Five RPGs that Break the Rules: Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne

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Pictured above is the boss “Fiend Matador”. While he isn’t the most recognizable demon, or the most frightening, he made gamers scream in terror at his sight. He is a punch-in-the-face introduction to the world of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.

After the jump, the perfect combination of demons and Pokemon

Before its release, I had practically written off role playing games as a genre that I could get into. After playing Final Fantasy IX and seeing what had become the popular majority of Japanese RPG design and falling asleep at the keyboard with tabletop inspired computer RPGs. That all changed when I read about this strange game about demons being ported from Japan.

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne can be summed up by two words: demonic Pokemon. I could end this entry right there with that description. While Tom suggested I keep these entries short, that may be taking his words too much to heart.

As in Pokemon you assemble a team to help you fight. But instead of using poke balls, you have to be diplomatic. You can have a conversation with the demons during battle and if you can keep on their nice side, you can ask them to join your group. What made Nocturne so different, and why I loved it, is that there is no hand-holding here.

The tactic of hitting an enemy with their weakness is nothing new, and something we’ve all learned from Mega Man. But making so much ride on it is where Nocturne goes into brave new territory. Hit an enemy where it hurts and your group gets an extra turn in combat. Do the opposite and you’ll lose turns, or your entire round might go bye-bye, which can also befall the enemy. An easy battle can become a life or death struggle, all based on your group’s setup.

That takes us back to the skeleton with the pirate hat. Matador is technically the third boss in the game, but he sets the tone for the game and the franchise in general. He has no weakness, can supercharge his attacks, can boost his evasive powers to Matrix-like levels, and has the ability to give himself extra turns for a round of combat. Giving him more times to attack due to not being prepared is like giving a man-eating shark a Gatling gun. For gamers used to power leveling to win a fight, he is a painful dose of reality. The bosses in the Shin Megami Tensei series can be overcome by power leveling, but that can take hours. Each boss fight plays out more like a puzzle rather than a stat battle, and with the right planning even the most fearsome boss can be a piece of cake.

When I first played Nocturne I spent 20 hours grinding levels to eventually overpower Matador. I got so tired of the game that I gave up. I came back to it several months later with a plan to use a group that would absorb his magic attacks. The battle literally lasted 5 minutes. I sat there with my jaw dropped, stunned at how easy it was the second time.

Nocturne was the first role playing game I played where stats and values didn’t win fights, but planning and tactics did. There is so much more to the game that I could ramble on about, from fusing demons together to make your own personal dream team to one of the craziest optional quests in a role playing game ever. Oh, and did I mention that in the first ten minutes of the game, 99.9% of the world population gets wiped out? That’s kind of important. Also because he’s just that cool, Dante from Devil May Cry shows up to kick your ass and maybe join your group.

Nocturne was the first of the Shin Megami Tensei series to be released in the US. It became a hit for Atlus, a mostly unknown publisher at the time. If it wasn’t for Nocturne taking off, we might not have gotten excellent games from Japan like Persona 4 and Demon’s Souls. Nocturne actually sold so well that it was one of the few games from Atlus that required a second printing to keep up with demand.

Nocturne remains a foundation for my tower of Babel-sized backlog of games I need to finish. The franchise has evolved since Nocturne, with more side stories like the latest Persona titles and Digital Devil Saga, along with a Nintendo DS spiritual sequel. But sometimes you have to go back to the one that started it all.

Up next: Who put bullet-time in my RPG?!

Josh Bycer, who posts as jab2565 on the Quarter to Three forums, is a living, breathing game encyclopedia who’s has been playing games since the age of three. As he tries to get his foot into the industry’s door, you can find his writings at his blog, Mind’s Eye, and at Gamasutra.