoil anything, but if you want the game’s true ending you’ll have to invest some time and finish the Amala Labyrinth.

Baphomet doing some good old-fashioned demon-summoning ritual chanting during one of those sidequests.  This can only go well.

Baphomet doing some good old-fashioned demon-summoning ritual chanting during one of those sidequests. This can only go well.

In the end, I can’t really say why this is one of my favorite games. It just is. It’s tough in an old-school sort of way that’s not afraid to throw some cheap shots at you, but I think that makes getting past the game’s obstacles all the more rewarding.

Buying Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a pretty simple matter. If you own a PS2, you can get a copy of SMT Nocturne on Amazon or probably most anywhere else for right around $20-30. This price is more than worth the many hours of enjoyment you’ll get out of playing this classic gem. If all of the above stuff sounds appealing to you, you should order this game right away. Hell, if you don’t own a PS2, buy one along with a copy of Nocturne – they’re pretty cheap these days. You won’t regret it (or maybe you will, but I disclaim all responsibility if you’re not satisfied.)

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9 thoughts on “Retrospective: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

  1. Sorry to hear about your exams. Fingers crossed that you’ll do better in the spring ones. Hope you are enjoying 999. I haven’t played it, but its sequel is awesome.

    I think I bought this game back in the PS2 days because Dante from Devil May Cry was meant to be in it. I just couldn’t get into it though. I think when it comes to the SMT series the only ones I like are Persona.

    • Thanks for your wishes. If I don’t do better, I’ll probably have to quit and find a different road.

      I just finished 999, too. Really good, and I’ll be moving on to Virtue’s Last Reward almost immediately. I’m sure it will take me forever to complete the thing, though. I highly suggest 999; from what I understand it’s a lot easier to understand the characters’ true role and motivations if you’ve played VLR already.

      • from the sound of it, you might like onimusha. Have you ever heard of it? There are a few sequels, and the first one (only one i’ve played all the way through) plays alot like the original devil may cry. Only it’s set in feudal Japan, and… demons and stuff.

      • I did play one of the old titles on the PS2 a long time ago. I remember liking it a lot. Capcom is usually a good bet anyway, plus the whole setting and environment was really nice. And, of course, the gameplay.

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