Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (JPN)
A bright haze fills your eyes, turning everything vague and indistinct. Then mercifully a woman stands before you, with the harsh light making her seem almost angelic. In her shadow, the location resolves itself into an unremarkable hospital room. Who is she? What is happening to you? What is the source of that unbearable light? She tells you that the world is about to be reborn, but before you can help determine what new form it will take, you must define yourself. You must tell her your name.
Choice lies at the heart of Nocturne, though this isn't Star Wars: Knights of the Republic, where siding with good or evil was as simple as deciding between fries or onion rings at the local Imperial fast food joint. Right and wrong aren't clearly defined here. There are no villains that laugh madly and commit evil acts with no clear motivation.... well maybe one, but even he has his own twisted goal in mind. The other major characters decide on the path that they believe is right and you must chose to follow one of them or walk alone. Though even the Shinji-esque decision of turning you back on all responsibility is a choice here, with consequences that will lead to one of the game's six endings.
Prior to seeing Kazuma Kaneko's designs in motion, I never felt any discomfort when a polygon head with a face texture map slapped on it turned to stare in my direction. Here it's almost an unsettling feeling, like staring into the dead eyes of a marionette or catching someone's gaze that happens to meet yours through a crowd. The uncomfortable feeling that you are being watched, diagnosed, and digested.
But what draws your eyes? In an art gallery, why will most people pass over the most technically accomplished paintings to stop before one work of art that has some difficult to define element that forces them to pause, if only to understand it. If Final Fantasy X is considered the hallmark of the realist school of visual videogame design, Nocturne is the impressionist. The lines are few and the colors are sharp and distinctive, changing as the character moves from light into shadow. These images flow and only grow stronger as you near the end of your journey, where the barriers between game and art seem completely blurred.
With such a strong narrative and powerful visual imagery, to do without voice acting is a baffling choice, but the other audible aspects of the game attempt to make up for it. Dungeons often feel oppressive with a low key soundtrack broken up by the sounds of your own heavy footsteps. Hard synthesized rock mixed with screaming, blurred lyrics announce the start of battle, tailored to put you in the mood for visceral combat.
That's how it looks like, sounds like, and even feels like... but how does it play? Well let's face it, a cabbage could clear most RPGs. All you ever have to do is get on the level treadmill until the stats of your allies exceed those of your enemies by a few decimal places. Nocturne avoids this tedium by introducing the revolutionary idea of forcing you to think in order to win, based around the concept that knowing your enemy is more important than overpowering them. Sun Tzu would have approved.
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