The JRPG genre has largely achieved its popularity based on its ability to present narratives of an epic scope. Balancing the gameplay has proven a challenge to many developers. Common enemies tend to collapse after enough basic attacks, while the few challenging bosses can be overcome by grinding levels for a bit. It’s rare to find a truly challenging JRPG that isn’t caused by the player being perpetually under-leveled, but Atlus has made an art of this feat.
Now overshadowed by its more narrative-heavy spinoff, Persona, it is sometimes hard to remember the minimalism intrinsic to Nocturne’s design. Where most series focus on the battle between good and evil, Shin Megami Tensei treats this as a struggle between order and chaos. Nocturne takes these sides to the most extreme point; the protagonist, Demi-fiend, is forced to choose one of several questionable options. The lack of a satisfying alternative is maddening, lending well to the game’s oppressive atmosphere. There is one clear option to reject everything, but chances are you won’t like who you are working with toward that goal.
Most fantasy settings tend to stick to a few familiar flavors (what’s an RPG without Medieval castles?), so something like Nocturne’s demon-infused Tokyo immediately stands out. The dungeons are shopping malls, hospitals, construction sites; anything to reinforce this was once our world. Few games feel so outright desolate.
Unlike practically any other JRPG, the draw here actually is the gameplay. Grinding might help, but Shin Megami Tensei is all about strategy. Like most JRPGs, enemies have their weaknesses and resistances. But where those exist largely to do a bit more damage in other games, Nocturne’s entire combat system is built around hitting the right enemy with the right move.
The Turn Press system makes every move count. Hitting a weakness gives an extra chance to attack before the enemies get their turn, up to a full round of additional attacks. With a varied enough team, you might be able to wipe out the enemies before the game ever rolls over to their turn. On the other hand, missing an enemy takes two attacks away, while having your attack repelled or absorbed immediately ends your entire turn. Thus, battles become a mad dash to identify what works, as you need those extra turns.
Like Pokemon, a major selling point here is that you can essentially capture the game’s many demons. Your party consists of Demi-Fiend and three demon allies, but these demons have limited use and level slower. Where the game shines is the ability to fuse demons to make something stronger, the resulting demon gaining otherwise unobtainable skills from its parents. The massive amount of demons are a necessity, as there are enough ultra-hard bosses where you will want an entire team that can hit any available weakness. Additionally, SMT is a rare JRPG series where stat boosts actually mean something, so having a support unit is also feasible. The benefit to a challenge is that variety counts for more.
With move sets being limited, choosing which form of an attack to keep can be a surprisingly hard decision. In most RPGs, a spell which does the same damage but can hit all enemies would be the logical choice. Here, it might be better to keep the version which can only hit a single target, lest you hit something which can absorb the attack and negate any benefit. There is also a spell type which always does neutral damage, which seems like a safe choice until you remember the need to hit weaknesses. Luckily, the ability to summon previously discovered demons negates any permanent damage from a poor decision. Any time your team falls behind, you simply have to make a new one.
Few JRPGs have tension as a selling point, but almost every single battle in Nocturne left me on the edge of my seat. Each new area means a new set of enemies you must analyze, making this a constant game of risk vs. reward. With instant-death attacks which can actually work and enemies that can wail upon you the moment they hit an ally’s weakness, one bad turn can ruin everything. What makes Nocturne actually work is that it gives you the tools to mitigate these risks. Why even enter a battle with a weakness once you’re able to fuse a negating ability to turn that weakness into a strength? The massive compendium offers an endless sea of possible demons; the greatest puzzle in this game is figuring out how to get this ability onto that monster with the least amount of fusing necessary. Your demons are what you make of them.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne fills a unique niche, almost like the antithesis of the traditional JRPG. Anyone expecting a party of plucky heroes fighting against evil will be disappointed. But for those who want to see what the JRPG can offer when focused on making every single encounter have weight, few have ever done it better.