So it seems that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 has recently gotten a lot of popularity to the point of having a handheld remake, a fighting game spin-off and God knows what else. I don't exactly oppose Persona 4 being popular because I actually think it's pretty good but, regardless, it's not the best representation of the games in the franchise. No, I'm not saying every other game bearing the Megami Tensei name is bad but that Persona 4 is most likely the most optimistic and light-hearted entry in the franchise. That is, the game itself is not exactly light-hearted but... You know what? Let me just say this: if Persona 4 is dark and gritty, Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer's Call (or Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne if you're American) will utterly destroy you. I consider it a fond memory of mine because it can last for over 50 hours and it's quite different from most other JRPGs, mainly due to the bleak atmosphere that other JRPGs seem scared to use.
Like Persona 4, Lucifer's Call starts with you getting off a train although, this time around, you are in a real Japanese city rather than a fictional Japanese town. Soon, however, this game's apocalypse happens which wipes out every human that isn't where you are and causes the city to curl into a hollow ball with a shining object known as Kagutsuchi floating in the centre of it all. This Vortex World is populated by, as is expected of this franchise, demons of mythology which isn't exactly good news to a squishy human high school student like you so a mysterious child and a woman in widow's garb transform you into a demon with a parasite called a "Magatama". Having acquired demon powers and flipping sweet tattoos at the cost of your hoodie, you must now traverse the Vortex World and make the world anew, all the while dealing with several factions who are trying to remake the world as they see fit.
Jeez, and I thought Dubai had it rough.
You can give yourself a first name and a last name as usual and, unique to this game, you can give yourself a nickname. Thankfully, this is one of the games where this kind of thing is actually appropriate as there are multiple endings to go through and your character is a blank slate for you to characterise rather than a one-dimensional toss pot that has a default name that official media and the fanbase will refer to them as anyway. Also, the cutscenes are never voiced so the dialogue is never awkwardly written in a weak attempt to disguise how no one else ever refers to you by name nor do the cutscenes go back and forth between being voiced and not like a fussy adult trying to figure out where the coffee table should go. What I like best about the cutscenes, however, is that the cutscenes do not use that stupid visual novel style because this game comes from the old age of JRPGs where the cutscenes were actually animated. Yes, the cutscenes aren't voiced but I think we're not too petty to let that get in the way of quality, right?
As you'd probably expect from a post-apocalyptic setting, the atmosphere is appropriately oppressive and dark. Unlike Fragile Dreams where just about everyone you met was universally reliable, Lucifer's Call likes to hide truly trustworthy people in the far corners of the Vortex World. People who you think are friends are more than likely to backstab you at opportune moments for the sake of remaking their world and, at the same time, allies can be found in the most unlikely of places. There's a lot of moral ambiguity here and it really makes you feel like you're truly alone at times and confronted by the darkest entities that the world can throw at you. The three factions and their desired worlds also reflect this; they're all equal on the scale of right and wrong and choosing one is no more good or evil than choosing another.
They saved your life and gave you awesome powers. Now, do you trust them or not?
If there's one thing I don't like about the story, it's that, while your actions do decide which of the six endings you go with, your actions don't otherwise mean squat. I feel that a good story has the choices of the characters drive the plot rather than a plotted line that is only followed because something else says so. You can't kill characters that are definitely going to pose a future threat to you, for instance. This is reinforced by the game saying that demons, like the one you are now, lack the "Reason" to create the next world but this is undermined by the fact that you are a potential pivotal asset of the three factions that can determine whose world comes next if you don't screw the status quo for better or worse for the sake of one of two of the other endings. Despite the power you hold and the position you're in, your actions only ever matter at the very end and everything else is a massive pile of railroad. Well, there are one or two changes in scenarios but that's trivial at best.
As far as gameplay goes, Lucifer's Call definitely comes from the old age of JRPGs. Running around the overworld is pretty much you being represented by a very simple sprite as you cross the wasteland of Tokyo to get to the next area you want to go to whether it is a dungeon or a town inhabited by bloodthirsty demons or whatever. Running around dungeons and towns is pretty much just running around dungeons and towns, opening doors and treasure chests and talking to whoever happens to be around. This is going from A to B in a form as close to pure as you can get without just teleporting. Of course this isn't the primary gameplay of the game. That'd be ridiculous. Like all JRPGs, the path connecting A to B is an arduous one laced with... random flash-transition turn-based battles. Oi oi oi, don't leave just yet, for there is a twist to this tale that I tell: the turn-based combat in this game... may actually be GOOD.
GOOD turn-based combat? Goodness gracious, what is this world coming to?
The combat works like this: each side has a turn and each member of each side gets a go called a "Press Turn" (boss monsters get two Press Turns). Super effective attacks, critical hits and passing only take up half a Press Turn, attacks that are avoided or voided take up two Press Turns and attacks that are repelled or absorbed end the current turn then and there. As far as turn-based combat goes, this game does it all pretty much right for two reasons. Firstly, it's so simple that the game never gives you a tutorial nor do you ever need one. Secondly, it's actually strategic. This is ironic because the combat's like a game of tug-o'-war in that it's typically about inflicting as much damage as possible while taking as little damage as possible, a tactic that many games feel is rather primitive. This is one of the few JRPGs in existence where buffs are not only useful but absurdly so in boss fights.
As humans aren't particularly strong or trustworthy in this game, your allies are the demons you encounter. During battle, you are able to talk to your opponents in order to recruit them to your cause. Being Chaotic Neutral for the most part, demons will not be easily swayed. They will demand money and items off of you but, if all goes well, they will join you. This process can be made easier with some ally demons that have passive abilities that make them join in to help the negotiations along. Alternatively, they might ask to join you if you beat them to an inch of their lives. However, demons can lie and they might just be tricking you to lower your guard or, if your recruitment fails, they may just take your stuff and leave. Mind you, you should also wait until that demon is the only one on the opposing side because some demons find something objectionable about you asking their friends to ditch them for suicide missions. It's nice to know that the opponents in this game are not like the mindless killing machines that attack you just because they do in other JRPGs and it reinforces the chaotic nature of the Vortex World.
You, the player, are in a hostile world with everything trying to kill you. You're not exactly in a position to complain about high recruitment fees.
As is always the case for JRPGs, you cannot choose where the stats of your allies go when they level up. However, in deference to JRPG tradition, you can choose where your stats go when you level up. Furthermore, you can actually choose what skills you acquire when you level up by having the Magatama that imparts that skill equipped when you level up. You can actually specialise in something in this game, whether it be physical attacks, magic attacks, healing, buffing or debuffing. When you take into account that you can have up to three allies of who knows how many demons, each with their own individual weaknesses, strengths and abilities, you will realise that there is variety galore here.
However, the game suffers from a massive reliability on luck. As well as demon conversation, the random encounters are as annoying as ever. While there is an icon that changes colour depending on when you're going to have a battle, all that does it let you know that a battle's going to be happening sooner or later. You can't choose your fights and that's really annoying, especially on Hard mode where you can't run from encounters unless you have the escape skill or item or your opponents are all immobilised. This means you better pray to as many gods that you know that you don't find yourself in a battle where your enemy has elemental attacks that will hit your weak points like an ogre that you stole breakfast from. Also, critical hits can turn the tide of battle in an instant so, if your enemy gets even, you might as well say your last words. Other things that are influenced by luck are status ailment attacks, instant-death skills that only seem to work when your enemy uses them and your enemy AI's degree of intelligence, to list a few. Also, it's possible to fuse two demons to make a stronger demon but there can be accidents and, instead of getting something worthwhile, you might waste two potentially useful allies.
A yellow hue means you're safe for now. An orange hue means they're coming. A red one means they're gonna jump you in the next second. No, there's nothing you can do about it.
As you might have guessed, this is a hard game. Don't worry, though; it covers both the fair and the unfair sides of the difficulty spectrum. After all, this is a game made by Atlus, the sadistic company that has a record of making games so difficult that they have their own That One Boss page on TV Tropes and they have been quoted saying "We get off on your tears". Bosses are obscenely difficult with powerful spells, many resistances, the ability to wipe out your entire team in one turn if you're not careful and a stubborn refusal to die. Unfortunately, what stops them from being fair is that some of them have the spell Dragon Eye which turns one Press Turn into four half-Press Turns, and they can even do this to half-Press Turns so, if a boss takes advantage of this, you are pretty much screwed. Still, for the most part, the game is tough but fair, provided you know what you're up against and you prepare accordingly.
Outside of combat, there are quite a few secrets to find. There are some side quests that are never indicated to you and you'll find them mostly because you accidentally tripped over them or you got nostalgic and revisited an old area or you looked up a walkthrough. I mentioned before that I like sidequests that the game never holds over your face to remind you that you still have something to do, thereby making you feel not completely satisfied when the game ends because you skipped on a few items. However, this works a bit against the game because some of these side quests have ridiculously overpowered rewards, such as the Magatama that gives you invulnerability to everything except for Almighty-elemental attacks and makes your stats rise like holding a magical steak over a pack of hungry dogs. That is, to say, they're overpowered when you're not going for the sixth ending, which can only be gotten by completing the optional Labyrinth of Amala dungeon, that has a different final boss that will make the aforementioned Magatama necessary.
It's a bit... foggier than I remember.
Also, sometimes, the game takes the not-telling-you thing a bit too far and gives you puzzles that you would never figure out through common logic. There's this one area in the Labyrinth of Amala that is stacked to the brim with goodies and money but at old man soul won't let you through. He will talk about kids having no patience and give you a Yes/No question. One of them makes him say "Hmph. Come back later" while the other makes him say "What?! You haven't been listening one bit! Come back later". How do you pass this old, miserable tosser? Why, you have to not select the correct answer until you've waited ten minutes. Some official sources will say three or seven minutes instead but I played two songs that went for over seven minutes to pass the time and, when I got back and made my decision, he told me to get lost anyway. Who, exactly, would have figured this out apart from a guy with two heads, one of which being smashed off his rocker? This is by no means the only example of a solution that the game never indicates towards, another being a boss that can create false copies of itself and there's a way to find the real one, but let's not get into that now.
At the very least, Persona 4 carries on the tradition of its predecessors by being really hard. Yeah, Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer's Call is difficult and somewhat old-fashioned but I like it anyway. Too many JRPGs these days have ridiculously complex mechanics that take half a game to explain to make the combat come down to more than just inflicting a number of damage that exceeds the sun's mass as quickly as you can only to come down to just that anyway. Lucifer's Call is not like that; it's simplistic, incredibly varied and, while brute force is still the best way to go, it's encouraged and built around and the game has its own strategies for you to try. Compared to other JRPGs, Lucifer's Call (or III: Nocturne) still feels original with its atmosphere and setting and it has the best turn-based combat I've ever seen. Do you see what just happened? I liked a game's turn-based combat. Surely, this means this is a great game and you should get off your backsides that feel like the material they've been sitting on for the last fifteen hours and get it wherever you can. Alternatively, it's just that the apocalypse happened and I'm just a ghost who's hallucinating the computer that's right in front of them. Wouldn't that be trippy?
Here are the rest of my reviews.
Sorry for the low-resolution pictures but, since I get my screenshots from Youtube playthroughs using the Prt Sc button and Windows Paint, this is the best I could do.