Shin Megami Tensei: Noctorne

Year Released in US: 2004
System: Playstation2

If there's one RPG series people thought would never come out here because of objections from Bible Belt America, it would be the Shin Megami Tensei series, known for its occult-themes and the ability for its often modern day characters to summon demons. I first ran into the series, affectionately known by fans as Megaten, when the spin-off series Persona came to the US. For what it's worth, the first Persona is somewhat like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the likelihood someone would find it offensive; a bunch of high school kids play an occult-themed game and accidentally set something terrible off at the same time someone's changing the reality of their world. Suddenly they have to arm themselves with guns, swords, and axes so they can fight back against the monsters and discover what really happened to their town.

Nocturne, however, is a much different animal, and depending on how one plays it, it could be wrong on multiple levels. Looking at it strictly from a game system perspective, it's a hardcore gamer's dream. The combat system is innovative, with all party members acting on the same turn and being to skip actions so someone else can get another turn and exploiting enemy weaknesses to gain more turns for the party in general. Nocturne is a game that rewards strategy by letting the player beat the snot out of their enemies. Leveling up doesn't have nearly the same effect as weakness-exploitation and in the case of some bosses, exploiting a weakness is really the only way to survive. On the flip side though, accidentally hitting an enemy's strength results in the end of the player's turn, forfeiting the rest of the party's actions and immediately beginning the enemies' turn. This is not a game for the faint of heart! I don't see any how anyone can reasonably expect not to die in this game, and that death scene with the angels floating overhead is going to come up again and again and again. The game instantly ends if the main character ever dies in combat and the enemies aren't afraid of using instant kill spells (and no, the main character is not immune).

Also in a surprisingly old school nod, the game gives the player very little direction about where to go next after the intro segment of the plot is over. Generally there are hints, as in if somebody's talking about a place it's a good idea to go investigate it, but there are a couple times where the player has to go to a place just because that's the only place currently available. Direction isn't one of Nocturne's strong suits, and the fact the main character is the typical silent protagonist and the party members are all demons (either recruited during combat or created via fusion) results absolutely no internal dialogue. However, having no dialogue (other than dialogue trees while speaking to demons or the few humans remaining in the world) is one of Nocturne's strengths in what is fairly unorthodox for a Japanese-styled console RPG. It allows the main character to have virtually any personality the player gives him and thus obtain six drastically different endings basic on his behavior. This is a game where seemingly throw-away conversations could subtly shift the ending the player goes for.

Nocturne starts off with what would normally be the end of most other RPGs; the end of the world. The player-named protagonist and his friends go to visit their ailing high school teacher in a creepy hospital rumored to be managed by a cult, and once they arrive, they're shortly caught up in the Conception, which is more or less an inverted apocolypse that turns Tokyo into a Dyson sphere and slays every human being outside of the hospital. The protagonist has an additional "problem." It seems a small demon boy (apparently recognizable as Lucifer if one's played previous Megaten games) has taken an interest him, and drops a magatama on to him. This bug-like creature burrows into the protagonist (thankfully off-screen) and turns him half-demon; giving him a demon's body even though his soul is still human.

As half-demon, the player is able to survive in the brutal Vortex World created in the aftermath of the Conception. Demons that were merely legends, gods, and mythical creatures from cultures and religions across the world now exist as fully flesh and blood beings in the Vortex World and quite a few of them rather hostile. How the protagonist's two classmates manage to survive their initial few days without getting themselves killed is a wonder in itself since they don't hang around him and do their best to explore the Vortex World on their own.

The whole point of the Conception is to return the world to the womb so it can be reborn through the power of Kagutsuchi, the moon which floats in the center of the Dyson sphere, but to do that requires power in the form of magatsuhi (which seems to be soul energy that the demons use for sustinance) in order to create a Reason which will be the guiding philosophy of the new world. Only humans can create a Reason (so the main character being part-demon is ineligible), so once that becomes apparent, it becomes a race between the surviving humans to gather as much magatsuhi as possible in order to create the world they desire. Rather than working together though, the Vortex World brings out the worst in the protagonist's friends, and to some degree his teacher. Possibly the only person remaining even remotely sane is the cultist who destroyed the world in the first place (and if that doesn't say something I don't know what does). As the prophecized Demifiend though, it's possible for the player to bring any of the three Reasons to fruitition, or to walk his own path in favor of none (with three different results).

What would likely be objectionable to Westerners is the whole demon-collection bit. Recruiting and fusing demons is a big part of the game. Without a proper party, the demons are all the player has; and there's lots of strategy involved in how they are created, which skills a new demon can inherit from its parents, and additional variables like fusing demons while cursed and fusing them under a full moon (during which a third demon can be sacrificed to further pump up the new demon). The concept of demon in Megaten is very Eastern in nature. Any being, benevolent or corrupt, that is a part of the spirit world or otherwise not-human is called a demon. So in Megaten that includes various orders of angels (thrones, powers, archangels, etc) as well as Hindu gods (like Vishnu and Shiva) and proper demons such as those detailed in the Goetia (Berith, Ose, Forneus, etc).

That wouldn't be so bad if not for the treatment of the angels though. The lowest level of angel (just angel) is dressed up in bondage gear and the Reason the angels believe in is Yosuga, the philosophy most easily acquainted with "might makes right" and "only the strong survive." If you choose to fight against the Reason of Yosuga (which I imagine a fair amount of people would), that sets the player up for a battle against the archangels Raphael, Uriel, and Gabriel. >_< Thankfully the bondage angel is only seen towards the beginning of the game and likely not at all by the end (unless visiting an old area).

Though demons are the cornerstone on which this game stands, they're actually not very interesting from a story perspective; probably because being demons, they aren't subject to change the way humans are. What's creepy is seeing the protagonist's friends seek the power to create a new world. It's understandable to not want the maniac who destroyed the old world to create the new, but when Chiaki is virtually dying in the throne room of the fallen demon Gozu-Tennoh and crying out for the power to make her Reason of Yosuga a reality there's just something chilling about it, especially given that Yosuga only allows for the survival of the fittest and she's willing to die to it. What can make a person believe that? (Just as a side note: Having Chiaki form the Reason of Yosuga is a nice gender reversal, since typically it would be a male outlook. It's just another way the game makes the people in it unsettling.)

Nocturne is also fairly messed up in that since the protagonist's friends have combating Reasons, it is necessary to fight and kill at least one of them, more likely both, by the end of the game. (Chiaki has to be killed even if you back her Reason since it requires you to test your strength against her.) One of the non-Reason endings also allows the player to throw the protagonist's lot in with Lucifer, allowing Lucifer to replace the main character's human soul with that of a demon so that he's now a full demon. Maybe it's just me, but no matter how persuasive the argument, I just don't trust Lucifer, even in a video game, so I did not select that ending. :P I understand siding with the fallen angel gives an ending where the player assumes a role as general in Lucifer's army to overthrow a certain divine order. The Judeo-Christian god is never referred to as "God" in the game (with a capital G), but it's pretty bloody obvious that once the game starts referring to this particular character as the fallen angel that he must be Lucifer and the entity he must be fighting against is God.

For my own play through the game, I took on more or less a tack that I think I would use if somehow the world ended and I was still around. About midway through the game I was rather taken by the concept of Musubi, a world of hyper-individualism, where each person forms their own individual paradise and there's no one else to bother them. There was no guarantee any of the endings would bring the old world back (I made sure not to spoil myself) and if I had to pick a Reason I liked best out of Musubi, Yosuga, and Shijima (Shijima, is a world of silence, without change, chance of improvement, or failure), it would have to be Musubi. But forming the Musubi world meant I would have to kill another human character, and I morally (even in a video game :P) couldn't justify obliterating a helpless individual, even if he was previously plotting to kill me. So I ended up with the Neutral ending instead. I chose a world of freedom, which incidentally restored everything back to the way it was pre-Conception, more or less the way I wanted it. Isamu and Chiaki are alive again, the protagonist seems to be human again, and their teacher is back from the dead too. Their teacher seems to remember the Vortex World, and it would seem the protagonist does as well, but I don't know if Isamu and Chiaki do, since the ending sequence seems to indicate they're all friends again (and the two of them are not completely psycho!).

Taking the game as I wanted to play it, it was a good adventure, though not for everyone (and the Lucifer ending probably won't appeal to everyone even if the demons do). The visuals are really something awesome. The art design is perfectly familiar and alien at the same time, and atmosphere is really what Nocturne has in spades.