Though far from gaming’s most cherished soundtrack, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne isn’t one that should be ignored. However, that just might be exactly the problem. In a genre reigned by the compositional genius and thematic excellence of masterminds such as Nobuo Uematsu, the soundtrack’s possibly most unfortunate circumstance is that it belongs to a JRPG. Though there are exceptions, the blueprint for these games typically isn’t suitable for truly immersive, well-paced soundtracks, the worst offender being the random battle formula. For one thing, good luck trying to get any genuine “immersion” accomplished being constantly interrupted by groups of demons, cute slimes, evil snowmen, etc., and godspeed on your endeavors of trying to get that recurring battle theme out of your head as it encroaches your brainspace. The sad reality is that this style of game doesn’t allow enough sonic presence beyond a singular battle theme as other genres are capable of, such as open-world games’ expert use of ambience.
Composed by series regular Shoji Meguro, the soundtrack proves to be some of his most atmospherically accomplished work, alongside titles such as Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and Revelations: Persona. You might recognize him better for his more pop-oriented work on Persona 4, as he is the man behind favorites such as “Reach Out To the Truth” and the Velvet Room. And much like the Velvet room, his expert use of emotion is present throughout Nocturne, albeit is a much more subtle fashion. So, how does all this hold up in a medium such as the JRPG?
Nocturne’s soundtrack, in many ways, remedies the common plagues of the genre. A common dilemma is the constant interruptions and changing of songs (usually quite abruptly) that the genre imposes on the player. I’m sure you’re familiar with the struggle: walking along through a dungeon, soaking up the atmosphere and sniffing the blood-stained roses on the side of the road while some majestic violins start to chime in a powerful- oh wait, time for a battle! Time to go back to violent mode! Hey, kill these pixies and you can get back to whatever it is you were doing, okay?? Though this isn’t always an issue, these abrupt changes in mood aren’t always handled with the correct care to create a flowing experience. Nocturne avoids this issue on the premise that it already has quite a tense atmosphere, with the threat of demons existing at almost every moment. This alone isn’t anything spectacular, but the game’s dungeon songs, which usually take on the form of cold, spine-chilling ambient loops, makes the transition all the more effective.
Another issue with JRPG’s is battle theme abuse. You usually spend most of your time in such battles, and of course, hearing the theme that comes along with it. When you’re looking at games that often play beyond the 30-40 hour mark, these songs, repeatedly stopping and going out of the player’s jurisdiction, tend to wear out fairly quickly. Why more games don’t do this I will never know, but Nocturne employs the smart strategy of implementing a total of nine different songs to carry out bloodshed to, with some tunes having different variations in their melodies to keep even familiar songs somewhat fresh. These various tunes play depending on where you are in the game, such as the world map, towns, and even the ominous Labyrinth of Amala has its own score.
So what of the quality of the music? Meguro brings together some of his most subtle compositions to Nocturne, as well as some of his best. However, if you’re accustomed to Persona 4’s bright and vivacious J-pop soundtrack, you’re in for a bit of culture shock. Nocturne is a much darker, more desolate game, and the soundtrack is every bit the same. In a game that takes place in a ruined, inverted Tokyo with 99.9% of all human life eradicated, it’s also very lonely. The ambient dungeon tracks are noteworthy for their nightmarish and hazy feel. They sound like the foreboding sonic fog from a horror movie, drifting by without percussion or form, perfectly representing the chaotic state of Tokyo. Some songs almost come to a dead silence, such as during the Diet Building sequence, where little can be heard beyond an ominous swinging sound and a faint, echoing breeze; it truly feels like it has been abandoned. Some of these dungeon songs even evolve as you progress through them. In the final dungeon, a brief but powerful organ chimes occasionally with a slight rhythm, and as you climb up to the very top, the song mutates into full form, the organ now having a full melody and every instrument is now in place, and it is a rather grand phenomenon. Similarly, in the game’s beginning sequence at the hospital, a mysterious, almost whimsical melody vaguely plays over a swirling, muffled choir, building up one piece at a time throughout the opening scenes, all the way up to the first boss where the song now takes on the form of a full-on moody dark electronic piece, with beat and all, taking on a whole new form. This type of evolution is rarely utilized in JRPG’s, a crying shame as it works so well with the genre’s motif of leveling up and growing stronger.
Though the game is scarce on cutscenes, the few that exist in Nocturne are embellished by Meguro’s excellent minimal piano and dramatic flair. Opening the game is a particularly beautiful piece by the name of “Apocalypse”, and as the title suggests, serves as something like a calm before the storm that is about to turn Tokyo’s world literally inside out. It isn’t epic or loud, but rather it is its minimalism and quiet nature that succeeds in setting the emotional tone for the rest of the game. Likewise, “Chiaki”, the eponymous theme of one of the main characters, is a track that barely has any presence, but instead goes for raw emotion, representing the anguish the character feels from the game’s twisted events. In the vein of these tracks, the title theme is similarly downbeat and dreadful, but the piano and violin instrumentation keeps a glimmer of hope glowing within, and lends an otherwise cold and desolate soundtrack a sense of humanity.
Though not quite belonging in the elite upper ranks of gaming soundtracks, the subtlety of Nocturne’s soundtrack expertly suits the artistic, surreal landscaping and Lynchian melodrama of the game, as well as doing a fine job standing out among its norm-centric peers. These are vibes usually attributed to the horror genre, or artsy adventure/immersion games, and not so much for a genre such as the JRPG, and thus it is a bit of an anomaly – but the Shin Megami Tensei series has always been great at being just that, and their soundtracks, especially Meguro’s work, are no exception.