So: what do I think about Nocturne? Before I can answer that, you’ll have to allow me to get on my soapbox for a moment.
I admit that I was a bit torn about visiting the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series (of which Nocturne is the third entry), because even though SMT has a lot of cool stuff that I appreciate, it really goes out of its way to make itself difficult to like.
The most egregious offender is Shin Megami Tensei II, which vilifies Christians with only the barest of fig leaves (they’re called Messians). Of course, the depiction of Christianity is pretty cartoonish and tangential at best to the real thing, but they’re still singling out a real religion.
This is different from, say, Final Fantasy X, a game which I like, but which is pretty jaundiced towards the idea of organized religion. Yeah, I may disagree with the game, but it’s not pointing its finger at any real group of people and making them into villains.
If someone made a game where the enemies were obvious Jewish caricatures who were part of an evil conspiratorial cabal, it would be quickly condemned, and not just by Jews. Because regardless of what the creator’s intentions may have been, even if they meant no ill-will, they’d still be contributing to the general miasma of anti-semitism in the world.
There are still many places in the world where being a Jew or a Christian or the wrong kind of Muslim, etc. can get you killed, because people really do vilify religious groups. My point isn’t that anyone who plays a game like this would become a raging bigot, or that I’m offended that the developers don’t believe in Jesus, but rather that it indicates an irresponsible and cavalier attitude towards real bigotry.
My point isn’t even that real religions shouldn’t be susceptible to criticism – there’s a classy way to do that which doesn’t involve painting them black.
Anyway, that was back in ’94, and isn’t the game that I’m discussing here. I’m willing to evaluate Nocturne on its own strengths and weaknesses, but it’s worth noting that the series already has a big strike against it for me.
My feelings about Nocturne so far are actually similar to my feelings about the poet William Blake: in both cases I find a lot that is morally/theologically offensive (or at least problematic) while also recognizing a lot of genius in them. From a pure gaming perspective, I love Nocturne: I love the involved turn based combat, the Pokemon-esque party mechanics, the surreal, eerie setting, the hard-rock inspired soundtrack and the abstract, cel-shaded graphics. But it’s not without its troubling elements.
The story goes something like this: you, the player, live in modern day Tokyo and are on your way to visit your teacher in the hospital (thoughtful student that you are). Within a half-hour this seemingly benign scenario somehow escalates into an evil cult bringing about the end of the world, with most of humanity getting wiped out and replaced by demons.
It’s worth pausing to point out that the game uses the word ‘demon’ rather broadly to cover any sort of supernatural creature, from unicorns and pixies to Norse and Greek gods. But it also includes angels and demons, which brings in a lot of Judeo-Christian and occult imagery. God and the Devil are also operative here, although they’ve been given an interpretation that seems more pagan than anything else, and doesn’t have much to do with real Christianity.
Anyhow, in the process of all this, the protagonist is transformed into a demon-human hybrid by way of magical parasites, the ingesting of which forms the basis of Nocturne’s skill development system.
Have I mentioned that this game is really, really bizarre?
Pretty early on you find out that the world you are in is actually a sort of embryonic world, with different factions and people warring over who should have the power to shape the new world, and which philosophy should be dominant. But because you’re the protagonist this is ultimately up to you, and there are apparently a total of six different endings based on how you play the game.
The game’s atmosphere and tone are amazing: post apocalyptic Tokyo feels less, uh, post-apocalyptic and more like a city where all the parts have been rearranged in a nonsensical fashion. The world unfolds with an unreal, dream logic that I haven’t really seen in any other game, with the low-fi early PS2 graphics actually contributing to the effect.
Unlike traditional RPGs, you don’t have a static party. Instead, you have to recruit party members from the enemies you face, by way of a negotiation system. This typically involves bribing them and answering silly questions. The rest of it is pretty similar in execution to Pokemon. But this is where things can get kinda weird: while it’s kinda cool to do battle with a kodama and a unicorn, it can get a little bit uncomfortable when something explicitly demonic or occult winds up on your roster. The monster designs also range from cute to NSFW to “KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!”
In all this, Nocturne is not terribly interested in discussing religion (there are hardly any humans left to begin with), but is more interested in playing with religious and mythological imagery and characters. And, as I’ve suggested, in some instances it’s playing with fire. I suspect that my own reservations would be similar to that of a Hindu’s with Digital Devil Saga, given that game’s preoccupation with Hinduism. Like Neon Genesis Evangelion, it’s all pretty fantastical and divorced from reality, but also like Evangelion it’s not exactly in good taste.