Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne Preview

We delve deeply into Atlus' unique new role-playing game in which demonic forces turn modern Japan inside out...literally!

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Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
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In case you haven't noticed lately, the summer doldrums have suddenly transformed into full-on gaming mayhem. After several months of very little interest, as far as new releases are concerned, all of a sudden it seems like every major new game is coming out at the same exact time. During such occasions, it's easy to gravitate toward the big-name games you've been hearing about for years. However, games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne are arguably even more deserving of your attention. Actually, to suggest that there are other games out there similar to Atlus' soon-to-be-released PlayStation 2 role-playing game is to sell it short. Yes, it's part of a long-running series that's been popular in Japan for more than a decade. However, Shin Megami Tensei isn't exactly a known quantity on these shores. We hope Nocturne will change all that. We've been putting a reviewable version of this unique, occult-themed RPG through its paces during the past couple of weeks, and it's been a wholly refreshing experience thus far. So, if you rank yourself among the growing number of disenchanted former fans of console RPGs, we think this might be just the game to restore your faith in the genre.

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is not your average role-playing game.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is not your average role-playing game.

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne has the trappings of other console RPGs, including turn-based tactical battles, random encounters against groups of foes, and plenty of dialogue with non-player characters. So there's definitely a traditional RPG at its core, but the conventions go no further than the gameplay. Most importantly, Nocturne is not set in your typical high-fantasy-world-gone-awry or your sci-fi-galaxy-in-peril like seemingly every other RPG. It's set in modern Japan. You play as a character that seems like your typical, slightly disillusioned high school student just trying to cope with life in Tokyo. He kind of looks like a guy who's played way too many same-old, same-old RPGs.

That might seem interesting in and of itself, but Nocturne doesn't take long to up the ante on its premise. Basically, early on in the game, a cataclysmic event occurs that literally causes Tokyo (and, indeed, the rest of the world) to turn inside out. Presumably, the population of the world is eradicated--and all that's left are lost souls and a countless number of demons. A painful demonic transmigration and being in the right place at the wrong time is all that allows your character to survive in this harsh, new reality. The plot of the game, initially, is not entirely apparent. As a result, you're just trying to survive and figure out what the hell happened. Then things become complicated, of course. Your character encounters certain other personalities who clearly have a deep connection with the dramatic events that have unfolded. Tracking these characters down becomes an immediate goal. At any rate, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne's storyline is not just unusual, but it's starkly mature in theme (the game itself is M-rated). Put it this way: When's the last time you played a game in which you got to offer a pretty high school girl a copy of an occult magazine to read while she passed the time waiting for her boyfriend to explore a spooky, dilapidated hospital? Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is that kind of game.

Demonic strength turns your main character into a powerhouse. Using just your fists, you'll be able to ward off the evil spirits that threaten your progress throughout the new Japan. Your first encounter against a boss-type opponent--a huge demon string ray named Forneus--gives you a good sense of the sorts of strange, dangerous encounters for which you'll be in store. However, violence is not necessarily the answer to all your confrontations in Nocturne, because one of the most interesting things about the game is the way in which you're able to coax your enemies into joining you. That's right: Virtually any enemy in the game could just as soon become your ally.

It's not every day that the world ends in a cataclysmic demonic meltdown. Better make the most of it.
It's not every day that the world ends in a cataclysmic demonic meltdown. Better make the most of it.

This is a pretty crazy concept, but it seems to work great in Nocturne. Basically, in addition to attacking your foes, you can try talking to them and reasoning with them. Demons are fickle creatures, so they might shut you down and fight you...but they might be willing to listen--and might mooch some money and items off of you in exchange for servitude. Some demons will even ask you a philosophical question of some sort, whereby you'll have to guess the right answer. If you do so, the demon will likely be contented and will volunteer to join you. And though demons may be fickle, apparently they're loyal. So once you talk a demon into joining your side, he, she, or it is yours to command. You can always have up to three demons fighting at your side in battle, plus a number of others in reserve. You and your demonic cohorts each gain experience levels and new abilities as you defeat foes successively, and since there are literally dozens of different demons for you to potentially employ, there's really a great deal of strategic possibility here.

The demons in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne are an unusual lot and are inspired not so much by the conventional fire-and-brimstone notion of demons but instead by Japanese and other cultures' mythologies surrounding them. Let's just say you shouldn't try too hard to make sense of the creatures that are fighting with and against you. Remember, they're not just weird-looking, but their abilities are unusual too. Still, role-playing conventions do apply here. So when you're up against a pack of shikigami, which consists of individual pieces of demonically possessed parchment that's come to life, you can intuitively opt to use your fire sprite's immolation attacks to scorch those suckers for extra damage. Nocturne's turn-based combat has a nice, fast feel to it, which is good, considering combat in the game is admittedly pretty frequent. Fortunately, the rudeness of all the random encounters is mitigated somewhat by the presence of an onscreen indicator that tells you when you're about to run into trouble. And since every battle in Nocturne potentially means gaining a new ally, the combat here is something we've found ourselves looking forward to rather than desperately hoping to avoid.

The characters in Nocturne may look odd, but the game's got a decidedly inspired artistic style.
The characters in Nocturne may look odd, but the game's got a decidedly inspired artistic style.

Nocturne features a few other surprises, such as cameo appearances by none other than Dante, the demon hunter from Capcom's Devil May Cry games. Frankly, our reactions to this news were a bit mixed. After his disappointing performance in Devil May Cry 2, perhaps Dante isn't the most welcomed of characters--especially since one of this game's strengths is its relatively serious tone. However, you'll be pleased to learn that Dante's inclusion in the context of this game seems decidedly appropriate rather than kitschy. You'll catch a few glimpses of him early on and can expect to confront him later (you're a demon, after all)...and perhaps you can eventually recruit him. The game apparently features a branching storyline and dozens of hours of gameplay, in addition to its totally open-ended demon recruiting system. So if depth of play and depth of storyline is what you want out of your RPGs (and who doesn't?), then Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne seems like it'll deliver just that.

Furthermore, the game boasts some very cool graphics and sound. On one hand, Nocturne lacks some of the fancy trappings of other RPGs, particularly in how all the dialogue is spelled out using onscreen text--because there's no speech. On the other hand, no speech means no bad speech, and there's something to be said for written dialogue anyway. The quality of the writing here seems solid. Amid the grave premise, there are some genuinely funny moments (such as Forneus' starfish girlfriend wistfully waiting in the Shibuya district of Tokyo--too bad we killed him). And the very Japanese themes seem to be translated well enough into English, though get ready for lots of unusual naming conventions for creatures and spells. Beyond that, though, the game's audiovisual elements are definitely impressive. Nocturne's gothic-style cel-shaded look is totally distinctive, and the eclectic musical score--what with piano concertos one minute and over-the-top heavy metal the next--is much the same. Like the premise itself, the art direction of Nocturne sets this game apart from other RPGs.

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne also features the sorts of esoteric systems that hardcore fans of RPGs love experimenting with. For example, you can fuse different demons together into different, stronger varieties, and--using this technique--you can gain access to completely new types of abilities and never-before-seen allies. (Whether or not to sacrifice two demons for one can be a tough call, though.) Furthermore, it's possible to highly customize your main character (perhaps specializing him either as a melee powerhouse or as an adept magic user). You upgrade his stats whenever he gains a level, and you can also make him ingest different magatama--parasitic creatures that confer certain bonuses to their hosts--to gain additional powers...at the expense of certain weaknesses.

Sick of whining about how there's nothing new and original in gaming? Then reserve a copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne today!
Sick of whining about how there's nothing new and original in gaming? Then reserve a copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne today!

This is an unsettling game...in a good way! The introductory sequence in modern Japan is as comforting as you're liable to get in this deranged, postapocalyptic world. However, there's genuine satisfaction to be found in gaining the trust of various bizarre demons and fighting your way past many, many others to unravel the secrets of Nocturne's mysterious main characters. There's no denying that the premise of this game is bold and unusual and that the subject matter alone will cause this game to get passed over by those unwilling or otherwise uninterested in playing something that's not just another comfortable cookie-cutter fantasy or sci-fi extravaganza. But you're not like that, right? No, we didn't think so. So we invite you to stay tuned for our full review of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne later this month, which leads up to the game's release in stores. For now, check out all our new screens and movies of the game in action.

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