Many credit the Pokémon series for starting the monster-capturing craze in the RPG genre, although during the late '80s, Atlus developed and Namco published the very first installment of the diverse Megami Tensei franchise, entitled Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, which allowed for demon recruitment and use in battle. Thanks to No Export for You policies popular at the time, North America would not see any of these games for over a decade, beginning with a few spinoffs such as the Persona games and eventually the first main Megami Tensei to see foreign release, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Did it live up to the hype it received after its localization?
Nocturne begins with a Japanese high school student with an interest in video games and the occult paying a visit to his teacher in the hospital, only for an event known as the Conception to occur, where Tokyo becomes a Vortex World illuminated by a sun/moon hybrid known as the Katsuguchi. Here, the protagonist becomes a demon, receives the ability to recruit and summon demons at will, and begins his search for his friends and teacher, uncovering the mysteries of the strange new world.
The demi-hero will randomly encounter plenty of demons throughout his journey, with a gauge changing color from yellow to red to indicate how close he is to an encounter, mercifully alleviating the tension typically affiliated with random encounters. Nocturne is the first Megami Tensei title to use the Press Turn Icon system, where, during the player's turn, one icon is present for each demon he has summoned, up to three, with the hero himself fighting alongside his demonic companions and having an icon as well.
The protagonist and his demons have a number of commands to execute against the enemy, including normally attacking, using skills that consume either HP or SP, passing their turn, which consumes half a turn icon, or attempting to escape from battle, with this command's success rate dependent upon the selected difficulty, Normal or Hard (with Normal being difficult nonetheless). The protagonist has unique commands of his own, such as negotiating with demons to recruit them, with better success if the prospective demon is alone, so other demons don't interrupt the conversation.
The protagonist may only recruit demons whose levels are on par with his or lower, with the prospective demon demanding money and items, and occasionally asking philosophical questions that will usually make or break the recruitment. Demons, however, are fickle and will often bail out in the middle of negotiation, and frequently the answers to said philosophical questions, even if the same, can differ with the same type of demon, creating occasional frustration during recruitment.
The protagonist is also only able to use items, which somewhat creates a plot hole since many of his demon allies have arms with hands and could have easily used items themselves. He can also switch demons, living and dead (with dead demons disappearing from the frontline) with backups, one at a time, though doing so wastes a turn icon, a step down from the superior character-swapping systems of other RPGs such as Final Fantasy X and Breath of Fire IV. While it is possible to revive deceased demons not in the party, doing so doesn't bring them back into the frontlines, and thus, replacing them with other demons is typically a better idea.
Another useless command exclusive to demons is the ability to withdraw from battle, creating an empty slot, although they unfortunately can't replace themselves with a backup demon, again creating a bit of frustration in the area of character swapping. As for other commands the protagonist and his demons have, each typically takes one turn icon to use, although if a normal attack is critical or a magic attack exploits an enemy's elemental weakness, it will only consume half a turn icon. However, using a command that the enemy "voids" consumes two turn icons, and using commands that the enemy either reflects or absorbs immediately ends the player's turn session, with the enemy having theirs afterward, and the Press Turn Icon system able to work for or against them as well.
Finishing a battle nets the protagonist and his three active demons experience and money, with level-ups occurring occasionally. Outside battle, the hero can equip different kinds of Magatama, somewhat similar to Espers from Final Fantasy VI, which occasionally allow him to learn a new skill when he levels, and grant him both stat increases and elemental strengths and weaknesses like those his demons have. In the Magatama interface, how greatly they jiggle and glow indicates whether the hero can learn a new skill upon leveling.
Adding some degree of challenge to Nocturne is that the protagonist may only carry up to eight skills from Magatama at a time, with the player having to forfeit a skill if his ability set is full. There are plenty of useful and useless skills, although since many bosses, which can be fairly daunting, usually don't have exploitable elemental weaknesses, skills that increase and decrease stats can literally be the difference between victory and defeat. The Magatama the hero has ingested sometimes aids against what elemental attacks bosses may throw at the player.
Demon strengths and weaknesses are something else to consider during boss fights, with the player able to fuse them at Cathedrals of Shadows to create better demons. One major annoyance during fusion is that the game randomly selects skills for fused demons instead of allowing players to select them manually, which can result in deselecting and reselecting demons constantly to get a desired skill set, a process that can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. To resolve this issue would have saved the player plenty of time and annoyance, with Atlus perplexingly failing to fix this flaw in most future installments of the Megami Tensei franchise.
Even so, the Press Turn Icon system provides a decent degree of strategy throughout the game in most normal battles, with a superb flow to combat, as well. Nocturne can definitely be daunting, what with the aforementioned flaws, although it is still beatable (at least on Normal difficulty) if players approach it the right way, with the quick pace of combat and tons of recruitable demons being the highlights of the battle system.
The controls are functional as well, given an easy menu system, extremely helpful automaps, and painless shopping, although there are nonetheless a few issues, such as the occasional vague direction on how to advance, and the usual JRPG convention of save points, although some save terminals can provide rapid conveyance across the Vortex World. There is also a significant extra dungeon, the Labyrinth of Amala, although if players advance far enough in the game without exploring it, they will lose access to it. All in all, controls are decent, but still leave a bit of room for improvement.
Nocturne in some respects borrows elements from its predecessors such as many skills, demons, world destruction, philosophical choices, and so forth, to make it feel like a logical part of the franchise, but also sports new features that would influence many of its successors such as the Press Turn Icon system that make it feel sufficiently fresh.
Despite occasional philosophical choices that can have some effect on the ending, story is still perhaps the low point of Nocturne, given the scarcity of actual plot scenes despite the lengthy playing time, and the fact that players can only uncover most of the backstory through the optional Labyrinth of Amala. The endings themselves, even the "best" one, are somewhat disappointing, not even lasting more than a few minutes, certainly not justifiable for the game's length or difficulty. Overall, the developers could have certainly put a bit more effort into the storyline, and there's ultimately no excuse for an RPG of Nocturne's magnitude to be light on plot.
Nocturne's soundtrack mostly consists of techno/industrial tracks, not to mention a great deal of ambience, which definitely aids the game's atmosphere, as do solid demon voice clips, though more actual music at times would have been nice. The game also sports a gothic cel-shaded style that looks absolutely gorgeous, with nice hues that give the impression of Tokyo as a wasteland, although there are plenty of jaggies. Still, a solid-sounding and looking game.
Finally, the game is fairly lengthy, taking somewhere from forty to sixty hours to complete, even more if the player complete all the sidequests including the Labyrinth of Amala. All in all, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was in many ways worthy of the hype it received after its localization, given its quick battle system, solid aural and visual presentation, and multiple endings, although it nonetheless has its share of issues, namely its daunting nature at times and its frequent absence of plot. It's not as solid as a few future spinoffs, but a fun game nonetheless if approached in the right fashion.
+Quick battle system with lots of recruitable demons.
+Music and graphics create nice ambience.
-Randomization during demon fusion.
-Extra dungeon is missable.
-Light on story.
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Playing Time: 40-60 Hours