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Rhapsody in Shades of Evil
By: Michael Beckett
Shin Megami Tensei; Nocturne is by far one of the most complex, inventive and imaginative games I have ever had the pleasure of playing. A great number of games attempt to innovate in the areas of plot and combat system, but very few of them ever achieve this goal. Shin Megami Tensei; Nocturne comes forward with a number of unique ideas in both these areas, which, when combined with a stirring soundtrack, solid translation and a streamlined interface, conspires to make me write an intro which just might get me thrown out of the International Society of Cynical Reviewers.
The Shin Megami Tensei series has a long history outside of the States. In Japan, the series has eight major games in it, and considerably more if one considers the many spin-offs and gaidens. Because this is only the first major Shin Megami Tensei game the US has ever seen, whether or not Nocturne takes a great departure from the traditions of the series is a bit academic to gamers on this side of the pond. Compared to the Persona series, released on the PlayStation and the only part of the SMT series we have seen, Nocturne is highly unusual and creative, given to wild flights of innovation and creativity. It earns high marks in Originality due to the wide variety of options it gives it's players, and it's odd mix of mythological fact and fiction.
The plot of this game is a complex affair, but the simple version goes like this. In the beginning of the game, the world ends. Seas of fire, everyone dies, the whole bit. The hero is saved from this particular apocalypse, called The Conception, along with two of his friends, by a strange young boy. What follows is a battle not just between Light and Darkness, but among neutral powers, to control the future state of the universe.
Shin Megami Tensei; Nocturne features a non-linear plot which does a very good job of allowing the player to find his or her own path through the game. During the course of the game, the player is given the opportunity to guide the fate of the universe by selecting a Reason, or a set of universal laws by which the world will be governed. The player can choose Yosuga (Might Makes Right), Musubi (Every Man is an Island), or Shijima (All Life is One), but it is also an option to ignore all three Reasons and choose a path of freedom.
In choosing a path through the game, the story asks some very big, very serious questions of the player - does might make right? Is it better that everyone be unified, or should everyone have absolute control over their own world? How free are you? The answers the player gives to these questions and others like it will determine not just the course of the plot but the state of the world to come, and even has consequences in the greater war between the two major players in the SMT series; YHWH and Satan. Though these two characters represent Light and Dark, the game doesn't instantly typecast them as Good and Evil. Both sides commit some horrific atrocities in the name of their ideals, and the world is full of innocent bystanders. The fate of the humans caught between these powers makes up a great deal of the story, and the best part of it all is that since the player actually has a chance to affect the fate of the characters around them, you really start to care about the people in the Vortex World. Given your choices in the game, innocent lives may be lost, your friends may turn against you, or the entire world may even cease to be.
Shin Megami Tensei; Nocturne runs on a modified turn-based combat system, called the Press Turn System. It works like this; For every character in your party, you get a Press Turn. Attacking, using magic, or any other major action uses up a Press Turn. If you score a critical, attack an elemental weakness or pass, you only use half a turn. On the other hand, miss and you lose two. The upshot of all this is that criticals and misses and the proper use of elemental magic becomes not just a matter of getting bonuses, but a matter of life and death.
The main character in SMT;N has the ability to convince enemies - demons - to join his party. These enemies, once in the party, can be combined or evolved into a wide variety of characters. Each demon is highly unique and possess a history in the real world that is woven into the game in a very stylish manner. For instance, in Christian mythology, Angels are divided into nine ranks; Angels, Archangels, Dominions, Powers, Principalities, Virtues, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. A representative of each of these creatures are available to join your party, and each accurately represent the mythology attached to them. Though the game borrows quite heavily from Christian myth, all the world's major religions, and some of the more minor ones, too, are represented in the game's bestiary.
The game's control is very solid. An adjustable camera and look feature allows for a good look at some very well-done scenery, and overall the control is well done. Translation is very solid, with no obvious errors. It also shows impressive consistency in demoniac names despite going through the wringer of various native tongues translated into Japanese and then English.
SMT;N has a stirringly creepy soundtrack, part techno, part ambient, with a little rock thrown in for the combat themes. The soundtrack does a very solid job of amping up the emotion in the game's more important scenes and intense enemy encounters, and the fact that the OST is included with the game is a nice touch. Sound effects are largely a non-issue, but I feel the game could have benefited a great deal from voice acting.
SMT;N uses a unique visual style, sort of a cel-shaded look, but far more detailed. Colors overall are very pastel and pale, giving the game a very ethereal feel. Character design by Kaneko Kazuma is very good, colorful and unusual while still remaining true to the original mythology of each character. For instance, the Throne rank of Angels is described as being the charioteers of God, and in the game Thrones are depicted with giant chariot wheels. Overall, the game's visual style gives the impression that the Vortex World is ancient and unreal, a dangerous and violent place with vivid reds and deep blacks.
Although SMT;N features an adjustable difficulty setting - Normal and Hard - it should not be suggested in any way, shape or form that this is an easy game. Normal enemy encounters, particularly with enemies who use stat-altering magic, can easily go against you, and boss fights typically end with only the Hero and maybe one ally left standing. That said, the game does get significantly easier during the last third or so, and the chances of buying the farm can be reduced still further by some simple leveling and attention to elemental alignment. SMT;N will take a player between forty-five and eighty hours to complete.
It occurs to me that Shin Megami Tensei; Nocturne could have been quite the controversy generator had people paid much attention to it upon it's release. While no side in the game is depicted as being truly good, God is depicted as being a ruthless, petty despot dedicated to the subjugation of the universe in general and the human race in particular. Satan is portrayed as a noble rebel, albeit one who doesn't particularly notice damage he causes those around him. In the end, though, what makes SMT;N a great game is the degree to which it can pull a player into it's world and generate some genuine emotion. It's a great title for gamers looking for a real cathartic challenge, or anyone with interest in mythology.
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