I wanted to talk about Nocturne for awhile and this will mark my first analysis of a game that I’ve yet to complete. That’s not to say that I haven’t put any time into the game, I’ve attempted to play through Nocturne on four separate occasions each time meeting with failure. I recently picked up the latest game in the series, Strange Journey for the DS which got me thinking about Nocturne. Before I get into the analysis a brief history is in order.

A long time ago back before Atlus was a popular niche supplying publisher/developer, they were an unknown niche supplying publisher/developer they decided to translate a relatively unknown series in the US called Shin Megami Tensei (MegaTen in Japan) or SMT. The SMT series is made up of main games and what could be considered side stories with the common thread being demons. Persona which would be our first exposure in the US was one of those side stories. The game featured students who had to communicate with demons to survive and figure out what is going on. A sequel was brought over as well and met with some success. Then at last in 2004 Atlus brought over the main series with Nocturne for the PS2.

While we would only receive one version of Nocturne, our version is considered to be the “extended version” which was release in Japan. This version featured new boss fights, a challenging dungeon among other tweaks. Nocturne became a big hit and in my opinion is one of the best JRPGS to be released. The game became near impossible to find and during the drought I managed to find a used copy in great condition at an EBGames. Since then the game has had a reprint and now copies are readily available from online retailers.

Nocturne like all SMT games deals with demons, in the game the world as we know it dies within 20 minutes of the game. The player is left to fend for themselves in the aftermath, with the world now inhabited by demons. Just about every demon in the game with the exception of some bosses can be recruited to join the player’s team. To recruit you have to talk to them and answer questions and hopefully get the demon to like you enough to join. Every demon in the game has its own strengths, weaknesses and skills. “Demon Pokémon” could be a simple description of Nocturne but the game has some deep mechanics to understand.

First is the “press turn” system, both your team and the enemy have their actions per round dictated by how many turns they have. Normally you’ll have one for each member on the field and the same goes for the enemy. However if you hit an enemy with an element that they are weak against you’ll gain an additional turn. Play your cards right and you can go 8 times in a single round, but there is a danger. If you hit an enemy with an attack that they absorb or reflect then you lose your entire round of turns. The same rules also apply to the enemy and if you’re not careful you can run into trouble when dealing with normal fights. When fighting bosses, even though you may be dealing with one big bad enemy, it may have several turns to dish out pain or the ability to multiply its remaining turns.

Next up we have demon fusion which plays heavily into mastering the game. Fusion allows you to combine two demons to create a new one and it also allows you to pass powerful skills onto new demons. Every demon in the game is designated by a race and rank, each pairing of races will produce a demon of a different race. Their ranks and levels are used to determine the other main attributes of the new demon. Lastly random skills will be chosen to be inherited by the new creature, with skills that are close to the creature’s own abilities more favored to be transferred. Fusion is the only way to acquire the rarer demons in the game and a special fusion type will allow you to have boss demons on your side. The fusion mechanic is a powerful tool and starts out as a way of evening the odds during the normal game and required to stand a chance dealing with the extra content.

As mentioned earlier every demon has strengths and weaknesses and it is possible to make a demon that has no weakness with the right skill. Going into a boss fight with a team of demons with handpicked skills can mean all the difference in the world. The variety of skills in Nocturne is staggering and you’ll never know what trick a boss will pull out next. Now I’ve been gushing about this game but it’s time to talk about why I’ve played the game on at least four separate occasions and meeting with failure.

Nocturne is a hard game which should come to no surprise to anyone who has played a SMT game over the years. However Nocturne came out over here before the series started refining the game play and smoothing out the wrinkles. Bosses can become pure nightmares to fight if you take the wrong party makeup in. Death can come quick in the game and if the player dies by any means it is game over. Going through the fusion system takes time, you need to level up your demons to unlock their entire skill set to make the fusion worth it and with many boss fights developing a custom team against it is the best solution. To its credit, Nocturne is not a RPG about grinding out levels to beat your foes; if you can learn the tricks of the system it lowers the difficulty curve dramatically. The problem is that most newcomers will not get far enough into the game to start delving into these mechanics and I can tell you exactly where the majority of gamers threw in the towel.

Earlier I mentioned that our version of Nocturne added new features and one of the biggest game changing ones were the Fiend fights. Fiends were elite demons who appeared in certain parts of the game to challenge the player to a fight. Each one is unique and very powerful, with some required to progress and others you could avoid fighting if you wanted. The first fight however was required and became like a Berlin Wall of difficulty stopping most players in their tracks. The problem is that this fight was a perfect storm of difficulty for the following reasons.

1. The first Fiend fight was with a creature called Matador and came just before the player unlocks one of the most useful features of the fusion system. The ability to record the stats and skills of every demon in your team and allowed to summon up a copy of it at a cost of Macca (in game currency). This allows the player to have a readily available source of fusion materials allowing them to go nuts with creating new combinations. Without this feature it makes fusions riskier as you are limiting your pool of available demons.

2. The fight with Matador can be very difficult due to its own abilities. The demon relies on Force style attacks and the only way to really stand a chance is to have demons that can absorb, reflect or null those types of attacks. At this stage of the game however there not many demons that fall into one of those categories requiring some careful fusions. Just taking one demon that is weak against Force attacks is a recipe for disaster. Matador also has the ability to increase its evasion attribute to obscene levels, lower any buffs you put on your characters, cure any debuffs you put on it along with powerful group affecting attacks.

At first you’ll probably say “why the hell did the designers put this fight here?” but the thing is that if you don’t learn the lessons from this fight, the game will only get harder from here, my first time playing the game and still getting use to the system I spent 8 hours grinding out levels to strong arm my way through the fight and burnt out on the game. Next time I used the fusion system to make up my party with demons that either null or absorbed force, the fight lasted 2 minutes and I didn’t need to heal once. Like the best games out there, you get back what you put into Nocturne but unlike other titles the game asks you to learn important mechanics early on to have any shot at surviving.

Normally I would give some mention to the story but unfortunately even with my furthest play through I did not grab enough details to start piecing together the story. The farthest I got was at least 6 or 7 dungeons into the game on my best run.

My final shout out for Nocturne goes to the strategy guide written by Double Jump Books. The guide was about 400 pages long; no I’m not kidding, there was enough information about Nocturne to fill that many pages and not spoil any parts of the story. I still have a copy of the guide and if there was ever a poster child for making a great strategy guide, Nocturne would be it. Also the guide can also serve as a makeshift blunt instrument if you need to knock someone out. It also makes me wish that DJB would come up with a guide for Strange Journey, so that I have something else to wield in my other hand and having all that useful information would be a plus too I guess.

Nocturne is a bit rough around the edges, but as far as RPGs go it still ranks up there as one of the best. Depending on how my time goes with Strange Journey I may attempt to take the lessons learn and attempt play through five. If you have a PS2, enjoy RPGS and have about $30 to spend you owe it to yourself to pick up Nocturne.

Josh

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I like to consider myself a creative person and one thing I hope I share with other creative people in this industry is a “what if” project. What if I had unlimited resources at my disposal and could make a game just for me; damn the publisher, damn the gamers and only concentrate on making it for me. Now there is a chance that my idea will appeal to other people and that would be a small benefit, without further ado I present to you my dream idea.

My idea is a *takes a long breath* economic city builder, action RPG set in an open randomize world. The player is an orphan in a fantasy like world who owns the trading business their family has run for several years. One day the land they thought they own is taken away from and all they have left is with is a plot of desolate land. The player’s mission is to not only turn the land around but to expand and become the most profitable powerful person in the world.

There are two main forms of game play: mayor mode and action mode, I’ll start with action mode first. In action mode the game is played from the third person perspective and is used for exploration and combat. The player can go anywhere and fight anything as they explore around the land. Any item that is found has a use, from plants to be used by an herbalist, to the bones of an animal that could be fashioned into armor. The player can also take villagers out in hunting parties to bring back resources for the town. Along with the player, every villager has attributes that define what they are good at. When entering a new area for the first time it is uninhabitable to setup a village and the player must recruit people to help clear it out. Several objectives must be completed to be able to secure the land. You may also find monster lairs that can be explored for treasure and bragging rights.

Next is Mayor Mode; this is where the city building comes in. Played from the isometric point of view if you are inside a village that you own you can switch between the two modes at anytime. Building your village follows the Anno series model of buildings falling into different tiers based on class. Along the first few tiers you’ll find woodcutters and blacksmiths, later tiers have military academies and fancy shops. Depending on what buildings you put up will determine the people who will show up. Every person who arrives will have their own attributes and abilities which can affect both their performance in the field as well as in the shop. Anyone can be recruited for adventuring but there is a greater cost in hiring someone who doesn’t have the adventurer trait. People will level up over time either through combat or by producing enough goods at their job, with higher level people having better attributes.

Going back to material gathering, everything found while exploring has a use and once brought back to the village it can be picked up by the respective villager to be refine. When a product is finished it can be purchased by anyone including the player. If a villager buys an item then they own it and will use it at their own accord. The player with receive a small discount off the price of an item if they buy it and it goes into their stockpile. The importance of the stockpile is that the player can keep the best equipment to be given out to people they will take out for adventuring or in the military.

Everyone in the game has money with villagers making money by selling goods, going adventuring and fighting in the army, with the player receiving taxes from villagers and a share of the profit on sold goods. If the player buys an item they will not receive any cut from the profit from it. Food is unique among the refine products; it cannot be bought by the player but is instead sold to the general populace and whatever available food to be bought makes up the stockpile of the village. If a city doesn’t have the materials needed available locally you can always order goods from other cities that you are friendly with; the further the city the higher the cost.

Some buildings require advance villagers to operate them like hospitals or blacksmiths, you have a chance with each new arrival to have someone with the prerequisite ability but more often you’ll have to attract them. First you need to build the building of course; a doctor is not going to work out of a barn. Second you must have the materials that they will use in stock. Someone who will build guns will not work in a village that doesn’t have a supply of gun powder for instance. Advance villagers will also have higher than average attributes to go along with their advance profession. Usually they will take one of the local children and make them their apprentice with the child being promoted to that profession after X amount of time has passed. If your village becomes technologically advanced enough you can build a school that can teach both children and adults advance professions. While fighting monsters and gathering taxes is all well and good, eventually you’ll have to deal with the other rulers of the land.

What could be worse than dealing with monsters? How about a pompous aristocrat who thinks they are better then you? Starting out you’ll be a small fish in the grand scheme things and won’t attract too much attention. Eventually though you’ll draw the eye of the various rulers around your land. They will start to request things from you and failing to keep up will make them very unhappy. Refuse enough times or if the person just doesn’t like you and you’ll go to war. War requires a restructuring of your city priorities; you’ll need a place to train along with armor and weapon outfitters to supply the troops. Unlike other city builders your army is not made up of hundreds of faceless troops and is made up of your villagers. This serves two purposes, one it makes things more personal to lose troops and two allows the size of the city to define the standing army. As mayor/king/general you will not lead your troops directly but control them from the mayor mode view like a RTS.

Another way of taking over is through diplomacy, by building successful villages you can start to sway the other villages to support you. You may send money to other villages as a way of support or provide trading routes to them to increase commerce. If the people of the village like you enough they move to your village or you may have a chance to buy establishments in other towns. If you own enough parts of another village you can take the village over thanks to the will of the people. Likewise if you are doing a poor job managing your village or don’t have enough money to keep the city going, other villages may do the same thing to you.

In “Josh’s Dream Land” I could see the game being played through a story mode that follows the player through different lands in an attempt to become ruler and a randomize scenario mode that the player chooses how big the world is and plays the game through it. Each region will have its own set of resources requiring the player to create different villages in each instead of going with one way that works everywhere. Even in my dreams I don’t think this game could work with multiplayer as I don’t even want to calculate how long a multiplayer game could take.

Like most of the ideas that I talk about I already have a design document taking shape in the back of my mind. If someone could be so kind to make this game for me or provide me with the manpower required I would greatly appreciate it.

Josh

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Hopefully that title has explained perfectly what this analysis is all about. I just finished Condemned 2 a few days ago, I actually picked it up a few weeks back but I was waiting to see if I could get Condemned 1 first. Unfortunately I just got to playing Condemned 1 and I’ve committed sequel sin by playing the second game first. In a previous entry I talked about what I loved about Metroid Prime and Stalker as FPS. In many ways Condemned 2 is what I want to see more of from the FPS genre however that doesn’t mean this is a perfect game. For a title that deals with mental disorders it is apt that the game suffers from multiple personality disorder.

Condemned 2 is a FPS horror, beatemup adventure title that sets you in the shoes of Ethan Thomas, who after the last game has hit rock bottom. A strange force is causing people to become increasingly violent and deranged and serial killers are out in force and it is up to Ethan to figure out what is going on. First I want to comment on how disgusting the game looks… in a good way. Dealing with deranged psychopaths does not take you to the upper crust of society and you’ll be exploring derelict buildings. What I enjoyed about Metroid Prime was how it not only allowed you to connect to the character but also with the world and Condemned 2 is the same way.

I love how Ethan is more than just a pair of arms in the game and the interactions with the world are a nice touch. Ethan can pick up a variety of objects to wield in melee as well as using firearms. Guns in the Condemned universe are incredibly powerful and even Ethan will go down after taking a few shots, to balance that ammo is scarce and in a moment of terror it is easy to waste all your rounds. Close ranged combat has degrees of depth to it, you can counter and set up combos and there are special moves that can be used when a bar is filled up. Also you can throw whatever weapon you have at enemies to either knock them down or daze them. Besides fighting people in dark alleys the game also picks your brain to figure out what is going on.

As you are exploring the various environments you’ll come across investigation points in which your job is to figure out what is going on or ask the questions that get the best responses. Unlike the first one, this time your investigation tools can be used at will. These sections can be about determining what happened at a crime scene to finding an important clue to proceed. What is interesting is that the game rates you on how accurate you are on a scale of one to five, one meaning you have no clue and 5 being you are red hot. These sections are a great way to flex your thinking process and break up bashing people in the face nicely. I do have a few issues though; first being that the game has a habit of asking you things that most of us would not know. For example I don’t know the difference between a stab wound and a gunshot wound and being graded on that knowledge is a little unfair. Next, there are times in the game that because the camera would not zoom in far enough or give me a good viewpoint I could not see what they wanted me to find out requiring me to guess. Unfortunately this is not the only design faux pas committed by Condemned 2.

Returning to my first paragraph Condemned 2 has a bad case of multiple personality disorder and tries to do too much. There are some things that just do not gel correctly and action and horror are one of those pairs. To have action the player must be constantly assaulted by foes and put in dangerous situations. To have horror there must be a build up and time not being attacked and each fight has to be special. No matter how freaky the situation is, being attacked by twenty similar foes kills the tension in the room. The designers tried to push action to the forefront and in the process pulled away the curtain to show the puppet master. The game heavily relies on scripted encounters for attacks and eventually I lost all sense of horror. One section had me attack from both in front and behind at the same time, except I already cleared out everyone behind me and this was just the designer pushing a button to create tension. Another poor example is when I was in a bathroom and an enemy appeared behind me, first time it was a little scary but next time I turned so fast that I actually saw the enemy poof into existence because I triggered it. Besides this the game commits a cardinal sin of game design.

(Spoiler Warning: the next two paragraphs go into detail about two sections of the game, which is the only way I can deliver my example. I will not be spoiling anything plot related but if you want to avoid being prepared for this then please skip the next two paragraphs.)

One of the later levels takes place in a museum which is overrun with crazy people who just so happen to have broken into a medieval weapons exhibit. About 3/4th of the way through you are attacked by a bum completely decked out in a suit of armor sporting a battle Axe. You can attack and counter his blows and the game shows things register but at this point you cannot hurt him. Your only option is to run past him to a wooden walkway that when he crosses he breaks through the boards.

After a few more sections you are attacked by him again, this time you are stuck in a huge room and have to fight him. It seems the only way to win is to wait for him to get his weapon stuck in the ground and attack him in the back. Nowhere in game does the game give you any clues that the rules of engagement have changed and this kind of event only happens one time. The part that annoys me is that later on in the game you run into encounters that you have to run from and the game actually tells you that you have to run for these sections.

The best moments of Condemned 2 are when every mechanic gets equal time in the spotlight, when I’m creeping through abandoned buildings looking for clues and on the lookout for someone to jump me. Unfortunately as the game moves on it becomes more action focus, a problem seen in Manhunt 1. The final 2 levels of Condemned 2 have no investigation points whatsoever and the last level is gun heavy. I’m also not a fan of how the story developed in the game but to explain why would be far too spoiler filled for this entry.

I finished Condemned 1 the other day and I find it interesting to compare the two. Condemned 2 is easily the better game design wise: the mechanics are more refined, investigation points and so on. However I found the level design in the first one to be more organic, both games rely on scripted events and enemy placement but Condemned 1 was better at hiding the puppet strings in a sense. In the first one I felt that I was at war with the denizens of whatever rundown building I was in, in two it felt that I was battling the unseen gaze of a game designer placing enemies in my way. I also should note that combat was spread out more in the first one then it is in the second and even the final level that is combat heavy still paces the fighting out.

Even with my complaints I enjoyed Condemned 2, not too many FPSs allow the player to connect with the world and when all the mechanics are in play, the game is great. I do wish that more games incorporate close combat move sets beyond just holding down the attack button. I hope that Monolith is working on a third one and can take the lessons learned from 1 and 2. Because the world needs more games that let us fight deranged hobos with gum-ball machines and bowling balls.

Josh.

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