I honestly didn’t think this would ever happen, but here we are. Shin Megami Tensei is actually relevant again. Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is a…remastered port of the third Shin Megami Tensei game, originally released in 2003 for the Playstation 2. Considered the black sheep of the retro JRPG genre, the SMT series made a name for itself with its steep difficulty and unique mechanics; namely, the ability to recruit and fuse demons. Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne represents the earliest formula of the modern SMT gameplay format so thankfully it shouldn’t be too hard to play compared to the newer titles…right?
Disclaimer: As stated before, the Shin Megami Tensei franchise regularly deals with mature/dark themes related to religion, individualism, and the dangers of mob mentality. There are three main routes in nearly every mainline game: Law, Chaos, and Neutral. The two main forces represented in each game are the forces of “God” or “YHVH” (Law) and the forces of “Lucifer” (Chaos). I’ll admit, these games are not easy to sit through as a Christian as there are many similarities to the depictions of God seen in the Old Testament. When coming up with the main story, especially the demons that are used, the creators took great pains to pay respectful homage to each culture that the entities are taken from. Atlus made sure to include disclaimers that all characters and the story are purely fictional to address the controversial depictions to Western audiences.
Some Things Never Change
There’s quite a bit that’s actually changed but as far as Nocturne HD itself goes, it’s still the same PS2 game. Playing on Normal mode has the same scaling of difficulty and money/EXP gain as before, with Merciless mode cutting down the amount of money/EXP you earn as well as damage values being modified. Going back to this after playing games like Strange Journey, Devil Survivor, and, of course, SMT IV, makes me appreciate how each new title refined the formula from Nocturne. At the same time, this playthrough forced me to swallow some hard pills and realize that the game does not hold up to my nostalgia from high school.
Even with the resolution upscaling keeping the visuals intact, the same definitely cannot be said about the cutscenes, which still have their compressed 480p resolution. Aside from that, the art style itself still stands up even today. The game cleverly uses cinematography in its in-game cutscenes to enhance the minimalist aspects of the world design. The barren nature of the world fits Nocturne‘s story but the lack of human characters makes the world feel emptier than other SMT games. However, Nocturne‘s somber beauty shines like a diamond in the rough. But that’s enough reminiscing, let’s dig into the meat and potatoes.
A Fresh Perspective
I already addressed the visual upgrade, but to reiterate, the high resolution upscaling helps maintain the art style while offering a suitable, modern visual experience. The font and UI change is also welcome, making text easier to read while keeping in line with the aesthetic. The fully-voiced dialogue is really nice. While I personally enjoyed the lack of voice acting in scenes, the voices definitely add some life to the story, especially during scenes where exposition occurs. Since cutscenes are few and far between, each one is important to understanding what’s happening in Nocturne‘s world and where you need to go next. It’s even more important when you’re considering which of the endings you’ll be pursuing in your playthrough.
What actually surprised me was not just the changes made to the script but also the changes to demon names to correct mythological references. For example, one demon, Feng Huang, who looks like a phoenix, was changed to Zhuque, which accurately describes the demon as a reference to the Vermillion Bird of the South among the five Taoist elements. Props to the localization team for doing their research and being willing to make revisions. Speaking of the demons, skills can now be manually selected as opposed to random selection. This makes demon fusion so much easier as team composition is extremely important in SMT games and designating each demon with certain skills is necessary.
The addition of Merciful mode is definitely a welcome edition, not just for newcomers but for video game journalists! Deadlines aside, when comparing scene and dialogue changes, not having to worry about grinding was definitely helpful to speed through the story. In contrast to Merciless mode, Merciful mode significantly increases money and EXP gained from battles. Random encounter rate is lowered and you hit harder and are hit for less even when compared to Normal mode. Grinding may still be required halfway through the story when you need to fuse stronger demons but it’s a pretty smooth run otherwise.
An Ugly Sight Underneath
Okay, now this is the hard part for me. Unfortunately, there are a number of issues with the Switch version in particular. I cannot confirm if all of these are present in the PC version as well. I’ve done a little research about the ports and the DLC so I cannot confidently confirm if these are true of the other ports but I believe my sources have some credibility in their findings.
Again, the visual fidelity could not be carried across the entire game. FMV cutscenes are still compressed and presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. Nothing could really be done about these cutscenes since they were prerendered. The audio also isn’t remastered and seems to be straight ripped from the original game. As much as I like the soundtrack, the audio’s quality is definitely noticeable due to how muffled it sounds.
There are also some glaring performance issues but these could be chalked up to the decision to switch to the Unity engine to remake the game after salvaging whatever code was available. There are some odd slowdowns, particularly when you save, when using zan/wind spells, and wherever camera and visual effects are used in the same scene. The game still runs at a locked 30fps, though I don’t believe it was actually promised that it would run at an unlocked 60 frames.
Atlus, once again, offers another shoddy DLC collection. The console ports receive the default Chronicle Edition (a Japan-only PS2 release), which replaces Dante from Devil May Cry with another SMT character, Raidou Kuzunoha, a young detective and controller of demons himself. If you want the original US edition with Dante, you need to purchase the Maniax Edition for $9.99. However, on PC, you start with the default version (essentially the original Japanese PS2 release) and need to go to Steam’s DLC page to get the Chronicle Edition (which is thankfully free) but still need to pay for the Maniax Edition.
There are also two new DLCs: the BGM Pack and the Map Pack. These are similar DLC packs Atlus/SEGA has done before since Persona 5. The BGM Pack includes music from SMT I, II, IV, and IV: Apocalypse. However, the music is only changed when you’re on the overworld map and any battles held there. For $8, I cannot, in good faith, recommend this. For the amount of time you’ll spend on the overworld, it isn’t worth it for a small break from the game’s default music.
The Map Pack is a debatable purchase. There are two new maps added that are free to travel to after a certain point in the game that unlocks fast travel. They’re basically farming maps for money and EXP. These are only helpful if you really want to maximize farming but I think these maps are unnecessary with the inclusion of Merciful mode. You can also change difficulties at any point. So if you’re really hurting for money and EXP, you can drop the difficulty, grind a little, and then move the difficulty back up. Personally, I don’t think there’s any reason to get it. I think Merciful mode makes the game much easier in general. While playing on Merciful, I didn’t need to worry about resistances nearly as much unless there were null/absorb/reflect resistances. To summarize, I can’t really recommend either of the DLC packs and I’m not a fan of how Atlus sells DLC for their single-player games.
Finally, my last issue with the remaster is more of a personal preference. I’m not the biggest fan of the script changes. Arguably, I’m evaluating the new script too strictly with the original but more than a few times, I felt there was dialogue that didn’t need to be changed, such as context from answer prompts replaced with simple “yes” and “no” answers. I’m not entirely sure if all the changes are justified even for the voiced dialogue. Take it as you will, since I imagine that not everyone’s going to have the same problems with the script as I do.
All in all, there are some glaring problems with the game’s performance, to the point that it’s difficult to recommend the game at full price. Atlus has stated that they are working on fixing the reported problems as soon as possible. If you can stomach the issues, the Switch port is decent enough to play and doesn’t suffer from any crashes, as far as I know. Though I’d highly recommend getting the game on PS4 if you have a choice, the PC version on Steam would be the way to go if you want access to the original base version.
I think this is a good start to see how Atlus’s older games perform and we can potentially see more ports in the future. Here’s hoping for more SMT ports and maybe even remasters of the games that we didn’t get in the West. Who knows? If it does well enough, we may even see Shin Megami Tensei V on other consoles and PC in the future post-release.
This article uses footage from YouTube channel BuffMaister for comparisons between Nocturne PS2 and Nocturne HD Remaster.