Any game in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise (this includes the Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, and Persona offshoot series) is incredibly hard to describe. SMT, or MegaTen as it‘s also abbreviated, is one of the best selling JRPG franchises of all time, up there with legendary series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Any non-Persona game in the franchise has reached cult status.
So how do I even begin to describe my feelings after playing the most iconic game of an iconic franchise nearly two decades later? I may need to refer to another god-slaying, mythology-heavy game from the same era.
I feel the same way about this game as I did the first God of War on PS2 – iconic though it may be, it brought me zero joy to play.
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is mostly about being able to control and summon demons while your player character has to choose a path of morality and have the rest of the heavens and earth follow. Every game has multiple endings, loads of demons, tons of dungeons, and an absurd level of difficulty with virtually no learning curve. Think an audacious, more mature version of Pokemon that continually punishes you as it sends you to not figurative but actual Hell.
Almost one of the games released before 2000 left Japan, but SMT: Nocturne hit North America in 2004 and Europe in 2005 and reached cult classic status on arrival. A turn-based JRPG that’s heavy on dungeon crawling and merciless trial and error, the game sets the tone by ending the world in an event called “The Conception” within the first ten minutes.
You spend the rest of the game in a desolate post-apocalyptic Tokyo in which there are only five remaining humans – yourself included. Well, you’re only half-human now. A mysterious young blond boy drops some worm-like parasite called a Magatama into your brain and turns you into a creature known only as the Demi-Fiend, a legendary half-demon.
Equipped with glowing blue Tron-line tattoos, you are not only able to fight and recruit demons to your cause, but also find and digest other Magatama to change the Demi-Fiend’s abilities. As is often the case when the world ends, there are a few factions vying for power in this new world, each of them trying to build up enough power and will to find a way to get back to Kagutsuchi, the sun at the center of this new Tokyo. Whoever has a strong enough will and reaches the star will have the world remade in their image. As the Demi-Fiend, you must pick a side and choose who should rule the new world – or you can always bet on yourself.
The version we got outside of Japan was actually an updated re-release that was the originator of the “Featuring Dante From The Devil May Cry Series” meme, as the titular Dante was featured as a recurring boss and potential party member. A second re-release replaced Dante with the character Raidou Kuzunoha from yet another SMT side-game. This HD remaster is, in fact, the fourth edition of this game and its third updated re-release that adds improved graphics and several features, including an easier difficulty and voiced dialogue.
As you can see, the game is ludicrously dark from the get go and it never ever lets up. The atmosphere is phenomenally isolating; the world is full of demons and creatures all over, but the lack of any human or even plant life further drives home how little hope there is. And the humans that are left sure are something.
You had two friends and a teacher who survived The Conception with you, but your “friends” do nothing but talk down to you even before the world ended and your teacher is a key member of the cult that caused the world to end in the first place.
The only other humans left are a cult leader who tried to kill you and some pulp fiction writer who knew The Conception was coming, but is just as confused as you are that it actually happened. Yeah, not much hope going around. When I tell you meeting Loki drinking himself into debt because even he’s depressed is one of the lighter series of interactions in the game, it should tell you something.
Graphically, the game is quite minimalistic and still looks and feels like a PS2 game, even in the HD remaster. This was the first game in the SMT series to use 3D models, and while there’s a sense of charm to them, even with some updated polish, they haven’t exactly aged well. If you’re looking for the simplistic visuals to be made up by a moving and engaging story, you won’t find that here.
The overall narrative reads like a Nietzschean morality play. The human characters, who the story revolves around, say lots of things that fail to make sense or are cryptic for the sake of being cryptic. As the game goes on, everyone seems to somehow go through character regression.
By the second act, they’re less actual characters and more philosophies pretending to be humans before they give up the human aspect entirely and sell their souls to more powerful demonic entities. The special guest stars, Dante/Raidou, offer very little to the story beyond being a nice late-game addition to your party if you so choose.
Unfortunately, with a plot driven by characters determined to be the new world’s Ubermensch, it doesn’t matter how faulty any of their logic or tactics are because they will not stop until everything and everyone in their way is destroyed. Speaking of the plot, there are several sections where nothing in the game indicates what to do next. You will almost always be confused about what’s going on or even where to go next unless you look it up or already know.
But you’re probably not here for the graphics, the characters, or the story. No, what this game reached legendary status for was SMT’s legendary brand of gameplay and mechanics. They can be summed up as such: fucking hard.
This is one of those games where it is entirely possible to die in the tutorial battle and is likely one of the games that highly influenced the trend. You’re expected to fail repeatedly and learn from your mistakes, but often your mistakes are things you could have never known or get upended by RNG. You need to have prior knowledge of the demons, their movesets, and what they can fuse with other demons into. In the originals, inherited skills were entirely random, so you could lose so much work in trying to level-up monsters.
Thankfully, the remaster allows you to choose a set number of skills that can be transferred from creature to creature. If you’re a fan of the old way, though, there’s still the random skill inheritance option available with the push of a button.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the devil in the recruiting mechanic. To get demons on your squad, you must negotiate by bribing them with items and money you actively have on you, butit’s a crapshoot whether they decide to join you anyway. You could shower a demon with every demand it throws at you only for them to take your precious stuff and run – and there’s nothing you could have done about it because the game decided “you lose”.
For actual battles, it’s crucial to learn how to use buffs and debuffs while capitalizing on weaknesses — level grinding will get you nowhere. To its credit, the game does take every opportunity to warn you of any strong enemies nearby and give you pointers on every boss fight before they happen. Every enemy in the game can overwhelm you, especially the Fiend battles.
Despite or perhaps because of their difficulty, the Fiend battles are perhaps the best parts of the game. There are twelve mostly optional bosses of the Fiend race in the game, all of them absurdly powerful, but also huge on personality. This includes one of the more infamous fights in JRPG lore against the Matador, who acts as a gatekeeper designed to teach you how to use the battle system properly or you will get punished.
Unlike most of the brooding or navel gazing cast, the Fiends are full of ham, charm, and life. Despite every single one of them being some iteration of death, they ironically lighten the mood and brighten the room any time they show up. Whether it’s Matador dramatically declaring “I challenge you do a duel” or Hell Rider screeching “Aaaaaaawwww shit” in his dynamic entry, their charisma level is off the charts. The fights themselves are hellish, but even I had the best time with these guys..
But most of these criticisms are about a game whose core has remained unchanged since it first came out 18 or so years ago. What exactly does Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster add overall? Besides the anti-frustration fusion skill feature and graphical upgrades, the biggest addition is probably Merciful mode.
This is the “easy” difficulty of the game that makes any and every battle, even ones against the Fiends and final bosses, absurdly simple. It’s entirely possible to beat the game without ever doing anything except walking up and punching everything to dust. It also gives you three times the EXP and money after battles, making other areas of the game a breeze as well. It is DLC, but it’s free and entirely optional.
Another new feature is the Mercy and Expectation Map Pack, which is DLC that allows you access to two new areas where you can grind for EXP and money, which even when not on Merciful difficulty, makes things significantly easier no matter your game mode. This DLC, however, is not free, which sort of leads into my biggest criticism of the remaster – cold hard cash.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster costs $49.99/£44.99 for a title that is relatively unchanged from the last time it was re-released. In an age where remasters are all the rage and have been consistently done extremely well, a game that still looks and feels like it did almost two decades ago going for that price is astounding. Many additions are relegated to paid DLC, including meme generator Dante himself.
That’s right – even though Dante was in the original updated version of the game, you have to pay $9.99 to put him back in for what basically amounts to a stylish skin that is entirely inconsequential to the story or gameplay. That’s an absurd amount of coin to drop on a game that doesn’t even seem to have tweaked the original audio since 2004.
I came of age during the PS2 era this game originally game out in and I play games from that time period still to this day. I enjoy games with gunk and weirdness and love going back to play things my parents would’ve never bought me, but this was a different monster. It felt so soulless and had me questioning my own taste. I’ve never felt more alienated from a game.
And yet, I could have forgiven all of this if it was fun. But it wasn’t.
Even toning the difficulty down and basically playing what amounted to a power fantasy didn’t help. Most of all, I can’t get over a game that actively does not care if I’m having a good time or not.
I understand so much of that is by design, but the most important thing to me when playing a game is “am I having fun?” For SMT III, the only real moments of respite are the Fiends, the super relatable Collector Manikin, or any time you cross paths with Hee Ho, the ambitious and adorable merchant who honestly deserves a retelling from his perspective.
All in all, this brings me to a bit of a dilemma. This is a remaster that, were it not for its iconic status, I would unfortunately grade pretty low without a second thought. But its place amongst the fandom and the genre as a whole has me questioning how to really grade it. I’m also a big fan of Atlus trying to redistribute older titles to a much wider audience.
But this probably isn’t the best bridge.
I hope people disagree with me or have a different experience than I did. This game has such a rich history and I sincerely wish this remaster reaches people who appreciate it or who never had access to it before – after buying it on sale, of course.
As for me, I defer to Nietzsche and the climax of God of War – god is dead. And unfun, disappointing remasters killed him.
A PS4 key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster is an unforgiving, borderline nihilistic tale of ruin that doesn’t even let me have fun when I try. The updates to this fourth different version are not enough to justify the price. You either see it as iconic or moronic. Either way, you would be right.