shinri's Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (PlayStation 2) review

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One of Atlus' finest games

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (or Lucifer's Call, as it's known in Europe due to trademark issues) is a not so well known JRPG published by Atlus, a company well known for how they pump out old-school RPG's with often unforgiving and hardcore gameplay. Although the game starts off in modern Japan with the protagonist and his friends going to visit their ill teacher who has been hospitalised, literally minutes into the game, the world is destroyed by a phenomenon called 'The Conception', and a place called the Vortex World is born from the remnants of Tokyo. It is then up to our silent protagonist to find his friends and survive in this new world.
One of the protagonist's friends

The gameplay is split up into the usual, standard JRPG fare - overworld exploration, dungeons, towns (desolate ones, mind you) and turn-based combat. The protagonist is represented by a marker on the overworld, and the overworld is surprisingly large - however, it is unfortunately not as open as it may first appear, and you will often find yourself in a deceptively small area which serves to guide you from dungeon to dungeon. This isn't too much of a problem, though, because the overworld is still very nicely designed and definately gives you the impression of, 'Wow, the world HAS ended'. 
The protagonist himself is very customisable, as you are given a point to spend upon each level up and can place that point into a selection of statistics such as Strength, Magic and Vitality. The protagonist also makes use of strange, demonic parasites called 'Magatama' to learn new skills, some of which are not learnable by demons. Each Magatama - 25 in all - gives you different skills, resistances, weaknesses and also temporary stat bonuses, and so they serve primarily as the equipment of the game. The game doesn't tell you when exactly you can learn new skills from each Magatama, instead you must rely on a visual representation of the Magatama to determine how close you are to learning a new skill from it. Although this adds a certain degree of uncertainty to the game, it also seems to sort of work against the whole theme of being able to shape your protagonist however you want, as it can make it hard to build your skills properly.
The dungeons themselves are very 'Atlus-esque' - rather barren and mazelike, and you sometimes have to wonder if they simply made a tileset and ran it through a dungeon generator. They tend to lack any sort of features or landmarks other than save points, healing rooms and treasure, making it seem like you're just running down corridors upon corridors until you trigger an event - there isn't much to actually admire in the dungeons when it comes to scenery. This problem is only made worse by how the game lacks any sort of minimap, and although there is indeed a larger map that can be brought up, it gets quite annoying to be constantly pulling it up in the maze-like dungeons. Also, there is no in-game message telling you there is a map, so you'll have to figure it out yourself. (Press circle)
Nocturne, like all Shin Megami Tensei games, has a very large pool of demons for you to dip into, and these demons serve as your party members throughout the adventure. The protagonist has the ability to recruit demons by talking to them, bribing them with Macca (the currency), giving them items, and sometimes even by answering their questions. However, you will not always be successful, and the demons will sometimes refuse to join but give you an item, heal you, or even just run away with your stuff. Most importantly when it comes to demons, though, is the fusion system. There are 183 demons in the game, and although many of them can be recruited through battle, they will be stronger if fused - that is, by combining 2 or 3 demons together, you can make an entirely new one with skills inherited from the old demons. This is a very fun feature, and I personally have spent many hours fusing different demons together to improve my party. The biggest disappointment with the fusion system is the way you must exit and re-enter menus to change the skills the new demon will inherit; it would have been much easier if I could simply select the skills I wanted instead of having to watch as the game randomly picked old skills for me.
Press Turn System

Combat is the usual turn-based system seen in most JRPG's, however Nocturne utilises a unique variation called the 'Press Turn System', also seen in the 'Digital Devil Saga' duology. This system gives you as many turns as you have party members - and that is a maximum of 4, and at a minimum 1 - and allows you to either use a turn by taking an action such as attacking or using an item, but it also lets you pass, which only uses half of the turn and lets you move on to the next character. The next character must then take an action or pass, however, and doing either of those will lose you the turn. Exploiting a weakness will give you more turns, though, so taking advantage of the enemies weakness is a very important factor in Nocturne. Beware, though, as the enemy can also gain extra turns from exploiting the weaknesses of your party. It should be noted, however, that the battles in this game are unforgiving - the bosses can be extremely hard and require much patience and strategy to beat, and even random battles can give you a game over if you are unlucky and don't get the first turn. Unfortunately, I had to resort to level grinding at times, which was not particularly pleasant.
Overall, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is an excellent game that returns to the roots of RPG gaming, however the extreme difficulty in some areas and the lack of what would now be considered standard inclusions such as a map will undoubtedly turn many people away from the game. Those looking for a lengthy, deep JRPG experience should definately seek the game out, though, as it will definately provide a satisfying experience from start to finish.
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