Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (PS2) Review
Having started my time with the SMT series with Persona 3, I have played my fair share of games from this series. I tried playing Nocturne once before, but my copy ended up getting stolen, so that never went anywhere, so this year I decided to give this game a real go as many people held it up as an all-time classic, and one of the hardest RPG's ever made. By pure coincidence as I neared completion of this game, the announcement of the HD remake came out, so the question is should you be looking forward to it? Yes, you should, I will not make you wait until the end of the review for that answer.
The end of the world known as The Conception has occurred and as the Demi-Fiend, you play a role in deciding the fate of the world. Gather Demon allies and do battle with the demons and groups that inhabit the various areas of the ruined world, all while trying to decide on a Reason to act as the core of the new world to come. It's a solid premise that is largely delivered upon, but It's not without some flaws. Since you are a part-demon, you are unable to conceive a 'Reason' of your own, and inevitably have to choose whose Reason to follow (Well, that or the True Demon ending, but I won't spoil anything about that). This is all well and good, though each reason is conceived from a different human who remains in this world, we know pretty much nothing about them. There is Hikawa, the man who started it all, your two friends who entered this Vortex World with you, as well as one additional reason. The issue is you know so little about the people involved that the Reason they each select feels kind of arbitrary, and you could probably have just swapped them around characters without much changing, and this does make the whole idea of choosing the fate of the world itself feel a bit hollow.
That said, the atmosphere of the game is constantly oppressive. The ruined landscapes, the existence of the Manikins, the Mantra, and Assembly of Nihilo, everything about the game makes you feel like the world is out to get you. Despite knowing this world is only in a temporary state, there is a constant dread always hanging over your head not knowing what form the new world will take. The characters used to represent these reasons all feel pretty weak, but everything surrounds it is pretty fantastic.
And while there are some pretty interesting characters you meet, groups like the Manakins feel a bit tacked on and don't add anything to the story. I love Sakahagi as this psychotic villain, but in the end, Manakins can never form their reason, so they could easily have been written out of the story without any loss. They already had plenty of demons to work with, so the Manakins just feel like they were added for the sake of variety.
All that said, there isn't a whole lot to the story past that. It's a very simple and well-executed premise with a few hiccups here and there. I don't think it's one of the stronger SMT narratives, but all the same, it's still very enjoyable and worthwhile.
The combat is where the game starts to get fun. The game is a turn-based RPG making use of what people refer to as the 'Press Turn' system, where exploiting enemy weaknesses and grants you additional turns (Well, 'Half turns' but for purpose of discussion calling them turns will work well enough). This applies to both you as well as your enemies, your party getting one turn per active character, up to four. The same applies to enemies, though certain bosses have multiple turns despite having one foe. Of course, if you mess up and strike an enemy immune to your attack, or miss, you lose turns. It doesn't sound like a big thing, but the higher than average difficulty of this game makes one or two additional actions on your turn can drastically change how things go.
Something else to note is how prevalent stat modulation is, to the point that if you ignore it you're going to get wrecked constantly in many fights, of course, if you are familiar with SMT games already you're not going to be surprised by this. A lot of other games out there you tend to skip some of your stat buffing spells because the numbers just aren't worth it, so that is something that makes the combat and strategy stand out when compared to other series as well.
The difficulty of the game is an interesting one to discuss because this game has a legendary status as being hard. The thing is this is the first time I played it, though I went in knowing how SMT games tend to work. And honestly, the difficulty felt very overrated for me, but understand this game came out on the PS2 and was most people's first exposure to the franchise. If you go in not understanding what SMT is, that first fight with Matador would wreck you, especially if you went in playing on hard as I did. I had a harder time with the Devil Survivor SRPG's on DS, Digital Devil Saga, and both Persona 3 and 4 than I did with this game. Of course, Persona 3 was my introduction to SMT, so it's not entirely surprising that and four are the ones I struggled with the most due to lack of experience here. Not to say the game is easy, it's a good challenge for even an experienced RPG player, but depending on your experience it's best to temper expectations going in.
This next one is a criticism of most SMT games in general, and that is they don't design very good dungeons. The visuals themselves look fantastic, but so often it just feels like walking around a bunch of halls. Some areas have gimmicks and puzzles to solve, but they are never very interesting or engaging, they just feel like padding. It's not the worst design of any dungeons in the franchise, they are at least serviceable, but you can't say much more about it than that.
The last thing to bring up is the hardest fight in the entire game, the second encounter (not the boss) against Petra, a level 3 demon. He has an attack with a high critical rate, and if he hits a critical you will take an additional turn and kill you. You can not one turn him at this point in the game, it's your second fight, meaning you can spend up to an hour dying here with no fault of your own, just absolute dumb luck. This is the name of the game until you can start recruiting demons to your party so you have actual variety and options. It's not long before that happens, but that first couple hours of the game can be extremely infuriating because of things like this happening.
Overall Nocturne is a fantastic game. Good story, great atmosphere, and terrific combat that has aged very well. There bits of frustration early on, and the game may not live up to your expectations of a challenge based on your experience with the franchise, but it's a great game to pick up for any RPG fan and has a different feel than just about any other RPG out there, Digital Devil Saga probably being the closest thing out there to it. Give this a go either now or when the HD remake comes out next year.