Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 4
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: May 25, 2021


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Switch Review - 'Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on May 18, 2021 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is based on the special edition "director's cut" version of the game that was released in Japan earlier this year, which features an appearance from Devil May Cry's Dante.

Buy Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster is set in "modern-day" Tokyo. (It was modern 20 years ago!) Players take on the role of an average Japanese high school student who, along with two of his classmates, looks for their teacher in an abandoned hospital as the world is ending. An event known as The Conception obliterates every living being outside of the hospital, turns Tokyo into a spherical mini-world, and releases hordes of demons onto the land. The only way to survive is for your protagonist to become the Demi-Field, a half-man/half-demon whose strength is said to be the key to creating a new world.

Nocturne's story is more subdued than other modern Atlus titles. Rather than tons of cut scenes and huge swaths of dialogue, it's largely a game about atmosphere and tone. The core story is basic, but it's told well and serves as an excuse to explore the world of The Conception. It might be disappointing to those hoping for something more in line with Persona, but I think it stands up well and there's a lot of flexibility in the story, with the game focusing around Reasons (views of how the world should be post-Conception) rather than the SMT franchise's usual Law/Neutral/Chaos axis. The Deluxe edition comes with the option to play a cameo of Raidou from the SMT spinoff Raidou titles or Dante from Devil May Cry. The two roles are basically identical. Raidou fits the tone better, but it's amusing to have Dante busting in on a grim SMT plot.

Nocturne's combat system revolves around Press Turns. For every character in a party, you gain one press turn, and taking an action uses up a press turn. Once you use all of your press turns, it's the enemy's turn to move, and they function under the same rules. However, the twist comes when exploiting elemental weaknesses or earning critical hits. In essence, every weak spot you hit is an additional turn for your team or for the enemy team, but the rule applies to being able to nullify, dodge or absorb enemy attacks. Any attack that is either blocked or dodged costs the attacker two press turns. If an attack is absorbed or reflected, it costs the rest of their turns. You can also choose to pass during your action to consume only a half-turn instead of a full turn.

It's a combat system that's built around trying to manipulate as many turns as possible while denying your enemy as many as possible. Versions of this system have survived all the way to Persona 5, but this is the original. It's also a system where winning depends on your team composition as much as anything else. Going into battle with a poorly designed team means doom, while it can be easier to be well-prepped. Players can manipulate available turns by using dodge-boosting or accuracy-lowering spells, putting up temporary magic-repelling barriers, or using Almighty attacks and spells to get around enemy defenses. There's flexibility, as there isn't one way to win.

In the same style as most Shin Megami Tensei games, you don't have a set party, so you'll recruit demons, Pokémon style. Demons can evolve to stronger forms if you keep certain ones around long enough, so a big chunk of the fun is finding new demons and gradually building them up in strength. Demons can be fused together to create new and stronger demons, but certain skills can only be passed along to demons who could reasonably use them. (For example, a demon without a mouth probably can't use Fog Breath or Fire Breath.) Unlike Pokémon, you're never going to stick with one team for long but can constantly fuse new allies to stand alongside you.

Something noteworthy about Nocturne compared to later games is that the protagonist is not a jack-of-all-trades. He functions pretty much identically to the demons, he can only learn skills by leveling up, and he doesn't equip gear. Instead, he can be customized by collectible Magatama, which you can equip to determine stats, immunities/weaknesses, and the skills you'll learn upon leveling up. It's an interesting twist on the formula, since it makes you think harder about how to build. Once you invest a skill point or learn a skill, there is no taking it back. You can overwrite skills, but only if you're willing to sacrifice the skill you learned.

That's a mixed bag. On the one hand, I liked how important it is to plan out your build. In pretty much every other game since, you have more flexibility, so individual choices feel less important. On the other hand, it means you're in for an extremely hard time if you get rid of a valuable skill without realizing it or decide partway through that you prefer playing as a mage instead of physical builds. Thankfully, the protagonist is strong enough that it's hard to build them badly; at worst, you can throw out support items and debuff enemies no matter your skill level.

Nocturne can be a brutal game, but that's because small mistakes can add up quickly. If you go into battle with a poorly composed team, a single elemental attack can be enough to wreck your party in one turn — or less. Likewise, going into a fight without proper attacks or buffs can lead to a quick doom. The solution to winning isn't grinding for higher levels but fusing demons to deal with different situations. There's some degree of trial-and-error, but a well-composed team can usually win.

That said, there are times when the game hits with cheap shots. If your protagonist dies, it is an instant game over, and that can happen incredibly quickly even if you're prepared. You can equip the correct Magatama to lessen the chances of this, but it's often not the one you want, especially for boss fights. It's just part of the game that you get used to, but it's a potential frustration point for those who are accustomed to the less punishing gameplay of later SMT titles. The game includes a new Merciful mode for those who don't want to bash their head against a skeleton matador for an hour.

Shin Megami Tensei III was born from first-person, dungeon-crawling games, and while it may be third-person at heart, it's still designed like that, just with PS2 visuals. The result is that the game is punishing by default. Save points are relatively far between and designed with the assumption that you'll leave the dungeon once or twice to heal or create new demons. You'll encounter teleport mazes, math puzzles, damaging floors, dark rooms that require special items or spells to explore, and so on. Be prepared for some potentially brutal slogs, with the most recent comparison point being Strange Journey more than Shin Megami Tensei IV. It's not necessarily a negative so much as it is a different style of game, and it can feel archaic to someone who's not prepared for it.

The problem with Nocturne HD is that it has almost nothing in the way of modernization. The core game's only boon — albeit a significant one — is that you have the option to manually choose skills when fusing monsters instead of randomly rerolling for them. This makes the game easier but not in a bad way. This improvement is worthwhile on its own, but it also stands out as the only real improvement to the base game. The Digital Deluxe version includes two DLCs, which amount to the modern "cheat" DLC found in other SMT games. One has demons that drop items to quickly raise EXP, and the other drops cash. The former is a nice boon, as it removes some of the tedium of raising weaker demons. Nocturne is grindy enough, so being able to level up a weak demon quickly is a QoL feature more than a cheat.

It's difficult to avoid comparing Nocturne HD to the rash of other HD JRPG ports and find it a little wanting. It's a bare-bones port that lacks things like speed-up features or improved UI. It doesn't ruin the game, but it is a touch disappointing when compared to pretty much any modern Atlus re-release. It's underwhelming compared to Strange Journey Redux or Persona 5 Royal or even Tokyo Mirage Sessions #Fe Encore. It's still a lengthy JRPG with a ton of content, including the Maniax bonus content that was part of the original North American release, but it does feel thin.

However, it's a credit to the strength of the original game that it still holds up well. Yes, it can be brutal, it can be unfair, it can be obtuse, and occasionally, it can be annoying, but it's satisfying and fun in a way that isn't characteristic of modern JRPGs. You have to scrape and struggle to survive, and that comes through perfectly. It is more satisfying when you overcome a difficult opponent and can add them to your party later. It's also enjoyable to have dungeons that feel like real dungeons full of traps and danger. I could do without some of the more annoying gimmicks, but the struggle is satisfying.

SMT3 is a relatively early PS2 game, so the graphics can only be gussied up so much. Visually, things are clearer and more high-def but not super impressive. The game is carried a lot by its remarkably strong art design, which goes a long way toward making it timeless. There's also an ongoing issue where the screen flickers black for a moment; it doesn't ruin anything but is annoying. Likewise, the music hasn't seen much of a touch-up. It's better than it was on the PS2, but it doesn't sound as good as some of the "clean" versions that have been released on CDs and elsewhere. One major new addition is voice acting, which I enjoyed quite a bit. The dub is solid and sells character behavior in a way that text sometimes doesn't. Not everyone sounds like I imagined, but they're all good choices, so even die-hard purists should give it a try. Those who want the original experience can turn off the voices acting.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster is an average port of an exceptional title. Despite being almost 20 years old, it's still one of the best JRPGs ever made, and it still stands up favorably to the games that came after it. It's still a PS2 game at heart, but it's a rare one that has aged quite well, so it's still worth playing for the first time even without the comforting glow of nostalgia. Unfortunately, the actual HD upgrade is perfunctory and bare-bones, so what you see is largely what you get. It's basically a way to play Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne on modern systems, and it's good for that. It just could have been more.

Score: 8.0/10

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