I figured that despite Persona 3 being a leeetle more popular recently, a lot of people still haven't heard of the Shin Megami Tensei series overall, which needs to be remedied. So here we go with one of my favorite installments:
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Game type: JRPG
Time demand: Pretty hefty overall, multiple tens of hours, maybe half an hour between save points.
Platform: Playstation 2
What it is: Like many JRPGs, the game starts with your typical young schoolkid (well, not THAT young, around 17 or 18, but still) running around his normal life. The difference comes VERY soon however, when his entire normal existence is turned around, Tokyo becomes a closed world filled with demons, and he himself is turned into a demon (or half-demon) to give him enough power to really survive in the new brutal world.
Now, in your normal JRPG (or RPG period) the hero soon starts to recruit other human allies into his cause, each with a specific personality, role, etc. This game however is different from the norm in that sense - instead of recruiting specific other people to help you out, you have the chance to talk to the very demons you're fighting against, and can try to recruit them to help you out. Usually you have to kill most of them, or else there's a chance one will interfere with you trying to talk to another, and the outcome of the talk can be varied. Some demons (like Beasts and Fouls) won't be able to understand you. The demon might not want anything to do with you, they might demand items or money or ask you questions before they consider agreeing, or they might just give you an item instead of joining. But sometimes they'll agree to join your ranks, at which point you can add them to your active party.
You can have four party members active at a time, and a pool of demons to switch in and out (which an also be done in combat, but takes up your main character's turn). This pool increases as you get farther in the game, and you can mostly only recruit demons that are your main character's level or lower. Once in a while though, a demon instead of having to be recruited will ask to join you during combat, instead of being killed, which makes a nice change. Combat is a matter of random encounters for the most part, monsters attacking you as you run around the map.
As for the combat itself, it's very solidly turn-based. Your party gets its round of actions, then the enemy party gets to go. Or vice versa if they get the jump on you. There is, however, enough different stuff going on here to keep even such a normal battle system interesting. You see, you don't *exactly* get one action per party member. You are given a number of actions equal to your party members, represented by symbols in the upper right of the screen. And each party member goes in turn, based on agility. But the twist is that if you get a critical hit, or exploit an enemy's weakness, it only takes up *half* of a turn (one of the symbols starts flashing, marking a half-turn left), meaning that if you play your cards right, you can get up to two actions per party member. On the other hand, if the enemy dodges an attack or if you try to use an ability that is ineffective against them, you lose turns, and are at a disadvantage. Likewise if the enemy then turns around and uses the weaknesses of your party members, you can be very swiftly, as the kiddies say, pwned.
The specific actions you can take on your turn can be a normal attack, physical skills that take up HP, spells of the various elements (including things like force, mind, etc.), you can talk to a demon in an attempt to recruit if it's the main character's turn or the turn of a demon that has a special communication skill, you can summon a new demon or use an item if it's the main character's turn, or you can pass, which takes up only half a turn and moves on to the next party member. Skills and spells have families or elements they fall under, can be single- or multi-target, and are dependant on the actual demon and what they've learned, or in your main character's case, depend on what you've learned based on an item called a Magatama - these are what give your character his demonic powers, and they have different types. You can only ingest one at a time, and your stats and the skills you learn as you level depend on which one you have ingested when you increase your level. It also determines your weaknesses and resistances in battle.
Speaking of levelling, it's experience-based, like most other RPG systems, and different things can happen when you increase your level. When the main character levels, you can choose one stat to increase, and he gains slightly in strength. He may learn a new skill based on the Magatama he has ingested, although he can only have eight skills at one time - if you already have eight, you have to choose to remove one to replace it with a new one, or discard the new. The Magatama also usually stirs within him and gives a random effect - healing the party, healing just the main character, increasing a random stat permanently, or at times giving a curse and negative status effect until you get it removed. Your main character's level also determines what level of demon he can recruit, or fuse (covered later). When a demon party member levels up, it also grows stronger and can sometimes learn a new skill. Sometimes though it may also change a current skill into a new one, which you can stop if you like - the trick though is that you are just told it's trying to change a skill, and not which skill is being changed or what it's being changed to, so unless you use a guide, it's a bit of a crap shoot as to whether you'll get something nice, replacing a semi-useless skill... or if that nice healing spell the demon had gets changed into something you'll probably never use. Demons also have a chance to give you an item when they level up, in thanks I suppose for helping them grow stronger, and some demons may even change into stronger demons within the same family (not at random though, certain types change at certain levels).
Speaking of demons and families, while recruiting demons into your party certainly helps, the real trick to getting stronger parties and winning the game is to fuse your demons in special rooms called the Cathedral of Shadows. Here, you can take two demons and combine them, coming up with a third completely different demon. This demon will have the skills and starting level normal to its type, but it can also carry over up to two skills from the original fused demons, making them even more useful. There are also special fusions that can be carried out eventually using items to increase the new demon's strength, sacrificial fusions that sacrifice a third demon from your party to make the new demon stronger, random changes to the fused demon taking place on a botched fusion (only under special circumstances), and so on. But if I go into all that, I really will be here all week. So let's just say that the demon fusing process is really one of the most important and complex parts of the game, and also a fair amount of fun. ;)
And now I guess I should say things about the game world itself. Well, given the context, it's definitely dark, and not really for kids. But at the same time it's not as dark as you might expect - not nearly so dark (or gory for that matter) as a straight-out horror game. It's deep and complex, but not horrific. And the demons for the most part aren't sweetness and light, but aren't straight-out evil either.
The world as I mentioned is a closed world... picture it as the inside of a globe, if the cities and all of the world were pasted on the hollowed-out inside of the earth's crust, although in this case it's just made up of the various districts of Tokyo, with a heaping helping of added desolate wasteland. In the dead center of this hollowed-out sphere is Kagutsuchi, a sort of dark, mystical sun/moon thing that gives demons their power. As added depth, Kagutsuchi waxes and wanes, going through eight stages to full, then back down to New, and back again. The stage is tracked in the upper left corner of the screen, and changes as you move around. This is important because demons become more aggressive as Kagutsuchi waxes, and you have a better chance of getting into combat as it becomes full. At a completely full stage, you cannot negotiate with demons, as they are in a frenzy and won't listen. The stage of Kagutsuchi also affects various other things in the game, such as demon fusion, or what items you get after combat.
As I mentioned the physical game world is made up of Tokyo's districts, but with the reshaping of the world they're spread more apart, and there are various barriers in the way, forcing you to take odd paths to get from one place to another. One of these odd paths is sometimes the Amala Network, which is a sort of other world or plane, which can move you physically from one place to another. It stretches between certain odd cylinders which you find in the game, which also act as save points. Once you reach a certain point in the game, you can use large cylinders to move directly between one another, to reach other areas you've visited very quickly (which is helpful), or you can use small cylinders to link to one specific larger cylinder.
There are other odd things which help add even more depth to the game, such as optional boss fights that let you recruit stronger demons to your cause, the Labyrinth of Amala which is an offshoot of the Amala Network and lets you increase your power as you explore it (but it's very dangerous), a puzzle game that eventually shows up to give you a prize if you beat all 20 levels in a row, and so on. But I think I've probably blathered on about this game enough. Suffice it to say, the game is dark, and not for kids, but also very cool, and unless you just have an irrational rabid hatred of all things JRPG (*cough montoya *cough*), you might wanna at least rent it and give it a whirl.
Well, I hope that was nice and coherent enough, since like I said I'm still a bit under the weather. If not, feel free to ask questions or prompt for more discussion in the comments. I really enjoy this game, so I'll be happy to oblige. ;)