Lucifer's Call Will Not Be Put On Hold

by Arthur B

Lucifer's Call - also known as Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne - is what happens when Persona 3 eats too much cheese before bed.
Although I've played the first and third Persona games, until now I hadn't played any games in their parent series, Shin Megami Tensei. That changed with Shin Megami Tensei III: Lucifer's Call - called Nocturne outside of Europe, and the first Shin Megami Tensei game in either the main series or the various subseries to get a European release. Describing something as being like another thing "on acid" is a lazy habit, but Lucifer's Call really is like Persona 3 on acid, even though it came before the other game. It lacks the daytime school narrative of the latter-day Persona games and therefore loses its moorings in everyday reality; the protagonist is transformed into something entirely unlike the teenage schoolboy he was and travels across a mutated, hallucinatory Tokyo on a quest not to discover the meaning of life, but to impose a meaning on life.

Our protagonist on this occasion - who never speaks, as is traditional in Shin Megami Tensei games - is a high school student with a passing interest in videogames and the occult. At the start of the game accompanies his classmates Chiaki Hayasaka and Isamu Nitta in order to visit their teacher, Yuko Takao, who's asked them to come and see her in the local hospital. On the way to the hospital the protagonist encounters Jyoji Hijiri, a journalist working for an occult magazine who's covering the riotous local activities of the Gaea organisation, a doomsday cult that apparently has connections to the hospital. At the hospital, the protagonist and his friends find that Yuko is missing and split up to find her. Our hero finds her, but she's not sick - not physically, at least. She's in the company of Hikawa, the menacing leader of the Gaea cult, who almost unleashes his occult powers against the protagonist but for her intervention.

Then she takes the protagonist to the roof of the hospital to look at the beautiful view of Tokyo it offers - and she calmly and patiently explains that she and Hikawa believe that the world has become corrupt and drained of all vitality, and must be destroyed and made anew in order to reinvigorate it. So they've done the logical thing and engineered the Conception - the end of the world.

Which then happens.

Occult energies lash out and kill every man, woman, and child who is not inside the hospital at the time. Everything outside of Tokyo is utterly annihilated, and Tokyo itself changes, space warping so that the city's districts are arranged on the inside of a sphere (at the centre of which is Kagutsuchi, a strange moon which exerts a curious influence over the gameworld), with vast deserts and distorted highways between them. The occupants of this strange sort of Dyson sphere are powerful demons, the souls of the dead, and those few humans were in the hospital when the Conception occurred. But they aren't immune to the effects of the Conception either - the protagonist is separated from his friends and undergoes a strange procedure at the hands of a strange child and his elderly nurse (or is that an old man and his young caregiver?), in which he is implanted with a symbiotic creature called a Magatama, which transforms him into a strange demon-human hybrid, the Demifiend that prophecy states will play a key role in establishing the new world.

The game, then, consists of you as the Demifiend exploring the bizarre transformed world you find yourself in as you try to work out what's just happened and what you can do about it. You can recruit demons to fight alongside you via conversation system, and can produce new demons by combining less powerful ones in a fusion process, as in Persona, although instead of the Blue Room the fusion process happens in the spooky Cathedral of Shadows. The combat system is much like that of the other Shin Megami Tensei games, but is spiced up by the various Magatama you can collect as the game progresses, which allow the protagonist to gain different elemental immunities and different powers depending on which he happens to have ingested at any particular time. Although there's no schoolday component to the game as in Persona 3, the game feels much more varied and interesting than the first Persona did. Part of this is for completely shallow reasons; it's much prettier and has less long dull corridors. Part of this is because Lucifer's Call simply does a better job of making you feel as though you're achieving something - plot developments come more frequently, and in general are significantly more involved and interesting than the somewhat bland plot of Persona.

A great help is the way the plot adapts to your decisions, and in particular your dialogue choices - both in conversations of major importance and in negotiations with demons during the game. Most JRPGs are ramrod-linear, and dialogue options are a joke - if you say "no" to the quest giver they just ask you the same question over and over again until you say "yes". Not so in Lucifer's Call - you can say "no" to any or all of the people seeking your allegiance if you wish to. It transpires that new worlds must be formed under the direction of a Reason, which will form the philosophical basis for the new creation; three Reasons are shown to be at work over the course of the game, each served by a major human NPC, who through various occult means summon the patron gods of their respective Reason in order to prepare for the final conflict. If, over the course of the game, you tend towards serving the purposes of one Reason or another - either by explicitly agreeing to work with its agent, or by expressing its ideals in your conversations - you end up becoming the champion of that Reason fighting to create the new world in its image. Alternately, you can choose to adhere to no Reason at all, raising the possibility of making the new world much like our own, a world where everyone is blessed (or cursed) with the freedom to find their own reason - but if you succumb to your demonic nature you may instead end up botching the new creation altogether, resulting in a dark, stillborn creation in which howling demons and the lost souls of the dead writhe pointlessly forever.

A particularly interesting aspect of the plot is the parallels with Persona 3. The Gaea cultists who talk about the world being tired out, exhausted, and in need of cleansing destruction end up using terms very similar to those used in Persona 3 by the advocates of armageddon; likewise, whilst the protagonists in Persona 3 struggle to ascend to the summit of an impossibly tall tower in order to stop the end of the world, the climax of Lucifer's Call involves the protagonist and the various advocates of the Reasons ascending an impossibly tall tower in order to bring a new world into being. The common demonic pantheon also lends itself to interesting parallels; Nyx, the big bad in Persona 3, can be found in Lucifer's Call tending a bar.

The version of Lucifer's Call/Nocturne released in North America and Europe is the Maniacs special edition, rather than the original version as released in Japan. It includes a completely optional bonus dungeon, the Labyrinth of Amala, the completion of which unlocks a hidden sixth ending, and cameos from Dante, protagonist of the Devil May Cry series. I get the impression that you see more of Dante if you concentrate on completing the Labyrinth of Amala, because I only had one encounter with him and it didn't really go anywhere. (Also, completing the Labyrinth also requires fighting some really tough boss battles, so in the end I avoided it.) Despite these slightly needless embellishments, I found it a fascinating, thoughtful, and endlessly visually inventive game, and a great companion piece to Persona 3. Maybe it's more correct to say that Persona 3 is a companion piece to Lucifer's Call, but I'd still recommend Persona 3 for newcomers to the Shin Megami Tensei series, it introduces you to the combat system a bit more gently. Nonetheless, Lucifer's Call is definitely worth heeding.

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