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by Ethos

Sunday Soapbox: Why Nocturne is Better Than Final Fantasy XIII

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

It’s safe to say that most of us have tried Final Fantasy XIII, and found it lacking. Maybe you appreciate the game for what it is, but wish it was more. Maybe you only found pleasure in the game’s battle system, which is widely hailed as its strongest aspect. Or perhaps, like me, you hated pretty much everything about the game.

During the fifteen hours or so that I spent hating Final Fantasy XIII, I often found myself simply wondering why I was hating it so much. Was it just because the game itself was bad? Or, was it possible that I was just losing my taste for JRPGs in general? I considered the latter a distinct possibility, because in the last year I really haven’t played that many RPGs – so maybe, possibly, they just weren’t my thing anymore.

Well, twelve hours into Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, I’ve discovered that’s not the case. I’m enjoying the hell out of it, and because of that I’ve come to the definitive conclusion that Final Fantasy XIII is just a bad game. So, why am I enjoying Nocturne so much when Final Fantasy XIII made me cringe? Allow me to explain.

I Feel Like a Part of Nocturne’s World

I might as well begin by attacking Final Fantasy XIII’s weakest aspect. As pretty as it might look, Final Fantasy XIII never manages to connect you to the world you’re in. In fact, Final Fantasy XIII seems to go out of its way to ensure that you can never feel a tangible connection with its world. You’re never allowed to interact with your surroundings in any way; and, in fact, the only real player input to be found is within Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system. You can’t talk to NPCs. You can’t explore towns. Hell, for the majority of the game, you can’t even decide how to evolve the Crystarium. Final Fantasy XIII, for all intents and purposes, is on rails.

Hail the advent of the rail-turn-based-fighting game.

Now, let’s consider Nocturne. When I’m in a new place, I can go talk to NPCs to gather info and insight about the area I’m in, who lives there, who runs it, and how it works. When I’m exploring the world, I’m actually exploring – I’m not walking a straight line. In short, I’m allowed to piece together my own understanding of the world, rather than being force-fed through crappy cutscenes. My connection the world and events at large advance at my own pace, not at the pace of some dsylexic Japanese man who thinks he’s writing something epic.

Nocturne Actually Has an Atmosphere

Because Final Fantasy XIII force-feeds you the specifics of its world and events, the game is never allowed to develop a palpable atmosphere. You see, atmosphere doesn’t have anything to do with writing or storytelling – it’s essentially how the game feels while you’re playing it. And, as I’ve already said, the only time you’re ever playing Final Fantasy XIII is when you’re in combat.

Nocturne doesn’t have that problem. In fact, Nocturne has one of the richest, most unique atmospheres I’ve ever experienced in a JRPG. The lack of human party members, combined with the post-apocalyptic setting, evokes an atmosphere that’s comparable to games like Metroid Prime, Shadow of the Colossus, and (to cite another RPG) Vagrant Story. To sum up, while Final Fantasy XIII is simply a task, Nocturne is an experience.

Nocturne Has Less of a Story, Yet More

Nocturne takes a fairly minimalist approach to story exposition. In spite of that, the events taking place are far more engaging than Final Fantasy XIII’s nonsensical mess of a plotline. Why? Oh, well, it’s pretty simple. Atlus has good writers. See Persona 3 and 4 for additional proof of that. Square Enix, on the other hand, does not. Or, if they do, they didn’t let them anywhere near Final Fantasy XIII’s script.

Nocturne’s Battle System is Better

There was a time that I said good things about Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system. And, to be fair, it’s certainly not a bad system – it’s just not great by any means. Call it streamlined, call it “fast and furious,” call it a great example of Macro vs Micro-management, but in my opinion, it’s just dumbed down. Paradigms are simply a heavily generalized form of XII’s gambits, and there’s absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t be able to issue manual commands to my party members.

Nocturne, like all of the Shin Megami Tensei games, has one of the deepest, most strategic battle systems I’ve seen in an RPG. Recruiting a variety of demons to fight on your side is not only a ton of fun in and of itself, but it also lends itself to deliciously complex combat strategies – aside from titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, I’ve never played an RPG that places so much emphasis on building and preening a strong party. Just one demonic member can make all the difference, and the combinations are practically endless. In Final Fantasy XIII, “strategy” is letting the right dog off the chain at the right time. In Nocturne, you’re the one building the team, strengthening the team, and guiding the team – and that’s how it should be.

Nocturne Has Dante In It

Yep, that’s right. Dante, from Devil May Cry. The ultimate demon-hunting badass. Atlus struck a deal with Capcom to get him in their game. This is something the Square Enix clearly failed at, and it cost them.

I know that not everyone’s going to agree with me here. But, all you sensible people will, I’m sure. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a better game than Final Fantasy XIII in every conceivable way.

Except for those graphics. Those graphics were sweeeeet.

Lazy Saturdays #03

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Well, it’s a good thing I never formally accepted 7’s challenge, because I don’t see myself finishing Nocturne this week. I’m frankly not good at gaming binge sessions. I can play for five hours at a time max before I have to take a break and do something else; it doesn’t matter what game it is, or how much I enjoy it.

I am very much enjoying the game, though. And, because of my immaculate awesomeness, I was able to defeat the infamous Matador on my third attempt. He was a tough bugger, yes, but my team was tougher. Just make sure you have a Magatama that nullifies Force. A Demon that does the same can’t hurt either. And finally, make sure you’re awesome. Like I am. (Probably the most difficult part.)

Also, I forgot to mention this in my previous write-up, but I love the fact that the game has no voice acting. Not entirely sure why, but I just find it oddly refreshing to return to the days of reading text. Anyone else feel me on that one?

I’ll be writing a bit more about Nocturne in tomorrow’s Sunday Soapbox, so look forward to it. For now, let’s try to spice up this rainy Saturday with some fun links.

All GameCrazy Stores Being Liquidated – Huh. Sad story. I’ve never been one to hate (too much) on GameStop, but it is kinda disturbing to see its competitors drop off like flies. And GameCrazy actually holds a special place in my heart for one reason: it was the first actual videogame store I ever went in. Growing up, my family made frequent trips to the local Wal-Mart for all our shopping needs. Right next to said Wal-Mart was a Hollywood Video store, where we’d often rent or buy movies. In said Hollywood Video was a GameCrazy  - and I’d visit it frequently. I don’t know if I even knew about GameStop at that time.

Ah well. There’s still Play and Trade for whenever I’m in an anti-GameStop mood.

Roger Ebert Hates 3-D - and frankly, I can’t blame him too much. The link is to a NewsWeek article in which Ebert carefully and elegantly lists nine different reasons why he thinks 3-D movies are bad. I won’t summarize it here, but it’s absolutely worth a read  - the man may not know a videogame from a drinking game, but he certainly knows the film industry.

If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, at least skip to Ebert’s final point, in which he discusses Hollywood’s tendency to resort to technology whenever they’re in a slump. (Color, 3-D, Widescreen, 3-D again, et cet). The point he makes is that Hollywood is perpetually trying to offer theater experiences that can’t be had at home, and perpetually failing – i.e, HD is now practically standard, widescreen’s been standard for a long time, and 3-D is already on its way to being a home experience. So, how can Hollywood break this vicious cycle? According to Ebert, it’s a technology known as MaxiVision48, which projects at 48 fps, essentially doubling image quality. I’ve never even heard of MaxiVision before, but Ebert seems to swear by it – in his own words:

The result is dramatically better than existing 2-D. In terms of standard measurements used in the industry, it’s 400 percent better. That is not a misprint. Those who haven’t seen it have no idea how good it is. I’ve seen it, and also a system of some years ago, Douglas Trumbull’s Showscan. These systems are so good that the screen functions like a window into three dimensions. If moviegoers could see it, they would simply forget about 3-D.

Strong words. But maybe he’s right?

You Should Check Out the Official Dead Space 2 Site - I’m generally not much for official game websites, but this one’s nice. There’s an audio log to listen to, a memorial for those lost in the “terrorist attack” on the Ishimura, some official artwork, and more.

Man, apparently the rain here is bad. Like, flash flooding bad. Oh well; I’m perfectly safe in my hidey-hole of an apartment.

‘Till tomorrow!

Nocturne: The First 3 Hours and 44 Minutes

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Bit of an unwieldy title, but it serves our purposes.

I love the Shin Megami Tensei series. That being said, I’ll admit that I’ve only ever played two games from the series – Persona 3 and Persona 4. And yes, I know those are the SMT games that everyone’s played, but I’m being truthful when I say they’re two of the best RPGs on the PlayStation 2. (Final Fantasy XII is the only other contender, in my mind.) There’s just something about the way those games feel that really sets them apart from general JRPG fare. The fantastic writing, deep skill/persona management systems, and combat help, too.

I’ve owned Nocturne for a few years now, but for some reason it’s taken me until now to play it. I think I might have been imagining Persona minus social links, which is the best thing about the Persona games. But, now that I’ve actually sat down and played it for almost four hours, I can say that… well, yeah, that’s kinda what it is. But that’s not all it is. And after four hours, I’m pretty excited to see where the game goes from here.

The Persona series is notable for being set in highly realistic Japanese locales. There’s fantasy, yeah, but there’s equal doses of real-life stuff, if you take my meaning. Like Persona, Nocturne is set in a realistic place – Tokyo, in fact. But, as I realized pretty quickly, Nocturne is a lot more about the fantastic. I mean, the freaking world ends barely an hour into the game, thanks to some weird occult prophecy known as The Conception. Yeah, no, it really does. Everyone dies, and you’re one of the few people left in a world populated by demons and spirits. As a result, Nocturne has a pretty lonely, isolated feel to it that I’m really enjoying. JRPGs aren’t exactly known for being “lonely” experiences, per se, seeing that you’re generally surrounded by party members and NPCs. In Nocturne, your party is comprised of demons you recruit, and the only NPCs are spirits. Unique, to say the least.

Speaking of, so far I really dig the whole demon-party-recruitment thing. Basically, instead of wielding Personas through human party members (as you do in the Persona games) you recruit those same Personas as party members. (Except they’re called Demons instead of Personas.) Negotiating with some ugly Demon, and successfully recruiting him to your side, has an oddly rewarding feel to it. Also, I pretty much geeked when I found out that Demon (Persona) Fusion was in the game – that was always one of my favorite aspects of Persona, and I wasn’t expecting to see it in Nocturne.

So yeah, I like Nocturne so far. The premise is neat, the atmosphere is definitely unique for a JRPG, and the mechanics are both solid and challenging. (Haven’t died yet, though.) I’m glad I chose it for Backlog Week 2, and I can certainly see myself playing it even beyond these next few days.

In the Spirit of Democracy…

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Unlike Ethos, I’m going to honor the voice of the people. I’ve owned Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for almost 2 years, and now, in honor of our second Backlog Week, I’m finally going to play it. Sure, there’s no way I finish it in a week, but that’s not really the point anyway.

Check back later today for my initial thoughts. Time to see if the game’s as much a challenge as people claim.