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Josh Bycer, Blogger

March 27, 2010

9 Min Read

I wanted to talk about Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for awhile and this will mark my first analysis of a game that I've yet to complete. That's not to say that I haven't put any time into the game, I've attempted to play through Nocturne on four separate occasions each time meeting with failure. I recently picked up the latest game in the series, Strange Journey for the DS which got me thinking about Nocturne. Before I get into the analysis a brief history is in order.

A long time ago back before Atlus was a popular niche supplying publisher/developer, they were an unknown niche supplying publisher/developer they decided to translate a relatively unknown series in the US called Shin Megami Tensei (MegaTen in Japan) or SMT.

The SMT series is made up of main games and what could be considered side stories with the common thread being demons. Persona which would be our first exposure in the US was one of those side stories. The game featured students who had to communicate with demons to survive and figure out what is going on. A sequel was brought over as well and met with some success. Then at last in 2004 Atlus brought over the main series with Nocturne for the PS2.

While we would only receive one version of Nocturne, our version is considered to be the "extended version" which was release in Japan. This version featured new boss fights, a challenging dungeon among other tweaks. Nocturne became a big hit and in my opinion is one of the best JRPGS to be released. The game became near impossible to find and during the drought I managed to find a used copy in great condition at an EBGames. Since then the game has had a reprint and now copies are readily available from online retailers.

Nocturne like all SMT games deals with demons, in the game the world as we know it dies within 20 minutes of the game. The player is left to fend for themselves in the aftermath, with the world now inhabited by demons. Just about every demon in the game with the exception of some bosses can be recruited to join the player's team. To recruit you have to talk to them and answer questions and hopefully get the demon to like you enough to join. Every demon in the game has its own strengths, weaknesses and skills. "Demon Pokémon" could be a simple description of Nocturne but the game has some deep mechanics to understand.

First is the "press turn" system, both your team and the enemy have their actions per round dictated by how many turns they have. Normally you'll have one for each member on the field and the same goes for the enemy. However if you hit an enemy with an element that they are weak against you'll gain an additional turn. Play your cards right and you can go 8 times in a single round, but there is a danger. If you hit an enemy with an attack that they absorb or reflect then you lose your entire round of turns. The same rules also apply to the enemy and if you're not careful you can run into trouble when dealing with normal fights. When fighting bosses, even though you may be dealing with one big bad enemy, it may have several turns to dish out pain or the ability to multiply its remaining turns.

Next up we have demon fusion which plays heavily into mastering the game. Fusion allows you to combine two demons to create a new one and it also allows you to pass powerful skills onto new demons. Every demon in the game is designated by a race and rank, each pairing of races will produce a demon of a different race. Their ranks and levels are used to determine the other main attributes of the new demon. Lastly random skills will be chosen to be inherited by the new creature, with skills that are close to the creature's own abilities more favored to be transferred. Fusion is the only way to acquire the rarer demons in the game and a special fusion type will allow you to have boss demons on your side. The fusion mechanic is a powerful tool and starts out as a way of evening the odds during the normal game and required to stand a chance dealing with the extra content.

As mentioned earlier every demon has strengths and weaknesses and it is possible to make a demon that has no weakness with the right skill. Going into a boss fight with a team of demons with handpicked skills can mean all the difference in the world. The variety of skills in Nocturne is staggering and you'll never know what trick a boss will pull out next. Now I've been gushing about this game but it's time to talk about why I've played the game on at least four separate occasions and meeting with failure.

Nocturne is a hard game which should come to no surprise to anyone who has played a SMT game over the years. However Nocturne came out over here before the series started refining the game play and smoothing out the wrinkles. Bosses can become pure nightmares to fight if you take the wrong party makeup in. Death can come quick in the game and if the player dies by any means it is game over. Going through the fusion system takes time, you need to level up your demons to unlock their entire skill set to make the fusion worth it and with many boss fights developing a custom team against it is the best solution. To its credit, Nocturne is not a RPG about grinding out levels to beat your foes; if you can learn the tricks of the system it lowers the difficulty curve dramatically. The problem is that most newcomers will not get far enough into the game to start delving into these mechanics and I can tell you exactly where the majority of gamers threw in the towel.

Earlier I mentioned that our version of Nocturne added new features and one of the biggest game changing ones were the Fiend fights. Fiends were elite demons who appeared in certain parts of the game to challenge the player to a fight. Each one is unique and very powerful, with some required to progress and others you could avoid fighting if you wanted. The first fight however was required and became like a Berlin Wall of difficulty stopping most players in their tracks. The problem is that this fight was a perfect storm of difficulty for the following reasons.

1. The first Fiend fight was with a creature called Matador and came just before the player unlocks one of the most useful features of the fusion system. The ability to record the stats and skills of every demon in your team and allowed to summon up a copy of it at a cost of Macca (in game currency). This allows the player to have a readily available source of fusion materials allowing them to go nuts with creating new combinations. Without this feature it makes fusions riskier as you are limiting your pool of available demons.

2. The fight with Matador can be very difficult due to its own abilities. The demon relies on Force style attacks and the only way to really stand a chance is to have demons that can absorb, reflect or null those types of attacks. At this stage of the game however there not many demons that fall into one of those categories requiring some careful fusions. Just taking one demon that is weak against Force attacks is a recipe for disaster. Matador also has the ability to increase its evasion attribute to obscene levels, lower any buffs you put on your characters, cure any debuffs you put on it along with powerful group affecting attacks.

At first you'll probably say "why the hell did the designers put this fight here?" but the thing is that if you don't learn the lessons from this fight, the game will only get harder from here, my first time playing the game and still getting use to the system I spent 8 hours grinding out levels to strong arm my way through the fight and burnt out on the game. Next time I used the fusion system to make up my party with demons that either null or absorbed force, the fight lasted 2 minutes and I didn't need to heal once. Like the best games out there, you get back what you put into Nocturne but unlike other titles the game asks you to learn important mechanics early on to have any shot at surviving.

Normally I would give some mention to the story but unfortunately even with my furthest play through I did not grab enough details to start piecing together the story. The farthest I got was at least 6 or 7 dungeons into the game on my best run.

My final shout out for Nocturne goes to the strategy guide written by Double Jump Books. The guide was about 400 pages long; no I'm not kidding, there was enough information about Nocturne to fill that many pages and not spoil any parts of the story. I still have a copy of the guide and if there was ever a poster child for making a great strategy guide, Nocturne would be it. Also the guide can also serve as a makeshift blunt instrument if you need to knock someone out. It also makes me wish that DJB would come up with a guide for Strange Journey, so that I have something else to wield in my other hand and having all that useful information would be a plus too I guess.

Nocturne is a bit rough around the edges, but as far as RPGs go it still ranks up there as one of the best. Depending on how my time goes with Strange Journey I may attempt to take the lessons learn and attempt play through five. If you have a PS2, enjoy RPGS and have about $30 to spend you owe it to yourself to pick up Nocturne.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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