on 11 August 2006
Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne centres on a modern day/futuristic vision of the city of Tokyo, or rather what's about to happen to it...A short introduction sees you as a teenage boy mooching round town, before meeting two friends in a deserted hospital. After much roaming around empy corridors and wards with no random battles or anything of note happening, your patience is finally rewarded when everything suddenly plunges into chaos as the whole world is obliterated before your eyes. This is not a spoiler by any means, in fact your adventure only really begins when you awake after this wipe-out and find that your entire existance is changed forever...
Wow, this is somewhat different from RPG's that I am used to. Although in some ways it's very traditional, I would say overall it's unlike most other games of the genre. So what's going on? Well, your character has survived this holocaust, but become changed, due to the intervention of a mysterious man, whose true identity remains a mystery for much of the story. But thanks to him, you are now a half-human, half-demon, with strength and magical powers beyond your understanding. And you will need them too, to fight your way through this bewildering new world.
To start with the basics, any RPG is only as good as it's battle system, and this game has a pretty good one...here are the main points: Fighting is turn-based, although in this game the whole side gets all their actions over with before the turn passes to the enemies, so you can choose all your actions and see how they pan out before they proceed to take all their turns. Now here's where things get interesting. A number of "turn" icons appears on the screen to let you know how many actions you have remaining before the round switches to the enemy. You can add extra turns to your round if an attack exploits the enemies particular weakness (such as hitting a fire demon with an ice attack). And the more you do it, the more turns you can chain together. Of course it's not always as easy as guessing that ice magic beats fire. And if you are careless or have not established the enemies weakness, you run the risk of hitting it with something that it is immune to or, worse still, that can heal it. And if you do this, you LOSE one or sometimes even all of your upcoming turns. I think this system is really clever. It means you can never just bash away with your best skills without thinking. Plus it also means that if the enemy attacks your weak spots or manages to miss you, it will also build up or lose turns in the same way. So fighting is a battle of wits as much as power, and some harder bosses can never be whipped unless you find away to stop them taking all your turns away and having loads of extra goes themselves. Great fun. And luckily save points are quite liberal so you can always weed out the weaknesses of difficult enemies by trial and error (this is especially crucial for some bosses), and then reload and go into battle fully prepared.
The other novel thing about the fighting is that you are to all intents and purposes the only playable character. Well, you are certainly the only human character. But, you will be aided and supported in battle by a legion of weird and wonderful monsters that you meet throughout the game and manage to convince to join your party. This adds a new dimension to fighting, as you can choose to break off the battle at any time and use the "talk" command. This allows you to negotiate with any monster you are currently fighting and see if you can get them to join your team. Now, there are dozens of variables that dictate whether this succeeds or not...they may ask for steep sums of money or rare items, or they may pose moral dilemmas and make their decison based on whether they like your answer. Sometimes other enemies may step in and mess it up for you. At other times you may be surprised to find that the monsters themselves actually ask to come with you in return for sparing their life, which is quite nice! Although this one usually only happens with enemies who are at a lower level that you are...try asking a high level monster to surrender and you'll just be laughed at. Anyway, it all adds more to the gameplay, especially as there is never a sure-fire formula for winning a new monster, they are an unpredictable lot at best. You can hand over huge wads of cash and jewels, only to be told at the last minute: "I'm sorry, I just don't think we are compatible"...bah!
So, once you are holding a good supply of monsters (limited to about 6-8 at the start of the game), you can select a team of three to participate in battle with you. If a battle starts and you realise the monsters in your team have got the wrong skills for this particular fight, you can use the "summon" command to swap any of them with one from your reserves. It's that easy. Your monsters level up with experience the same as you, and learn new skills if you let them. Refreshingly, all your stats are customizable, but those of your monster allies are not. If they level up they may learn a new skill or change an existing one, or even evolve into a whole new monster if you let them. But none of this can be predicted, and the results can be fantastic, or they can cause you to regret it! Now, I said this was refreshing, although on paper it sounds like it could potentially be a complete nightmare as all your careful plans go awry because your monster went and changed the skill you were depending on into a completely useless one. It happened to me when my Pixie changed her healing magic into one I really didn't want, called "Taunt"...and I was ages on from my last save. So save often if a monster is getting close to levelling up - thankfully a "points until next level" counter is always at hand for you to check on! But in reality, the times when the changes end up being worse are very rare, and I found it great fun to see what new spells my monsters produced. It's also a proud moment to see the unexpected times that a monster you have been training up finally mutates into a brand new creature. It does not happen to all of them, and you can't foresee it, but when it does, it's always an enhancement in all departments.
But even that's not all. In each "town" there is usually a place you can go and "fuse" your monsters together, which, put simply, means combining two monsters to make a new, more powerful one. This process is also really good fun - and this time it's all under your control. The process lets you see every outcome available before you commit to doing the fusion, which is really important as otherwise you would be saving and re-loading forever to get a good result. As you may expect, there are many factors involved in fusing that can affect the result, so be prepared to spend a long time on this if you want to make some really high ranking, rare monsters. You'll need to spend a lot of time ammassing a team with a nice selection of skills, too because you'll need plenty of back-up for the bosses. And in this regard, be prepared for some real trials. The Matador ( a really cool-looking skeleton in a bull-fighter's outfit) that you encounter a few hours into the game makes for a huge jump in difficulty and for a while I thought I must have got to the area he was in before I was supposed to (I hadn't - he's just hard!). Of course after finally beating him I wanted him in my team and to my delight I was able to fuse him later, and now he works for me...another very satisfying aspect.
Now that I have praised the game enough, I need to list the drawbacks. Although there are not many, and the fun with the monster team is good enough to outweigh them....My first niggle is a simple problem of localization. The names of the monster families, spells and abilities are impossible to remember, being, as they are, all Japanese in origin. So, for example Agi is the name of the basic fire spell, while Media is the name of one of the healing spells, and a defence raising spell is known as Rakukaja. And sometimes (as in the case of fusion or skill replacing) you need to know what something is pretty sharpish before you can make a desicion...would you prefer your demon to keep Tarunda or replace it with Makajam? You also can't name the monsters in your team, and I spent a lot of time early on having to check the Status menu to see which one was the fire-pixie (it was Hua-Po), and work out which one Nozuchi was (a big hairball with feet and an elephant's trunk, if you must know). I suppose it's good to learn something akin to a foreign language, but as there easily over 100 different skills and types of monster classes in total, it's almost impossible to remember what they are without a guide.
Secondly, I found the graphics quite...unusual. Although the characters are very chic and dynamic looking cel animations, the locations can be severely bland. Most noticeably in the early hospital and shopping mall sections, every single room was identical, with a distinct lack of variety anywhere in the level as a whole. Apart from being boring, it means you have a lot of trouble knowing whereabouts in the building you are. At least the game provides a very good map for every indoor level, unlike the outdoor areas which appear as a drastically miniatuarised landscape for which there is no "world map", so exploration with trial and error is really your only option here. The battle animations are quite good though, with some very nice spell effects - although the characters "dodge" animation is absurd - it's a completely static "slide" to one side and back again, which looks like just plain lazy animation. The monsters look great, and they all have a little signature "victory dance" move that you can see when they level up - some were so cute I was actually reluctant to fuse them...I miss my little Shiisaa...
I would recommend this game to lovers of RPGs - and if you are the type who likes a bit of experimentation, you're in for a treat. You might have to make your own notes to keep track of a lot of things, though! And the dungeons are often both puzzle-based and maze like so expect to get lost a fair bit too, which adds to the overall time!
You should have hours of fun with this game. I was wary of an RPG that had a large bias towards munster hunting...I didn't want to play Pokemon. But it turned out to be very addictive and fun to play. Even when it was hard work it was good...I soon realised that when boss battles were too hard I was just going in without paying attention to strategy - because just being buffed up is NOT the key to success in this game. But with lots of saving, you should never be too frustrated.