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Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Publisher: Atlus (2004, PS2)
The Megami Tensei series has come a long way since its inception back in the 8-bit Famicom days. Based on a campy horror novel from the '80s, Megami Tensei put you in the role of a young programmer who had used his computer to summon demons into the real world.
It was a first person dungeon crawler, keeping closer to games like Wizardry than Dragon Quest, but it featured an innovative mechanic where you could convince any enemy to join your party by chatting with them. The second game deviated from the novel and allowed gamers to explore a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. This concept was revisited in its two Super Famicom sequels, this time dubbed Shin Megami Tensei.
Much like Capcom and Street Fighter, Atlus had a hard time counting to three for Shin Megami Tensei sequels. Although it had strong cult popularity, it never got nearly the same exposure as Square or Enix's big guns, so Atlus attempted to bring in other audiences with a series of spin-offs, including the Persona and DemiKids series.
It wasn't until 2003 that they finally released a true third game, known in Japan as Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. It was also the first true entry in the series released in America, so it dropped the Roman numeral.
Much like its earlier Famicom and Super Famicom brethren, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne begins with the end of the world -- and with it, a new beginning. Whereas the previous game put you in the role of one of the last humans alive, trying to eke out an existence in a world full of angels and demons, Nocturne transforms your character into a demon.
The biggest difference from the previous Shin Megami Tensei games is the change from a first person viewpoint to third person, to appeal to an audience more familiar with Final Fantasy, no doubt. The addition of impressive, creative 3D demon designs also added a lot of appeal.
Make no mistake though -- these changes were not meant to castrate the series for the sake for higher sales. Nocturne is still quite difficult -- almost maddeningly so. Like most of the best RPGs, grinding through the quest will get you absolutely nowhere. Your goal is to recruit as many monsters as possible, but even that won't do any good if you don't know how to use them.
In most modern RPGs, paying attention to elemental affinities makes the game easier, but it's hardly required. In Nocturne, it's an absolute necessity. If you hit the enemy with an attack they're weak to, they'll lose a turn -- but, of course, the same is true for your team. In order to succeed, you need to become familiar with the attacks of each and every monster in the game, especially since most foes can just as easily become your friends.
Enjoying the game requires an intense amount of devotion, which can potentially be too exhausting for those who don't like to memorize demon fusion charts. But it's also extraordinarily rewarding, especially given the absolutely enthralling vision of post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The ruins of humanity are encased in a fuzzy red haze, the standard office buildings replaced by stylish fortresses crafted by Hell's finest architects.
The story mostly revolves around the few surviving humans -- some of whom were your friends in your previous life -- and how they've dealt with the end of the world, which in turn contrasts with your actions. Past the opening sections of the game, the narrative is a bit sparse, but the vision of the world and how it unfolds is reason enough to stick with it to the end, no matter how many times those monstrous Fiend bosses kick your tail.