Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne
Platforms: PlayStation 2
As the title would suggest, Shin Megami Tensei III is the third game in the popular Shin Megami Tensei series. However, although there was continuity between Shin Megami Tensei and Shin Megami Tensei II, it appears that Shin Megami Tensei III starts off a whole new plotline and introduces modified and new systems of gameplay.
The first immediate difference is that there is no more equipment. The nameless hero cannot equip any items, nor can any demons. Instead, you can equip 'magatama', which are entities that impart demonic powers, on your hero to alter his stats and change what skills he learns. It's rather similiar to equipping Personae in the Persona series of games. The role of demons has changed slightly as well -- they can gain experience and more skills now, so there's less emphasis on fusing new demons. The computer is also gone; however, you can still summon and recruit demons just like in the previous games. Also, the game is no longer played from a first-person point of view: the whole game is in glorious 3D. Finally, fusion is a little different: you can only do fusions between two demons now. However, you can perform "sacrifice fusions" at certain periods, which sacrifices a demon of your choosing to pass skills and increased stats onto the newly-created demon.
Combat has changed somewhat as well. Instead of being first-person affairs, combat is now in a third-person view. On top of that, Shin Megami Tensei III introduces the "Push Turn" battle system. At the start of each round, you get one icon per member of your party. Each icon is worth one turn. However, if you score a critical hit or exploit an enemy's weakness, your turn only costs half an icon, giving you a free turn. You can also pass turns over to the next party member, which also costs only half an icon. However, if you miss or if an enemy nullifies your attack, you lose an icon in addition to the one you spent. This same system applies to enemy parties.
Shin Megami Tensei III is very striking graphically. The entire game world and its inhabitants have a pseudo-cell-shaded look that is very close to the style of the art of Kazuma Kaneko, who is responsible for concept art, character designs and demon designs. Spell and skill animations aren't overblown like in many recent titles, and the character and demon animations are impressive and full of character -- for example, one four-armed demon you can recruit paces around on the spot and strikes her swords together during battle.
In terms of sound, Shin Megami Tensei III offers a fairly decent soundtrack and a rather good library of sounds and battle voices. The game offers some good themes for locations and battles (there are several battle themes depending on the location you're in), as well as some great piano themes, though some tracks are easily forgettable. However, it all works rather well, producing a strong and distinct atmosphere. Unlike a lot of recent RPGs, Shin Megami Tensei III offers no voice acting aside from the usual in-battle voice clips. Said voice clips are nicely done, and interestingly enough, it seems that the languages demons speak in vary. For example, the demon Thor yells "DIE!" when he attacks, rather than the Japanese equivalent.
Okay, so what about the plot? (It goes without saying, but this is probably spoiler-territory.) Well, here's a summary of the first half hour. The game starts with a strange and eerie vision of a woman, who talks about the death and rebirth of the world. She asks for your name, and then tells you that she wants to see you again in the new world. You also name her, though she has a default name: Yuuko Takao. The vision ends, and the scene cuts to your hero arriving in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park station. You get a text message from your friend Isamu Nitta, asking where the hell you are. Apparently, you're supposed to visit a teacher of yours, Yuuko Takao, at the Shinjuku Eisei Hospital. You head to Yoyogi Park where you're supposed to meet, only to find that it's closed off. There, you meet another character called Hijiri, who is an occult writer. You get a phone call from another friend, Chiaki Tachibana, telling you to go on to the hospital.
When you get there, you find the place is totally empty except for your friend Chiaki, who tells you that Isamu has gone off to look for Yuuko, and she sends you off to help look. After you search around a bit, you discover that something strange is going on the basement. The first room you come into has a big pentagram in the middle of the floor and strange items scattered around it. The next one has a man sitting alone in front of a strange device -- his name is Hikawa. After telling you what's happening, he summons a demons and attempts to dispatch you -- only to be interrupted at the last moment by Yuuko. Yuuko invites you to roof of the hospital to watch the end of the world as we know it, possibly one of the coolest videogaming moments ever. After this, a strange old woman and a young boy appear in front of you, telling you that they will give you a "gift" that you must accept. The woman holds your head down, and the boy inserts a bug-like creature, a magatama, into your eye and you pass out... When you come to, you're sitting alone in a hospital room. However, you're no longer the same person... your body is covered by glowing, black tattoo-like markings, and you have a small horn coming out the back of your neck. You are no longer human.
Shin Megami Tensei III is a joy to play, and is one of the best console RPGs to come out recently. The game is currently only available in Japanese, though at the time of writing ATLUS USA say they are evaluating the game.