Lately, I have been going back and playing old Shin Megami Tensei RPGs that I, for various reasons, missed back in the day. Dubbed the “season of ATLUS” by yours truly, this has been dominating much of my free time. The most recent game I completed in this process is Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Released in 2003, Nocturne (Lucifer's Call in Europe) in pretty infamous in the JRPG community, with a very noticeable cult following. Like other SMT games, it has cultivated a reputation for difficulty. Though some will find it more or less difficult than others, my experience lends more credence to this reputation than other SMT games that I have played.
But before we get into any of that, I want to take a minute to discuss the game's plot and premise. A shadowy organization has decided that the current direction taken by humanity has resulted in a bleak and depressing existence. To that end, they take steps to end the world, using it as a basis to form a new one, in an event referred to as The Conception. This is where the protagonist comes in. The player assumes the role of a Japanese high school student who, by some blunder of fate, managed to survive The Conception. Afterwards, Lucifer (Yes, THAT Lucifer) takes an interest in him, and implants in him what is known as a Magatama, a parasitic life form comprised of pure demonic power. As a result, the protagonist is transformed into a half-human, half-demon entity called the Demi-Fiend.
In the Vortex World created by The Conception, demons are allowed to roam freely. There are only a few lucky humans who remained alive. It is these humans who have the ability to create the new world. In order to do this, certain steps need to be taken. First, they must resolve themselves to a philosophy on which the new world will be based on. This Reason, as it is known, can be taken from another person or conceived as an original belief. Then, enough creation energy must be gathered by them in order to summon a deity, to represent that Reason. After every represented Reason has battled it out, the winning belief will be used to create the new world.
Since the protagonist is a demon, he cannot create a Reason of his own. However, he is free to choose to support or oppose any Reason that has already been established. The player, in this capacity, will determine which, if any, of the Reasons will emerge victorious. Through the choices made, and the alliances formed, they gain and lose reputation with the various three factions, each representing their own Reason. At the end, it is this which determines whether or not the protagonist is in support of any Reason. Should the player decide to reject all three reasons, then their personality, as represented by their choices, is what will determine the new world.
While this may have been an interesting concept in 2003, most modern gamers are already extremely familiar with the concept of narrative choice. It worked, but it honestly was not all that interesting. This was from a time when such ideas had been relatively unexplored, so this is to be expected. Still, people playing Nocturne from a modern perspective might find this whole plot disappointing. Even the characters are not really that well written. Most of them are jerks and most of them have absolutely no reason to be. The story had potential to go in some really interesting directions, but failed to do so. Ultimately, while there are some interesting elements, the plot is mainly used to justify the gameplay and dungeon crawling, barely able to stand on its own.
As for the combat, SMT: Nocturne was the very first game to utilize the Press Turn System that most SMT games would come to utilize at some point. I have already detailed the basics of this system in my Digital Devil Saga Impressions articles. Playing this game, it becomes apparent that this is only the start of a system that would be greatly refined and reinterpreted in many ways. Unlike Digital Devil Saga, turn order is determined purely by the Agility stat, with the fastest going first and so on. Further, the combination attacks that proved so useful in Digital Devil Saga were noticeably absent here. Aside from that, I have discussed the system enough, and have no real need to talk more about it. Nocturne served as a great proof-of-concept for the system, which would later become a fundamental groundwork for combat in ATLUS RPGs.
Another interesting note of comparison lies in the way character and party development works in Nocturne, compared to other SMT games. Unlike Digital Devil Saga (but like most), the player party consists primarily of demons. In order to get these demons to join the party, it is necessary to negotiate with them. During the course of the battle, on the turn of either the protagonist's or a demon with a conversation skill, the player can attempt to talk to a demon in the enemy party. In the first phase of the conversation, the player will need to convince the demon to like him. Should that be a success, then the demon will make requests. Appease it, and it will either join the player, give an item, or retreat from battle. Failure will result in an enraged demon, causing the enemy's turn to start. In this way, there is always an element of risk involved with negotiations. Mitigating and accepting this risk by eliminating enemies before striking up conversation is as important as the actual act of talking.
Having said that, the demons gained through conversation are still pretty weak. The true way to gain a powerful party is through Fusion. At special locations referred to as Cathedrals of Shadow, the player can combine two demons into a new one. The result will have their own skills, but will also inherit some of its predecessors'. During specific times, a Sacrificial Fusion can also be done. Along with the original two demons, a third can be sacrificed. Depending on the strength of the third, the result will rise in power. Skills from this final demon can also be inherited by the result. Like in other SMT games, this process of Fusion is the key to maintaining a strong party throughout the game.
However, there are elements that clearly demonstrate the dated nature of this particular beast. For example, as earlier SMT games were known to do, Nocturne tends to rely far too heavily on random number generators. The specific skills that a fused demon will inherit is determined by a roll of the dice. I often found myself deselecting and reselecting fusions over and over in order to attempt to get the skills I wanted on my party member. Old SMT gamers probably will not mind that. On the other hand, people who have grown accustom to selecting inherited skills in games like Persona 4 Golden might be less inclined to go back. For better or worse, it is a very noticeable throwback.
As a demon, the protagonist also develops his own skills, albeit at a much faster rate than others. However, he does it differently. Throughout the game, players will acquire different Magatama, which confer different resistances and skills to the protagonist. Upon level up, should the protagonist be at a sufficient level, he will learn a skill from the Magatama. Like other SMT games, only 8 skills can be equipped at a time. To learn a new skill, one of the previous ones needs to be forgotten. Unlike Digital Devil Saga, there is no going back. Once a skill has been unequipped, it cannot be relearned. This can often result in making difficult decisions, because making the wrong choices on not only what skills to keep, but in what order they are learned, can quickly put the player at a disadvantage. The freedom to choose from any previously learned skills did not yet exist. Again, the dated-ness of the design very clearly shows.
And that is the ultimate problem with Nocturne. While it was a fantastic game at the time, and still continues to be very fun, it has been succeeded quite thoroughly by later works from ATLUS. It is a game that over 10 years old. Showing that age, it serves as an interesting data point to compare other JRPGs with. Moreover, classic SMT fans, eternally looking for challenging and varied battles against demons, would be well served playing Nocturne. I myself would be lying if I said that I hated the game. I enjoyed my 60 hour playthrough. Though a second playthrough seems unlikely, I would not completely rule it out. That said, people who have come to know the modern conveniences of ATLUS design in games like Persona 4 Golden might be put off from the old school design philosophies that went into it. This is what one would refer to as a “niche” game, even by ATLUS standards. Keep that in mind if you intend to try it out.