What is it about Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that’s allowed it to persevere when other Japanese RPGs on the Playstation 2 have faded? Final Fantasy X has become a laughing stock, everybody’s basically forgotten the .hack franchise and nobody ever seems to talk about Shadow Hearts or Grandia anymore. Atlus’s own Personas 3 and 4 have been remade again and again on multiple consoles, most recently the critically acclaimed Persona 4: Golden. Granted, a number of games (FFXII, Dragon Quest VIII) have held up extremely well, though controversy remains. But many of these were rapturously received upon release, while Nocturne was assigned 8 or 8.5 scores and essentially dismissed as an oddity. Maybe it was because people in the United States weren’t used to the Shin Megami Tensei series, maybe because the game was just so, so difficult.
This makes sense because compared to the rest of its ilk, Nocturne is an oddity. The story is decidedly minimalistic, free of the melodrama that characterizes most of the genre. The art design looks like nothing before or since, a world away from the extravagance of Final Fantasy or the cel-shaded beauty of Dragon Quest’s overworld. It’s a game that can be actively hostile, tossing you into a world with an incredibly high encounter rate, in which the demons you’re trying to recruit rarely listen to you and bosses are seemingly insurmountable. Nocturne is easily one of the least accessible of Atlus’s Megami Tensei franchise, with the interface frustrating you at every turn.
So Nocturne isn’t as polished as the Persona games, or as accessible as Devil Survivor or even Strange Journey. But while it can be frustrating, terrifying and even unfair, the atmosphere is absolutely top-notch. In contrast to the living worlds of so many Japanese RPGs, the universe of Nocturne is a desolate landscape haunted by demons and the ghost of the dead. It’s a supremely lonely experience, and coupled with the haunting soundtrack and a story where your choices actually matter it becomes a transcendent one. Nocturne was the first SMT game to appear on the Playstation 2, but rather than a test-run it comes off as a small miracle, where every element (from the gameplay to the art direction to the themes of the story) feeds into the greater whole. The upcoming Shin Megami Tensei IV looks to be much, much more accessible than Nocturne, but I imagine the true test of the game’s worth will come in whether or not it captures Nocturne’s off-key vibe. Games like this only come around every couple of decades, if ever.