By Leah McDonald / May 26th, 2021
|Title||Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster
|Release Date||May 25, 2021|
|Platform||Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam|
If you could remake the world, would you? That’s the central thesis to Atlus’ seminal RPG, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster, and just as you had to in the game’s original 2003 launch on the PlayStation 2, players in this newly-updated version will have to decide how they would handle the fate of the world when everything they’ve ever known is dead and gone.
But first, let’s back up. You play as the unnamed protagonist, a high school student living in Tokyo. He and his friends, Isamu and Chiaki, are asked to visit their teacher at an old abandoned hospital the day after a riot killed two people in a local park. Only right after they arrive, the world literally ends, wiped clean of humans and society, save for a scant few who somehow survived the Conception. Tokyo is now a ruined hellscape infested with demons, where death runs rampant. Above them shines the Kagatsuchi, destined to remake the world. Isamu and Chiaki scatter about the post-apocalyptic city, and the protagonist is gifted the Magatama, which turns him into the Demi-Fiend – not quite human, not quite demon. It’s in this Vortex World where the future of humanity will be carved by those looking to create their ideal world.
Nocturne has aged considerably well, and a lot of it is thanks to this premise. The way we see the world, and our desire to recreate it to be a fairer, more just society, is timeless, and SMT3 offers a compelling look at a variety of conclusions humans can come to. Should we live in a world where might makes right? Or should the world be static and never-changing, but therefore without pain? Should the strong survive, or the intelligent? And what about the paths in-between these extremes? Is it possible to make a world where everyone is content? And what is your role as one who is neither human nor demon? What exactly are you, anyway? It’s these questions the game poses to the player, and your decisions in-game decide the future of humanity. It’s thoughtful and melancholic, but also you get to summon a bunch of demons and it kicks a lot of ass.
Gameplay is going to be what makes or breaks most players, and those unfamiliar with the series may find it a bit too daunting. Nocturne has a (rightfully-earned) reputation for being incredibly difficult, and Atlus did not change that aspect when it brought it into the modern age. Booting up the game was like being transported back in time, only everything was prettier and ran a bit more smoothly. I will fully admit, I never beat Nocturne on the PS2. I got tired of bashing my head against the game’s combat system and obscenely long dungeons, and quite frankly I had some Final Fantasy XI to play, so I ended up setting it aside. Coming back to it now, almost 20 years later and with significantly less time to devote to a single game, that same difficulty curve was frustrating but still addicting. I don’t remember how many times I died to the Matador before I finally bested him, and it was a great feeling to overcome one of gaming’s most notorious hurdles. (Getting him in my party later on in the game and wrecking people’s shit felt equally great.)
That being said, some of the game’s design decisions have not aged nearly as well as its narrative or visual design. The aforementioned difficulty curve is daunting for even hardened genre players, but Nocturne is absolutely an old-school style RPG. There is a reason it is notorious. Save points are few and far between; there is no party healing after battles, and status ailments will ruin your day; and dungeons can last literal hours. I rage quit one night after finishing a difficult mini-game halfway through a dungeon, only to get into a random battle before I could reach a save point and a demon killed me with an instant-death attack, destroying almost an hour’s worth of playtime. It’s to the game’s credit that I came back, because the combat is ridiculously satisfying and I love fusing new demons and leveling them up, but it’s hard to describe the despair this game can cause when all of its systems work against you at once. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of what Nocturne does, but in combination, it makes for an unforgiving play session when things go south.
Some of these issues are alleviated by the remaster’s Suspend feature, which will save your progress on a temporary file so you can, you know, sleep. This was great when I found myself stuck in a dungeon nowhere near a save point. The HD remaster also added a free DLC Merciful difficulty, significantly nerfing the strength of enemies and giving almost triple the experience points from battle to alleviate the leveling grind. It also reduced the amount of random encounters you’ll have, which is a godsend when you can get into a fight after taking one step. I played on both Normal and Merciful to see the difference, and while I appreciated the experience boost Merciful provided, it made fights too easy, and thereby removed a lot of the satisfaction from overcoming difficult battles. On the plus side, you can toggle the difficulties back and forth at will, so swapping to Merciful to get through the last leg of a dungeon and then changing back to Normal for the inevitable boss fight made for a smoother experience.
What isn’t smooth in any version of the game is the Magatama system. Both the Demi-Fiend and his demon friends earn abilities as they level up. Demons all have an element they’re attuned to which determines their strengths and weaknesses, and their abilities play into that. For instance, Ame no Uzume is Force-aspected, so she’s immune to Force abilities but weak to Electricity. For the Demi-Fiend, skills are based on which Magatama he’s ingested, as each comes with its own attributes (Anathema is strong to Dark but weak to Light; Miasma is strong to Ice but weak to Fire, etc.). This is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. What makes the system so aggravating is that you cannot see what skills each Magatama will give you until you level up, and therefore cannot plan out what skills you want to master ahead of time. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if you weren’t limited to eight ability slots and forced to relinquish abilities to remain within that allotment. I actually like the sacrificial nature of the system, as it’s thematically relevant, but gameplay wise it’s a hassle. The Demi-Fiend should either have more slots available to him than his demon companions, or you should be able to see what skills each Magatama offers so you don’t waste precious experience leveling one up only to find out that wait, no, that’s not what you wanted/needed. There are 25 Magatama in the game. Asking the player to limit their ability set to only eight skills out of all of those can ruin builds, especially if you’re trying to gain immunity to elements.
That’s right, the elemental wheel is actually relevant in this game, and those strengths and weaknesses imparted by each Magatama can win or lose even the simplest of fights. Combat is overall straightforward: The Demi-Fiend and his three demon companions each take a turn, then it’s the enemies’ go. If you hit an enemy with a skill to which they are weak (fire against ice, etc.), you earn half a turn. The same goes if you land a critical hit. Played smartly, you can double your attack round by hitting enemies in their weak spots. Be careful though, because using an ability to which the enemy is strong will lose you two turns. You also lose turns if the enemy dodges. On the other hand, enemies can absolutely do the same to you, and the game does not play favorites in who lands which attacks. I’ve had low-level enemies wreck me because they doubled their turns and hit me with attacks I’m weak to, nearly ruining my run. I’ve also had clutch wins because I was immune to an attack or dodged a strong ability. It’s a fun system, honestly, marred only by the fact that you can encounter bosses without prior warning, and God forbid you have the wrong Magatama equipped and lose an hour or more of play time because it’s at the end of a long dungeon and you haven’t reached a save point yet. No, I’m not bitter.
Combat is definitely the lion’s share of gameplay, but there’s also a lot of exploration to do in this devastated version of Tokyo. Wandering around the Vortex World and finding spirits and demons to chat with is probably my favorite aspect of the game. Taking in this ruined world is sad and unnerving in the way looking at liminal spaces can be. Tokyo has been rent and twisted into a literal world unto itself, an enclosed space above which shines the Kagatsuchi, but among the ruins remain parts of the old world: a subway station; an old shopping center; warehouses; a communications tower, all either overcome by demons or devoid of life entirely. It’s eerie and beautiful. I love it. There’s also a wide array of NPCs to talk with, both demon and human. Save points also double as fast travel hubs, making it easy to visit a variety of locations quickly, which is great if you need to stop by one of the many stores to buy some much-needed items, or hit up a good leveling spot once you’ve fused together a new demon or two.
Fusion is addictive and fun and Nocturne’s standout gameplay aspect. Scattered throughout the world are Cathedrals of Shadows, where you can fuse two demons together to create a new one. As the game progresses, you also open up sacrificial fusions, in which a third demon is sacrificed to either power-up the demon you’re making, or create a surprise special demon. This is stupidly fun to do. Collecting a bunch of demons and then running to the Cathedral to see what I can make was how I spent several hours of my playthrough. It was also a quick and easy way to make more room in my party, since you’re only allotted so many reserve party slots. Battle parties consist of you and three demons, and you can have up to nine in reserve. During battle, you have the option to recruit demons to your cause. Most will reject you, and you cannot convince them to join if Kagatsuchi is at its brightest. But once you’ve collected your allotment of demons, you can’t recruit anymore until you open up slots. So it’s off to the Cathedral I go. Fusion is the only way to create some of the most powerful demons you can have (Amaterasu, Cu Chulainn, Matador, etc.), so it behooves you to collect and fuse as many as you can in order to build a party that can take on the toughest fights Nocturne has to offer, and there are a lot of them – including from special guests, Dante and Raidou Kuzunoha.
Players first got to cross swords with Capcom’s Dante from Devil May Cry in the 2004 Maniax version of Nocturne, which released in both North America and Japan. A demon hunter, he shows up periodically throughout the game to challenge the Demi-Fiend. In 2008, Japanese players received a version of Nocturne that replaced Dante with Raidou, the main character from the Shin Megami Tensei spin-off series Devil Summoner. With the HD remaster, North American players now have the chance to encounter the detective and his feline sidekick for the first time, and it’s this version that the game defaults to. Those who want to encounter Dante will need to purchase the Maniax DLC. Both Raidou and Dante fulfill the same story role, but whereas Dante is loud and brash, Raidou remains a silent protagonist with Gouto the cat doing all the talking. While I love Dante, his inclusion never quite meshed with the Vortex World of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, and for fans of the SMT series, going head-to-head with Raidou is a nice treat. He’s also a relatively tough but rewarding fight.
Interspersed throughout the world are also seven optional boss fights against Fiends – strong demons who wield a Menorah that grants them increased power. The first of these Fiends you’ll encounter is the aforementioned Matador, who is the only one that cannot be skipped, and he wields the Menorah of Foundation. They are tough, often frustrating fights, but defeating each Fiend will grant you their corresponding Menorah, which you can use to unlock optional dungeons in the Labyrinth of Amala called Kalpa. Compared to the main game, this long sidequest is grueling, with significantly less save points and healing locations, but a lot stronger enemies. Advancing through it can net you some helpful Magatama and items, as well as uncover secrets about the Vortex World and the nature of the Conception, but that’s for you to discover on your own.
There is a lot to love about Nocturne. The story is relevant and timeless, the characters engaging. The Vortex World of post-apocalyptic Tokyo is eerily beautiful, the dungeons varied. The voice acting is all around pretty solid (I played using the Japanese cast, since I prefer original language to dubs). Even the game’s vaunted difficulty, for all the anguish and frustration it caused, has its own charms. Some of the game design choices feel distinctly of their era and returning to them 20 years on feels archaic and cumbersome, but despite those flaws, Nocturne stands the test of time and remains one of gaming’s best RPGs. You owe it to yourself to play it if you haven’t before, and to revisit it if you have. The HD remaster is a fantastic addition to the SMT library.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster retails for $49.99 USD and is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Steam.
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