Atlus seems to be starting a trend of re-releasing its back catalog. First, we got a port of Persona 4 Golden, and now players can enjoy returning to the Vortex World in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD. Not only is this kind of rerelease good for those with a new interest in the franchise but without access to a PlayStation 2, but also for preserving one of the best JRPG for the platform for future generations to enjoy. Another benefit of Shin Megami Tensei III becoming so accessible is with such a genre-defining game you can see how it has had its influence on its own sequels and spin-offs. Without a game like Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, we might not have games that we've enjoyed even this decade.
As the Demi-Fiend, a half-human/demon hybrid, players will set out across the wastelands of Japan after an apocalyptic event known as the Conception eradicates life aside from a few humans. This new world teeming with demons is waiting for a human, with support from a God, to present their Reason that will shape the way the world will be after its rebirth. You'll get thrown into this story headfirst and you'll need to absorb as much knowledge as you can otherwise you're going to feel quite lost for the first few hours. It's a grand setup, a world destroyed and you've got to do what you can to save it, or at least shape the way it's going to be saved.
Shin Megami Tensei III absolutely nails its lore and world-building. From the brief glimpse of Japan overworld pre-conception to the desert wastelands with fragments of 'the world before' it illustrates fantastically just how messed up the world has become. You'll encounter demons who will tell you how happy they are in this new world, and remnant spirits of humans aware of their fate lamenting life choices. You're immediately enveloped in this world, which is why it's such a shame that the Demi-Fiend always seems to be observing events in the world, but never participating in them.
At the beginning of the game you're a human boy, going to meet your teacher in a hospital for... some reason, and meeting up with two friends, who you also learn nothing about relationship-wise. It serves as an introduction to three characters that will be integral to the plot but doesn't develop what they mean to the Demi-Fiend and by extension to the player. There are times these characters call upon Demi-Fiend to agree with their ideology, some quite warped, but with no background of their relationships or personality, there's no weight to these decisions. Hikawa has created his own cult of demons called the Assembly of Nihilo to fight for his Reason, there's even an opposing Mantra Army that at one point in the story the Demi-Fiend joins to encourage a battle between the factions. Instead, the Demi-Fiend shows up after the battle, finds out the Assembly let them win, and spectates as the Mantra Army is demolished using Nihilo's new power.
Moments like these are rife through the story where the Demi-Fiend is present but just letting things happen. There are a few moments where it does feel like the Demi-Fiend is actually involved in the world, but that's for the few conversations that set the flags for each of the different endings, the optional dungeon, and not much more. It's fascinating seeing the world powers shift, and how each of your human acquaintances find their own reasons, I just wish there could be more for the Demi-Fiend to do as a silent spectator.
The world-building is excellent, and the types of dungeons that Atlus have created for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD are just as excellent. Don't expect many linear dungeons, it's more accurate to call each a labyrinth in the context of Shin Megami Tensei III. While each of these dungeons begins quite normal, single save/recovery point, and just a few floors to meander through until you manage to find your way to your objective there's an intelligent scaling to their design. After just getting larger floors with a number of checkpoints new mechanics will begin to be added. One dungeon might have invisible teleport triggers, then the next will have floors that damage you, after that are pitfalls that drop you to the floor below. Finally, you reach a dungeon that has damaging floors with teleport points, as well as pitfall traps. As soon as you see a mechanic once expect to see it come up again in new and interesting ways.
This progression of problems to solve is also constantly challenging the player giving them a deep sense of satisfaction with each new obstacle that they overcome. Navigating these hallways can be a bit frustrating at times with no minimap requiring you to constantly be bringing up the map screen as pathways become increasingly convoluted. While a minor annoyance the camera not sticking to the character's back, but always wanting to stick to one of 8 cardinal directions is also frustrating, always feeling like there's some kind of power struggle between you and seeing where you're going.
While aspects of the story left me a bit underwhelmed, the combat of Shin Megami Tensei III was impressive. The unique Turn Press battle system shone throughout the entire game. Each side of the battle will have enough turn icons for the number of characters present. For most of the story, you'll be starting with four, one for Demi-Fiend and one for each of your three active demon companions, and for every attack, an icon will disappear. For plenty of early game rounds, you'll just be taking your four turns per side to deal damage to your opponent.
This battle system starts to shine when different types of attacks dealing critical hits, missing, or getting repelled will affect the remaining turn icons. Hit an enemy with a critical hit will give you a bonus turn, missing an enemy will consume an extra turn, and you can even skip a character's turn to only consume half an icon. Turn Press Battles incentivize players to get through the game with more than just "being strong enough to not die" and make critical hits more exciting than extra damage. Enemies will also use this to their own advantage, having enough strategy programmed that they're buffing their stats or trying to bury yours into the ground before hitting you with attacks you'll be weak for. Setting up your defenses and immunities is incredibly important.
In my preview, I stated, "battles are enjoyable and I'm looking forward to seeing how it evolves with more difficult battles." What I received from my wish was a monkey paw result. Did the difficult battles get a lot better? Yes, the famed Matador fight absolutely destroyed my team and was a rude awakening to needing to rely less on just attacking but how my party can buff and capitalize on protecting themselves. Did it continue getting better? There was a certain tipping point to Shin Megami Tensei III combat where it wasn't able to sustain. When enough demons were recruited and Magatama leveled up my Demi-Fiend was immune to fire, ice, electricity, force, and light attacks and regained MP while walking, and two out of my three demons absorbed fire damage and were resistant to physical attacks. If the first third of the game is learning the ropes, the second third is excellent battles that keep you on your toes, the final third is having a party that required little to no thought for combat aside from the occasional healing spell. The first two-thirds do really show off how amazing the combat is, it's just a shame when each of those thirds is approximately 15 hours in-game. There are a few late-game bosses that do shake you up a bit, with shifting resistances or immunity to physical damage, but those are the exception, not the standard.
Playing on the Nintendo Switch the game ran excellently, there were no flaws or hitching, though this is to be expected for a PlayStation 2 title. Across all platforms, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD still runs at 30 fps, but this wasn't very noticeable as it's not a very visually intensive title. The pre-rendered cutscenes are handled quite well with an enlarged blurred version of the cutscene being used to mask the need for black bars on the 4:3 videos. This HD remake has also added a few quality of life improvements to further line up this 2003 title with its more modern predecessors as well as answer criticism for the original game. In the original PS2 title skill inheritance when fusing together demons was static, you can now select what skills you want your new demons to inherit. This could also be what factored into a party sweeping through demons in the late game. Another addition is for a Merciful difficulty mode, which quite simply will ensure battles are easier to get through.
On the normal difficulty, including the optional dungeon and bosses, this game can easily top 50 hours so if you find you don't have the time to dedicate then this is a good option to add. At startup, you can also pick between the normal mode, which includes Raidou Kuzonoha as a boss/party member, and the Maniax mode, which includes Dante from Devil May Cry, a much joked about cameo. All of this doesn't just make Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD the most complete version of the game, but also the most accessible without tarnishing the original title's reputation.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD is a stellar JRPG. While it was a shame that I only felt I watched the death and rebirth of a world and didn't participate in it the lore and worldbuilding as you see humans connecting with gods to discover their reasons, and the parts that different demons play in the world is still very interesting. While end-game balance might be an issue for combat, that's not to say that it isn't a delight while playing. Certainly as well you could impost a self-handicap instead of going for an optimal build that doesn't limit still having those final battles being as challenging as you'd hope. Atlus' additions to the game also show how much they respect their original game while opening it up for many more to enjoy and get lost in. If you're a fan of Persona or the Shin Megami Tensei series you've likely already played it, if you haven't then it's one that I'd highly recommend. While those who avoid JRPGs are likely not going to have any interest if you're someone who has dabbled in RPGs and some of the more popular JRPG like Final Fantasy this is a good dive into the world of Shin Megami Tensei.
TechRaptor reviewed Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD on Nintendo Switch using a copy provided by the publisher. This game is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC via Steam.
- Excellent Worldbuilding...
- Engaging Combat...
- Labyrinth Like Dungeons
- ...Demi-Fiend Spectates Too Much
- ...but Easy to Overpower