Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne HD Remaster is a big step. The dark JRPG series that spawned Persona — once a spinoff that morphed into more of a more popular, lighthearted cousin — isn’t easy to play these days. Many of its most seminal entries only live on the PlayStation 2. Most don’t even have “classic” digital versions to download on slightly more recent hardware, like the PS3.
Ironically, Nocturne isn’t even the most modern game from its era. That shows pretty starkly in the largely untouched HD remaster. Developer Atlus didn’t go back to add quality-of-life, such as automatically recording enemy weaknesses as you discover them in turn-based combat, or markers to note locked doors within dungeons. It’s pretty much the same game that released in 2003. Plus the additional content from subsequent rereleases, of course. There’s also pretty robust voice acting over a new localization redone by the original team. Visually, mechanically, and tonally, however, this is a modern record of that game.
That’s a very good thing. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne deserved better than to languish on rotting DVDs. So do Digital Devil Saga, Raidou Kuzunoha, and several other fan favorite Atlus games from that era. But Nocturne is a logical first step in what should be a long process of making those series available again. It laid the groundwork for what was to come. And it did so with a truly bizarre, brutal little world unlike anything I’ve seen in a game since.
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Nocturne is a dark reflection of even more classical JRPGs. It harkens to games like Dragon Quest, where grinding for gold and XP is necessary to power up your friends and save the world. Only your friends aren’t your friends. They’re disposable monsters you chuck for more powerful forms. And there is no world anymore. At least not one you recognize. Fifteen minutes into the game (and the preview build of the HD remaster I played), humanity is wiped out. Earth is destroyed. All that remains is a twisted “Vortex World.” This inside-out version of Tokyo is inhabited not by people, but by demons. The ghosts of dead citizens merely haunt its alleyways as powerless apparitions you can chat with for some flavor text.
The world is actually pretty empty even before the apocalypse. Perhaps that’s owed to a comparatively light budget, but whatever the reason, it instantly sets the eerie tone of meaninglessness that permeates the rest of the game. A few other humans remain alongside the main character, who survives by becoming a half-demon avatar, but there’s nothing to save. Even hunting a possible villain feels like the victims looking for anything to take their minds off having their whole lives so casually erased. Everything is so banal in a way that’s not quite melancholy, but more than nihilistic.
Through it all you punch monsters. Literally. The Demi-fiend, as your hero is called, doesn’t equip or upgrade weapons. The demons are your weapons. As such you need to recruit and fuse them in ways that should be familiar to Persona players at this point. Think of the Pokémon “gotta catch ’em all” effect. Then replace the Pokémon with monsters and myths from various religions.
Negotiations are sadly a bit of a chore. Demons don’t have personality types providing hints on how to win them over, like in Persona 5. In fact the entire user interface is so light it’s almost minimalist. You can punch, cast spells, try to talk, or run from battle. And you can use whatever demons you sway as interchangeable party members. This is useful since Nocturne was one of the first games to really lean into the weakness-based battles of the series. The “Press Turn” system gives you a free action any time you land a critical blow or hit an enemy with the right element. Used correctly, you can blow through the many, many random battles the game throws at you without taking a hit. But if ignored, you’ll actually lose actions for striking foes with elements they’re strong against.
And Nocturne is not particularly forgiving. Especially compared to modern Persona games. Enemies hit hard, often, and can target your weaknesses as well. The early areas I played in the preview weren’t too bad. Though I quickly recalled just how far the game makes you walk between save points. And how frequently battles occur. And how expensive it is to revive unconscious allies…
This HD remaster does add a new “Merciful” difficulty that cuts back on the brutality. Not to mention you can suspend the game at any point now — creating a temporary save that expires when you boot back up. The latter is an interesting way to acknowledge that people, y’know, have lives without fundamentally changing the flow of the game. Whether or not voice acting fundamentally changes the tone of the game will depend on the player’s opinion. Either way, you can swap between English and Japanese or turn it off entirely at any time.
I’ll probably play with the voices. I’m curious to see all that this new version of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne offers. Such as the different boss fights with the aforementioned Raidou Kuzunoha or… Dante from the Devil May
Cry series. North American players never got the first version before (and Dante is now relegated to DLC pack). The difficult walk down memory lane is rewarding enough, but seeing the changes also has me ready to finish the whole wonderfully weird game in HD.