When critically acclaimed games look set to be marooned on older systems and eventually lost to entire generations of players, you’d be willing to accept any kind of port that keeps time alive and prominent for future prosperity. Turn-based RPG Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne is one such game that is welcome to have back and readily available, but its relatively straightforward remaster shines a bright light on its age. It’s pretty much the game it once was, warts and all, but maybe it could have been a bit more than that.
Originally released back in 2003 for PlayStation 2, Shin Megami Tensei 3 sees you as a Tokyo high school student who finds themselves thrust deep into the events of an apocalyptic cult’s reconstruction of Earth known as the Conception. Becoming a Demi-fiend, the player ends up serving demons in their task to reshape the world for Lucifer. Exactly how that world is shaped is up to you though.
The game’s opening quickly builds the looming apocalyptic event, learning about rumored cult activity whilst at a medical center, and seeing clues to the truth of it unfold as time goes on. Eventually, the event happens and the mysterious and weird becomes all-out bizarre as Tokyo is encapsulated in a bubble that turns it into a ‘Vortex World’ full of demons to both defeat and recruit.
On the surface that doesn’t sound a million miles away from a number of RPGs from the past 25 years, but where Shin Megami Tensei 3 differs is in how it presents this situation as an intellectual and spiritual question. Shin Megami Tensei 3 is a philosophical game, more interested in ideas and ideals than in characters and their problems. Whereas many RPGs feature a host of interesting party members and villains, this game is somewhat light on that side of things. The focus is actually on what value life as we know it holds, and offers differing perspectives on that. The player is ultimately the one making the choice for humanity and its fate. There are various factions jostling for control, and the one the player sides with shapes the world in their image.
Whilst other elements of Shin Megami Tensei 3 have aged, the story remains fascinatingly fresh and relevant. It’s compelling enough that even when the game tested my patience, I wanted to persevere in order to see where this story was going. Exploration offers its own reward in terms of fleshing out your final decision by interacting with unique demons that have their own insight into the whole situation. Your time with these interesting figures is usually brief, but can be quite impactful. It’s a different kind of RPG for many reasons, but this approach to the world, its characters, and its protagonist are the most important factors in that.
As a game it’s a bit more familiar, especially now that Shin Megami Tensei‘s spinoff series, Persona, has since popularized much of what it brings to the table. Generally, battles take place via random encounters that become turn-based fights with enemy demons against the player and three of their own demons from a pool of eight or more (depending on progress) and follow the idea of turns a lot more strictly than most. Any single action counts as a combatant’s turn, but there is an opportunity for a second go at it if a weakness is exploited and/or a critical hit landed. Some actions can affect multiple combatants, but carry a risk of multiple missed turns if they fail to land or are blocked.
Shin Megami Tensei 3 is extremely hard on your mistakes. Slipping up in combat is almost excessively deadly, bringing to mind the cold cruelty of XCOM at times. There’s a perverse thrill to be had with such intensity, but perhaps a little too often does it become an aggravating chore to be battered because the numbers decided you fucked up. It puts up something of a barrier for those curious to dive into this for the first time, but I stand by the fact it has a compelling enough narrative to deserve patience. It does have an easy mode called ‘Merciless’ that strips the combat of any challenge, but it ends up damaging the overall experience. Perfectly fine if you just want the story, but utterly without challenge for anyone else. A middle-ground compromise might have better served Shin Megami Tensei 3, but I suppose at least the option is there. The game might be a bastard, but it’s genuinely best enjoyed that way to get the most from it.
One way to improve your chances is to recruit new demons. If you’ve played the recent Persona games, this will once again be a familiar thing. As with those games, you can negotiate with downed monsters to see if they’ll offer up some loot or even themselves. The negotiations can go wrong, and some demons take a bit of financial persuasion to be convinced to join your cause. Even in this relatively early form, it’s somewhat engrossing trying to hunt and lure tricky demons over to your side. There’s unpredictability and sensible logic to this system too, as some will ask for something from you and scarper with the ill-gotten loot. You’re never quite sure what the next sweet talk will bring you, and that is perhaps the only thing keeping the combat encounters interesting over time.
If you find demons that are not in the mood for a chat, there is an option to fuse them with others to create a different demon type. Both methods are required to find the right demons for the jobs of fighting and negotiating, as each carries particular skills in either field. Combining the demon’s skills with special buffs called ‘Matagamas’ that lend the layer elemental powers and the like are crucial to toppling the tougher foes. Combat essentially becomes this strangely satisfying loop of fighting to negotiate to get good enough to obtain a new power from a boss.
Visually speaking, there’s not a great deal to write home about in Shin Megami Tensei 3. If you are looking for some great overhaul, you’d be disappointed. It very much looks like the PlayStation 2 game it once was with a lick of paint. The sleek cel-shaded art style means that it’s not really that much of an issue at least.
While this remaster is slightly underwhelming, and certain aspects of the game have become a little dog-eared, Shin Megami Tensei 3 is still worth checking out. It’s a rather unique experience that stands out even in an age where its spinoff series has diluted many of its more interesting facets.
Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne HD Remaster review code for PS4 provided by the publisher.
Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne HD Remaster is out May 25 on PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.