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Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster Review

A decent appetiser before SMT5’s main event

Atlus has dusted off one of its fan-favourite classics in Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remastered while building buzz for SMT5, currently planned for Switch later this year. Smoothing rough graphical edges with gentle brush strokes, this is a warts-and-all remaster with one particularly helpful quality of life addition in Merciful mode. Also given a sprucing up and clean pair of jorts are terrifically remastered voice tracks in English and Japanese as well as refined character models and animations. The question remains, can the lauded classic stand shoulder to shoulder with Atlus’ best of the past generation?

A spate of deaths linked to a riot in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park have led to rumours of foul play. A communications tech CEO named Hikawa is the talk of the city. Then there is you, a nameless protagonist and assumedly terrific student who just wants to visit their bedridden teacher with some mates at a nearby hospital. Things begin to take a spooky turn, with mentions of occult events from a writer named Jyoji Hijiri, who just happens to turn up and strangely has the same itinerary on that fateful day as our humble lead character. We mosey on over to the hospital together, by way of an overworld map that looks like a zoomed out, unremarkable satellite image of Tokyo. But we find the hospital abandoned, and the bloody signs of some ritual to have occurred in the basement. Things take a disastrous turn.

A cataclysmic event called the Conception occurs and our small ensemble emerges from the hospital, scattered and oddly unquestioning, into a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The story follows our protagonist, having survived the threat of execution upon discovering the secrets of the hospital basement, reborn as a ‘Demi-fiend’. This is a kind of human/demon hybrid that subsists by consuming powerful centipedes born from the soul energy of the recently obliterated Japanese. This imparts a highly sought-after power called Magatama, which you will need to collect and consume to boost your stats and build your character’s skills.

Pretty shit Uber service out here

What follows is standard JRPG fare, with our initially weak character spending hours cycling through auto attacks and healing items in turn-based random encounters to gain experience. Along the way, you will have the opportunity to talk to the demons you meet in these fights, negotiating and trading demands in the hope they ally with your cause. These scantily clad, bizarre demon-Pokémon will complement you to form an active party ensemble of four.

You further find that Tokyo has now folded itself into an enclosed sphere with various demon factions vying for supremacy in the resulting power vacuum, and who you ally yourself with while picking up the pieces in this demonic post-world will determine the direction of the narrative. This world is a doomed and distant departure from the boppy metropolitan school-sim we see in Persona – SMT’s younger spin-off series.

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If you take a zoomed-out look at what this game is on a whiteboard, what you’ll see is a dressed-up, grid-based dungeon crawler filled with Pokémon-like demons ripe for a collect-them-all. Along the way, you’re toughing it out on a limited reserve of magic among you and your friendly fiends, which will be crucial for exploiting elemental weaknesses and clawing your way to the next dungeon save point. As your magic runs low, you will face the hard decision of going back to the dungeon’s beginning and recuperating, using one of your extremely rare and precious Soma, or magic point restoration items.

This challenging dungeon crawling system will be immediately familiar to those coming over from Persona. This is the mechanical lifeblood both series share, but with a much harsher degree of brutality on display here.

Oni used Quick Slash. It was effective.

Combat is about monopolising combos and keeping the turn order in the favour of the player. This requires exploiting the game’s systems, many of them background and barely telegraphed to their best potential. In Persona, it is normal to exploit an enemy weakness with opposing elemental magic and therefore score an extra turn. You then choose how to juggle these extra turns to cause further exploit attacks and keep enemies from gaining a turn. In SMT3, while this is all largely still the case, team composition and constantly monitoring your own team’s weaknesses prove much more vital. It is not uncommon for enemy parties to flip the script and juggle combos against your own team, exploiting weakness and keeping you pacified until defeated in just the first round of combat.

Most boss battles will be a frustrating process of trial and error, with very few hints or indicators as to how best to tackle a boss without a soul-shattering amount of grind or finding a proven min-max method. Checkpoints are often positioned near enough to a boss encounter, but if you are ill prepared, there is likely no avoiding having to trudge through the dungeon again to restock or regroup. The bitter pill of this experience is the heavy dose of grind and random encounters. There are barely any ‘safe’ zones in the entire game, meaning you are constantly assaulted by an enormous volume of random encounters. With no elegant way to speed up relatively slow enemy turns and combat animations, your best hope of remaining sane is setting basic attacks to perform automatically in easier fights.

But there is a generous solution to this problem in 2021, one that is tastefully implemented at that. With a painlessly quick toggle in the options menu, one can enable the new ‘Merciful’ difficulty mode. This is a seamless way to set the game to a much nicer pace without being patronised or penalised in any way. Enemies that would be low-level fodder to slow down your exploration can now be ignored entirely, and archaic difficulty spikes can be remedied by the player.

Teenage Mutant Demon Emos

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The game makes it very clear from the start that this can be switched at any time and is such an obvious choice for navigating the brutal design of this game that emphasises grind and trial-and-error approaches to bosses. In fact, I spent four hours grinding for a particularly notorious early boss fight that Atlus’ press team notified us about prior to review. After realising that stroking my ego was causing me to lose enjoyment of a game that is so fundamental to a series I love, I took the jump and switched to Merciful. The way that the levelling and rewards scale means that the game is just cutting so much of the fat off the bone. You can switch back to a normal difficulty without any greater advantage than if you had just fast-forwarded through a slew of rather slow combat encounters.

Some visual issues with this remaster concern cutscenes and animations. Cutscenes appear bordered in their original 4:3 pixelated vintage and are an ugly transition from the sharply defined in-game world. There is also a nasty blur that infrequently occurs with characters in motion, a dizzying effect present in the original release. It is not flattering when compared to the clean effort put into sharpening all the character models and bland environments.

Shin Megami Tensei is a series I first came to with SMT4, which features a similar plot about carving out your path to greatness in a devastated Tokyo. As in SMT4, you will be working your way between the interests of different factions and playing them off one another, until you ascend to fight whatever supreme deity that has survived because of your power plays at the end of the world. I say similar, except this structure just doesn’t have any heart in Nocturne, and it breaks my heart. After having played more and more games in this series, particularly the spinoffs, I struggled to get into Nocturne originally because of how distant the characters and events seem. Without spoilers, so much of the plot involves grinding away three doors down from the action driving the plot, and finally turning up to the main event only as things have already unfolded and the dust is settling. You’re always late to the party, and despite making narrative choices, the results feel little more than the consequential detritus of more significant actors than yourself.

Post-Tokyo Post-Capatlism

Final Thoughts

For Persona fans, here is a well-loved glove. It will have a nostalgic, dusty tanned smell. But it will be snug. Items, abilities, monsters, weaknesses, and affinities will all be transferable knowledge that rewards these players. New players though, face a considerable learning curve compounded by aggressively unrelenting random encounters and opaque systems where necessary tutorials are hidden in nondescript NPC dialogue. Fans likely won’t be disappointed to pop the wallet open and get a lovingly smoothed-over port, with terrifically remastered character models and dual voice tracks. An opportune time to whet appetites before SMT5.

Reviewed on PS4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher

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Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster Review
A bright day is conceived in sunny Tokyo
SMT3 Nocturne HD Remaster realises that the less time we can spend with the cobwebs of the past by opting into the new Merciful difficulty, the more time we can enjoy this world and its story anew.
The Good
Merciful difficulty is a soothing balm for an aging and punishing title
Remastered voice tracks sound great
Character models and demon designs remain some of the best in the series
The Bad
Story misses some beats – too much occurs outside of the protagonists’ purview
Cutscenes have missed out on their upgrade, some bad in-game blurring
Staggering frequency of random encounters bog down pacing
Punishes players that aren’t experienced with Persona or SMT by being thoroughly opaque
7.5
Good
  • Atlus
  • Atlus
  • PS4 / Nintendo Switch / PC
  • May 21, 2021

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster Review
A bright day is conceived in sunny Tokyo
SMT3 Nocturne HD Remaster realises that the less time we can spend with the cobwebs of the past by opting into the new Merciful difficulty, the more time we can enjoy this world and its story anew.
The Good
Merciful difficulty is a soothing balm for an aging and punishing title
Remastered voice tracks sound great
Character models and demon designs remain some of the best in the series
The Bad
Story misses some beats – too much occurs outside of the protagonists’ purview
Cutscenes have missed out on their upgrade, some bad in-game blurring
Staggering frequency of random encounters bog down pacing
Punishes players that aren’t experienced with Persona or SMT by being thoroughly opaque
7.5
Good
Written By Nathan Hennessy

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