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It's so demon-like, the true nature of humans..
For most people in the west, the name Shin Megami Tensei is something alien, even among RPGamers. While the spin-off series Persona has indeed been translated to English, it wasn't until this year that Atlus decided to localize a game from the real series. Due to large cultular differences, some people have been offended by the contents of this game, especially the christians among us. Either way, Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne Maniacs has reached the western shores, and for those of us who are atheists and find pleasure in shaping a demon world to our liking, this game is sure to impress.
What the more conservative RPGamer might instantly dislike about SMT3, and the megaten series in general, is that there rarely is any "real party" throughout the game. The only real character in your party is you, the rest are demons. If you die, it's game over. You are also the only one who can use items and revive other party members. Neither do you meet your party members or gain access to them through various storyscenes or events. You simply have to gather your party members yourself. In battle, you can negotiate with most demons that are around your level, and possibly make them fight for you instead. This is usually done by paying them money, or giving them items... sometimes you also have to answer a question correctly. Once the demon is on your side, it's yours to use however you want, forever. While you can only have 3 other demons in your party at the same time, you can also stack up on a few in the inventory.
Anyone can figure out that getting 3 demons right away and fighting through the rest of the game with those 3 isn't going to work at all. While your demons do level up (but a lot slower than the Hero), there's a limit as to how strong they can get. Each demon have a limited set of abilities, and most of the low-level demons have poor skills. To keep powering up your party, there are two things you must do. One is to keep persuading the stronger demons you'll face in upcoming dungeons etc, and the other is to fuse the demons you have in the Cathedral of Shadows (found in most towns). There are over 100 combinations of demons you can fuse, and if you do things right, you might end up with a bunch of lesser gods in your party, provided you have the level and the demons to create them. There is a lot to experiment with here, and it's something you'll spend a lot of time doing throughout the course of the game, I guarantee it.
When you're finally in battle, things are pretty basic. Battles are turn-based, everyone can attack and use spells etc. The only thing that differs a bit from regular turn-based systems, is the way turns are divided among the participants in each battle. At the top of the screen, there are a bunch of "Turn Icons". For each icon, one character can perform one action. Naturally, when all the icons are depleted, it's the enemy's turn. There is also a way to make one and the same character perform an action several times (should you need to heal several times before the enemy attacks again for example), by using "pass". When a character uses "pass", only 1/2 the turn is used, and the turn is then moved on to the next character. There are also other things that affect the turn icons. In case an enemy hit you with an ice spell and you happen to absorb ice, the enemy side will lose all of its turn icons. Should the enemy hit you with a critical hit, only 1/2 of its turn will be used etc.
There is one more important thing about the battle system, and that is the Magatama. While you can't control what skills your demons learn when they level up, the hero makes use of his Magatama for gaining skills and stats. The Magatama are small stones whicn you "equip". They can be bought in some of the shops in the game, and are sometimes acquired after beating bosses. Each Magatama gives the hero a bunch of stats, and a few skills. While the stats are added instantly, the skills come when you level up. Also, as the skill slots for each character are limited to 8, and most Magatama have 5 skills or more each, you can't learn all of them. When your skill slots are full and you learn a new skill, you either have to throw the new skill away, or replace an older one with it. This isn't as annoying as it may seem, as most of the new skills you learn often outmatch those you already have.
As you may have already noticed by reading this far, and perhaps looking at some screens, this game is quite original, especially if you haven't played any of the other Megaten games. While the game is perfectly well translated into english (even the jokes some of the demons pulled off at times made me laugh), I'm sure some people will be surprised over the unusually vile language that is frequently used throughout the game. The game is also bloody at times, and contains quite a few brutal scenes. It's rated Mature though, so anyone buying this should know what they're doing.
While there are people who are sensitive when it comes to blood and violence, I know that a lot of people out there would be more offended by the plot in SMT3 than anything else. I have already discussed this with a few people who refused to play it because of their religion. So, what's so horrible about it? Well, the game is, put in a simple way, about how you want the world to be. You are presented to a bunch of philosophies, or "Reasons", as they are called in the game. You get to choose from one of them, whichever you like. This leads to over 5 endings, and gives the game quite a replay value. The thing is, most of these philosophies defies everything that most religions say. The whole concept of the game goes against most of the things people believe. It may sound like an exaggeration, but it might be something to think about before you actually pick this game up, should you be a person with strong beliefs. Of course, you may also look at it as pure fiction, entertainment or whatever you please. Should you however be a person without these beliefs, or a person simply interested in the various ways one can live through life, this game will pull you in and please you until you burst.
I have said it before and I will say it again; a game without music is a game without soul. Famous japanese composer Shoji Meguro has composed the wonderful soundtrack for this game. While there are a bunch of calm, soothing themes to accompany you in the various towns of the game, most of the other tracks are very heavy, often accompanied by an electric guitarr. Overall an incredibly well composed soundtrack, perfectly fitting into the game's theme.
The same goes for its visuals. The character art follows the usual trend of the Megaten games, and the game uses cel-shaded graphics. Most of the areas and dungeons are quite undetailed, but characters, spell-effects etc. are very well made, and makes up for it in the end.
With the stuff from Maniacs (an expanded version of Nocturne released in Japan shortly after the regular release) included in the US version of the game, there is a lot of optional stuff to do aside from completing the main scenario. The good thing about the sidequests is that most of them are actually tied with the main plot anyway, which makes them feel much more rewarding than regular sidequests. Completing the game will take anywhere from 30 to 60 hours, and a lot more than that if you're willing to do everything there is to do.
In the end, Shin Megami Tensei 3 was WELL worth the wait. This is the perfect example of modern japanese storytelling, combined with very entertaining gameplay and good music. This is why I studied japanese, to experience games like these, that usually never makes it over here. Fortunately, it looks like more and more of these games are being localized, and one can only hope that things continue that way. There has been a long time since a new RPG has climbed all the way onto my top 10 list, but this one already has a safe spot up there. Very, very good.
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