While Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster doesn’t extend a comprehensive list of improvements, a handful of enhancements help soften the unflinching difficulty of the original release and add in modern conveniences like partial voice acting. Underneath it all, Nocturne still shines with melancholic charm.
Platform: Switch, also on PlayStation 4, PC
Publisher: Atlus USA
Release date: May 25th, 2021
Availability: Physical and digital
Price: $29.99 via retail, the Nintendo eShop, and other digital storefronts
To truly appreciate Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne, it’s essential to look at context. Originally released for the PlayStation 2 in 2003, role-playing games still demonstrated an obedience to the foundations of high fantasy. From 2004’s Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King and 2005’s Tales of the Abyss, fantastical medieval weaponry and settings were ubiquitous. And even when a game like Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse offered a futuristic backdrop, parties consisted of members in familiar roles with gun wielders and katana-carrying swordsmen.
Situated in contemporary Tokyo, Shin Megami Tensei III helped to change that. The game’s opening channeled physiological horror, with the dread of uncertainty lingering for hours. You played a nameable protagonist struggling to understand what was going on, where characters often spoke cryptically, exploring eerie venues like an abandoned hospital or the outskirts of Shibuya’s Yoyogi Park following a riot where several people died. Then there’s the pair of a shrouded caregiver and child, who are were as unnerving as anything in Kubrick’s The Shining.
The End and a New Beginning
While some characters alluded to factions between dueling ideologies, others prophesized the destruction and rebirth of the world. Those familiar with history will know that the area itself was devastated during World War II and subsequently rebuilt for U.S. military housing, providing some unsettling subtext for the game’s events.
Nocturne’s obliteration and renewal was referred to as Conception, with the setting not only ruined, but curiously reshaped Tokyo into a vortex. Former inhabitants now lingered as specter-like souls, lamenting about the change, while demons roamed the landscape. The game’s protagonist wasn’t impervious to the event and was brought back to life as a demi-fiend. While popular culture enjoys the exploration of a human spirit endowed with extraordinary powers (God of War, almost every Marvel hero), Nocturne is one of the few works to get it right. This is especially true when it came to the game’s multiple conclusions, which shirked the banality of Disneyfied entertainment. In short, Shin Megami Tensei III’s experience was less about heroics and more about the struggle to determine what is the right thing to do.
Ideologies for the Vortex World
More importantly, Nocturne tampered with the trite morality of role-playing games. Sure, there were figures on the extremes on the ethical barometer, but the bulk of the game’s characters lingered in the middle area. Eschewing the typical finger-waging of many games, Nocturne basks in the ruminations of those caught in Conception, with many expressing a firm belief in how the new world should work. Smartly, these philosophies weren’t fixed, and key events caused some moral shifting, which was quite thought provoking.
The range of ideologies not only extended to the leaders of the Vortex World, but also to the protagonist. Fascinatingly, your sentiments were pulled into a multitude of divergent directions, and the writing team of Shogo Isogai, Nakaji Kimura, Shigeo Komori, Kazuyuki Yamai crafted some fascinating ethical conundrums. Obviously, your decisions played a role in which ending you’ll receive but also influenced the Vortex World, occasionally in unexpected ways. Rarely did Nocturne telegraph the result of your decisions, forcing players to live in persistent uncertainty.
Seduction of the Diabolical
Given the game’s emergence in the early 2000s, Nocturne’s journey was also surprisingly non-linear. Optional areas invited exploration, while there are elective bosses for those seeking additional challenge. But arguably the biggest deviation from role-playing tradition is found in the party system, which required players to do a healthy amount of personnel management.
Unlike say, the Persona spin-offs which would capitalize on the social bonding between party members, there’s was a persistent feeling of solitude as you made your way through this world. Sure, you could recruit fellow demons. But if you expected the multicultural mythological monsters to join with the enthusiasm of Pokémon, Nocturne would impart some harsh lessons. Occasionally testing your disposition with a question, demons also habitually asked for money or items. They were a persistently fickle bunch, often backing out of negotiations on a whim. Occasionally, having certain types of demons in your party could tip the scales in your favor, making attempts at diplomacy feel rather organic.
Remastered, not Remedial
But like many role-playing games of the era, Nocturne wasn’t especially adept at explaining the details of recruitment. Broad references to key mechanics were favored over the interactive tutorials of modern games, while some options were buried in the game’s menu system. For better or worse, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster doesn’t tamper with the approach.
Demon recruitment is still learned through experimentation (or via a FAQ), which might turn off players accustomed to detailed explanation of every gameplay element. But elements like the Kagutsuchi moon phase meter (which influences everything from combat, conversations, rare item in treasure chests, and triggering special events) ae deliberately mysterious. Their enigmatic nature is a throwback to an era where gratification was rooted in discovery how systems work. I’d encourage players to resist research how systems work and instead try to understand them for yourself. A sense of discovery is one of the game’s greatest virtues.
A Demi-Fiend’s Guide to Demon Leadership
But the remaster does make a several worthwhile concessions. Previously, when you fused two demons into a higher level one, the game randomly selected what skills the union would produce. Now, you’ll be able to select from combination options, which removes the hassle of saving and restarting after receiving a lackluster hybrid. Given that enemy demons can often one-shot you into oblivion, the remaster’s new Merciful difficulty setting is a welcome addition. Not only will it help newcomers avoid intense frustration, but it also shortens some battles that go on a bit too long.
Nocturne’s Press Turn System battle system isn’t persistently tough, but combat does require players to seize every advantage offered to them. The key to success is delivering a critical or exploiting an enemy weakness. Doing this gives the party an additional turn in combat. Expectedly, a missed attack or using an elemental that the foe is resistant toward is detrimental since you’ll lose a turn. As such, you’ll want to constantly tweak your party roster, calling on specific creatures at the right time. Still, play on anything but Merciful and expect to be humbled by certain bosses repeatedly. The fate of a newborn world isn’t easily recalibrated, Nocturne often reminds us.
A Competent Remaster
The original Nocturne was a voice-less affair, and the stark silence seemed fitting for the desolate post-apocalyptic world. While the remaster doesn’t provide complete voice acting, with key storytelling events and demon quips receiving competent deliveries. Similarly, the script has been given an overhaul, with demon names, especially for some of the ones culled from Chinese mythology, have been renamed properly.
Visually, the incorporation of higher resolution textures looks attractive. But Nocturne’s stylized look was always one of the game’s subtle graces, endowing the game with a dreamlike quality. Here, things look decidedly sharper and run at a solid 30 frames-per-second, without spoiling the distinctive look of characters and environments. Tragically, some of the game’s music didn’t seem to get the same treatment and compression is evident when playing with headphones.
Revisiting Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne nearly two decades later demonstrates an experience that has aged exceptionally well. Look past a handful of changes, and you’ll discover that directors Katsura Hashino and Kazuma Kaneko’s work remains a wonderfully evocative and imaginative experience that paved the way for future Megami Tensei entries. It will be difficult to enjoy fighting generic slimes after tackling Nocturne’s menagerie of monstrosities and dismantling of Dungeons & Dragons tropes.
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster was
played on Switch with code provided by the publisher.