There Is Such a Thing As Trying Too Hard
Japanese role-playing games, taken as a whole, constitute a pretty conservative genre. Descended from simplified adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons for early consoles, they have developed over the years a set of rigidly adhered-to codes and conventions that, while reassuring to the longtime fan, can give an impression of sameness to a player unfamiliar with the nuances of the form. Of course, there are substantive (if subtle) differences between titles: just as a regular reader of detective novels can easily tell an Elmore Leonard novel from a James Lee Burke, regular players of RPGs can see clear differences between, say, Lufia and Lunar.
The problem for the developer or publisher in a crowded marketplace is that it’s hard to make these differences clear to the casual buyer. On the other hand, producing a work that too drastically diverges from the conventions of the form gives rise to the danger of alienating its core audience. Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne employs a number of strategies to distinguish itself from the Final Fantasies and Dragon Warriors of the world, while at the same time coloring within the lines drawn by the conventional bounds of the RPG genre, with distinctly mixed results.
The packaging and marketing of the game go a long way towards differentiating it from other RPGs. Borrowing elements from movie DVDs, the game is labeled a “Limited Edition Director’s Cut” and comes with an extra soundtrack CD. The back cover even advertises a cameo appearance by a character from an entirely separate franchise: Dante of Capcom’s Devil May Cry games.
Nocturne’s most distinguishing characteristic, though, may be the “Mature” rating it received in the U.S. It’s unusual for RPGs, generally concerned mostly with youthful wish-fulfillment fantasies of romance and derring-do, to be lumped in with controversial titles like Manhunt and Silent Hill. Atlus, however, went so far as to issue a press release promoting this rating, declaring that “RPGs have finally grown up with the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.” All of these are attempts to reach an audience outside the core RPG fan base.
A major part of the Mature rating comes from Nocturne’s challenging story, which is a far cry from the typical RPG fare. Rather than the typical swords-and-sorcery tale of a knight in armor on a quest to save the world from an evil wizard, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic (yet still recognizably modern-day) Tokyo, and places you in the role of a “demi-fiend”, part human and part monster. The plot revolves around the bloody struggles between different factions of “demons” to create a new order in a world without humans, and the player’s attempt to understand (and potentially adopt) their opposing ideologies.
The word “demons” is quotation-marked in the above paragraph because many of the beings in the game are, strictly speaking, not demons at all. The Megami Tensei series has a long history in Japan, but with the exception of a few spin-off titles, has not had much visibility in the US, due in no small part to a sense of discomfort with its liberal appropriation of religious and mythical figures from a host of cultures. The pastiche of religious characters in Nocturne ranges from Shinto spirits to Hindu deities to Celtic fairies to Caribbean bogeymen—not to mention the various orders of angels and devils taken from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The post-apocalyptic setting and eclectic mix of mythical figures makes playing the game feel at times like moving through a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
While the story and character design are a departure from the standard console RPG, the gameplay mechanics here are much more typical. As in Pokemon, the myriad demons in Nocturne don’t exist just to act as antagonists: demons can be recruited into your party by bribing them with money and items. Once acquired, these demons can fight alongside you, or can be combined to create new demons. As in the vast majority of RPGs, combat is turn-based and revolves around an array of physical and magical attacks. The game’s environments are generally twisty mazes of little passages, all alike, and you spend quite a bit of time running on the leveling treadmill, trying to raise your stats high enough to take on the next major obstacle.
The problem with Nocturne is that the conventional gameplay and atypical story are at odds with each other. In its dialogue and cutscenes, the game purports to express a range of ideological systems and to allow you to choose between them, presenting you with a series of ethical dilemmas. Any kind of complex plotting or character development is undermined, however, by the gameplay which imposes upon the story a meta-narrative that trumps the textual narrative. The rules of play in Nocturne construct a player-character that, in opposition to the character in the story, is driven mostly by concern for his own acquisitions of power (leveling up), goods (money, bonus items), and followers (recruited demons). This disconnect between the character you play and the character you see prevents you from fully investing yourself in the game’s world, unable to reconcile the narrative quest for understanding with the meta-narrative quest for power through stat growth.
Depending on how you feel about these competing narratives, Nocturne is either a game with a compelling story that’s bogged down by repetitive gameplay, or a game with a deep and challenging battle system that’s distracted from by a convoluted plot. It’s hardly the only game to wrestle with this tension, but since most RPGs’ stories revolve around the same simple wish-fulfillment fantasies that the gameplay encourages, the gap between narrative and meta-narrative is not usually as great. Nocturne, however, in its effort to reach a broader and more mature audience, dares to experiment with a more challenging story without changing the gameplay to match. You can’t fault them for trying, but it’s hard to call the experiment a real success.