The Shin Megami Tensei, or "MegaTen," series has been a popular and fruitful one in Japan, but Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is the first official MegaTen game that's made its way from Japan to North America. The series and its various spin-off properties (like the Persona games for the PlayStation) predominately feature tales of modern-day Tokyo beset by mysterious occult forces that unleash demonic entities to seriously disturb the natural order of things, eschewing traditional fantasy or sci-fi storytelling and simply bringing hell to your front door. This premise sets Nocturne apart in the world of console role-playing games, but the game isn't just unique in that regard--it offers a recruitment system that lets virtually any enemy you meet fight at your side and provides both strategic depth and a stiff challenge. Nocturne ensures that you earn each of your victories, and though some aspects of the game are a bit unforgiving, successfully besting the hordes of demons and punishing bosses you'll come across while unraveling the dark story is in the end a very rewarding experience.
It's time for a group of unassuming teenagers to band together and save Tokyo from total annihilation...Whoops, too late.
So, just what is the story with Tokyo this time around? You start out as an ordinary Japanese high-school student (you'll have to name him yourself) who's on his way to meet up with a couple of his friends and visit a teacher who's been sick in the hospital. As you move through town, you'll happen upon news of two cults violently clashing in one of the city's parks. The park itself has been sealed off, but a sharply dressed man notes your interest and hands you an occult magazine that details a doomsday prophecy for the city. When you arrive at the hospital, you find your friends, but the hospital itself is mysteriously deserted. What happens next is usually what happens at the end of a conventional RPG: You finally locate your teacher, who tells you that she's part of a ceremony that will see all of Tokyo outside the hospital completely destroyed. Shortly after you find this out, she proceeds to destroy the city. So much for saving the world--this game bypasses all that nonsense. Instead, Nocturne poses the following situation to you: "OK, the world has been destroyed. What do you do now?"
A chance encounter with a young child and his nursemaid puts a further twist on things, as your character gets turned into a demon version of himself, complete with patterned skin and newfound powers. You're in good company, though, as what was Tokyo has turned into a haven for wandering demons and deities, now that all those pesky humans have been obliterated. The city has also collapsed upon itself into a sphere, and in the very center of the sphere is a glowing moon that the demons call Kagutsuchi. Kagutsuchi waxes and wanes much like any moon would, and the phases of this supernatural orb have a direct effect on the demons in the game, including on how they respond to you. Your fellow demons in Nocturne are pretty talkative, actually, and not just outside of battle. And that's a good thing, because as a fledgling demon in this new world, you need to get yourself some allies--and recruiting them during battle is the way to do it.
When you enter one of the game's many random encounters, you have a standard suite of battle options: a melee attack, some magic attacks, and some special abilities. You also have a "talk" option, which lets you attempt to start a conversation with, and hopefully recruit, one of your monstrous foes. It's not just a matter of asking, however, as demons tend to be a greedy lot. Many times they will ask you for money, or certain items, or even some of your health before they will agree to join. Some will turn up their nose at you altogether if you're not high enough in level, some don't understand what you're trying to say, and if Kagutsuchi is full, they won't pay any attention to you at all, as they'll be driven to distraction by the moon's energies. Even if you get a conversation going, there's no guarantee the demon will join up with you. Some will milk you for currency and items and then decide they'd rather not go, and others will just give you a choice piece of information or a nice item for your trouble. Occasionally, rather than make material demands, your would-be companion will ask you a philosophical question about power or happiness that you must answer correctly.
Gods and demons are your friends. Tempt them to your side with money, gifts, and your dazzling intellect.
It sounds complicated, but the various outcomes balance well, and cajoling the demons you encounter and trying to sweet-talk them into joining your entourage becomes a compelling pastime and not just a required one. It's not all one-sided either, because every so often a demon will approach you to ask if you might have a spare item, or just to have a chat. Sometimes weakened enemies will beg for their lives, offering you items, money, or even their servitude in exchange for ensuring their safety. While the number of demons you can have as part of your retinue (counting the three you can bring into battle with you) is capped, you can help make the most out of your newfound friends and free up some space by using the game's fusion system.
Demon fusion can happen only at special shrines located throughout the world, and it's simply a matter of taking two of your party members and combining them to create a new monster. If you do this effectively, you'll often get a more-powerful demon of a higher level, and the fusion screen actually shows you what monster and level you'll get before you combine, so there's almost no guesswork to it. (Fusions can go awry, but it's not common.) You can use this technique to create some powerhouse creatures that you might not have seen in the field, and what's more, fusion monsters also get some of the original abilities of their "parents," so you can whip up creatures with some custom abilities. It's a fast and fun way to quickly upgrade the abilities of your party, and you'll need the assistance, because the battles in Nocturne can be tough.
The game's battles are tough, to a large extent, because of character affinities. Each of the demons in the game, including your own character, has certain elemental affinities and susceptibilities. Your main character can equip an item called a magatama that will change his elemental specialty. It's handy to be able to swap these out on the fly, but your friends do not have this ability. An affinity for fire might curtail the effect of an enemy fire attack, nullify it, or even let the demon absorb the attack as health points. Elemental weaknesses mean you and your allies will take extra damage from that particular kind of magic, be it ice, electric, or status ailments. Enter into the mix Nocturne's turn-based battle system, in which you and your enemies move as a team. So, your four characters will all have turns, and then the enemies will all have turns, and it will trade off. However, if you miss an attack, or cast a type of magic that ends up being absorbed by one or more enemies, you lose some of your characters' turns. So what was a four-character attack can suddenly become two. Likewise, if you score critical hits or major magic damage, you can get an extra turn or two.