PS2 review: Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne

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Nocturne’s “press turn” battle system is glorious. Every fiend has its own elemental strengths and weaknesses, and exploiting them pressures your opponents, earning you extra moves. Smart combos will have you attacking eight times in a turn instead of four, and if you structure your party right you can nullify enemy attacks, ending their attack strings early.

There’s a lot of potential for daring displays. Crafty players will ruin their opponents, exploiting weakness after weakness with a slew of elemental spells. But enemies are equally cunning. Let down your guard for a moment and they’ll crush your demons with a succession of brutal attacks, knocking you off your stride and deciding the battle. The back-and-forth struggle that arises from the press turn system lends Nocturne a ton of dynamism.

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The opening hours of the game are an uphill struggle, but reveal one of my favorite aspects of the game. Those same status spells that are useless in every other game are actually important in Nocturne: They work against bosses. I love it.

You’ll need them, because bosses are brutal, and one of the hardest actually shows up in the first quarter of the game. They’re occasionally maddening, but there’s a stronger sense of accomplishment from beating them than you’ll feel in most other roleplaying games.

The challenge level is definitely appreciated, except for the instant death spells. I can’t stand them, and they’re just plain terrible game design. If your main character dies your team is wiped out, so it’s garbage that he can be one-shotted with a little bad luck. Granted, it rarely happens and you can prevent against it, but prevention’s more trouble than it’s worth since it takes up valuable skill slots.

Nocturne’s battle system is bolstered by a demon fusion system, wherein you can combine two demons from your roster to create something new. You’re always able to see what the resulting demon will look like – they’re usually cool as hell, but occasionally hilariously stupid looking. And you’ll be able to see their stats to make sure the resulting demon is worth the fusion.

Fusions will create a new demon with mixed skills from both parent demons. Fuse right, and you’ll end up with a godlike set of skills and a new favorite demon. There’s a great sense of ownership over your team, as you’ve hand-selected their skill combos. Making a group healer with regenerating mana is incredibly satisfying, as is fusing a master spellcaster or a demon with massive resistances and few weaknesses.

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The downside to this is that the game auto-selects skills for your fusions. I understand that Atlus was probably going for some extra randomness to add variety to the design, but all it means in gameplay terms is that you’re going to arrange and cancel and arrange and cancel fusions until you get exactly the combination you were looking for. It sucks.

Your main character has a different problem learning skills. He ingests magatama, demon armors that teach him all manner of abilities. If he levels up while a certain magatama is ingested, he’ll learn a corresponding skill. Unfortunately, these skills can only be learned once, and if you choose to forget them, they’re gone. It discourages and punishes experimentation.

Nocturne’s graphics are incredibly strange to me, in that they’re technically and stylistically stunning but often leave me bored. The demons are incredibly well-crafted, and the real-time cutscenes are composed of beautiful blocks of minimalist color.

But the moment-to-moment gameplay is presented from behind your character’s back, and it makes the graphics seem incredibly dull. You’re almost always viewing from the same angle when exploring dungeons, and there’s a distinct lack of authorship to the camera. When the game takes over the camera, the graphics look gorgeous. I wish it did so more often.

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The dungeons themselves are mostly intertwined networks of tunnel, which doesn’t help matters. They have a unique cyberlithic style, with etched blocks radiating neon light, but they’re still just tunnels, and they’re boring to look at for hours on end.

I do think that non-linear dungeons are underused in most roleplaying games, but Nocturne pushes them a little too far. I’d have liked the occasional simpler dungeon, to make the sprawling caverns stand out more. And maybe it would have helped the graphical design to have a few smaller, more intimately designed dungeons. Thankfully, there’s a helpful map to guide you through these mazes. You’ll need it, because the more annoying puzzle dungeons tend to warp you all over the area.

Nocturne’s story is sparse, with only the barest bits of plot to string players along. The world’s been destroyed, and demon factions are waging wars to summon their own god and realize a new world of their own design.

Each demon needs their own reason, an ideal which governs the new world’s design, and this applies to the player as well. It’s a unique mechanic that allows the player to accept or reject various ethical codes. Unfortunately, the game’s characters seem to take each reason to its ideological limit, and it’s hard to accept anyone’s motivation for creation.

Fortunately, the game provides mini-reasons in its demon recruitment system. In order to add new blood to your party, players need to talk to, brainwash, and seduce various demons. Usually you have to offer them money and items before they ask a question that determines whether they’ll join your side.

The answers are somewhat arbitrary, since it’s randomly determined which one’s correct for that encounter. But I like the questions in themselves. They’re a little microcosm of the overall thrust of the game, and they add personality to each demon. The questions are interesting, and I like hearing the demons’ answers, whether or not I succeed in recruiting them.

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Overall, Nocturne’s strengths are similar to those of a main-series Pokémon game. There are cool ‘mons to recruit, each with different elemental strengths and weaknesses to exploit, and both games emphasize core gameplay over structured narrative. That said, even though the broad strokes are similar, both series arrive at a very different feel. Nocturne flows differently; it’s distinct.

But it possesses that same addictive gameplay. Though I have scattered issues with the game, Nocturne is a dungeon crawler at heart. When you’re dungeon crawling, the plot and the small gameplay kinks mostly fade away. What’s left is the battle system, and Nocturne’s is one of rare beauty.

PS:

Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers comes out today for 3DS. Check it out.

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5 Responses to “PS2 review: Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne”

  1. Albedosrighthand Says:

    I got into SMT from Persona 3 back in the day and have been hooked on the series ever since. Just bought Soul hackers today but have only had like 30 minutes on it so far.

  2. catstronaut Says:

    So far I’ve only played Persona 3 and 4, plus Nocturne. I really, really enjoyed the Persona games but never ended up finishing either one. I’m just like that with RPGs. I love the first ten or twenty hours, but I can’t maintain that enthusiasm the entire way. Once they stop introducing new mechanics I start getting bored. Nothing to do with the quality of the games, but I do wish developers would shorten them a bit.

    Let me know how you like Soul Hackers. I think it looks cool but really dated. Maybe it’s cool because it looks so dated – you gotta love that ridiculous late-90s cyberpunk.

    • Albedosrighthand Says:

      Well I am an hour in and a little confused on the combat system , but aside form that there have been some nice moments. Such as guns that fold out into computers. They’re called Gun-Comps, and a spirit journey with a magical talking coyote.

  3. S.C. Says:

    I loved Nocturne. It was absolutely brutal, especially that one boss (I know exactly which one you’re talking about.) But it was a good kind of brutal, the kind that makes you want to master the game and look forward to its future challenges.

    If you’re looking for another SMT game with a similar feel, I’d suggest you have a look at the Digital Devil Saga games, also for the PS2. Same ruined world setting, but there’s a lot more story and the gameplay is pretty different. I like Nocturne more, but DDS has a lot to recommend as well.

    • catstronaut Says:

      I actually just started Devil Summoner 2 :p I heard that both series had weaker first installments but good sequels, so I picked Devil Summoner because it seemed like less of a direct sequel. Also, two pure RPGs in a row is just way too much for me. Hopefully this one can keep my interest even though I’m playing it back to back with Nocturne. Seems cool so far!

      But geez, there’s too many Shin Megami Tensei games to play. Soul Hackers just came out, and now SMT4 is due in a few months, and then SMT X Fire Emblem. Definitely not planning to play all those :O

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