Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne – Review

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a hard game but it is all the better for it. I have a long history with this game and I’m happy that finally I was able to finally beat it, and not only that, but with the best possible ending and beating all optional bosses. Before we get to the review itself, I’d like to share a bit of my personal history with the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) franchise and how it led to Nocturne.

I beat this game in the last days of December (2017) but it took me more than a month to write a review for it. I think the reason why is because of how much it stuck on me. I’ll try to share my thoughts on this fantastic game and the reason why I think that every fan of JRPGs should at least give it a try at some point. With that in mind, let’s begin.

The SMT franchise has been around for a very long time but compared to Japan, in the west, it took quite a while to appear. Even when we count the Persona games that appeared on the original Playstation it still took a long time to become widely known, even among many RPG enthusiasts. For me it all started with Persona 3 on the Playstation 2. I picked it up without much expectations but I was instantly hooked. I loved everything about it, many of those things similar to what you can see on a regular SMT as opposed to a spin off but I also loved many other things I don’t think exist in the mainline SMT games. With my experience with Persona 3 the natural step was to look for the next thing like it and to my delight, Persona 4 was months away from being released, so I got it on day one and it has been again love at first sight.

While both Persona 3 and 4 are amazing games I can’t say that they represent the spirit of a mainline SMT game, at least, not entirely. The mainline SMT games, from my experience, have a much darker tone, even more so than Persona 3 which balances out dark and light tones pretty well, in my opinion.

With Persona 3 and 4 under my belt I was already feeling part of the SMT community and I wanted more, but little did I know. I still had much to learn. If memory serves me right, this is the point where I tried to play Nocturne for the very first time. This was the first time the game beat me to a pulp. I was not ready for it and I had a ton of JRPGs under my belt but nothing I have played was like SMT Nocturne. This is of these games you hear that they “don’t hold your hand” and I think that is putting it lightly. SMT Nocturne not only doesn’t hold you hand but it hits it with a hammer, opens it with a knife and put salt on it. That is how much Nocturne cares about you. Suffice to say that the game was too much for me at the time and I put it on hold.

Then I remember playing SMT: Devil Survivor on the Nintendo DS. While still another spin off, it is much more akin to a mainline SMT game. You are in Tokyo, bad things happen one after the other, you have routes to follow and endings to choose, and it conveys much of the sense of helplessness common in the franchise. While the game progressively gets harder it was still much easier than Nocturne and most importantly I got the feeling that what I learned from Persona 3 and 4 were helpful on Devil Survivor and that is a thing I would like to point out. I think that every game you play from the franchise, be it a spin off or not, helps you accumulate a bit of knowledge and it will make the subsequent game a bit easier.

From this onward I can’t pint point exactly which games I played but some of them are: Digital Devil Saga 1, SMT IV, SMT Strange Journey, among others. During this time I tried to play Nocturne once again. Even though I managed to progress a bit further the game yet game gave me a humility lesson.

Some time passed and this past year (2017) I played Persona 5 and finally managed to finished Strange Journey, so I though I should be up to the challenge. With no shame to admit that with the help of a guide, I managed to beat SMT Nocturne.

So here is where my actual Nocturne review starts.

The story is quite simple, at first. An event called The Conception happens which at the same time changes the world as we know it and turns yourself into a demon. I think here is the first part where people get engaged into SMT Nocturne’s world and plot. The beginning of the game feels just like the bad ending of another game. Yet here this is the premise to get you started. I honestly don’t have an easy time describing how much it appealed to me. I think this is probably one of the reasons I kept coming back to it. Even when I was beaten by it, instead of completely giving up, it was always in my mind, waiting for the right time to be savored.

The gameplay is a blast. Nocturne uses the press turn system which if you  hit an enemy with their weakness or lands a critical hit, you get to act once more per turn. The catch is that they can do the same to you so you have to watch out. This particular part of the game gives me the cue to talk about one of my favorite parts of the game: Magatama. Magatamas are some thing that you ingest and it changes your attributes like strength or agility but they also are tied to progression as they are necessary to unlock certain skills.
One thing people love to ask these days when playing RPGs is to be able to respec their characters. While I understand where it comes from, in Nocturne you simply can’t do it and I think it gives much more meaning to the development of the protagonist. Even skills learned from Magatama can’t be changed or re-learned. You must have them equipped when you’re about to level up, and once a skill is available for you to learn, you get one change to add it to your limited arsenal of 8 skills or lose it forever. You might learn a great skill like War Cry, which can be useful throughout all the game but letting go of another lower MP cost debuff in its place may not be the best choice as it may not be sustainable with your current MP pool. My point here is that strategy is key in this game.

The strategy starts when building your character, but it is nowhere near done because managing your resources from one healing fountain to the next one can be as much of a thrill as beating a hard boss, especially in the beginning of the game when you ability to restore MP is much more limited.
Another place where strategy is highly valued while playing Nocturne is when fighting the game’s infamous bosses. Some are of normal difficulty, most are hard and the rest can be brutal. Some bosses will require you to give it everything you’ve got. I remember to this day the first time ever I tried to beat the boss Matador, which fans of the game will probably smirk right now because he is known to be a stepping stone to learning this game. It’s nor only important for your character to be at a decent level, have some skills and have ingested the proper Magatama, so you are not weak to his attacks, but you also have to make sure your demons are also at least capable of holding their own, otherwise you can be giving the boss lots of extra turns. In this playthrough, though, I think my biggest opponent was Trumpeter. Not only he is hard but he has a special mechanic in the way he acts during his turns and I have to give it up to Atlus because this fight was awesome.

Talking about Trumpeter has reminded me one of the few things I didn’t enjoy in Nocturne. To try to explain for those that are not familiar with the game, Trumpeter is an option boss which must be defeated alongside some others in order to progress in the game’s optional dungeon The Labyrinth of Amala. When they are defeated they can be fused and be a part of your part, which is great. The sad thing is that sometimes in order to trigger these fights you must be at a very specific place. Sometimes it can be places you have no reason to go back to. One of them can be even at the very first dungeon of the game and that is when you’re about midway through the game. I didn’t like this much because it is a little too cryptic for my tastes and I don’t think the game hints you well enough, at least from my experience, or when compared to the main quest which can be sometimes obtuse but it is much easier to find where to go when talking to NPCs.
Not only these bosses but a few times the place you need to go to move he story forward can be a little to hard to figure out on your own but I’, sure with some perseverance you can find it.

Because of these hard to find locations and demanding strategy in figuring out ahead how you want your character to be I decided to use a guide. I didn’t use it for everything, just to give myself a general direction of where to go and what skills to look out for while leveling up and honestly I think I enjoyed the game a lot more because of it. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to play their game and I certainly appreciate playing a game blind but my personal hint for anyone that like me, tried playing in the past and had a hard time with it, try a guide or at least look out for some useful hints like how to efficiently build your character, some useful demons to try to fuse during the course of the game and I promise you will have a much better experience overall but still full of hardships to overcome.

One thing I’d like to share to those who have played the game is some thoughts on The Labyrinth of Amala. At first I had no plans to do it, especially when I hear it would make the last boss even harder but I’m glad I did because it was incredible. Sure, it was once again a little too hard to navigate but among its 5 different planes it manages to make things so fresh while familiar at the same place. Not being able to save anywhere while inside of it helps to amp up those thrills and feelings of accomplishment I mentioned earlier. For those that wish to try it, I suggest setting at least some good two hours to play because it’s honestly better to finish each part of it in one go because it can be a confusing place to go back if you left things undone, like opening shortcuts and the like.

Another thing that must be mentioned about Nocturne is how great its soundtrack is. It seems that all tracks, even those made to make you excited for a boss battle, have a theme of helplessness. It feels like there’s always something after you or even if the world doesn’t want you and wants to get rid of you. It is a really strong soundtrack and while it isn’t something I would be humming every now and then it’s one of those that when you listen to a song you know exactly what game it is and what part of the game it belongs to.

Lastly, the visuals. While Nocturne was never a graphical powerhouse, even during its release, it has a style to it that aged well. It’s hard to explain but I think the lack of detail in some areas are actually helping the mood of the game. The idea that something is different and not as it should or used to be.

As for how the game runs, I have it for the Playstation 2 but my console is having trouble reading discs sometimes, so I decided to play it on the Playstation 3 using the version I got from the Playstation Network.For those afraid of how it runs, as I heard Digital Devil Saga doesn’t run well, Nocturne ran perfectly well, but to say it wasn’t perfect there were slowdown sometimes when using a multi-hit spell but only on those cases.

Overall, SMT Nocturne is fantastic! Easily among the best RPGs I have played in the last ten years and for any fan of Japanese RPGs I would recommend that at some point you give this a chance. This is one of those games that stick to you and you’ll always remember it with a smile.

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