Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster Review (Switch)
Shin Megami Tensei is one of Atlus’ flagship franchises, and although the series has never reached mainstream popularity and appeal in the West the way Persona has, its third installment is one of the most easily recognizable, for a myriad of reasons. The character design of the Demi-fiend, with his glowing tattoos and odd head spike, as well as the striking departure from the traditional naming convention, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne is compelling due to its aura of mystery and iconography. Seeing this PlayStation 2 classic make its return in anticipation for the release of the fifth entry in the series is certainly exciting, but its “HD Remaster” moniker may be only skin-deep in nature. Should this dread-inspiring classic be your first foray into the series, or will you need to check your expectations at the door? Read on and find out.
Nocturne puts the player in the shoes of the Demi-fiend, a demon with a human heart, as you attempt to survive and make sense of the Vortex World and influence its fate. You’ll have the chance to name the protagonist and some of his acquaintances at the start of the game, but you’ll be quickly thrust into a world that makes little sense and threatens to consume you at every turn. The only thing to do is recruit some demons, ingest some Magatama, and fight your way to the top.
While most of the game will have you exploring labyrinthine, warped versions of areas of Tokyo from a third-person perspective, the overworld is so far scaled back that you’ll appear only as a marker weaving its way through miniature wastelands. When you do enter an area- again, often named after landmarks found across various districts in Tokyo- you’ll often have access to certain stores and be able to chat with NPCs, but don’t assume these areas are safe from encounters. You will have to fight roaming demons no matter where you are, the exceptions being healing shrines, save rooms, and actual in-store menus. The game does at least have the decency to alert you of approaching demons with its encounter radar, but you’ll only be able to avoid these by engaging in dialogue, navigating menus, or standing still.
Nocturne was the game that first introduced the Press Turn system, which gives the player a single turn for the Demi-fiend and the up to three demons he currently has summoned. If you should land a critical hit, exploit an elemental weakness, or pass your turn, you bank a “half-turn,” which will deplete upon usage. Essentially, if your team manages to accomplish one of the aforementioned actions for every party member, you’ll end up with eight turns rather than four. Similarly, you can lose turns by having attacks dodged, drained or repelled by enemies, which prioritizes the usage of agility and hit rate buffs, in addition to debuff spells, to which both enemies and allies alike can be susceptible. Essentially, if you are unprepared for a fight or if you haven’t been keeping tabs of what weaknesses and strengths your party and the enemies in the current area possess, you’re going to end up hurting more often than not, which means more money spent healing, and a slower-paced progression.
As a monster catching game, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne does things a little bit differently from other series in the genre. You’ll need to woo your prospective partners during battle using negotiation tactics, which often means forking over cash or items in order to please them. Demons might also ask you philosophical questions that don’t always have a universal “right answer” for a specific type of demon. All of this is to say that negotiations can, and often will go South, so you should spend time investing in making new partners once you’ve comfortably mapped out an area. Some demons can gain negotiation skills, such as convincing demons of a similar species, or asking for money or items, and these abilities will often be essential for swaying specific demon types. On the other hand, demons can also get so intimidated by how strong you are that they’ll practically throw themselves at your feet… but this is also an opportunity for a sneak attack, as well.
Lastly, you can increase the power of your demons and create new monstrosities at the Cathedral of Shadows, where demons gather. Here, you can fuse two or three demons together in order to grant the resulting creature strong skills and traits that can help you in your battles. As you progress, you’ll be able to enhance demons and resummon previously-owned demons for a fee. While the original version of Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne was somewhat punishing in terms of skill inheritance, largely prioritizing certain kinds of skills over others, the HD Remaster has patched in the ability to select which skills you want inherited, which circumvents a great deal of trial and error. The Cathedral of Shadows, when used optimally, is an excellent tool for maintaining momentum and tackling new foes, but the rules for specific fusions and their results are sometimes a bit obscured and not very rewarding.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Nocturne features a silent protagonist, but you’ll still have plenty of agency in how you choose to tackle specific encounters and decide the fate of the Vortex World. Shin Megami Tensei is known for its morality system, and Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne has a number of factions with which to ally yourself, though you’ll need to discover and learn about them before you make those choices. In other words, the narrative thrust of the game is centered around coming to terms with your newfound powers and the state of the world around you so that you can decide what path you feel is best. You’ll also end up taking on some other fiends as you fight to gain power, and this collection of curious characters are some of the highlights of the game’s lengthy playtime.
The Vortex World is twisted in more than a few ways, with demons populating most residential areas and a few more surprising characters and factions entering the spotlight. There are tons of NPCs to interact with, and though many only have a single line of dialogue that often pertains to world building or narrative progression, they help sell the strange setting and mood. Enigmatic dread and a specific kind of whimsy pervade Nocturne’s writing, and when you aren’t dealing with the more dejected and serious characters, you’ll be enjoying the extremely unique tone of the series, which feels unlike any other.
One of the reasons Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne still looks great in this HD Remaster were the cel-shaded graphics that truly elevate Kazuma Kaneko’s stellar character and demon designs. While the game’s textures haven’t been updated very much, the art style remains clean and consistent. Not every element of Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne has been updated, however, as the OST is sadly still compressed and doesn’t match the quality of the visuals. There are also a few bizarre FMV cutscenes that display in standard definition, which is bizarre. It is strange to see such a mixed level of quality from the presentation of the game, but that does extend to the overall experience, as well.
Impressions and Conclusion
As someone who was converted to SMT back on the 3DS, I am more familiar with its more recent and forgiving entries. Even though I was aware of Nocturne’s more… old fashioned difficulty stylings before heading in, the fact is that it is a less-forgiving title than most RPGs, asking players to properly prepare for the challenges it presents- and to save frequently, as death will result in a loss of progress. While I can appreciate the game’s intricacies in regards to its elemental affinities, others may find the idea of draining, repelling, and nullifying magic attacks to be frustrating and inscrutable. Stat modifying spells are hugely beneficial in SMT, which may be an idea that surprises those who are more comfortable with more accessible fare. I like to describe Nocturne- and SMT, as a whole- as “oppressive,” a word that extends to its tone and its gameplay.
Even with the addition of an easy mode, which does severely lessen the likelihood of death in most scenarios outside of boss encounters, you will need to be patient with Nocturne. It has twists and turns: trick hallways that send you back to the start of a dungeon floor, hazardous terrain and finicky negotiations that will drain your time and resources, and encounters that will test your knowledge of its systems. I love it, but that doesn’t mean it is for everyone. If you’re willing to pick up and play an RPG that isn’t afraid to kick your teeth in every now and then, I would recommend Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne without hesitation. But even with its quality of life improvements, you will still feel its age and insistence on gameplay that establishes a precedent of careful consideration.
A few notes: if you’re looking for your playthrough to feature Dante from the Devil May Cry series, you’ll need to grab that DLC first thing, because you have to start your playthrough with that option selected. The other DLC offerings will further ease your steady progression and give you some updated audio files for enjoyment, but you will have to pay a pretty fee for these options. Merciful mode, the easy difficulty setting, can be applied to your in-progress game saves, and is a fine way to avoid death, but doesn’t circumvent some of Nocturne’s more archaic design elements.
With all this said and another, much prettier-looking Shin Megami Tensei installment on its way later this year, is Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne a must-buy? If you are a fan of the series and know what you’re getting into, it is a serviceable port with some select quality of life improvements that tip it just over the edge of making it a definitive version. If you’re looking for an easily accessible RPG, however, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne may prove a little too traditional in its design for you. If any of what was said about this game sounds appealing to you, I encourage you to give it a try, but dominance and mastery will only come from a significant time investment- nothing more.