Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 6 (Nekomata)

Yeah, it’s Nekomata.  Of course.  You probably could have guessed that I reserved a spot on my list for Megaten’s main catgirl.  Though both her new design (pictured left, from Nocturne) and her old design are a little too much on the “cat” side of catgirl for my taste.  I don’t know, maybe if you’re into monster girls.  They’re still pretty popular, aren’t they?

Either way, Nekomata is an interesting demon.  She’s derived from old folk legends that claim cats who live long enough can take human form and learn human speech and customs.  Nekomata are also said to have forked tails, something the current version of SMT Nekomata doesn’t have for whatever reason. If these legends sound familiar, there are some about foxes growing more than one tail and taking human form as well.  It’s said that the sadistic queen of the wicked King Zhou, last ruler of the Shang dynasty in China, was an evil fox in human disguise.  Though some of these beings are quite nice as well, as anyone who watched the recently aired, extremely depressing anime series The Helpful Fox Senko-san will know.

Retro-style 90s Nekomata returned in the Devil Survivor series.

The Megaten version of Nekomata isn’t really good or evil, however; she just seems to be out for herself.  In fact, she never really plays a big plot role in the series as far as I know aside from that infamous “Do something naughty with Nekomata?” mini-boss fight in Nocturne.  She’s usually a low-to-mid-level demon, but one who’s worth recruiting for her high agility (she’s a cat, after all) and the strong wind skills she typically has.  Just a good team member for the early-mid game.  And if you keep her around long enough in Nocturne to level five or six times or so, Nekomata has the opportunity to evolve into a higher-level cat lady demon named Senri, whose design I don’t like nearly as much.  A big downgrade in the looks department, but Senri is a better demon in terms of her stats and skills, so you’ll just have to decide for yourself if it’s worth taking the time out to level Nekomata.  On the plus side, in Shin Megami Tensei IV, Senri evolves into Nekomata instead.

I also have to give a lot of credit to Kaneko for solving the “two sets of ears” problem that designers have to deal with when it comes to animal-eared girls.  Just move those cat ears down to where the human ears would normally be.  It looks a little weird, but it’s a better solution than always covering that area with her hair so you never see the place where those ears should be, which is the normal bullshit workaround.  Nekopara had fantastic character designs otherwise but it was guilty of doing just this.  As is almost every other game or show featuring those kemonomimi girls I’m into.  Don’t think we don’t notice what you’re doing.  Come on.

Okay, sure, why not.  I could leave the cat puns though.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 5 (Melchom)

If you end up going to Hell (sorry if that happens, by the way) and you somehow manage to get a job as a public servant there, who processes your paycheck?  It’s Melchom, the subject of today’s post.  Melchom only makes a few appearances in the series, but as far as occupations go among the demons of Megami Tensei, he has my favorite.

Melchom is one of the Fallen race, the angels who according to Christian tradition joined Lucifer in his rebellion against God.  Naturally, all the Fallen fell into Hell with Lucifer when he lost and became demons (demons in the more western traditional sense this time, not the broader Megaten one.)  Melchom and many of his friends in the Fallen race are taken from the Lesser Key of Solomon, a 17th century grimoire made famous in modern times by devil magic enthusiast/all around weirdo Aleister Crowley, and from the Infernal Dictionary, a later French work.  These books list these demons’ characteristics, and the Lesser Key also contains instructions for summoning them if you feel like enriching yourself through demonic power or getting some supernatural revenge on an enemy.

Melchom as depicted in the Infernal Dictionary.

The entry for Melchom is a strange one mainly because of his profession.  The Infernal Dictionary describes him as the paymaster of Hell who carries the purse and hands out wages and salaries to Hell’s servants.  This is a real demotion for Melchom, since his name is supposed to be derived from Moloch, a god of the ancient Ammonites of modern-day Jordan who were enemies of the Israelites in the Old Testament.  Going from being a god to an infernal bureaucrat has to be embarrassing.

However, he seems to take it in stride.  In Strange Journey, Melchom is one of the few demons who isn’t a pain in the ass to deal with.  Outside of the random encounters you’ll fight him in, he’s also hanging out in the second layer of the Schwarzwelt and will give the protagonist fairly easy missions to carry out in exchange for what else but a nice paycheck.  Money can be hard to come by in Strange Journey, especially early on, so these missions may be a real source of relief to the player.  Thanks, Melchom!

Well, this series has been getting a little too demonic lately.  I’ll bring it down a few notches tomorrow.  Until then, remember: always treat bureaucrats and office support staff well, because they can make your life as easy or hard as they feel like.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 4 (Abaddon)

I mentioned in my introductory post that the demons of the Megami Tensei series include a lot of angels. Most of these are the traditional angels of the Abrahamic faiths, complete with the wings and all that — the Archangels Michael, Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel, and the lot of unnamed lower-level angels (including the infamous Angel, who often shows up in SMT and Persona games in skimpy bondage gear; you can thank Kazuma Kaneko again for that design, God bless him.) But Abaddon is very different from the rest.

In the Old Testament, the term Abaddon seems to refer more to a place than a person, a place of either suffering or utter destruction where some dead people’s souls went. By the New Testament, however, Abaddon becomes an entity called the destroyer and angel of the abyss. There seems to be a lot of disagreement over whether Abaddon is a servant of God, performing his work in punishing sinners who fall into his pit, or whether he’s a demon or even synonymous with the Devil himself. Either way, you would never want to meet him, so maybe it doesn’t matter too much, at least as far as we mortals are concerned.

Is this more or less scary than the guy above?

The Abaddon of Megaten is depicted in two equally monstrous forms: first as a giant buried mostly underground, with only the top of his head sticking out except when he lunges to attack the player, and second as a massive blob with a gaping mouth. Abaddon is always a mid-high to high-level demon and often has great physical resistance, making him a formidable enemy and a valuable ally, though it’s worth noting that Abaddon is usually a member of the Tyrant race and is therefore usually impossible to recruit using normal methods.

I’m still not sure how he gets around in his “underground giant” form when the top of his head is sticking out of the floor. I guess as an angel he’s immaterial and can move through objects? Must make life easier when you’re that big.  Also, be sure to note the tiny angel wings on top of his head. I assume these are there to remind us that Abaddon is in fact an angel, but they also look pretty damn funny on him.

A shorter one today, but I’m back to work.  No long Christmas breaks for the working man, especially the one who doesn’t get vacation days because he’s a damn contractor.  Tomorrow we’ll hopefully take on a less grim demon.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 3 (Alilat)

Now this is an interesting demon.  At least it is for me.  You might be looking at the design and thinking “it’s just an obelisk, what makes it so damn interesting?”  Alilat, also known as Al-Lat, was one of the divinities worshiped in the Kaaba, the great temple of Mecca, until the 7th century AD.  Al-Lat was a fertility goddess with ancient origins; historians believe she is essentially the same goddess as other Mediterranean and near Eastern divinities such as Asherah, Astarte, and Ishtar.

What happened to Al-Lat, then?  The same thing that happened to all the old pagan gods of the Middle East and Europe: one of the children of Abraham came along to destroy it.  When Muhammad, the final prophet of Islam, won his war against his home city-state of Mecca following his expulsion to Medina, he ordered that the idols and shrines of Al-Lat be broken along with those of the other gods and reconsecrated the Kaaba to the one true God.  This is a story I heard more than a few times as a kid growing up in the faith.  Naturally, this destruction and consecration is portrayed as a good thing, since it meant that God’s truth was able to be spread across the region and take root alongside/partly displace its sister Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Judaism.

At the time, though, I have to wonder how most people felt about it.  The day Muhammad came back home with his army, I guess plenty of Meccans just did their best to go about their business and readjust to the new order.  That’s certainly what I would have done, no matter how I might have felt before.  I guess I’m not very principled.

She’s an old-timey goddess so she has to use old pronouns like “thy”, that’s the rule.

Alilat in the canon of Megami Tensei is a powerful demon of the Entity race, consisting of ancient gods who long ago lost their followings among humans. She only seems to play much of a story role in Strange Journey, in which she opposes the reformation of the Demiurge (the creative force of God, though not the all-powerful God himself.)  Makes sense considering the fate of her worship back in the 7th century that she would stand against any aspect of the monotheistic God. One interesting design fact to note is that Alilat’s obelisk seems to be carved from part of the black meteorite that comprises the core of the real-life Kaaba and that pilgrims touch as a part of the Hajj.

Al-Lat in her most recent form. Considering how popular Ishtar-Rin is, she probably qualifies as a church for tax purposes at this point.

I also like how Alilat takes the form of the idol itself rather than the goddess it represents — it makes a lot of sense in the historical context, in which her worship ended with her being quite literally smashed to pieces. Well, it sucks to be a fallen deity, doesn’t it?  At least Alilat/Al-Lat can take solace in the fact that she lives on in popular culture in her Ishtar/Rin Tohsaka form from Fate/Grand Order, which is definitely the closest she’s been to having worshipers since the old polytheistic days.  Though this raises a theological question: is it better for a goddess to just die out or to live on as a waifu to a bunch of weird nerds?*  There’s a thesis someone needs to write.

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* Don’t take any offense — I’m one of those weird nerds too after all.  If I tried to deny it no one would believe me anyway.

 

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 2 (Ame-no-Uzume)

Since Megami Tensei is a Japanese game series, it doesn’t seem right not to cover any Japanese entities.  So of course I’m going with Ame-no-Uzume, a goddess of “mirth and revelry” best known for her stripper act. Ame-no-Uzume is the wife of the god Sarutahiko (also a demon in the Megaten series) in the Shinto tradition, responsible for bringing light back into the world after the sun goddess Amaterasu (also featured in Megaten, as are most of these deities) got pissy and decided to hide in a cave.  Amaterasu had a pretty good reason — her brother Susano-o, the storm god, was drenching and destroying crop fields and throwing shit around in the way you’d expect a storm god to do.

Even so, the world needed the sun to keep going.  Nobody could get Amaterasu to leave her cave, so without warning Uzume decided to start a strip show for all the other assembled gods.  They all found this so funny that they roared with laughter, and Amaterasu poked her head out of the cave to see what the hell was so hilarious the way anyone would. After seeing her bright reflection in a bronze mirror Uzume had purposely hung up in front of the cave’s mouth, Amaterasu wandered out, and another god quickly rolled a rock up behind her blocking the cave’s entrance.  In this way, the rest of the gods managed to convince Amaterasu to calm down and go back to her duties of being the sun, all thanks to the ingenuity of Ame-no-Uzume.

A traditional depiction of Uzume at Amanoiwato Shrine, where the whole thing happened

This was such an important achievement that the place where this is supposed to have happened in Japan is marked with a shrine dedicated to Uzume way down in a town called Takachiho in Kyushu.  Quite a long trip from Tokyo if you’re ever there visiting,  but if you want to pay your respects to the heavenly party goddess in the most serious way possible, you know where to do it.

In the Megaten universe, Uzume is usually a pretty low-level demon despite her status as a divinity; she’s typically one of the first in the Megami or goddess race of demons.  She tends to be very useful, though — Uzume is practically a must-have in Nocturne to beat Matador due to her resistance to wind skills, and she’s generally a good ally to have in the early game if she’s available.  I do like how her design reflects her position as the divine stripper — leave it to Kazuma Kaneko to put the emphasis on that, though to be fair to him, that seems to be by far the most famous story about Uzume.

Okay, so maybe this entry wasn’t as family-friendly as the last one.  Maybe tomorrow will be more G-rated.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 1 (Jack Frost)

Who better to honor on the first day of this Christmas series than Jack Frost?  He’s not only the personification of winter, which all of us in the Northern Hemisphere are living through right now.  He’s also the closest thing to an official mascot for the Megami Tensei series as a whole and for its developer, Atlus.  Jack Frost, as far as I know, has been in every Megami Tensei game ever created (or at least in all the ones I’ve played.)  He even starred in Jack Bros., a bizarre spinoff for the ill-fated Virtual Boy that most people in the West probably only learned about when the Angry Video Game Nerd covered it in his Virtual Boy retrospective video on Youtube, and even he didn’t seem to realize exactly what it was.

In his normal form, Jack is usually a low-level common demon you’ll encounter in the early game.  He tends to be pretty friendly but also enjoys playing tricks on humans, so it may be just as difficult to recruit him as some of the more outwardly hostile or icy demons.  The player shouldn’t be deceived by his cute looks — Jack Frost’s tricks can end up getting your entire party killed if your team is weak to his ice skills.

Jack Frost in earlier times, when he served as a Union general in the Civil War

The only real downside to Jack Frost being Jack Frost is that he has to share a name with not only the mythological being he’s derived from, the personification of winter, but also with all the other characters derived from him. Namely that Disney character or whatever he is (Dreamworks? The assholes who made that annoying Sing movie? I don’t know) and the shitty, extremely horrifying Michael Keaton movie from 1998 where he turns into a snowman.  Both of these guys clog up the Google Image Search results for “jack frost”, so they can go to hell.  Not Michael Keaton I mean, just the character he played and the movie he was in.

Black Frost brutalizing some regular Jack Frosts. Even when he’s being beaten up, Jack Frost has that happy expression.

Jack also has several relatives in the Jack family of demons, some of whom are far more powerful.  Most notable among these are his fire-based brother Pyro Jack, the emperor of the ice fairies depicted as a giant Jack Frost in a king’s robe and powdered wig King Frost, and Black Frost, a Jack Frost who sought great power and ended up turning evil.*  Black Frost is typically a mid-level demon and is a great asset to the player thanks to his having both ice and fire skills and resistances, so you should definitely try to fuse him any time you can.  He’s such a useful team member that some players keep him on well past the point where his level should have made him obsolete.  Those resistances are just that important in a Megaten game; if you have a demon strong to ice, fire, and dark attacks and without any weaknesses you can wipe the floor with a lot of standard-issue grunts and even with some bosses, even if they’re at a significantly higher level.

I hope you liked the two-for-one demon deal you got today, because it probably won’t happen again.  Check back tomorrow!

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* Japanese language minute: The name “Black Frost” is an attempt at a translation of the Japanese name ジャアクフロスト with the “ジャアク/jyaaku” part written 邪悪, which is also pronounced ジャアク but means “evil.” These kanji puns just don’t translate.

Announcing the twelve days of Megaten Christmas

Happy almost Christmas, everyone.  No matter whether you celebrate the holiday in its religious or secular aspects or both, this is one of the best/most memorable times of the year for a lot of people (and if you celebrate neither aspect, then please apply whatever holiday is closest in time and/or spirit to my statement.)

Speaking of that, I wanted to give my readers a special gift this year.  So instead of doing the usual thing for the holidays, which is nothing, I decided to put together a special series of Christmas posts, each one about a demon from the Megami Tensei series that I find interesting.  Could I have picked a more sacrilegious game series to cover to honor the birth of Christ?  Probably not.  After all, this is the series that features games in which you can choose to join up with Lucifer to fight God Himself or just beat the hell out of both of them.

But I’m really not trying to be sacrilegious here at all.  You all probably already know that Megami Tensei is my favorite game series, and this is a great opportunity to cover some of my favorite Kazuma Kaneko character/monster designs.  Also keep in mind that the “demons” that show up in every Megaten game aren’t necessarily demons in the western traditional sense of the term as a kind of devil or evil spirit.  Some of those evil spirits are certainly included in the category of demons (Lilim, Succubus, Incubus, and a bunch of other malicious types) but the term “demon” in the Megaten sense is very broad, embracing all kinds of mythical entities, even angels who work for big man YHVH.  In any case, the SMT games are really just as sacrilegious as you care to make them — you can always go Law path, after all.

I remember the days before Adblock, when we didn’t think demons were in our peaceful kingdom

I was originally going to post this from Christmas Day to January 5 to line up with the traditional Twelvetide/Christmastide period, but since anime blogger Perpetual Morning is getting together other writers to put together their own series starting December 14, I figured I’d just join them.  The series might be called 12 Days of Anime, but it seems like game content is welcome as well.  And Megami Tensei has had a few anime adaptations featuring some of these demons, so it’s close enough, right? Also, I wasn’t kidding about my latest project taking a while.  Fucking writer’s block.  I hate that term, but I can’t think of a better one to use in this case.

Anyway, come back Saturday, Dec. 14 for the first demonic gift, and happy holidays again, or whatever you say to people in early/mid-December these days.

Seven great video game tracks (part 3)

It’s been a while since my last dedicated music post and nearly four years since I posted an entry in this particular series (see parts 1 and 2 back in 2014 and 2015*) but I thought why let it stay dead?  I’ve been working on that second deep reads post, which is proving to be more of a pain in the ass than I thought, but all this music is helping power my brain after work hours along with the caffeine.  I’m also in the middle of a 10+ hour round trip drive today across some boring state highways, and I’ve been refreshing my playlist and adding to it to get ready for that.

However, the main reason I decided to revive this series is that I’ve heard a few people online suggest that game music isn’t “real music”, which is utter horseshit.  So here are seven tracks to prove them wrong.  I’m sure they’d consider most or all of these “not real music” either, but judge for yourselves.  As before, these are listed in no particular order — they’re just seven more tracks from games that I like.

1) Yousuke Yasai – Point of No Return (Eschatos, 2011)

Somehow I haven’t brought Yousuke Yasai up once on this site, but the guy is a long-time game music composer who does some great work.  I especially like the soundtrack to Eschatos, a scrolling shooter released on the 360 and PC.  This game was put out in 2011 but the music sounds like something out of one of the Mega Man X games (in fact, I think Yasai did some music for the Mega Man Battle Network series, so maybe there’s a connection there.)  Point of No Return is my favorite piece on the soundtrack; it’s driving and powerful in the way you’d expect from a shoot-em-up, but also memorable and catchy.

2) Garoad – Every Day is Night (VA-11 HALL-A, 2016)

I know I’ve raved about VA-11 HALL-A enough here and mentioned how much I’m looking forward to Sukeban’s followup N1RV Ann-A.  The bartending mini-game with a visual novel wrapped around it worked just about perfectly for me.  But the soundtrack was a big part of the game’s success.  Composer Garoad did an excellent job with the background music.  Every piece adds a particular mood to the conversation Jill has with her mostly depressed/insane clientele, her weird boss, and her one more or less normal coworker.  The game even lets the player set up the actual in-game soundtrack for the bar every night on the jukebox, so you can create any kind of mood you like with this music.

Every Day is Night is one of my favorites — I usually started each night in the game with this song.  The title is apt; this and the rest of the soundtrack have a great nighttime feel, very fitting for this game that takes place entirely at night.  Though I also really like Safe Haven, the piece that plays when Jill is home from her shift at the bar.

It’s the soundtrack to my life, sitting in the dark in my shitty apartment

3) Kenichi Tsuchiya – Heretic Mansion – Shining Heaven (Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, 2003)

It’s a piece from Nocturne.  I know, what a surprise.  This one wasn’t written by Shoji Meguro, though.  Composer Kenichi Tsuchiya was also responsible for a fair number of the tracks in the game, including the organ piece Heretic Mansion – Shining Heaven, the theme that plays when you visit the Cathedral of Shadows during a full Kagutsuchi phase (if you haven’t played Nocturne I know this probably sounds like nonsense, but it really does mean something.)  Tsuchiya has written quite a bit of music for the SMT games and spinoffs like Persona and Devil Summoner, and I’m sorry that I’m only now getting around to mentioning the guy, because he is worthy of notice.  There are a few different Heretic Mansion themes, and they’re all pretty ominous, but this is the only one that’s performed entirely on what sounds like a giant church organ.  It sounds like it came straight out of the Baroque period.  Great stuff if you’re into that.

4) Shoji Meguro – A Way of Life (Persona 3 Portable, 2009)

Even so, I can’t go without listing at least one Shoji Meguro song.  This time I’m going with the opening theme to Persona 3 Portable, the PSP port of Persona 3 that included the female protagonist who’s now part of a weird multi-universe canon along with the male protagonist since they can’t exist at the same time in the same game.  It’s no wonder they haven’t tried this out since.

Fans argue over whether P3P or Persona 3 FES, the expanded PS2 version of the original, is a better game.  I prefer FES, but I still like the P3P exclusive music tracks, which include A Way of Life.  It’s just a catchy pop song.  That’s really all it is.  But Meguro is really damn good at writing catchy pop songs, so this one is worth a mention.  There’s no Lotus Juice either, so if you’re not a fan of his this is a good track to check out.  I like him, but his rapping can get old sometimes.  There’s a reason I didn’t put “Mass Destruction” on this list instead — it’s a good song, but it’s been burned into my brain so deeply that I can never listen to it again.

I remember when this game coming out was big news. Ten years, shit. I feel old again now.

5) Tee Lopes – Lights, Camera, Action! (Sonic Mania, 2017)

One of the best things about Sonic Mania was how it finally killed all the “Sonic was never good” bullshit going around the reviewer and critic circles.  The game’s music also lived up to the quality of the Genesis soundtracks thanks to Tee Lopes, a composer who had previously worked on remixes of music from Sonic and other series.  Lights, Camera, Action! is the first stage thrme in Sonic Mania and sets the game’s mood perfectly.  It sounds like a technologically updated version of one of the Sonic Genesis pieces, which is exactly what I was looking for (well, the same can be said for Sonic Mania as a whole.)

6) Toby Fox – Spider Dance (Undertale, 2015)

I never thought “spider girl” plus “maid” were tags I’d be into, but the weirdos who draw Undertale fanart taught me something new about myself. (source: zingexGG, pixiv)

Shit. Somehow I’ve gone all this time without even bringing up Undertale. I don’t even need to tell you about it, right? It was a massive hit back in 2015 when it came out. I guess a surprise hit as well, because I didn’t know it was a thing until it was out and everyone was raving about this weird indie pacifist RPG. I wasn’t quite as in love with it as some people were, but I did enjoy Undertale a lot; it obviously had plenty of time, effort, and care put into it. However, I did love the soundtrack without any qualifications. Game creator and composer Toby Fox wrote one of the best game soundtracks ever, in fact — nearly every piece in the game was so memorable that they stuck in my mind for weeks and months afterward.

It’s hard to pick this time, but I think my absolute favorite Undertale piece is Spider Dance. The frantic feel fits the mood of the scene perfectly; it’s just the kind of music that should play when you’re fighting against a deadly spider woman or trying to dodge all her attacks if you’re doing the pacifist thing. I guess I might be in a small minority here in saying this is my favorite; everyone really seems to love Megalovania, and people will even get teary over Toriel’s theme and all that. Those are great pieces too, but I just like Spider Dance the best.

7) Masafumi Takada & Jun Fukuda – Sleeping Intermission (Grow Up Nyan Nyan) (Contact, 2005)

Here’s a bizarre song to end with.  Contact was itself a weird game, a Suda51-written DS RPG that didn’t get a lot of attention when it was released and that since seems to have slipped into near-obscurity.  I reviewed it years ago here, and I haven’t played it since, but I still listen to the game’s music from time to time.  The Contact OST was composed by Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda, both big pros in the field who also worked on other Suda51 stuff as well as titles like God Hand.

Contact.  There’s a fourth-wall-breaking setup here that I won’t get into now, but it was interesting.

Sleeping Intermission might be a weird choice to pull from the Contact soundtrack.  It’s the song that plays when you send the protagonist to bed to heal his injuries and pass time in the game world.  However, during this intermission you get to play with the Professor’s pet Mochi by tapping him with the stylus while the hero sleeps it off.  It’s a bit strange like everything else in this game, and the same is true of the music, especially those digitized synth voice parts that play throughout.  But shit, I just like it.  I liked Contact too.  It’s worth playing if you have a DS, a 3DS, or an emulator.  Check it out.  I still think it deserved to be remembered more than it is.

And that’s it for now.  I’ll go back to being on semi-vacation here.

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* Yeah, I know part 1 says “seven” in the title here but only contains six if you read the actual post.  I think I was too drunk to know what I was doing at the time.  That’s a safe bet to make back when I posted it.

Megami Tensei #2: The solitary soul

Yes, it’s more of this weird stuff. Sorry. The following post contains major story and ending spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.

Humans are social animals. We all need connections with our fellow humans. We all need love from other people. That’s just common knowledge, isn’t it?

I’ve always been an introvert. Huge surprise, I know – you couldn’t have guessed that the guy who’s into weird JRPGs likes to keep to himself. I’m thankful for the fact that I can at least function in society and pretend to be a more or less normal person, but at my core, I’m still the same reclusive kid I always was. I used to dream about going to some distant island and just staying there alone forever. I still have those dreams sometimes.

As much as I hate to admit it, even I need to socialize. One of the reasons I write on this site is to connect with readers, after all, and that’s a kind of indirect socializing. And yes, I do have friends, and I’m maybe not quite as miserable as I let on sometimes. But does the mind really need those social connections to keep sane and healthy? That’s one of the questions raised by Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. You might already know that Nocturne is one of my favorite games, but one of the reasons I love it so much is all the philosophizing its characters get up to.

First we have to set the table. The game starts about a half-hour before the world ends. Specifically, about a half-hour into Nocturne, the protagonist’s hometown of Tokyo is mostly wrecked and turned inside-out so that its ruins are now on the inside of a sphere, like an inverted Earth, with a sun-like representation of the Japanese fire god Kagutsuchi floating in the center of the sphere.*

Nocturne starts like a survival horror game, then turns into something completely different.

Our silent blank slate protagonist, your typical high school student, just happens to have been in a hospital with two of his schoolmates, Chiaki and Isamu, on a visit to their teacher Yuko Takao at the time – the same hospital where this apocalypse was triggered by a cult leader in the basement through some kind of arcane occult magic. Since the hospital itself was spared from the disaster (the cult leader wanted to survive, after all, so he presumably created a magical barrier around it) you, your friends, the teacher, the cult leader and a stray journalist you met earlier that day who somehow found his way into the hospital all survive. However, almost every other human has been killed, inverted ruined Tokyo world has been filled with demons (of course it has – it’s an SMT game) and the protagonist is himself turned into a demon by a mysterious boy and his elderly nanny who force an infernal parasite into his brain through his nose.

Aw, shit… how much did I drink last night?

Got that? It’s all a little bizarre, but the gist of it is that the world as we know it has ended. But not permanently. Just before his demonic transformation, the protagonist receives a telepathic message from Kagutsuchi in which he’s commanded to “find a Reason” and create a new world. These Reasons are basic philosophies, principles for how the world should best operate. If a human can find one of these Reasons and collect enough magatsuhi (some kind of weird glowing red energy that exists in all living things in the Vortex World, as this inside-out sphere world is called) he can gain enough power to summon a god to carry him to Kagutsuchi, who will then let said human create his ideal world. So while the Vortex World is chaotic and filled with violence, it’s really meant to be a brief transition from the end to our world to the beginning of the next one.

Yeah, the apocalypse isn’t fun.

There’s a problem, though. After receiving Kagutsuchi’s command, you might expect that your quest here is to find your own Reason, summon your own god and create your own world. In a different game, that would be the case. But in Nocturne it’s not, because only a human can conceive of a Reason, and the protagonist is no longer fully human. He still has a human mind and what looks more or less like a human body, but in exchange for gaining the superior physical and magical power of a demon, he has traded away part of his humanity, or at least enough of it that he no longer gets to enter Kagutsuchi’s “Create Your Ideal World” contest (only humans qualify; it’s in the fine print.) However, the Demifiend, as the protagonist is now known, can lend his power to one of the remaining humans if they conceive of a Reason he likes and can fight for the supremacy of that Reason over the others.

In the course of the game, three Reasons are conceived, and two more are attempted but fail for different reasons. The first of these Reasons is conceived by Hikawa, the dillweed cult leader who started this whole mess. It’s called Shijima, the world of stillness, one in which all souls melt into a perfectly consistent soup of energy and nothing changes for the rest of eternity (at least I think that’s the idea – his explanation is obscure, or maybe I’m just too stupid to get it.)

Hikawa explains his Reason, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The other two Reasons are conceived by your two surviving still-human classmates, Chiaki and Isamu. Chiaki champions Yosuga, the world of strength, which seems to be something close to the Chaos “might makes right” alignment in the other SMT games with the exception that the powerful can’t be challenged and overthrown in Chiaki’s version. While both Hikawa and Chiaki actively seek demon minions to help them gather magatsuhi to call down their gods, Isamu retreats into the Amala Network, a series of tunnels “under” the Vortex World that act as a sort of extra-dimensional subway system for the Demifiend and those few others who know how to use it. It’s in this Network that Isamu realizes his own Reason of Musubi, a world of solitude in which every soul can create his or her own reality separate from every other reality. Strangely enough, Isamu starts to gather demon followers as well, though they don’t have quite the same team spirit as the Yosuga and Shijima demons have for obvious reasons.

Yeah, keep telling yourself that.

The first time I played Nocturne, I wasn’t following a guide, so I didn’t realize that rejecting all three Reasons was a viable option. I thought I had to make a choice out of the three. All three of the Reason-conceiving characters try to some degree to convince Demifiend that he should support them, and there are a few dialogue and decision points starting around late mid-game that present the player with the option of supporting or rejecting each. Naturally, you can’t support more than one reason, so the game uses a point system to determine which Reason you end up backing, sort of like the Golden Saucer date system in Final Fantasy VII except the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Out of the three Reasons, I rejected Shijima out of hand. Hikawa is an asshole who never shows any sympathy for the protagonist or his friends, who in fact uses and deceives your teacher to collect magatsuhi for the purpose of creation. On top of that, his ideal world sounded like a hellish nightmare to me. Shijima seems similar to some of the less orthodox Western ideas about Heaven or to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, in which the idea of the self and all its desires are lost. I know that’s supposed to be a good thing, but I guess I’m not enlightened at all, because I’d rather keep my self intact, as much as I hate it sometimes. So there was no way I was going with Shijima. The “strong oppressing the weak forever” world of Yosuga also sounded pretty lousy. Chiaki is the game’s only female human character aside from Takao, so some players might have thought about making her Demifiend’s qt waifu, but alas, near the end of the story she’s absorbed into a weird-looking god named Baal Avatar and completely loses all semblance of humanity, so that’s not happening. Nocturne isn’t a Persona game, and there’s no Christmas date with your girlfriend in the Vortex World.

This is really as close as you get.

That left Musubi. Isamu is kind of a dick throughout the first half of the game and ends up blaming Demifiend for not saving him from being captured by a gang of demons that were squeezing magatsuhi from every living thing they could find, something that wasn’t Demifiend’s fault at all. But once he finds his Reason, he forgives Demifiend for that, since he seems to have found his own truth – that people live essentially separate lives and can never truly empathize with each other. Hence Isamu’s ideal world, which takes a lot of credit from the idea of solipsism, that you can never be sure of any fact other than that you exist. Isamu doesn’t elaborate on this idea a whole lot when you meet him in the Amala Network near the endgame, but he seems to suggest that in his new world, everyone would be able to create their own worlds in their own minds, essentially talking to themselves for the rest of eternity, or at least until the next death and rebirth of this universe.

When you transcend the plane of normal humanity, you lose your shirt but keep your hat.  Those are the rules.

This might sound just as hellish to you as Hikawa’s world of stillness or Chiaki’s world of strength, but I find something interesting in it. The mind needs socialization, but if it creates its own society, its own world, its own universe – maybe that fulfills its need perfectly. The real world may already be headed in that direction with improvements in AI and the creation of virtual worlds that are starting to not look and feel like shit when you enter them. Be honest with yourself – given the choice, would you deal with the outer world full of people you can never fully empathize with or trust, or with your own inner world? Most people would honestly say the former, and I understand why. But I also understand where Isamu is coming from, and I was 100% in “fuck the whole world” mode the first time I played Nocturne. I chose to support Isamu, and we built our own world(s) at the end of the game when I beat the hell out of Kagutsuchi for him (turns out Kagutsuchi doesn’t let you create your own world unless you can beat him in a two-stage boss fight. That must have also been in the fine print.)

On my second playthrough, I found out that I could reject every Reason and get a different, better ending, so I did that instead. Still, even after all this time, Isamu’s world of solitude holds some appeal for me. Throughout my life, I’ve been told what to do and how to do it. I’m sure you’ve been told the same. Even now, I don’t feel like I live for myself at all, but only out of duty to others. I’d like nothing better to escape, though that’s impossible. Is it selfish of me to think that way? Probably. Should I care whether that makes me selfish? Every day I live, I care less and less. Weirdly enough, then, Isamu is the character in Nocturne I empathize with the most.  Aside from Yuko Takao, that is.  She’s got it the worst.  Elaborating on her story would take an even longer post than this one, so I’ll set it aside.

It’s sad, though.

What are your thoughts? What kind of world would you create if you were given the option? Do you think it’s even right to impose your own ideals on the entire world the way the characters in Nocturne do? Do you wish I would shut up about this nonsense and review my backlog of games instead? I will, I promise. 𒀭

 

* What happened to the rest of Earth outside of Tokyo after the Conception is never addressed, but our characters have enough of their own problems to be concerned with that. Maybe Tokyo just blinked out of existence and left a void behind, or maybe every city and every little bumfuck town in the world experienced its own Conception based on their city and county limits.

Soundtrack review: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne Original Soundtrack and Maniacs Extra Soundtrack

As I wrote two posts ago, I was at a con last month where I ended up dropping a lot of money I don’t really have on several imported albums (as well as a few books that, uh, I can’t post here. Yes, they are basically what you think they are.)

Among my haul was the complete soundtrack of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, one of my favorite games, which comes in a double-CD set and a separate single CD. Why this division?  Because the original release of Nocturne, commonly known as the vanilla version, was fairly thin and didn’t include the Labyrinth of Amala or the fiend fights, which add about an extra third of game and plot content, an extra third of music, and a new ending to the game. This expanded version, known as SMT III Nocturne Maniacs in its home country, is the version we got here in North America simply as SMT: Nocturne and that our friends in Europe got as Lucifer’s Call. (Yes, this is the version featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series.)

What can you expect from these soundtracks? A mix of hard rock with some jazz influence, piano/organ/synth-dominated pieces, and synthesized orchestral music. In the first category are most of the battle themes (including “Normal Battle ~ Town”, my favorite of the whole soundtrack) and some of the boss themes.* Nocturne features almost a dozen battle themes in total, counting boss themes, meaning you won’t get absolutely sick of one theme that keeps repeating throughout (see “Mass Destruction” from Persona 3 for a good example of overused battle theme fatigue.) The second category contains nice contemplative pieces like “Apocalypse”, “Reunion With Master”, “Heretic Mansion”, “Mystery”, and the first part of “Tokyo Conception” before the organ and guitar come in. The orchestral stuff is smattered all over the game, featuring in overworld map themes and boss themes – “Fiend” from the extra soundtrack is one of the best of these tracks. I’m not always a big fan of synthesized music, but chief Nocturne composer Shoji Meguro and his associates use synths in a way that both fits and enhances the heavy atmosphere of the game.

There are extensive liner notes mostly written by Meguro in the main soundtrack on every piece, but I can’t read most of it and I can’t find a translation. It might just be time for me to learn how to read this damn language for real.

One of my favorite things about Nocturne is that although it deals with an apocalypse (you might have guessed from the fact that there’s a piece on the soundtrack named “Apocalypse”) said apocalypse takes place near the beginning of the game. The focus of Nocturne is not the destruction of the old world, as it would be in a typical JRPG, but rather the creation of a new world based upon the ideals of the few surviving humans. The main setting of Nocturne is the Vortex World, a mostly ruined Tokyo enclosed inside a sphere – imagine that the surface of the Earth is on its inside instead of its outside and that the Earth is only something like 20 or 30 miles in diameter. The Vortex World is filled with demons and the scattered spirits of humans left behind after the end of the world. Kagutsuchi, a god of fire, shines in the middle in the form of a burning sphere, sort of like a very small sun. The entire setting is both otherworldly and bizarre, but it all works, thanks to the game’s visual design and to its soundtrack. Shoji Meguro’s music is a big part of why Nocturne is one of my favorite games.

That said, you might not get the same kind of enjoyment I got out of listening to these pieces on their own if you haven’t played the game. They are mostly excellent, but a lot of the value of the soundtrack comes out of its association with the game. Since Nocturne is a great game anyway (and not as reliant on cheap shots as some people seem to think it is – that’s a subject for another post) you’re better off playing it before binging straight on the music. You’ll have a better time with it that way. For that reason, these soundtracks collectively get a rating of 6 if you haven’t played Nocturne and a 7 if you have.

Make friends with a fairy, punch God in the face, create a new world.  The life of a Megaten protagonist is more fun than mine.

One more note about the Nocturne soundtracks.  There is a CD floating around simply titled Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne Original Soundtrack that looks like it was printed for the western market.  I’ve never seen a physical copy, but the Megaten wikia page suggests it was provided as a bonus with the NA release of Nocturne.  In any case, it has tracks from both the vanilla core and the extra Maniacs parts of the game, but if the tracklist posted on the wikia page is accurate, the CD doesn’t contain anywhere near the game’s full soundtrack – it only lists 33 tracks, while the JP vanilla soundtrack alone has 49 tracks.  An abridged soundtrack is pretty good as free bonuses go, but it seems like quite the ripoff if you’re paying for it separately.  Just a warning in case you ever come across it. I don’t own this NA-only soundtrack, but based on the tracklist I’d give it a rating of 5. It’s good, but why buy this when you can get the whole enchilada?

Oh yeah, and happy Halloween.  I guess.  I’m spending my Halloween drinking whiskey and playing Disgaea 1 Complete.  I don’t need any friends, you hear me? 𒀭

 

* Most of these battle and boss themes are actually vocal tracks.  I didn’t realize this on my first playthrough, probably because the vocals are garbled and distorted so badly, but that barking in the background is in English, and you can make out some lines if you listen closely.