Review: Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne (PS2)

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
System: Playstation 2
Genre: RPG

So, here it is. After seemingly years of waiting, Atlus have finally given us a new PS2 Megaten game. Better still, it’s the special-edition Director’s Cut of the original game. But will the game live up to the hype, and join Disgaea in the hallowed halls of RPG must-haves? There’s only one way to find out…



Story

It seemed like any other day in Tokyo for one particular student (except for the reports of a riot between opposing cults). However, after he and his schoolfriends pay a visit to their sickly teacher, who’s in a hospital reportedly run by Cultists), they find themselves (moderately) safe in the eye of a cataclysmic storm. The world as he (you) know it is “extensively remodelled” in an event referred to as The Conception, which results in Tokyo becoming a demon-infested post-apocalyptic landscape mapped into the inside of a sphere, with a single moon where the centre of the sphere would be. Oh, and thanks to the intervention of a small child and a woman who looks like his nursemaid, you’ve been turned into a demon, which means you have a strange larval creature known as Magatsuhi inside you, giving you special powers. Into this chaotic maelstrom of a world you venture, initially concerned only for your schoolfriends and teacher (who, it appears is something of a Virgin Mary figure to the Cultists who ran the hospital). However, as the game progresses, you find yourself drawn into the battle between the Mantra and the Nihilo, two opposing forces in the world… But what are their true motivations? Which way is the “right” one? *IS* there a “right” one? These are questions that you and your character are going to have to answer for yourselves, and the decisions you make could very well shape the fate of the world…

If there’s one area in which the Megaten series has always stood out from its rivals, it’s in terms of story. And it’s not just the rich, textured plot, either: it’s the sheer amount of work that’s gone into creating a stable world-set that draws on elements of mythology from all over the world and merges it with an otherwise-cliched Post-Apocalyptic Tokyo setting. Couple that with the deep philosophical and theological undercurrents that suffuse the story, not to mention the moral dilemmas, and the overall picture is a true work of art. The ability to follow and empathise with the character’s thought processes as their personalities develop over the course of the game is the icing on the cake.

Story: 10/10



Graphics

Cel-shaded graphics can be a double-edged sword. In the right hands, they’re a great way to add a distinctive feel to a game. In the wrong hands, they just look cutesy and out of place. Also, they have a tendency to polarise popular opinion – gamers, it seems, either love them or hate them. I tend to lean more on the “love ’em” side of things, especially when they’re deployed in a “non-cartoony” way like they are here. The characters are distinctive, well-drawn and never look out of place for a moment (quite feat, given the subject matter of the storyline). The environments, too are very pretty (if a little bland in places) and special mention goes to the lovely-looking World Map. It’s hardly pushing the PS2 to its limits, but what’s there is excellent work, and suits the game down to the ground.

Graphics: 7/10



Sound

Summary: WOW. I absolutely ADORE the music in this game. From the stirring church-organ pieces that sound like something from The Phantom Of The Opera, to the pop-sounding Elevator-style music in the underground malls (which somehow reminds me of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) to the wide varety of area themes, covering everything from dance to metal to EBM, there’s something for just about everyone. The music itself is composed and mixed to perfection, and fits perfectly the mood that the programmers are trying to create in the game. You might not have thought that such a broad range of styles could be brought together into one project, but Atlus’ musical department have managed it with style, to create something quite unique in contemporary console gaming. Normally with RPGs, the usual complaint is that the Battle Theme gets boring after a while: I’d have to disagree because, although it’s not the finest piece of music in the game, a battle theme is never designed to be: it’s only supposed to be an atmosphere-setter, because the player is suposed to be caught up in the compexities of battle. Which, in this game, you are.

Sound: 10/10



Controls

OK, it’s an RPG. It’s not exactly going to be dealing with camera-angles issues and pixel-perfect collision detection. Moving around is done by either the D-Pad or the left analogue stick. X is the “action” button. The World Map is top-down, with your character represented by a little marker, while the Dungeon levels are done in third-person over-the-shoulder view. Square is your “Party Menu” where you can view your team of demons, and select the ones you want to be active, while Triangle is the automap (which is a very nice feature, even if it’s not strictly necessary) Circle puts you into “Strafe Mode” (i.e it locks the camera behind you, so your character can move sideways).

In battle, you pretty much HAVE to use the D-Pad, otherwise you can’t select your options properly. And although the Auto Battle option is available, be very careful, because holding down the X button has the same effect… If you’re not away, you can see three of your characters do normal attacks without realising that you selected them. Additional control quirks come in the form of the Party Menu controls: when you select a category to examine (whether it be skills, status, or whatever) if uyou want to see different pages for each chaacter you have to go back two sub-screens, and reselect. A minor quibble, certainly, but one I found to be sufficicently annoying as to be worth mentioning.

Controls: 6/10



Balance

This is an interesting category for Nocturne: mainly because of the inherent complexities of the game system. Put simply, how well the game is balanced depends entirely on how much effort you put into getting to grips with the game mechnics. Your hero, for example, powers up according to the particular type of Matagama that he’s ingested at the time, gaining different skills according to a combination of his Level and how much time he’s spent with that particular Matagama inside him. So you can either let your Hero grow with no real plan, or you can carefully cultivate a skillset for him, carefully allocating your stat points to make him a physical fighter, or an offensive mage, or a support mage, or whatever you want. Obviously, putting in the extra effort to customising your hero makes for a more powerful character, and thus, a slightly easier game.

Similarly, with the demons you can recruit. I order to get them to join you, you’re going to have to make deals with them. You can try and go for straightforward talking, but most of the tougher ones will just laugh in your face. You’ll have far better chances of recuiting them is you’ve got demons in your party who have Negotiation Skills (which can be anything from an affinity that makes them more persuasive to other demons of the same ‘family, to a bargaining skill that lets them intervene and lower the financial demands that some demons make).

Which brings me on to the real core of the game: The demons. If you want, you can stick with the basic ones, and build them up. But you’re going to suffer in the later game because they just won’t cut the mustard. In oder to stand a chance, frequent visits to the Cathedral Of Shadows will be in order, because it is here that you can fuse two (or more, depending) demons together to create a new one, who will know some of the skills of its ‘parents’, and/or may know some of its own moves. Fusion is a very effective way to get higher-level demons without having to track them down “native”, and it’s the ONLY way to get most of the truly uber-powerful demons, but it takes a while to get the hang of. And even once you know what you’re doing, you’ll often find yourself endlessly searching for particular type of demon, in order to get just the right combinartion of skills. Again, the more effort you out in, the more you get from the game, and the easier it becomes.

Even the battle system rewards those who work hard. The way combat turns work, the “Press Turn” system, is a deep, dynamic one. Inititally, your party has one “symbol” for each member of it (a maximum of 4 symbols for a full team). Each of the symbols represents one Action for a character. However, if a character’s attack hits an enemy’s weakness, or scores a critical hit, one of the symbols begins to flash. Effectively, that attack has only cost you “half an action”. However, there’s a flipside to this… If your character uses a move which the enemy is resistant to, or misees with an attack, the failed attemp will cost you TWO symbols, effectively costing you two turns. Where the demon fusion comes in is because the key to winning (more so than in just about any other game you care to mention) is in the Type Advantages. If you’re fighting a group of Ice demons, and your party is resistant to ice, not only are you taking less damage, you’re also drastically limiting the number of attacks the enemy get. And if you’ve got ice-absorbing team members, well that’s even better. Of course, in order to get the right demons for the right job at the right time, you’re going to have to fuse. And understand the process well. Otherwise, you’re going to be utterly stuck very quickly. Put the work in, and you will be rewarded appropriately. Now isn’t that what balance is supposed to be about?

Balance: 8/10



Replayability

The core of the game is plenty long enough for most gamer’s tastes… Some might even say “too long”. But, as ever, there’s always a whole mass of sub-quests to follow up on, as well as multiple ending to unlock AND two difficulty modes to play through. But, as ever, the question is “can you be bothered to find it all?” And it’s a question that only you, the player, can answer. I’m a shameless Pokemaniac, and yet I still find myself struggling to put in the effort to Catch ‘Em All. As far as Nocturne goes, for me, as long as my party is tough enough to finish the game, that’s what counts. It may sound entirely shallow, but I just don’t have the time to experiment with fusing large sections of the Norse pantheon together “just to see what happens”… Or trying to fill up my “Akuma Zensho” (or, as I call it, The Big Book Of Demons – sort of a cross between The Necronomicon and a Pokedex) Some people will get a kick out of that, some won’t. It really is a matter of taste.

Replayability: 5/10



Appeal Factor

A key part of “appeal” is to do with how likely a gamer-in-the-street is to pick up the game “on a whim”. In all honesty, the people who are going to buy this game will, by and large, have bought it already. Altus are infamous for having low print runs of their games, and so all the fams know they have to pre-order. And since those who have the tgame are going to be more inclined to hold onto their copies, the number available for “general purchase” is going to be correspondingly low. Furthermore, although the intro sequences are very pretty indeed, they’re not going to persuade a casual buyer to pick up the game. Also, the effort required to play the game needs to be factored in: This isn’t your typical Final Fantasy-esqe “glitzy-but-easy” game. Anybody who’s not prepared for the amount of work that’s going to be required to get anything out of the game is going to switch off after a few hours, even if they’re an RPG fan.

But of course, to those who thrive on masses of complexity and Deep Involvement, the game is going to be a veritable banquet of gaming goodness. And all the mythological references are always going to score points with some people *COUGH*alexlucard*HACK*. But it’s not going to be for everybody.

Appeal Factor: 4/10



Originality

When asked by my housemate what the game was like, I said “The demon-possessed lovechild of Pokemon and Final Fantasy”. That on its own should be enough to score originality points, even more so when you consider that the first Megaten game actually predates Pokemon by two or three years, and is the originator of the “capture, collect and train your monsters” concept. However, at its heart, Nocturne is still a sequel (indeed, as has been pointed out, it’s a multi-quel, being another game in a long running series), and we all know what that does for a game’s originality.

But wait! Multi-quel though it is, there’s more than enough new and altered stuff in the game to boost its score here. For example, as well as the innovative combat system, the “Aligment System” has been updated; instead of the Law vs Chaos axis seen in earlier games, there are different philosophies found throughout the game, and the responses you make to certain key questions will affect your character’s standing in relation to the three views, and thus determine your game ending. It’s not just a case of “keeping the scales balanced” this time around. Also, your Demon Fusions have been reworked (simplified actually: whether that’s a Good Thing is up to you), and the inclusion of Kagutsuchi is a fine example of how to spice things up a little.

So, bonus marks for doing things differently, and some more because the game it follows on from was so original, but minus points for inherent sequelness.

Originality: 6/10



Addictiveness

Really, the whole key here is how much you get into the story. If you start delving deep in, examining the philosophy behind each group, looking for all the hidden cut-scenes and backstory, you’re not goping to be able to put the game down. If you’re a less involved gamer (not a bad thing, just different) then you’re not going to be compelled to keep playing, because in all the ways that count, it’s “just another RPG”. Admittedly, the story itself is MORE than enough to keep most people involved, but it’s not going to hook everybody. I don’t mind admitting that, for myself, I find this a hard category to call, since I’ve long since lost the ability to get *truly* hooked on a game, but I like to think it gives me a more objective perspective on things.

Addictiveness: 5/10



Miscellaneous

Here, I have three letters which sell the game in this category: OST. Yep, when you buy a copy of Nocturne, you get a bonus CD containing the game’s music. To understand the significance of this, one must look at Japan, where game soundtrack albums are HUGE business (as anybody who’s ever looked into importing the FFVI CD box set will be aware), and so giving something like this away for free with each purchase is a major giveaway, even if soundtracks aren’t quite so popular elsewhere. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the music in question is absolutely phenomenal, and would be well worth spending an extra $15 on. The other Killer Extra is a trailer for Atlus’ next Us release, Digital Devil Saga, a more futuristic, high-tech spin on the Megaten concepts. Which to be quite honest, looks every bit as special as Nocturne (and has the added bonus of featuring automatic weapons). The preview’s certainly done its job in terms of getting me excited for the game, anyway.

Miscellaneous: 8/10


Short Attention Span Summary
SMT: Nocturne is a damn fine game. It’s got everything an RPG should have: In-depth storyline, lengthy play time, and a gameplay system that directly rewards you for the amount of effort you put into mastering it. On top of that, it’s a fine example of video gaming. But in all fairness, it’s not for everybody, and that’s reflected in the final score. If you’re a fan of RPGs, add an extra 2/10 to the score, and run out and buy it IMMEDIATELY. For everybody else, it’s well worth picking up (if you can find it), but there are plenty of other games you should be looking at picking up first.