Unleash your inner demon.
The PlayStation 2 was a great console for JRPGs: the Wild Arms series, Persona 3 and 4, Growlanser, Tales of the Abyss, Dark Cloud 1 & 2 and (arguably) Final Fantasy X are all classics that helped keep up the sheer quality of the PS2’s extensive library of games.
Among these was another long-running series that was chilling in the background so to speak: Shin Megami Tensei. This long-running franchise had enjoyed success since the days of the Famicom, and when it finally found its way west with titles like Persona and Digital Devil Saga, it gained a strong cult following thanks to its emphasis on creature mythology and its dark, occult themes. One game in the series that made the most out of these aspects was Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, also known as Lucifer’s Call in Europe. It also happens to be one of the hardest RPGs ever made.
You know a game isn’t messing around when it starts with the end of the world, and that’s exactly what happens in Nocturne. Your silent protagonist is a Japanese high school student who, along with his friends, visits one of his teachers who has apparently fallen ill. Once they arrive at the hospital, said teacher informs her students that a cataclysmic event known as the Conception is about to take place, erasing the current world and replacing it with one populated by demons known as the Vortex World. Having survived the catastrophe and been transformed into the demon-summoning Demi-fiend, it’s your eventual job to give rise to a new world, or to destroy the current world outright.
This is not a fight you can win on your own. During battle, one of your most powerful abilities is talking to demons.
However, this is not a fight you can win on your own. During battle, one of your most powerful abilities is talking to demons. This is one of the most interesting mechanics I’ve seen in any RPG, and it’s an ability that finds its way into many SMT titles. Talking to a demon presents the goal of recruiting them to your side and have them fight for you. If you’re lucky, a demon will be more than happy to join your cause, though it’s rarely this easy; a lot of them will demand compensation such as a number of items or macca (the game’s currency). Talking to some demons will simply anger them, or cause them to flee, and some simply won’t be able to understand you. Some you can seduce or even threaten. Others still will ask you questions to determine your worthiness. It’s a compelling system even if it does feel a little random at times, but the feeling of satisfaction when you recruit a powerful demon is great indeed.
Battles are turn-based and employ something known as the “press turn” system. At the top of your screen are numerous icons that represent how many actions you can take per turn. This goes for attacking, using magic and items, talking to demons, basically anything in your arsenal that counts as an option. Similar to the Persona series, landing critical hits will grant you additional actions, such as being able to attack one more time. In these instances, you’ll only use “half” of a turn. The other half can then be spent however you like. It’s a great system that rewards careful stratagem and rational thought, though it’s not always in your favour. Enemies are managed by the same press turn system, meaning if they score critical hits on you, they’ll also get to attack again, which can be fatal once the game picks up in difficulty (which really doesn’t take long, either).
As mentioned, it’s not long before the combat becomes devastatingly hard. There’s a point when enemy mobs become ruthless and their weaknesses almost seem to be chosen at complete random, leading to a lot of trial and error on your behalf. Grinding is something you might be interested in, as several bosses require it. There also comes a point where bosses simply won’t have weaknesses, at which point you’ll have to manage and support your party very carefully with each passing turn. Saying that, the bosses are one of the game’s standout features, and the Boss Appearance theme that accompanies most of them is incredibly intimidating.
Shin Megami Tensei has always been a famously difficult series, and Nocturne might just be its most punishing title. Difficulty doesn’t just stem from battles, either. Save points are few and far between and, get this, the very towns where you shop are also infested with demons. That’s right, even the safe zones aren’t safe from random demon encounters, which is honestly just unnecessary.
So surfaces another essential part of your demon management: shopping. Shopping around is a pretty big deal in most RPGs, and this is no different in Nocturne. There are item shops and places for you to heal and save, but the most important shop is the Cathedral of Shadows, where you can fuse multiple demons into a new, often more powerful one. When used in conjunction with the game’s Kagutsuchi (or “moon phase”) system, entering the Cathedral when the moon is full can yield even more powerful creations. If you play the game well enough, it shouldn’t be too long before you’ve crafted a formidable team of demons. Or you can finish one of the game’s bonus sidequests and have Dante from Devil May Cry fight for you. Seriously.
My favourite part of Nocturne is not the battles, however. It’s the palpably dark atmosphere. Nocturne is one hell of a creepy game, and it even gives Earthbound a run for its money in the strangeness department. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a horror game, but the feel of the game certainly has elements of that. The game’s locations are often sparse, populated only by demons and the souls of humans lost in the Conception. The strange thing is, the world sort of acts exactly as it did before it ended: demons have jobs, there are shops and the towns are largely intact; it’s unsettling to say the least. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
The atmosphere is aided in no small part by the game’s stunning soundtrack. Composed by Shoji Meguro, known for his work in the Persona series as well as one of my favourite Wii games: Trauma Center: Second Opinion. Many of the songs here convey a sense of dark foreboding, and often send a chill down the spine. There are also a ton of battle themes, largely composed in a dark rock style. These tracks are married to warped, demonic lyrics, some that are even considered indecipherable to this very day. You thought ‘For Faith’ from Yakuza 4 was bad? Look up some of these tracks: they’re as brilliant as they are confusing.
So, is Nocturne worth playing today? Well, the casual player (and hell, even the more seasoned RPG gamers out there) will definitely struggle with the game’s relentless difficulty. To say the game is challenging would be a stark understatement, as it’s beyond sadistic at times. That said, Nocturne is definitely worth it for the dark, oppressive atmosphere alone, as well as the interesting demon mechanics and the incredible soundtrack. It’s a very tough game to recommend to more casual players, but RPG fans are well advised to track this one down as it’s one of the PS2’s best offerings in the genre.