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Overlooked Thursday: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

Overlooked Thursday is a segment in which I look back at a title from either a current or previous generation that got unfairly or prematurely judged, didn't sell well, or was just forgotten and did not deserve such a fate. Not necessarily reviews, a brief overview of what the game is, what it is about, and how it was received at the time. If able, details on how these games can be found and for how much will be given so that their overlooked status may be shed for a few more.

Author's Note: This is my first post in quite a while after a week long, much needed break. After vacation, I planned to return to my regular article rotation, however I have contracted a stomach illness, so I haven't been able to write for much longer than anticipated. I apologize and am glad to say I'm feeling better now, though not quite all the way, so I'll return to writing as planned. Thanks for the support!

On this segment of Overlooked Thursday, I will go into what I consider one of the best RPG series's greatest game; Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. Quick question: when you think JRPG, what are some names you think of? Final Fantasy? Dragon Quest? Maybe even Mother? Well how many people follow the Megami Tensei series? As far as America goes, not too many. A purely Japanese series, the Megami Tensei series has never really picked up too much steam anywhere other than the land of the rising sun, even with over a decade of RPG excellence under it's belt, with more spin-off series's than Final Fantasy. However, recently an interest in the series has been growing with the release and subsequent success of the Persona sub-series with American Audiences and Critics alike, with both Persona 3 and Persona 4 garnering many PS2 Library awards. That's why I feel the timing is perfect for anyone curious to try out the series, which is now receiving some decent treatment from Retailers, who are now carrying more Megami Tensei games than before, with new releases like Devil Summoner 2 and Devil Survivor getting glowing reviews and special edition stockpiles. But before all of this semi-success, the Megami Tensei series gave birth to it's most atmospheric and darkest game to date: Nocturne.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, 2004, Atlus

The story of Nocturne is one which draws heavily from both the occult and religion, namely Christianity. However, unlike most games that deal with the later, it doesn't focus on Gods as much as it focuses of the Legions of Hell and it's Demonology, which it handles in a very mature way, as opposed to most videogames that treat the dark subject matter as an impressionable twelve-year-old would; by glorifying it in a way that is both childish and annoying. Instead, the emphasis is more subtle and understated, which makes it's symbolism and imagery much more effective and much more rewarding. Also unlike many games, the aim is not to save the world from an evil empire. It is not a tale of how friendship conquers all. It is not about how good shall always triumph evil. It is about the end of the world. Simply put, within the first thirty minutes of the game, the world faces Armageddon. The job of the protagonist, who has been given the power to endure in the post-apocalyptic demon world is to find his two friends and his teacher, Yuko Takao, who acts as the Messiah to the sins of the world. With this basic journey, you will be shaped by the world around you and, in turn, will shape the world as you see fit, as entrusted to you by Takao. Now, by now, your probably wondering why and how all of this happened. The world was not ended by an evil man who sought destruction, nor by some misguided villain with a Messiah complex, but instead was methodically planned and executed by seemingly two symbolic figures; Takao, as the Messiah, and Hikawa, as the Destroyer. Both characters are on the opposite spectrum on the alignment chart, with Takao as good and Hikawa as evil, but they don't fight like they usually would, or struggle for the fate. Both recognize the needs of the world and both are prepared to do what is necessary to change it in an a way that in mutually beneficial. Along with these two, there are other beings in the world, namely, the previously Hell-bound demons and their leader, Satan. However, they aren't good or evil either. They are simply the new inhabitants of the world, and Satan is not a foe, but instead finds an interest in you, and sometimes even helps you.

By now, you probably think this is an idiot's paradise where the dark half of Christian mythology is celebrated in immature and idiotic ways as a crappy nu-metal band's fans might, however you could not be further from the truth. Instead of championing these theological creatures and tales, they instead merely utilize them in a way that is neither celebratory nor derogatory. Nothing in the world of Nocturne is black or white. Instead, a scale of gray is applied to all, with all ambitions and moral alignments not being dependent upon JRPG typicalities, but instead are used to tell a story of destruction and creation that relies only on the game's internalized logic. This is important because too many times in videogames, films, or any other creative medium, the subject of religion is treated as sacrosanct; any influences from the topic are off-limits. That's why you see many things that take inspiration from these sources that either simply retell these stories or bastardize them simply for the sake of controversy or some misplaced feeling of self-righteousness. Nocturne does neither of these things, but instead uses the familiarities that it's audience have with the subject matter to tell a story with symbolism that can be understood on a deeper, theological level. Though I hesitate to bring the subject of anime up, Neon Genesis Evangelion does a much similar thing. It utilizes Christian symbolism and mythology to tell a modern tale with timeless themes, although it uses many opposite figures of angelic nature to get it across. But where Evangelion's themes are ones of abandonment, isolation, and powerlessness against inevitability, Nocturne explores themes of a broader spectrum: destruction, creation, self-actualization, loss, etc. It's a mature and unconventional tale that overcomes many of it's genre's trappings and remains atmospheric and realized until the very end. I cannot stress enough how glad I was to find that it doesn't succumb to typical JRPG themes taken straight from Saturday Morning anime, themes like friendship, love, and the importance of making lifelong bonds. Instead it's about something much bigger, something much more important that makes the journey have much more weight.

Nocturne plays very similarly to other Megami Tensei games, in that there is a heavy emphasis on stat-growth over inventory grinding. You don't get any equipment throughout the game, but instead level up your individual stats much like a Fallout game. Skills take the form of either magic that takes up MP or brutal physical attacks that take up HP. Almost all spells have linguistic roots in Latin, so fire spells are agi, ice spells are bufu, lightning spells are zio, and so on. It's refreshing to see something other than "fire" or "firebolt" as a spell name for once; instead, the multi-hit fire spell is "maragi" and the upgraded fire hit is "agidyne", so subsequently the multi-hit upgraded fire hit is "maragidyne". It's just a simple thing, but it gives the game some credibility that it actually did research on a subject is often overlooked in RPG's. The game unfolds like a typical JRPG, in that there is a World Map which you traverse to find various people, encounter demons to fight, and advance the plot. However, unlike other JRPG's that give you set party members that have story relevance, you are given the ability to recruit demons to your side. They fight and level along side you, although the real power for your team lies in special boss characters, which are recruited much like GF's in Final Fantasy VIII, where you fight them to persuade them. (Thanks to Gen for pointing out my idiocy) One of these boss characters just happens to be Dante from the Devil May Cry series, who turns out to be one of the game's best allies. So instead of a roster of maybe 5 other characters, you can have a roster of up to 12 demons of varying elemental and physical strengths and weaknesses which can be abandoned to make room at any time. This means there is less of an emphasis upon grinding and more of an emphasis on strategy. What this amounts to is a learning curve to Nocturne's fast-paced battles, and if you fail to learn the necessary strategies to each fight, you will fail. However, become accustom to the feeling, and you will excel and feel the difficulty curve out like you were drifting along it Ridge Racer style. Make no mistake however, Nocturne is a challenging game. Random encounters can be numerous, bosses take time to strategize accordingly for, and while many times a boost in intelligence is better than a boost in experience, this does not mean a good old grind-a-thon won't get you past an obstacle. That said, it's better to learn the ways the game wants you to fight rather than force your way through.

Along with the story in terms of excellence is the soundtrack, which is composed by series veteran Shoji Meguro. With Nocturne, he gave his best soundtrack ever, with an emphasis upon heavy bass riffs, guitars that don't shred as much as they pound viciously, and even throws in a thematically appropriate pipe organ, which give the songs a idiosyncratic ominousness. The standout track of the game is "Forced Battle", which plays when an minor-importance story battle plays out. The track starts out with a long, standing organ note and a muted guitar, which bursts out into a full-blown riff reminiscent of "Master of Puppets". Alongside the great riff is a Killer7-esque voicebox that speak sings words that cannot be understood, giving the song an urgent and other-worldly feeling. However the biggest advantage of the soundtrack is the fact that it doesn't arbitrarily repeat itself like other JRPG's do. Instead, there are several battle themes that change based upon the story circumstances and location. One area's battle theme is completely different from the next, so much so that you may here 4 different battle themes within the span of an hour. It's a lesson that needs to be learned by JRPG developers now: one song is not enough. It gets stale. Nocturne has the sense to change this up, and it plays out perfectly, especially considering the quality and narrative relevance of the score itself. Aside from the soundtrack, there is no voice acting to speak of. Instead the game relies purely on text. This would be a bit of a complaint, however the translation work and quality of the writing make up for it greatly. You won't read any awkward attempts at humor or any Japanese anime/videogame-approved sexuality or fanservice. What you get is a well-told tale, with multi-faceted dialogue that gives the player control over how his character will react. Thankfully the options are not simply "good" or "bad", but instead are more geared towards building the attitude of the character instead of the moral beliefs.

However, positive the critical reaction to Nocturne was not enough to make it the timeless classic it deserves to be. Many people just didn't "get" it or found that it was too difficult for them. It's a shame that Nocturne has fallen to the wayside, while less-deserving, more generic adventures are pushed to the forefront. It seems audiences weren't ready to accept the dark themes that Nocturne presented or the challenge it posed. Nocturne is generally considered the best Megami Tensei game yet for those who have played it; it never gives into generic thematic nonsense or modern day pop culture anachronisms, and it never once drops it's atmosphere, which it keeps around itself constantly like a veil of fog. It's a game that speaks softly, yet resonates loudly, which is something that can't be said for the over-energetic and over-saturated world of JRPG's. Nocturne is a bit of a rarity, but can be found online for between $30.00 and $40.00 USD, and a bit cheaper if found retail. I see a copy at the occasional GameStop, and it's usually around $35.00 USD. DOn't hesitate to purchase it, it's a quality title that stands amongst the PS2 JRPG elite like Final Fantasy X and Dragon Quest VIII, and tells a tale that is much more mature than the typical videogame, especially JRPG, needs to be. Nocturne deserves your purchase and demands your attention. Don't hesitate to pick it up.
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About Canti-samaone of us since 9:47 PM on 08.03.2009

Hello, I'm Trevor Johnson, also known as Canti-sama. I like to write about things including videogames (that should be paramountly obvious at this point...) music, film, and anime, so what you see in this blog is just one part of my pretentiousness! I'm a nit-picky bitch when it comes to basically everything, so excuse me if I seem like kind of an elitist, even though I try not to be. If I had to sum up who I am, I would do it through top 5 lists, so how about we a do a few right now! But before that, since DTOID tends to remove frontpage posts from my c-blog, here's the list of my frontpages, which I thank everyone very much for!

Frontpage Posts:
1. Monthly Musing - I suck At Videogames: Nostalgia's Curse, 8/12/09
2. Promoted Story - Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames, 9/6/09
3. Monthly Musing - Nothing is Sacred: Videogames, 10/7/09


Top 5 Favorite Videogames:
5. Fallout 3, PC
4. Mega Man X, SNES
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, PS2
2. Braid, PC
1. Shadow of the Colossus, PS2

Top 5 Favorite Albums:
5. Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, 2004
4. Radiohead - O.K. Computer, 1997
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992
2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam, 2007
1. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation, 1988

Top 5 Films:
5. Brazil, Directed by Terry Gilliam
4. Fargo, Directed by Joel Coen
3. Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher
2. Shaun of the Dead, Directed by Edgar Wright
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Directed by Sergio Leone

Top 5 Anime Productions:
5. Spirited Away, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
4. The Big O, Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
3. Cowboy Bebop, Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by Hideko Anno
1. Fooly Cooly, Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki

Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks
PSN Name: MetalLink1979
Wii Friend Code - 8089-7286-5497-4717
XBL - Metal Link 904 (Note: My Xbox 360 is in possession of my brother, so this is no longer technically my XBL Tag)
Xbox LIVE:Metal Link 904
Steam ID:MetalLink1979
Mii code:8089-7286-5497-4717


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