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A look back at Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

Some days you just wake up in a hospital turned into a demon. At least on the days you go to visit your sick teacher with two of your your classmates, some weirdo with a demon tries to kill you, your teacher stops him and then you see her end the world. After seeing the world turned inside out and all human life outside the hospital is wiped out, she expects you to find her when there are demons all over the place.

On the bright side - school's out forever.

Also, while you were in shock about the world-ending thing, this blonde boy fed you a weird worm with mandibles to turn you into your aforementioned demon self. Then there was a voice in ringing in your head, telling you to go find your "Reason" and to bring it to him.

But hey, as soon as you're up and about you're starting to make friends and influence demons thanks to a friendly pixie and a few others you just teamed up with. Together you took down a flying ice manta ray and that's a good start.

Did I mention some old man hires the son of Sparda to hunt you down?

This is Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne - a step away from most of the JRPGs you know. Things take a turn for the strange pretty fast and only get more surreal from there. Even if you've played the Persona spin-offs under Shin Megami Tensei's banner, you're clearly not in for some breezy high school days or youthful coming-of-age stories here. Oh, you'll see your friends again, don't worry - just don't be surprised if they've gone to some really disturbing extremes to keep up with your fancy, tattooed all-powerful Demi-Fiend self.

In Persona you might kill time with your friends; but with SMT games, in time, you might kill your friends. Well, maybe just one of them. Or all of them. Depends which alignment you're going for, really. Most SMT games go for three or four alignments leading to the same number of endings. Nocturne ended up with six endings after its re-release (for America and Europe, that's just our normal version). Regardless, you won't be leveling up Social Links with the bridges you'll likely be burning. Gaining demon loyalty is about the best it gets - so make nice with that succubus, I promise she won't take your soul.

In Nocturne the few humans that remain are all scrambling to to amass enough spiritual energy, called Magatsuhi. to call forth a god that embodies their "Reason." There are other groups in this race, too - the Mantra, the Assembly of Nihilo and the Manikins. This on top of your two classmates, a nosy journalist, your teacher and that weird guy that tried to kill you with a demon at the start. All of them want a piece of the action, to reshape this world to their liking - and for you to willfully or unwittingly help them reach their goals because RPG.

Did I mention a nice old man with a really hot nurse wants you to find all his candelabrum? Turns out some skeleton jerks stole his collection. He gave you one of the candelabrum because they resonate when they're close to one another, so you can find them and beat these jerks down to take the candelabrum things back. The old man's nurse promises to tell you more about world as you find these candelabrum. Well, anything to help make this Vortex World make more sense, right? Save some candles!

Don't underestimate those fiends, though, or Matador will pretty much own you like he does everyone else. Trial by fire, that guy. He might seem like a mini-boss, but he is more of an early high-level boss.

Facetiousness aside, Nocturne was the first JRPG I played in the last generation to carry its subject matter with the right amount of seriousness and humor. I think much of that is due to its focus on being one of the more silent entries of the series in hindsight. While you will make contact with others and commonly negotiate with demons to make them your allies, there's a sense of solitude within this particular game that I could really only put up there with Metroid, Dark Souls, Fallout or Skyrim. Much of its emptiness is to really show the world has died. You might see the odd disembodied human soul here and there, but aside from the demons the world is a lonlier place now.

Nocturne was also he most surreal game I had played since Zelda: Majora's Mask. No creepy mask salesmen here, its more about the environments themselves - like prisons where you have to fall down to reach the top floor, shopping in Ginza or visiting Hell. Part of it is also the way they employed the cel-shading. Everything area has a dream-like quality about it and the only non-SMT games from the prior generation to really get there were Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Kazuma Kaneko's artwork was also rather striking to me. Having not played the series prior to Nocturne almost a decade ago, I thought it was rather remarkable that the character concept art matched the in-game assets almost perfectly. Additionally the monsters had really interesting designs, ranging from the dignified to the totally perverse. You had cute demons, sexy demons,... phallic demons. No matter what myth or folktale they came from, the beastiary gave a little history on the character so you felt like you were learning something about world religious and folklore.

And given the usual Law and Chaos factions were sidelined for this game, it was interesting to see where the usual Law and Chaos demons aligned with the new Reasons.

Even when you implement demon fusion to take two demons and create a new one, once you start accessing some of the higher tier fusions there's a certain symbolism to how they function. For example, to create Metatron, you have to first create Uriel, Michael and Gabriel - basically the angels that rank right beneath him. That's just an example, but its interesting how often that kind of detail can come up in the gameplay mechanics.

Admittedly, the gameplay itself feels a bit slow compared to more recent entries in the franchise and its spin-offs, but for its time the turn-based combat of the Press Turn system was refreshingly fast-paced and if you were just facing weak enemies you could fast forward the fight to auto-select physical attacks. Turns out that's been a series staple since the original Megami Tensei over 25 years ago.

In fact, much of the game's design, super-grindy as it is, seems interested in not wasting the player's time. Sacrificial fusions can boost demons to higher levels so they learn their skills more quickly in one level-up. And since demons are considered recordable data, they can be recording into a compendium to resummon. If you fuse a demon you like away you can buy it back with all its skills later.

The skill inheritance system is a bit rusty compared to more recent entries, too. Since higher-tier skills from "parent" demons have a lower percentage in being inherited in the resulting fusion, you often had to refresh the fusion a few or even several times to see an assortment of skills you wanted to pass on. More recent games restrict the inheritance of higher-tier stuff further, but commonly allow you to select the traits you want from the parent demons and you can even upgrade their skill sets with cards depending on the game.

I know I've not said much about the music here, probably because it would be a source of much gushing and I'd fill another entire post with music videos. Suffice to say, this game loves some grinding rock guitar, dance music, piano and organs. I'll just share one of my favorites and if you want to hear more, go here:

Regardless of some rough edges and a rigidly silent presentation, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is a game that still holds up well today and something I would recommend trying out even after you're done with your shiny new copy of Shin Megami Tensei IV. Its a game that both departed from and rewrote the mythos of the franchise and its own surreal, dark world remains worth experiencing.

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About Pixie The Fairyone of us since 2:32 PM on 12.21.2012

I am a level 80 fairy that can cast Ziodyne on her enemies or give +30 to each stat to any of your demons via Sacrificial Fusion in the Cathedral of Shadows.

Don't sacrifice me, though, I'm helpful! I can heal and revive you. I'm also one of Destructoid's community managers! I promote blogs, moderate comments and write stuff.

I'm a busy gal, so fuse someone else!

When I'm not helping decide the fate of humanity, I'm probably roaming the open world, hunting monsters, rolling into a ball to access secret passages or seeing if my Paragon rating is high enough for discounts at the mall.

For other things and stuff about me you can read here, here and here. You will learn of my origins, my trials and tribulations and how I became a superpixie!

Finally, I am not affiliated with Atlus and will not fit in your COMP, Demonica, gauntlet or compendium.

Some of my favorite games:

Super Metroid
Metroid Prime
Metroid Zero Mission
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Digital Devil Saga
Devil Summoner 2
Devil Survivor
Persona 3 Portable
Persona 4 Golden
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Final Fantasy XI
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
Shenmue II
Jet Set Radio
Jet Set Radio Future
Shadow of the Colossus
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
Deus Ex
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Fallout: New Vegas
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Freedom Wars
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
Dissidia Duodecim
Soulcalibur II
Shovel Knight

...and more!