“Late to the Game” is our editorial series looking back at classic titles through today’s lens, and reflecting on their influence and legacy from the perspective of those playing them for the first time.
As an avid and well-versed fan of Atlus’s flagship series Shin Megami Tensei, I have a confession: I never actually finished the third game in the franchise, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.
Oh, I certainly started it a few years ago and was in love with the cel-shaded aesthetics that both captures the hauntingly beautiful artwork of longtime series artist Kazuma Kaneko and manages to withstand the test of time. The “Press Turn” system, my first foray into it since Shin Megami Tensei IV had yet to come out, was quite enjoyable as well.
However, thanks to plenty of games to play for both pleasure and business — including its own sequel — and a general plethora of recent releases, Shin Megami Tensei III was put to the back burner.
Now with the launch of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse for North America upon us this fall, it’s a stellar time to actually get back into the previous title and wipe the stain off my proverbial record.
Nocturne takes place sometime during the main Shin Megami Tensei timeline (it’s not quite known when) and stars a quiet young teen with a name of your choosing. He meets up with a few friends at a nearby hospital, at the rather strange request of their well-liked and respected teacher.
After the truth of that meeting is revealed and the world goes to shit (as in full blown apocalypse-mode), our hero wakes up to find a weird old man and a young woman hovering over him. They shove a parasite through his eye, which then crawls into his brain and turns him half-demon. And this whole scene? Completely in first-person point of view. I hope you don’t have any eye-related phobias.
That, my dear readers, is how you start a game.
Afterward, you find yourself taking on a variety of missions courtesy of this strange old man who is also a young boy sometimes. You make quick friends with a cute and sassy Pixie demon, punch other demons in the face, and convince demons you haven’t punched in the face yet to join your side (or they, in turn, will be punched in the face).
Unlike the other Shin Megami Tensei games, in which the protagonist is divided between Law, Chaos and Neutral, Nocturne allows you to ally yourself with the philosophies of the other characters in the game, or simply forge your own path.
One of the trademark features of the franchise is the ability to recruit demons you meet in battle by using a plethora of speaking commands (known as “Demon Conversation” or “Demon Negotiation” in Nocturne). In order to be successful, you must learn to recognize the personality types that demons may possess, as well as the unique quirks of each demon type and use the correct responses to coerce them.
It is absolutely imperative that you obtain new demons in this manner. Not only do you need the immediate allies — as Demi-Fiend has only one Press Turn — but they can later be used to create more powerful demons through the process of “Demon Fusion.” Interestingly enough, moon cycles or “Kagutsuchi” can effect the strength of the fused demon.
Beginning with Nocturne is the most excellent Press Turn System, which is what inspired the “One More” System of Persona 3 and Persona 4. The premise of Press Turn is simple: you receive four turns in a given round and as you use elemental spells or physical attacks in battle and exploit the weak points of your enemies, you can gain extra turns in battle.
However, enemies can also use this same system and gain the advantage in battle by exploiting your party’s weaknesses as well. This encourages players to pay attention to weaknesses and strengths and carefully consider battle plans — if you screw up, your foes will certainly pick up the slack and annihilate you.
As for the protagonist himself, he gains his own demonic skills by equipping Magatama. After leveling up, the Magatama may go “Wild,” which causes a random effect such as healing or stat boosts. There are also bad effects such as negative status ailments. All Magatama are affiliated with one of three types: Dark, Neutral and Light. The best part is that stats can be fully customized as well, allowing players to make the Demi-Fiend build of their dreams.
Another part of what makes Nocturne so appealing is the visual style. Atlus smartly went with a 3D cel-shading artstyle for their first main series game on PS2, highlighting Kazuma Kaneko’s art and ensuring that the graphics would forever age well. Dungeons are also given the same treatment, giving them that signature “MegaTen” trademark of demonic creepiness.
Speaking of designs, an analysis of Nocturne (or any Shin Megami Tensei game) can never be complete without discussing Kazuma Kaneko’s amazing designs. For most titles in the series (barring Devil Survivor series, Persona 3, 4, 5 and Shin Megami Tensei IV), he was in charge of character and demon designs and it shows.
Kaneko has an incredibly distinctive artstyle that has continued to evolve and sharpen over several decades and it’s just as powerfully utilized in Nocturne. Each creation possesses a stark, doll-like beauty blended with melancholy.
The other part of what makes Nocturne such a unique experience is the incredible music that graces the ears of those who play. Creepy, subtle dungeon tracks intertwined with pure rock battle themes help to make a grand adventure even grander.
The entire game is a blessed mix of strategy, crazy bosses, surprisingly tough random encounters and mind-crushing, satisfying difficulty paired with great art, great music, full stat and skill customization of your hero, the option to speak to/recruit enemy demons and plenty of other reasons.
All-around, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is an excellent way to introduce players into the bizarre, dark, strange, sometimes hopeless, sometimes full-of-hope, and always entertaining world of Shin Megami Tensei. For JRPG affectionates looking for actual challenge and depth in a JRPG (something strangely hard to find especially in current days), look no more.
I mean, who could pass up a game featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series?
If you’re interested in more information on the game, I’d suggest these two threads here and here to fill you in. For a comprehensive look into Nocturne and every other SMT game, look no further than this excellent site here.