“Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne”. 1UP, 3 April 2004. <http://www.1up.com/features/shin-megami-tensei-nocturne>
Among the RPG cognoscenti, the wait has been long, but our prayers to Atlus have finally been answered: Shin Megami Tensei III is finally coming to America as Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. But don’t think that just because this is a Japanese RPG beloved by the hardcore that it’s one of your typical “too weird to catch on” games — with its combination of diverging storylines, deep battle system, and gorgeous cel-shaded graphics, it’s an excellent game with the potential to be appreciated by anyone.
To show you what we mean, we’ll take an in-depth look at every aspect of the game, from the battle systems to the roster of characters, and then show you its place in the series timeline. Finally, we’ll cap it all off with a lengthy interview with the game director and creative director, who introduce the game for American fans in their own words.
Of course, the Shin Megami Tensei games are all about choice, and you could choose to stop here if you want. But we really think you ought to keep reading …
Before taking a more in-depth look at the characters and history of the series, it’s best to give you some idea of what Nocturne is all about. Read on for details about the backstory, gameplay, and unique choices you’ll get to make that will shape not only the course of the game, but the character of the world itself.
Story and World
Unique among console role-playing games, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne is set on Earth rather than a fantasy or sci-fi world – though, granted, it’s an Earth a little different than the one we know. Sometime this decade, the world was swallowed by a bright light during an event that comes to be known as the Conception, leaving very few humans left alive. One such person is the main character – for reasons we’ll get into soon, “hero” isn’t necessarily the appropriate word – who awakens to discover that his own body has been changed as drastically as the world around him.
Now inhabiting the ruined world around him are little but demons, and the main character is shocked to discover that he himself is part demon. This is but the beginning of his quest, which will take him across the ravaged landscape of Tokyo on a mission to either bend the newfound Vortex World according to his will, or use his power to annihilate that too. Many forces along his way will seek to influence his decisions, including the Gaea cult, his surviving schoolmates, and Lucifer himself.
The nature of the story isn’t the only unique thing about Nocturne. Those who’ve played the Persona games on PSone will be mostly familiar with Nocturne’s gameplay systems, but for the many who haven’t, here’s a quick rundown.
Nocturne plays in some ways like the world’s darkest version of Pokémon; your human party members are few and far between, and the fighting is instead done by the demons you recruit along the way. These recruits are the same ones you fight under normal circumstances, and when encountering every group of demon you’ll have the option to negotiate with them as well as to fight it out. If your negotiations go well, the demon may give you helpful items or refill your health, and in the best circumstance they may join your party. Demons may evolve the more they’re used, and you can fuse demons together to create more powerful ones with some of the characteristics of the demons used in the fusion.
That much is standard for the series, but Nocturne introduces its own new systems as well. Chief among these is the Press Turn System, which varies the number of attacks each side can perform per turn. Hitting your opponent with attacks they’re particularly vulnerable to will increase the number of chances you have to hit them – but conversely, you’ll lose an action or two if they’re resistant to that kind of attack. If you know the enemy and attack carefully, you can win battles without getting hit; if you’re careless, you run the risk of your whole party being annihilated before you can act at all.
One thing that can potentially help is using Magatama, parasites that grant the main character more powers. By using certain kinds of Magatama, players can customize the hero to their preferred style – if you want a high-powered magic user, then clearly the magic Magatama are the ones you should seek out and use.
Ability customization is important, but the most fascinating part of Nocturne is the way you customize the player’s very personality and ideology. Just because Lucifer is the king of Hell, for instance, doesn’t mean the game will force you to take sides against him – you have free will to do what you think best. Depending on your actions throughout the game, you can champion the causes of anarchy, monotony, chaos, elitism, destruction, or freedom, and which one of the game’s multiple endings you see is a direct result of the choice you make.
Yes, the world ends near the beginning of SMT Nocturne, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a supporting cast to interact with. Some of the main character’s friends and enemies have also survived the Conception, and here’s the rundown on who you should expect to meet up with. (Click on the character portraits to see larger versions.)
This is you. Just as he doesn’t have a set path through the game, neither does he have a predefined name – he’s intended as an “everyman” character for players to better identify with. (Sorry, girls.) He survives the Conception that destroys Tokyo, only to find himself changed into a half-demon form of his former self, and given demonic powers by Lucifer himself. The odds are against him, but he still has it in him to go against Lucifer’s plan and forge his own way. Or he might not.
Yuko was one of the main character’s high school teachers prior to the events of the Conception – which she may or may not have helped the Gaea cult to trigger. She’s an ally of sorts for the main character, and will pop up now and again to give him helpful hints and vital information. If she is in fact working with Gaea, though, the question remains: how much of her help can you trust?
If you think Chiaki looks a little spoiled and stuck-up, then Kaneko has done his character design job well, because she is. (A little.) Before the Conception, she had powerful parents and a lot of money, with all the airs and arrogance those things tend to bestow. Now, however, her relationship with the main character – whose company she was in during the Conception in Shibuya – is a little different.
Isamu is another classmate of the main character’s, and in a lot of ways is the exact opposite of Chiaki: where she’s aloof and haughty, Isamu is more personable on the outside with a nagging worry on the inside about how others see him. Along with the main character and Chiaki, he survives the Conception at the Shinjuku Medical Center, though his role in the proceedings afterward is unknown.
May or may not be one of the main character’s foremost enemies – yes, we’ll get to Lucifer in a bit, but Hikawa is quite the schemer in his own right. He may have been the one responsible for the Conception in his role as chief technical director of Cyber, a giant telecommunications firm – although his status as a high-ranking officer of the Gaea cult might admittedly have more to do with it. Either way, once the Conception occurs, he forms the Assembly of Nihilo and becomes the leader of one of the two major demonic forces in the Vortex World.
Hijiri is a magazine writer for a journal of the occult, and the goings-on in the Vortex World are prime material for a scoop. He’s the one to ferret out the connection between Hikawa and the Gaea cult before the Conception, but after it happens, he finds that he may have become the man who knew too much. A world full of demons isn’t going to stop him, though: he’s still trying to uncover the ultimate secret that lies at the heart of the Vortex World.
Yes, he’s that Lucifer: also known as Morningstar, the fallen angel who became the ruler of Hell. His interests in the main character are pretty much the most nefarious ones possible: his motive for bestowing the main character’s demonic powers, for instance, is to test the boy to see if he’s fit to lead Lucifer’s armies against God. Sometimes he appears as an old man in a wheelchair, and other times he’ll show up as a young boy with his female caretaker, but in any guise, he’s not to be trusted – though that might not necessarily stop you from trusting him.
You may know Dante already as a the unstoppable demon hunter from Devil May Cry, which makes him a pretty good fit for Nocturne’s world: it’s full of demons to hunt. Including you. He comes to the Vortex World at the request of an old man in a wheelchair (ahem), who hires him to hunt you down. He’ll be a powerful enemy whom you may find difficult to shake off your trail, unless you can figure out the key toward making peace with him … in which case he might be the most invaluable ally of all.
The Shin Megami Tensei series may quite literally be the most popular RPG series you’ve never heard of. Though it dates back to the 8-bit era, contains dozens of entries and side stories, and has appeared on every platform right down to the Game Gear and Turbo Duo – even making an Xbox appearance; rare for a Japanese RPG – a scant few of these games have ever appeared in the U.S., and none of those have been part of the main series. Here’s a look at what you’ve been missing:
The franchise technically began with Megami Tensei (literally “Goddess Transmigration”) and its sequel on the Famicom/NES, courtesy of Namco. When the series moved to the Super Famicom/NES and changed publishers, it became Shin (“New” or “Next”) Megami Tensei for the first time.
Shin Megami Tensei begin innocuously enough, with a stranger sending you programs over the Internet that allow you to summon and control demons. (Okay, maybe it’s not such an innocuous beginning.) Things escalate quickly, however, as Thor uses his Hammer to call ballistic nuclear missiles down upon Tokyo, and you’re sucked into the Majin World. Before the game is over, you have to make a choice about what path you’ll follow, and the end result is very different depending on whether you choose Chaos, Law, or Neutrality.
Shin Megami Tensei II is a direct sequel, albeit one that begins many years afterward. After the hero of the first game became the Messiah of whatever path he chose, people began to rebuild. Some 60 years later, your story begins as an up-and-coming arena battler in the future Tokyo. After a fight, you again run into Steven, the man from the first game who gave you the demon summoning program; he again bestows it upon you here. From there, you are again thrust into the spotlight and meet the same choices as before on your way toward either preserving the Millennium peace or choosing to destroy it.
Unnumbered games in the main series include Shin Megami Tensei If … and Shin Megami Tensei Nine – whose subtitle refers to the nine possible alignments available to players, not its chronological place in the series. Finally, there’s Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, the long-awaited follow-up to the Super Famicom games and subject of this entire feature.
There are far, far too many side series and offshoots of Megami Tensei to list here – the fact that there are over 20 games in the line, and only 2 or 3 in the main franchise up until Nocturne, should give you some idea of what we’re talking about. Still, it’s worth mentioning some of them, because they’re the only ones that have shown up in America.
Revelations: Persona and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment were a pair of RPGs for the PSone that took the basic gameplay systems of the SMT series and shifted its focus a bit. Most of the science fiction trappings were removed for the Persona games, to examine a more recognizable version of Earth and its inhabitants. The games are so named because rather than summon demons, the character summon up aspects of their own personalities to do battle for them. To fit with this change, the stories are heavily psychological in nature and study the fragmentation and reintegration of one’s psyche.
Technically speaking, the Persona series should have been a trio of RPGs – the first sequel, Persona 2: Innocent Sin fell between the cracks, and never got an American release. Other 32-bit SMT offshoots, such as Devil Summoner and Soul Hackers, fell victim to Sony of America’s approval policies at the time.
Apart from that, there is (briefly) the Majin Tensei games, which were a more strategy-RPG focused take on the SMT gameplay; a slew of Game Boy games, the most recent of which (Devil Children Dark and Light on GBA) made it out here; and various ports of the above to other systems – the original Shin Megami Tensei has seen its way onto the PSone, Game Boy Advance, and even cell phones in Japan. To get more on the games from the creators themselves, turn now to our interview with Kazuma Kaneko and Kazuyuki Yamai.
In a genre dominated by plucky teens out to save the world, the Shin Megami Tensei series has always stood apart — and Kazuma Kaneko’s art has been a big reason why. His angular, edgy designs that have given the series such character over the years return for Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne — but unlike past games, Nocturne’s engine has the power to show his designs as they’re meant to be seen.
Starting with Nocturne, his vision informs more than the game’s look; he’s also the Creative Director this time around, overseeing most aspects of the game’s plot, world, and systems. Get the full story on what to expect from a man who thrives on the unexpected.
GMR: For American players who’ve never encountered the Megami Tensei series, can you briefly describe the concept behind them?
Kazuma Kaneko: The games in the series are RPGs in which you recruit demons into your party and battle other demons using the ones that have already joined you. One of the major selling points of these games is the dark atmosphere of the futuristic settings.
GMR: What can players of more conventional RPGs like the Final Fantasy series find that sets Shin Megami Tensei III apart from the rest of the RPG genre? The setting is obviously unique, but what’s different about its gameplay?
Kazuyuki Yamai: Other Japanese games often follow a linear storyline, whereas Shin Megami Tensei III’s storyline is created by the player. This is probably the most appealing aspect of the game.
Kaneko: As you proceed through the story, the player is forced to make decisions, just as people do in real life when they come to crossroads. As a result, the biggest difference is that every player will create their own story. Another aspect of the game that makes it unique is the ability to fuse demons with each other to develop new, stronger demons.
Yamai: Japanese fans seem to enjoy the fact that you can recruit demons, and then customize them the way you want.
Kaneko: In doing so, the player can develop an attachment to a demon that was once an enemy.
Yamai: The demons that you encounter in this game should not simply be viewed as enemies. If you talk to them, you may be able to negotiate an agreement. As developers, we felt that it was not enough to just create realistic-looking graphics. We also wanted to tie the game to reality by creating characters which a player can relate to.
GMR: The two Persona games for the Sony PlayStation were the closest Americans have gotten to the Shin Megami Tensei universe. How do those games relate to what we’ll see in Shin Megami Tensei III? What’s the same, and what’s different?
Kaneko: “Persona” was geared towards a younger audience. It had a story that primarily dealt with the main character’s psychology rather than a broader theme. One idea that is presented throughout the Megami Tensei series is that people often lack excitement in their daily lives. Nocturne is about the extraordinary events that people wish for, but can’t actually experience in normal life. As a high school student in the game, your life is typical and the world around you is peaceful. But one day, a paradigm shift destroys the world, and from then on, you must carefully decide your fate. One option is to become a hero.
GMR: Why did you choose to focus on a single hero in this game, rather than a party of several main characters?
Kaneko: Basically, games in the Shin Megami Tensei series usually involve one main character who is assisted by demons that join the party. Since this title is a direct continuation of the main series, there is only one main character just like in the preceeding games. Also, we wanted the player to be able to submerse himself or herself in the game as if he or she were actually in that world. So, we intentionally kept the characters’ personalities relatively ambiguous.
GMR: The last games in the central Shin Megami Tensei series were released some time ago, for 16-bit consoles. Why did it take so long to make a third game in the series, and why did you choose to create it now?
Kaneko: When the 32 bit consoles (PS & Saturn) were released, it took a while for us to create a different kind of Megami Tensei game, one that we hoped would appeal to a wider audience. We had a lot of great ideas that were incorporated into the game and which we developed to the fullest potential at the time.
Yamai: But, the PS2 specs were necessary to complete this massive project as we envisioned.
GMR: We’ll be getting the “Maniax” version of Shin Megami Tensei III in the United States. What’s the difference between this re-release and the original version of the game, and why did you choose to create this new version?
Kaneko: We added a difficulty setting option to make this title more appealing to a wider audience.
As for the story, we added scenes that show what went on outside the Vortex World. Also, when we originally released Nocturne in Japan, we had to cut some parts. All of those omitted parts are included in Maniax, so you can consider it the deluxe/complete edition of Nocturne.
Yamai: There are many fans of the Megami Tensei series in Japan, and we wanted to show our appreciation by providing new excitement to those who continued to play Nocturne. We believe that the revised product, Maniax, surpasses the original in many ways.
GMR: How did the Megami Tensei style originate in the early days of the series, and how has it evolved over so many years and games?
Kaneko: Simply put, it’s an antithesis to mainstream fantasy works, such as The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. Back then, all RPGs were fantasy-based, and I wondered why there were no RPGs that took place in a modern world. If there aren’t any, then why don’t I make one? That’s how it started. Another thing that bothered me was the trend of the main character always being portrayed as someone special — a legendary warrior, for example. It was the equivalent of saying you can’t succeed unless you’re from a wealthy family, and I just couldn’t stand that. I wasn’t born with special genes, and I’m sure most other players weren’t either. No matter who you are, if you’re given a chance and have the guts to try your best, you can become a hero… That became the concept of Megami Tensei.
Gods, demons, and various events that are present in the series can be thought of as metaphors for real-life social structures. The main characters in these games employ demons to fight against powerful enemies. They mature as they overcome the anxieties and anger that they feel towards society. Resistance to society’s norms and growing out of adolescence… A hard rock interpretation of Pinocchio… That’s the basic style of Megami Tensei.
I think my personal growth had a direct effect on the evolution of the style throughout the series. Of course, the underlying concept remains the same, but the theme and its depiction varies by title. For example, in Persona, we concentrated on the emotional and psychological aspects of the characters so much that it was comparable to a work of literature. Devil Summoner, on the other hand, was kept relatively simple and straightforward so that players could enjoy the story as it unfolded.
GMR: In some games, the characters are simply the characters, but you’ve been working on Megami Tensei so long that your work has come to define many more aspects of the series. What would you consider the central ideas of Megami Tensei that you want to express in your artwork?
Kaneko: As previously mentioned, since I also contribute to a game’s design and scenario, you can consider the game as a whole to be my artwork. Therefore, even if the game were to be pulled apart into its various components — gameplay, storyline, designs and illustrations — all of those would contain some aspect contributed by me. I think my fascination and respect for antiheroes is expressed subconsciously through my drawings.
GMR: Are there any other works of art or artists, inside or outside the game world, that have been an influence on the characters you’ve created for the series?
Kaneko: This is a very frequently asked question, but the most difficult one to answer. I’m sure they all are influenced by something, but it’s difficult to say exactly what. Once the theme of a game has been decided, I take everything I’ve come across in my life and synchronize it with that theme.
For Nocturne, I thought that the bubble structure of the universe which has been discussed in cosmology and the Gnostic view of the universe as a structure with multiple spheres were very similar. I added the hollow earth theory, and the Vortex Universe/World concept was born.
I got inspiration for the main character in Nocturne from the Red Hot Chili Peppers; I imagined him running around the desert naked.
GMR: Shin Megami Tensei III is unusual in that it focuses on a single hero — the Persona games had a bigger cast of central characters. Could you describe the process of creating that one main character?
Kaneko: The Megami Tensei series has traditionally featured the main character employing demons in his/her party. Persona, in which several main characters form a party, is actually the one that’s unusual; Nocturne follows the tradition of having a single main character.
I talked about the design of the main character earlier, but I’d like to add that in order to accommodate the demon-user feature, the main character becomes a supernatural half-human, half-demon being. From a design standpoint, I could have made him look like a monster, but I thought that was too common. Instead, I overlaid the image of a shaman with the main character’s demon-user side. Shamans around the world have one thing in common: tattoos. I emphasized the transition from a normal human to a special being by adding a full body tattoo to the character design. By doing so, I believe I was able to portray both the mysterious and sensual appeal of a demon. As far as character description was concerned, I decided that the tattoo would serve as a stigma resulting from the transformation into a half-demon.
GMR: You had a “guest star” role in Zone of the Enders 2, creating Lloyd and his Inhert orbital frame. Are there any other games you’ve thought you might like to contribute to that way?
Kaneko: Actually, there are other games in which I was a guest designer and a few that I’m working on currently. By doing things like this, I hope it gives fans the chance to enjoy my work. In the future, I hope to be able to incorporate some ideas from Megami Tensei into other games, and maybe even work on designing a completely new and different game.