‘Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster’ review: demonic difficulty for only the most patient hardcore RPG fans

Atlus’ excavation of this cult classic leaves much unchanged, for better and worse

Before Persona became a worldwide hit, there was Shin Megami Tensei, its older edgier brother. While the series – commonly abbreviated as ‘MegaTen’ – wasn’t as popular as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, it set itself apart from the usual good-versus-evil narrative and wholesome chosen Japanese RPG hero tropes for something darker and demonic.

Originally released on the PS2, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne was the West’s first proper taste of Atlus’ hardcore RPG and remains infamous for being one of the toughest RPGs ever made. That reputation is perhaps a fundamental aspect the developers wanted to preserve with its long overdue remaster.

To call Nocturne a remaster however is a bit of a stretch, at least compared to the modernised remasters we’ve become accustomed to like Mass Effect: Legendary Edition or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when some fans have criticised the Mass Effect remaster’s modernised visuals for completely changing the original’s mood and tone. While Nocturne’s character models and textures are evidently from the PS2 era, it retains its striking and eerie aesthetic, notably the haunting uncanny appearance of its human characters’ faces, which contrast with Atlus’ more mainstream anime look in recent times. At around the same time when critics complained that The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker looked too ‘kiddy’, Nocturne took cel-shading to a more mature and twisted place only matched perhaps by Suda51’s Killer7.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster. Credit: Atlus

The post-apocalyptic story is a heavy and often philosophical one, carrying the same doomed energy as the anime The End of Evangelion. After an occult event triggers the end of the world, splitting Tokyo into the Vortex World, your silent protagonist reawakens as a glowing tattooed Demi-fiend who has the power to control demons and the will to change the course of the world. To say that the story has no chill would be an understatement. Even your teacher and classmates have major world-altering roles to play, who you may or may not align with based on occasional dialogue choices. However, they also function more as symbols and ideas rather than as characters you can get to know, so you won’t find the bond-building or lighter side quests as seen in the Persona titles.

Instead, Nocturne is pretty single-minded about you doing nothing else but traversing from one tough dungeon to the next as you battle increasingly challenging demons through the dreaded old-school fashion of random encounters. It fortunately does provide much of the game’s depth as these adversaries can also be recruited, provided you can either say the right thing to them (or more likely bribe them with money and items), turning into a hellish version of Pokémon. More importantly, you can also fuse two together to create a more powerful demon while passing on some of their skills. Fusing more powerful demons with more skills becomes essential to survive the more difficult encounters.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster. Credit: Atlus

And Nocturne lets you know pretty early on that it’s not messing around, particularly with one infamous boss that’s almost certainly going to test whether players give up or persist in the hours of level-grinding required before you’re powerful enough to fuse a demon with the spell that’s going to help you survive. Still, the challenges can be rewarding when you figure out a strategy to overcome these demons, where learning to use buff and debuff spells is just as vital as identifying an enemy’s weaknesses.

There are at least a couple concessions in this remaster, including the ability to suspend a save, a quick save that can be used anywhere but also deletes itself once you load up so that you’re still not free of the original crushing defeat that sends you back to the title screen. Newcomers would however greatly benefit from a new ‘Merciful’ mode that hopefully dials the difficulty down, although bizarrely this has to be downloaded as free DLC at launch. A more significant addition is that there is also voice-acting for most of the characters, and you have the choice between Japanese and English audio by default.

These updates are however ultimately a pittance as Nocturne still plays with all the frustrating limitations and game design as it had over 15 years ago. Quality of life features we take for granted – a marker or text reminding you of your next objective, a mini-map that saves you from having to go into a map screen every time you’re lost, a display to remind you the weaknesses of a demon you already fought – are all absent to the point you might want to have a notepad to hand to help you navigate the game’s often confusing and opaque systems.

This only makes the high rate of random encounters so much more frustrating. Of course it’s important to take part in these battles both to recruit new demons and to gain experience, but the frequency of these is just ridiculous. Sometimes I couldn’t take a step forward without immediately triggering another encounter. Couple that with some dungeon designs that are borderline trolling as they send you back in circles and only the most patient players are likely to stick around, let alone attempt it again to see all the possible endings.

But a real sore point is the decision to sell Nocturne in two tiers rather than as a single definitive package. Remasters are usually positioned as the best way to play an old game, and given the bare bones treatment here, it would make sense to bundle all existing content to sweeten the pill. But to have extra maps and modes sold as DLC or part of the pricier Deluxe Edition feels awfully stingy on Sega’s part – what’s worse is that the Maniax pack, which includes Dante from the Devil May Cry series, is the version we got in the West originally! Old-school RPG fans may be more patient with the creaky mechanics and merciless gameplay, but this kind of cynical packaging is harder to forgive.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster is available on 25th May on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4 and PC.

Our Verdict

Very much a product of its time, there’s still few Japanese RPGs quite as distinct, mature and haunting as Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne in both its eerie visuals and its unforgiving gameplay. However, the sore lack of quality of life features in a very bare bones remaster means it’s hard to recommend to anyone but the most patient and hardcore RPG fans.

Hopefully, the upcoming sequel Shin Megami Tensei V on Switch will actually bring the series to a modern audience, but for everyone else wanting to experience an enhanced and generous Japanese RPG from the ‘MegaTen’ franchise, you’re better off with the superior and lower-priced Persona 4 Golden on Steam.

Pros

  • A unique eerie aesthetic quite unlike other games
  • Wickedly difficult battles that demand different strategies
  • Intriguing philosophical themes that can result in multiple endings (and potential replays)

Cons

  • A very bare-bones remaster that shows its age, lacking in many quality of life features modern games are used to
  • Selling the game in two tiers (or as DLC) feels pretty stingy
  • So. Many. Random. Battles.
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