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Games Of Contempt : When a Game Hates You

Using SMT : Nocturne as an example, ScreenCritics Dan breaks down how anti-player, unfriendly game mechanics can ruin an entire experience.

After conquering the legendary Persona 5, I decided to go back and play some of the older Atlus games that have somehow eluded me. Unfortunately for me, the first thing I started with was : Nocturne. I’ve had previous run ins with ‘proper’ SMT games and found them all universally awful – in large part because badly designed first person dungeons and copious amounts of grinding did not impress me. Nocturne had its own legend, however. That of an absurdly hard game. Without knowing specifics, I ventured into the game and, approximately 80% of the way through as I write this, can safely say, yes it is.

Unfortunately, it’s not proper difficulty. It’s full of contempt for the player, where the developers mistook nonsensical cheapness for difficulty repeatedly. It has its own genuinely difficult moments, but there are also very, very obvious enemies, moves, or sections, meant to drive you absolutely insane. I will be using SMT : Nocturne today to discuss some of these problems and mechanics, and why it doesn’t work.

Let’s start simple. What is a video game? A product you purchase that then brings you into a virtual world of puzzles, building, jumping, murder – whatever gets your fancy. And you do this because you either want to pass time or be entertained or amused. Okay, it’s an entertainment product – for fun, video games. SO what happens when a game has a riveting backstory and potential and scope, but the gameplay wants to see you upside down in horrible agony? Well, you get Nocturne. For an idea of how ‘hard’ it is, you can readily find posts on the internet that claim they died in the normal difficulty tutorial! I only survived with 2 HP myself.

For those wishing to play it, I will omit as much of the story and plot as I can. To that end, I will just say that your protagonist recruits demons to fight with him, who all have unique skills, strengths and weaknesses. This leads to a core mechanic : The Press Turn system where each living combatant earns you 1 act per turn. If you miss an enemy or hit a strength, you lose bonus actions. If you hit a critical or their weakness, you get a bonus one. The same applies to you – if you are hit with ice while weak to ice, the enemy  gets to go again. Same with ‘random’ (But strangely frequent) enemy criticals.

Should your main character ever fall in battle, that’s it. Nevermind the 3 demons right there, 1 or 2 of which has revival spells – you are done. Thematically somewhat justified as the world is in a bad state in this game, but the oft-taunted excuse of ‘demons are mercenaries’ doesn’t fully stand up – mercenaries usually do fight for cash, but demons join you based on your gifts to them and philosophical or personal questions answered to their liking. Thus it’s more of an emotional connection, at least in places. I find it hard to believe that anyone would just join a stranger ‘for funzies” to fight with them for days and weeks and then just…leave, when they die. Why? Because in the interim, those demons take huge amounts of beating, but still stick around.

Let’s come back into mechanics territory though, because we very surely aren’t done. Besides that, a lot of the dungeons have many branching paths with little to nothing in them, meant to entice you to explore – except for the inconsistent and fairly high encounter rate. It drags things out, but enemies also have the fair chance of surprise attacking you – that is to say, they get the first turn on you and  love criticals at this moment especially. I have had an instance where, late-game and a little bit overlevelled, I was ambushed by a party of 3 physical users. They proceeded to target and crit on my Main Character (MC) and the fourth hit got him killed. Now, that meant losing approximately half an hour of progress to a RANDOM ENCOUNTER I could literally not do anything about.

The fact that dungeons are often laid out – on purpose! – to be as confusing as possible just makes it so much worse. Because with length comes attrition. I found myself in an hour-and-a-half dungeon with absolutely no recovery items of value, and no rooms where you could buy full heals for cash. No, if I wanted to heal I’d have to find a save terminal, warp to a shop and or heal location and get LOADS of restoratives, which cost more than I could reasonably pay for and thus halted the game pace substantially until I ground up enough money. I was already having a very tough time dealing with my anger due to the bad, confusing, nonsensical dungeon layouts, but then I wasn’t given the proper resources to manage them, either. Tellingly, boss battles give you nothing but EXP and money and the occasional special or story loot. Once you are done, you are never healed or taken anywhere, it’s your job to limp back to a save point and not die in  your potentially weakened state.

A recent example yesterday : A long, boring tower with floating blocks that take you places you often can’t make sense of without scouting, which only marginally helps. You go through this long long dungeon of about 2 hours to get to a healing point. Great! So you keep going and 5 minutes later (FIVE MINUTES!) is a save point. Another 2 minutes past *that* is a puzzle that incorporates the absolutely meaningless Kagutsuchi \ Full Moon system that is a long time staple of some SMT games. A counter goes up from New (0) to Full (8) and then back down. This puzzle involves advancing the time to exact spots and is movement based. You find yourself doing the puzzle (And it has to be a specific order) , and being ambushed by a boss. Quite weak and no real threat, it runs away. You keep doing the puzzle, a second one does the same thing. Beat it, runs away.  More puzzle, the third one ambushes you, you beat it, the puzzle is done.

However. If, like me, you didn’t know this was happening and wanted to get off the puzzle for any reason, it would reset. It, *and* the ambush encounters, which were all boss encounters mind you, you’d have to re-do. No heals, no saves afterwards, you have to run back to do to both if necessary, and then go forward from that point to fight all 3 at once. While these enemies do not react to debuffs or your own buffs and are thus fairly easy to beat, I found the situation a bit cynical and distasteful. It doesn’t help that some of the random encounters have “Curse” and “Expel” (Dark\Holy) elemental instant kill attacks. Sure, your MC is *usually* resistant to those and they have a low hit rate anyway, but you can still be lolnoped by something as silly as a random encounter’s cheap spell, too.

The game does not hold your hand. And that would be fine. But the game also actively hates you. Certain enemies and especially bosses can use moves that give them 1 to 3 extra turns for no reason, at a cost of 1 MP (They usually have over 2000). The natural escalation of this is when you face one particular boss who does not treat this move as a scripted tactic, but as an ordinary move. What does that mean? He can spam it. He *will* spam it. Giving himself many, many moves and buffing its magical attack power before unleashing a powerful, unblockable spell to wipe you out in 1 hit.  You can see this particular boss in action here. (Minor spoilers, obviously).

Let’s rewind a bit however, this occurs past LV 50 and a fair chunk of the way into the game. Let’s go back to, say…level 15-20, where the first wake-up call boss happens.  A lovely gentleman by the name of Matador challenges you for an item in your possession out of nowhere and is unavoidable to the plot. He has a then fairly high 1000 health and unfortunately, has many things going from him. For starters, his boss fight comes after a fairly long trek away from the last save point and an okay distance to the next one – with literally no way of healing yourself except monster skills and items, by the way.

And then there’re his moves. He starts the fight with Red Capote – an spell that literally maximizes his evasion and accuracy. So he will almost never miss and you will almost never hit. If you should debuff him, he can cancel that – and he will. He gets several moves per turn and can use a physical move that hits the party at least once, maybe 2-3 times, and of course has a fairly high critical hit rate (Which also does more damage!). Ah but we are not done. When lower on HP or angry, he will use Taunt – a move that raises your attack but drops your defense, and then augment his own attacks with a charge move called Focus – which means your next physical attack does 2.5X the damage. Do you see where I’m going here yet? Many people die to this guy as he is widely accepted to ‘need’ a party fused to counter him, specifically!

The tragedy lies in the fact that he is an interesting and moderately hilarious character as he hams it up hard. I would have found more enjoyment in his existence if I didn’t have to beg to the critical hit gods to favor me for an hour or so. That long run-up to even fight him sucked as much as actually fighting him did. The world and scope of the game is impressive, and I do admire story elements – but not as gameplay elements. The aforementioned Full Moon counter is a physical manifestation in the game world and you can eventually break it, but it adds very little to the game, except as a source of frustration. It makes story sense for it to exist, but the gameplay effect is rubbish. Special chests in the game exist that award you precisely squat but a weak healing item if you do not open them at 4, 7 or 8 – and the only way to advance the timer is to walk around, and therefore get into *more* encounters ! Isn’t that just delightful?

One option to gain demons is to talk to them. Unfortunately, that is literally random. There might be a logic or a guide about it, but it’s literally random. I have the benefit of playing on an emulator and using save states, and have done some testing. IF you talk to a demon, they will demand money, items, or answers to questions. I walked up to one and started talking, it wanted money twice, then an item, and basically laughed at me and left. Reloading the state and doing it again resulted in the same exact scenario. So I reloaded again, gave him his money, but not the item, and he wanted money again, answered a question, and ran off but healed my MC this time. So I reloaded again, gave him his first money, not the 2nd, not the item he wanted, but gave him the money of his 4th request , to be asked a different question. I answered wrong here and so it ran away – but I reloaded, answered right and THEN it joined me.

There were never tells as to whether or not it would join or leave. There was fluffy filler text like ‘makes a wry smile’ or ‘pondering options’ but never anything direct that would hint at your success or progress. It then turns out that you can answer a question with both answers and STILL FAIL  to recruit them – they can just ignore you or get mad and go away ! Granted, this is trickery uncovered by manipulating the RNG seed slightly and thus would have been imperceptible to normal play, but still! The amount of contempt the game throws at me, I heartily return it. As it currently stands, once I’m done with this playthrough, I will not ever touch the game again – nor will I even jokingly suggest absolutely anyone else do so, as well.

Because for how amazing the setup is, the story and the buildup – the actual non interactive parts – the effort required to literally slog through it all and experience an ending you could easily youtube search for right this second is abysmal. I didn’t hate all of it, granted – having a physically inclined hero not be useless and actually hit pretty hard sometimes was neat, the music was overall nice but with some baffling boss theme choices full of garbled English and bad noises – Shoji Meguro hadn’t hit his stride when this came out, perhaps? Now, ten plus years on, Nocturne is a relic – but the tragedy is that even back then it was a relic. It incorporated ancient mechanics like the Full Moon system simply to have them and made the game harder or more tedious with it existing. This was the game that got rid of the similarly ancient and outdated “Law, neutral, chaos” alignment system nonsense by masking it with the more story-driven version – and fair play to them, it works better in this game and in the way they do it.

All in all, the sins of SMT : Nocturne are quite numerous, and oftentimes serious, as a VS Gamers thing. I will now itemize the chiefest concerns below :

  • Fake difficulty all over the game (Reliance on criticals, bosses with cheap attacks, bosses you can do nothing against, easy to die to random encounters. MC dies = game over.)
  • Deliberately annoying dungeons (Long dungeon with no healing places that introduces a long switch puzzle and then complicates with demons interfering to change switches, making it even longer)
  • No grace or player-friendliness in sight (No heals or save points after most bosses – no point of safety after conquering a mighty foe)
  • Lots of running around and backtracking (Even warping between places has a fairly long unskippable animation you need to suffer through before you do teleport. This includes saving!)
  • Over-reliance on buffs\debuffs (Practically necessary for *most* fights, later enemies can ignore their debuffs and cancel your buffs with ease and still attack on the same turn – rendering this essential tactic risky to pointless as you merely waste your turns with them instead of attacking!)
  • Easy to screw up MC (You equip…things…that each teach a small set of skills at certain levels. Once you acquire 8 you have to get rid of 1 when you learn 1 – w\o a guide you can make a dud protagonist very easily or get useful and or powerful skills and spells way later than necessary. Discarded skills can NEVER BE ATTAINED AGAIN.)

With these in mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that the game was made to spite you, at least partially. Even if not immediately, the enjoyment of the story will absolutely sour when ‘difficult chokepoints’ squeeze the life out of your patience . And sanity.  It is not a game without *any* merits, it’s just that, by repeatedly malicious design, they are all spoiled or lessened severely. Even on an emulator with save states, I wouldn’t advise anyone play this today. I like difficult games, but I never felt properly challenged with this title. I felt taunted – my best efforts with overlevelling and smart party creation with abilities and weaknesses in mind and strict adherence to hardcore  debuffing was often ignored or outright punished by a bad luck of the die.

But it does stand as a perfect example of many things not to do in games, and why not to do them. In Dark Souls, the enemies hit hard and could easily kill you – but you had the skill based tool set to either position yourself away from it or roll to avoid it, or the desperation of blocking with a shield. In SMT an enemy that hits hard can hit harder *and* get another turn with a critical, completely out of your control. Souls also allows you an infinitely replenishing but finite amount of healing between danger zones, once again emphasizing skill, pacing, and caution. It let you make mistakes, but only so many. A mistake, such as messing up MC skills, can effectively cost you the entire game if your damage output is too low or you rely on spells with a magic-reflective enemy.

There is  yet more in Atlus’ offerings library that I have not played. The farther Atlus gets from SMT , the better their games get. I have heard that MC dying is not game over in SMT 4, for instance, which is definitely a step forward. Most of my complaints for Nocturne actually also stand for Persona Q : A reskinned SMT game with awful first person make your own map dungeon exploration, marred by long, confusing, annoying dungeons that also featured fake walls, pitfalls, going long ways around, super-powerful demons you had to avoid or they’d stomp you. The same mentality exists there as it did here, in Nocturne. So while Atlus is trying to outgrow their old ways, a few recent games still have this mean-spirited, outdated gameplay and are tragically unfun as a result.

If you are a game designer, or planning to enter the field – ask yourself if you’d enjoy playing this. Ask yourself – if it’s fair, or possible, or just if it’s a good idea. Sometimes a cool idea can compromise the story, or visuals, or fun itself. It’s always better to maintain an experience that is consistent – either have it be doable all the way through or hard all the way through, rather than thinking that an ill-fated mechanic giving your difficulty curve a schizoid jump is entertaining, or that it would make for a good dungeon, set piece, boss, whatever.

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