Reviews: Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne

An Unpopular Opinion

While Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is often brought up in lists of truly great JRP Gs, I'm afraid I have to disagree.

The game opens with your silent protagonist meeting up with friends who don't act anything like friends or for that matter teenagers, witnessing the end of the world, and ... going off to do stuff, I guess. Every character is incredibly flat and lifeless, and we aren't really given any motivation to anything beyond Lucifer giving you demonic power to cause mayhem. The Press Turn system is good, but the combat system feels somewhat clunky. You must negotiate with demons to work with you. So far, so good. It's a pity about the crushing difficulty, general bleakness, and lack of investment. The thing is that the protagonist could have been a tortured soul, torn between demonic instincts and an emotional bond to the human world left behind, and forced to come to terms with this radical change in their identity. But the first 10 hours passed and I found it hard to discern a logic or motivation to anything, and I know that People tend to just choose the Kill 'Em All 'True Demon' route. In essence, rather than a debate on the stability of morality in a ruined world, the Demi-Fiend basically becomes a bland excuse for carnage like every other action hero. If I am still struggling to find anything to keep going for after 10 hours of play, the story's not succeeding in hooking me.

The sad thing is, that internal conflict of humanity of demonhood? Another Shin Megami Tensei game showed this perfectly right from the off - the Digital Devil Saga. You'd be better off investing in that than this, to be honest.

To recap: A wasted opportunity of a plot (or, at least, one that develops too slowly to interest), flat and unlikeable character, bleak tone with no life and a meaningless conflict where you'll probably just try and kill everyone else off, punishingly brutal difficulty even on Normal, as well as a thematically superior alternative. If you are willing to tolerate the above, then maybe it gets more interesting, but to quote Yahtzee "'But Final Fantasy XIII gets really good about 20 hours in!' You know that's not really a point in its favour, right?"

A Simple Strength

Looking at this game, I'll admit that at first I was having serious trouble pinning down exactly why I liked it. It didn't have the complex characters and interactions of the Persona series, nor did it have the flood of extra content that SMT IV would have. Indeed, a lot of it seemed like a pretty simple RPG where you go from point A to B, fight some demons, then get told to go on to point C, and maybe you'll talk to someone briefly.

That's when it hit me, that simplicity was actually a large part of why I liked it. In so many recent games involving so much talking to people I don't want to talk to for powerups or tiring sidequests required to get a Neutral ending, a game where I just travel through a blasted world, fight off demons, see my demons increase in power through my own efforts and decide the fate of the world in battle with several gods is good, simple fun and excitement.

That's not to say that it's something so simple a monkey could win by hitting buttons at random. The combat is pretty deep and forces you to weigh your options, especially when fighting demons of unknown resistances. Attacking head-on can be risky, buffs and debuffs are a necessity and if you slip up you will regret it. Fusion forces you to consider getting a stronger demon versus losing some of the valuable skills of the old one. But none of that means that this is impossible. This was one of my first Atlus games (and at the time I didn't even appreciate how lucky I was to find a copy of it at the store) and I managed to get through without too many deaths. And absent are screen after screen you have to wade through to go through options, something I see in RP Gs even today.

And then there are the bosses. There are one or two that I might consider unfair, at least without a guide and a lot of patience, but most of them are fascinating, especially at the end where they will often change the rules on you and make you think on your feet. Honestly I actually found them more fun than many of the bosses in SMT IV.

Of course not everything is perfect, your friends don't have a lot to them before they become obsessed with an ideology, there are one or two irritating puzzles and the plot can be confusing if you don't go through the bonus dungeon, but what Nocturne does give you is usually polished till it gleams.

A very substantial JRPG that sucks you in and doesnt let go

Now let me start by saying two things regarding recommendation: 1: if youre looking for an RPG with a lot of story emphasis, look elsewhere. 2: the games difficulty is often overestimated; unless you play Hard mode, Nocturne isnt exactly going to be a particularly difficult game, especially if youve played Persona 3 or 4.

Now that I got that stuff out of the way...seriously, if you even remotely like JRPG gameplay, you need to give this game a try. Nocturne is addictive, fun and even somewhat edgy. While the story is not a big focus, I still believe that it plays just a big enough role to keep you interested. And the other areas of the game are nothing shy of superb. The environments are distinct, creatively crafted and a piece of artistic beauty. The colors are done well, providing great life to the environments like the dark sewers under Ginza or the very otherworldly Labyrinth of Amala. The world is lovingly crafted and provides tremendous atmosphere for the game. The soundtrack is spectacular with a number of memorable songs that provide all sorts of moods and cater well to the post apocalyptic environment without sounding as depressing as one would think. Many of the themes will get stuck in your head and fit well to their environment.

What Nocturne shines best in is its gameplay. Few JRP Gs offer as much user customization as Nocturne. Your choices shape the personality of your Silent Protagonist and you can make him whatever role you would like for combat in addition to choosing your party members. The demons in this game can be recruited and used alongside you, in a system often giving this game a description of "Pokemon with demons for adults" (which I believe is a misnomer because SMT preceded Pokemon and this game plays more like Dragon Quest Monsters). Your party is what you like it and can (and often should) be catered to situations. Often the strategy of the game lies in building and fixing your party around a situation, such as against particularly tough bosses. The combat system has a fresh twist with the press turn system, making strategy and planning that much more important than just offensive might. And dont underestimate buffs/debuffs either.

Nocturne is an adventure of atmosphere, mystery and loneliness. Even with your party members it still feels like "you versus the new world". And damn is it a long, fun adventure. Play it.

The Best JRPG on the Planet, bar none.

I have never in my life seen a JRPG so rich, so well designed, so challenging, and so full of differing tactics. Throw in multiple endings, Luck that, for once, is Exactly What It Says On The Tin (instead of a simple critical hit modifier), and a unique press turn system that rewards good play while penalizing noobism, and you have a masterpiece.

For starters, stats actually matter in this game. Sure, they matter in all JRP Gs, but are pretty much an afterthought at best. Not so here, your stats mean something and if you have, say, low agility, you WILL feel the effects of that. However, while maxing out your stats is certainly possible, don't expect to do so and then run over the game like it is nothing. Even with all stats at 40 (the max), and level 99, you'll need to devise some strategy to get past the bosses. Of course, having such thing does make it much easier, but it won't win the game by itself like it does in other JRP Gs.

For the curious:

Strength - More physical damage. Unlike the magic stat, this is all it effects, however it has a stronger effect on physical damage than the magic stat does on magic.

Vitality - Higher max hit points, 6 hit points per point of vitality.

Magic - 3 magic (er, soul) points per point of magic, plus some effect on magic damage. (about half that which strength does on physical damage)

Agility - Hit/Dodge rate. It is not known if it effects critical hits or not.

Luck - Subverts the game's Fake Difficulty. Also effects the Lucky Find skill, drops, and the quality of drops and what Lucky Find will uncover. It is believed Lucky Find activates more often with a high luck stat, but unconfirmed.

Beyond this are things like bosses that can not be beat with a straightforward strategy, random encounters that rival boss fights of other games, and a challenge which would make Kayin shake in his boots.

400 words is not enough, but alas I must stop. Nocturne is a game that must be played to be believed.