The PlayStation 2 was home to some of the best JRPGs of all time. It was the perfect platform for the genre; the games could look amazing and development costs were not yet out of hand. It was possible to design almost anything that any designer could dream of. It was a generation rife with creative cult-classics that pushed the envelope with what you could get away with in a JRPG.
Among the pantheon of heavy hitter JRPGs on PlayStation 2 was Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. Released in 2003, this was a follow up to the Japan-only Super Famicom game Shin Megami Tensei II. Even though it was a sequel to a game that the west never got, that didn’t stop gamers from being mesmerized by this surreal, dark, post-apocalyptic epic that could test your mettle.
As time marched on and PlayStation 2 consoles broke down and became harder to find, cult favorites like Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne also grew more elusive with every passing year. Since the Shin Megami Tensei series is experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to the popularity of its spin-off Persona franchise, a HD remaster of Nocturne couldn’t come at a better time.
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Release Date: May 24, 2021
Price: $49.99 USD
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is the story of a wimpy young man who becomes the demi-fiend; a half man, half demon entity that is capable of terrible power. The protagonist becomes this harbinger of Armageddon after an event known as the Conception occurs, exterminating most human life in the world.
Things aren’t too bad considering that the entire world got inverted. While most of the people died, they still get to go about their days like nothing happened, as spirits or ghosts. Demons may roam the world, but as it turns out; a lot of them are just trying to get by and not be killed by much bigger demons or other entities bordering on godlike.
In this terrible new world, the protagonist is transformed as the Demi-Fiend, from being force-fed a magatama. From there, Lucifer sends the player on a grueling mission to remake the world by acquiring menorahs. Depending on the path taken, the Demi-Fiend can become a full-demon and choose to further doom the world, or remake it.
Traversing the Vortex world is a mythical spirit journey where all the NPCs and minor characters will have something interesting to say, and will get new things to talk about after story events happen. Everyone acts completely hopeless, and it isn’t uncommon for characters to encourage the player to give-up. Even though Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne can be humorous, it’s steeped in pessimism.
The journey is a long and arduous one; the kind of quest that can be described as a Herculean labor. While being the Demi-Fiend does mean becoming a terrible and powerful entity; players will have to begin at square-one. Expect to prove yourself to any and every encounter, where demons and creatures from all kinds of cultures will size you up and dare to take you on… And will give you a run for your money.
This is a modern biblical epic that creatively ties gameplay to everyone’s understanding of religious concepts. Concepts like what a “soul” is, and representing God as something still abstract but almost tangible and as the moon phase mechanic; is truly inspired.
Befitting its bleak atmosphere, the gameplay is incredibly cruel. It’s as if demons were a part of the development team, and built a perfect system to crush the will of the player. Not only is the difficulty high, but the overall game is also much longer than expected; approaching the 60 hour range.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is set in a world with almost no safe places. Every area (including towns) is teeming with hostility, and no matter what, every few steps will inevitably lead to a random battle. As the game unfurls itself the difficulty goes through the roof, and many aspects of the battle system will demand all attention.
Depending on some factors and a little RNG, it’s possible to be smacked around by even low level enemies. This is not just a turn-based RPG, this has monster-catching elements to it, and having the right party will determine how much progress can be made.
The “Press Turn” system is simple but compelling way to make traditional turn-based gameplay into something more compelling. Having a full party means having the maximum amount of turns (four) and players are able to pass a turn that gets divided by half.
Passing it again will make that turn voided; therefore, turn order manipulation becomes a crucial strategy, especially during very long boss battles or surprise attacks.
Another aspect of the battle system is that the player’s phase can be extended by landing critical hits or exploiting an enemy’s elemental weakness. This works both ways for and against the player. Battles have just enough randomization to always keep gamers on their toes, and to not relax and rely on the same party members.
Violence does not have to be the only way to succeed; sometimes talking to enemies can be the best strategy of them all. It can be a total crapshoot as to what will happen when conversing with demons. With a bit a luck, some conversations may end with the party getting healed, helpful consumable items, or money.
Though getting anywhere with these creatures does take a bit of encouragement, and which ever party member is speaking might find themselves having to sacrifice their own blood to grease the wheels. Sometimes there will be dialogue choices, but the correct answer seems like it’s totally random.
Guessing what the right answers feels like a shot in the dark, and being wrong might anger the monster to call reinforcements or in the best case scenario: leave. It’s a risk worth taking, since the odds are usually in the player’s favor, and recruiting a powerful new ally is always welcomed.
The combat system and how to recruit new party members is not going to be for every RPG fan. Aside from very few exceptions, the Demi-Fiend is the one character who feels consistent, since he can’t be benched. Fans of the “Maniax” mode who really want to use Dante from the Devil May Cry™ series will be disappointed to find out that he does not become playable until almost the end of the game.
It becomes hard to become attached to any single recruited demon, since they’re disposable. The monster fusing mechanic has players killing them and combining multiple demons to create new and more powerful fiends. The representation of all the different spiritual entities that can fight along side the Demi-Fiend is incredibly varied, and no matter what, everyone is bound to find something they like.
Recruiting demons and talking it out with threats becomes crucial, as Nocturne gradually throws increasingly maze-like dungeons. These labyrinths are disappointing at first; a majority of every location is always made up of the same few assets of rooms and hallways. Distinct landmarks are rare, blink at any cross road and expect to become lost.
Frequently bringing up the map screen will become a muscle memory reaction to double check which area needs exploring, or what’s worth investigating. Even though these levels may not look like much, they have more going on than meets the eye.
Every dungeon has a gimmick to make each one memorable. A prison that exists in two planes will have the Demi-Fiend and friends traversing an upside down version of the location; making it two dungeons in one. The derelict subway system is hopelessly dark, and having a light ball or being endowed with the lightoma spell is the only way to be able to see where you are going.
Most of the time, each area will have a major puzzle element to it. Nocturne is not the kind of game where you can lazily waltz through it. Even players who grinder for hours will still have to contend with the mind-bending environments and cheeky puzzle-box design of each dungeon.
The hellish atmosphere and jazzy, soothing euro-beat style music make a surprising combination. Nocturne set the foundation for music that would go on to be further fleshed out in the more recent Persona entries, and when it doesn’t, the ambiance sounds utterly otherworldly. Ominous and foreboding; some tracks have a bleak biblical quality to them, thanks to low chanting and heavy percussive beats.
With a cast of depressing and aggressive NPCs, and music that sounds like a prelude to a human sacrifice, the lurid and alien landscape makes Nocturne have an ambiance that is indescribable. For a game from 2003, the visuals mostly hold up thanks to the art direction.
Kazuma Kaneko’s designs are stylish, and carry a deathly coldness to them. The 3D models are very faithful representations to his concepts that have been a staple to the series since the beginning. The use of geometry in the locations is also striking; making areas have an advanced alien technology quality.
Kaneko’s creature designs are a high point of Nocturne. His interpretations of various mythological creatures, legends, and deities range from cute to absurd, and even nightmarish. He uses shocking color the way God does: shocking and alarming patterns and hues become warnings for dangerous foes, and threatening boss battles.
It’s a good thing that Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne is already an excellent RPG. If it wasn’t, then there would be no reason to ever play this HD remaster. Sadly, this port is violently lazy. The original game had certain flaws to improve upon, and Sega didn’t even try to improve the experience, or polish the visuals in a meaningful way.
The first thing anyone will notice is the grossly low resolution textures through out the game. The HD image quality and sharp edges of the 3D models make surfaces look like a poorly loaded Unreal Engine asset, or something out of Cyberpunk 2077.
Animation is still at 30 frames per second like it always was, but now there is slow and nasty choppiness in battles where the effects run wild. The animation quality was always a lackluster aspect in the original Nocturne; characters barely expressed much body language outside of their standard idle animation.
The Demi-Fiend’s animation could have used more range of movement. While roaming, he moves awkwardly, is unable to walk, and only paces at what can be best described is a light jog. In battles, all characters have very few animations that may have been serviceable in the early 2000s, but in an HD remaster that is priced at $49.99 USD, should have more care put into the presentation.
What makes this outrageous price so revolting is that Nocturne HD is rife with expensive DLC features, and has Dante from the Devil May Cry™ series sold separately. This rounds out the entire package to being almost the same price as a brand new PlayStation 5 game.
Further insulting is that the original PlayStation 2 version is sold at a meager $9.99 USD on PSN for PlayStation 3, and that version has Dante from the Devil May Cry™ series included by default. The inclusion of voice acting and a suspend feature is not worth such an insane mark-up.
There was very little done to remaster Nocturne. The sound quality is the same compressed, muffled PlayStation 2 tracks, and the option to change the music from other Shin Megami Tensei games is sold separately as DLC. It’s like Sega saw the ridiculous prices of the used rare PlayStation 2 versions, and wanted to dupe fans into paying the same amount for their own sanctioned swindle.
Nocturne HD needed features like a mini-map to make exploring the dungeons more smooth. A log to keep track of the terminology would have also been helpful, but instead an insulting easy mode is given away as free DLC. There isn’t even an art viewer to appreciate the work Kaneko did for the game.
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne is a great and brutal RPG that is immensely satisfying, but the HD Remaster is unfairly priced for what is being sold. At $19.99 USD, this level of effort would be understandable. For $49.99 USD, there should have been so much more care and effort put into this package.
The original was a solid 8/10, and could have been elevated higher. Instead, a publisher callously and quickly released a lazy port of a classic, because of the interest in Shin Megami Tensei V.
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code purchased by Nichegamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.