As a fan of Shin Megami Tensei spinoffs like the Persona series, I was a little hesitant about jumping into Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster. I’d heard from friends and colleagues that the series proper was a lot darker, a lot more difficult, and a lot uh, weirder. Nevertheless, when given the chance to review it, I saw it as an opportunity to see what (if anything) I’d been missing all this time. And folks, I’m glad to say that I was an idiot for avoiding it all these years. SMT3 HD is a masterpiece in turn-based RPGs, with a thoroughly enjoyable (and massively influential) battle system and an absolutely bonkers story, sprinkled with some TLC so desperately needed for a game of this age. It’s got some misses amongst its hits too, in both its original gameplay and its HD remastering, but we’ll get to that in due time.
For now, let’s get stuck into the game’s story — though fair warning, some of this is going to sound absolutely ridiculous out of context… and frankly, in context too. SMT3 starts with our silent “hero” (named by the player) catching up with his two friends Chiaki and Isamu at a Tokyo hospital to check in on their teacher, Yuko. After finding the hospital largely abandoned for some reason, the three split up to search for clues, which leads our hero to come face to face with Hikawa, a megalomaniac cult leader with a crippling widow’s peak. Hikawa threatens to kill the hero, but Yuko turns up, calling herself The Maiden, and summons the hero to the roof. Here, she tells him the world (which seems to consist entirely of just Tokyo) is stuck in an endless loop of death and rebirth, and oops, wouldn’t you know it, it’s just moments from death and only people within the hospital will survive what’s being dubbed The Conception.
Following the death of the world (which again, seems to be just Tokyo and nothing else), Tokyo is folded up onto itself into an inverted sphere, filled with demons, and the hero gets a bug stuffed down his face by a young boy to turn him into a half-demon called The Demi-Fiend. After some wandering around, The Demi-Fiend comes across Hikawa (the guy with the sick widow’s peak) who fills him in on what the hell is going on: the world is over, and whichever humans remain have to fight it out for the right to shape the new world however they please. As a half-demon person, the Demi-Fiend doesn’t have the right to create a new world (that right is called a Reason, which is weird but whatever), but he does hold the potential of significant power as a link between the demon energy and humankind, so he may get to influence the result either way.
What follows is a whimsical reunion tour across hell/the inverted sphere of Tokyo, in which the Demi-Fiend finds his friends a teensy bit worse for wear (read: utterly insane), and has to pick which of their polarising, whacky ideals is worth implementing for the new world. Or he can follow the guidance of an old man who looks suspiciously similar to the young boy who bugged him, and take back religious artefacts from Ghost Rider-style skeleton people to return them to a flesh-walled church where Dante from the Devil May Cry series is hanging out. You know, Just Normal Things?.
Honestly, as absolutely crazy as this plot is, I rarely found myself unable to follow it. Sure, there are parts of the game where things happened and I didn’t really understand it, but that’s because I wasn’t supposed to understand it yet; eventually, pretty much everything clicked into place and wrapped itself up. And because the game has you making a bunch of choices when you play through it, and those choices actually do affect the game and the plot pretty significantly, there’s a huge potential for replayability here. I haven’t looked into it too deeply, but I understand there’s at least 5 different endings for the game, and they each differ pretty significantly. I can’t talk much about where those paths end up, but for those wondering I took the baddest boy path. I’ll let you figure out what that is (and how to get there) yourself.
Having said that, there are some issues with the game’s storytelling. A not-insignificant amount of the game’s major plot points seem to happen off-screen — major character developments are missing, talked about in passing, and that’s a bit frustrating. There’s also a lack of explanation for some pretty key terms. Why Yuko is called The Maiden, and what The Maiden actually is or does is never made particularly clear, and although it never really affects or interacts with the plot, I spent much of the game waiting for an explanation or revelation that never came. Admittedly, that could be my own gaps in knowledge about the SMT series doing me dirty, but given this is the first SMT game on Switch, and back in the day was the first 3D SMT game period, if this is part of some deeper series lore, that should be explained to the player in some way.
Gripes aside, however, what surprised me most about this utterly unhinged story was just how much I was invested in it. Some of the characters, like paranormal journalist Hijiri, are incredibly likeable, and the Manikins’ plight is a genuinely uplifting (and at times, heartbreaking) story to watch unfold. Even when the game reaches its peak nonsense levels, it’s hard not to be invested in these characters and their stories, and any and all busywork the game throws at you to break that up is more than worth it for that next hit of story. Some characters, like Chiaki, could be better developed, but as a whole there’s a heck of a lot to like, and a heck of a lot to keep you going.
Speaking of that busywork, that brings us to our next point: SMT’s gameplay. We’ll get to the good stuff (eg, combat) in a bit, but I want to briefly talk about the gameplay-related progression, and why it frustrated me. Between the game’s story and combat, you’ll often have to travel from place to place on the overworld map. It’s… fine, I guess? Your character is represented by a pin, and you have to traverse a maze-like Tokyo to get to the next place. You do have the option of fast travelling to certain key places once you’ve been to them and touched the save point, but the fast travel animation is long and only certain parts of it are skippable, making the whole process a bit annoying.
What’s more annoying is how opaque the game can be sometimes with regards to its progression. It’s rarely clear exactly where you’re supposed to be going next, or what you’re supposed to be doing next. Sometimes a character will drop a hint, like “There’s something going on in Chiyoda!”, but often in order to get to that place, you’ll have to exit through a particular exit, or do a particular thing first, and there’s rarely, if ever, any indicator of the order of operations. It leads to a frustrating gameplay loop of semi-aimless wandering, talking to and interacting with everything along the way in the hopes you find the right way forward. A particular example that comes to mind is late in the game, when you come across a creature that offers to dig up treasure for you if you offer him one of your party demons as a sacrifice. That late in the game, I had more money and items than I could reasonably use, and I liked all the demons in my party, so I opted not to bother and moved forward in the game. After an hour or so of travelling, I got to my destination… only to discover that I couldn’t progress without an item that the digging demon finds for you.
After backtracking all that way, I summoned a crappy demon to offer as a sacrifice, then discovered that he digs in time with your steps. Normally, the dungeon ahead of him looks back on itself a bit, so it would be roughly done by the time I got through the dungeon. But I’d already finished the dungeon, so instead I spent about half an hour walking in circles to get the demon to do his dig, to get the item, to progress. It’s this kind of obscure, oblique knowledge gate that made me want to throw my Switch across the room at times. A guide or walkthrough shouldn’t be necessary, but in this case, sometimes it just is.
Screenshot provided by Sega/Atlus via Nintendo eShop listing
Thankfully, the combat is much much more satisfying. Persona fans will feel at home here, with SMT3’s system feeling very very similar to the one from the spinoff series it spawned. It’s clear here that the combat systems in place would go on to inspire later games, both within and outside of the greater Megami Tensei universe. It’s a turn-based, party-focused RPG system that relies on expending SP for magical skills and HP for physical skills, which means that magic-users have to manage their limited resources to hit the right enemy every time, and physical attackers have to balance their damage output with their increasing fragility on every turn. Dealing critical hits, or hitting an enemy’s weakness, offers you an extra move in that turn and delays the enemy’s, which can lead to some extremely satisfying combos that rack up tonnes of damage while preventing the enemy from getting a move in — provided you have the right team to make it happen. Some parts of the combat system feel a bit dated, like the artificial padding of battles by a far-too-high miss rate for most attacks, and the general repetitiveness can get a bit grating over time, but it’s still a phenomenal system for its time, and the new Merciful difficulty smooths over those faults a little bit too.
Let’s talk about that Merciful difficulty for a little bit, because that’s a brand new addition to the HD version of the game. Available as free DLC (or included in the Digital Deluxe Edition), Merciful difficulty brings a game that traditionally has been seen as a difficult, often grueling challenge down to something much much easier. It drastically decreases the amount of damage that enemies do to you and increases the experience and money earned in battle, which is ultimately a good thing — having played on the higher difficulties in New Game+, SMT3 can be incredibly unforgiving and cruel, especially, I imagine, to new players. Every battle, even just random encounters, becomes a life-and-death battle for survival, and that can get very frustrating very quickly. My only complaint, really, is that Merciful goes a teensy bit too far in lowering the difficulty, sometimes turning battles that really should be challenging and threatening into a walk in the park. Or worse, a slow battle of attrition where you’re not really at risk, but also not really doing much damage. If there were a difficulty setting between Merciful and Normal, that’d probably be the best way to play — but thankfully, you can change the difficulty up or down as often as you like from the pause menu, another new addition that makes for a solid quality of life improvement.
In terms of other new stuff available in this HD remaster, Atlus have upscaled and sharpened up all the character models, which look fantastic, if a little basic, due to the company’s choice to use cel-shading in the original. They’ve also voiced a tonne of the lines, including in all the important scenes, in both English and Japanese, and implemented a new script for the English version that more closely matches the original Japanese in intent and effect. Plus there’s a quick save option, which lets you save and quit out of the game when you need a break — absolutely essential when save points can often be few and far between. And then there’s the DLC, perhaps the most frustrating part of this package, and the most difficult to explain.
If you buy the base version of the game, what you’ll get is the option to start a new game in “standard mode”, which adds Raidou XIV from the Devil Summoner series to the game as a possible party member. That’s pretty cool! Especially since he wasn’t available to players in the West in the game’s original release, instead appearing in a later revision of the game. The version that players did get in the West was kind-of subtitled “Maniax Edition”, and that version has Dante from the Devil May Cry series in place of Raidou. Unfortunately, if you wanted to play the version you remember from your childhood, you’ll have to pay extra — the optional Maniax DLC will set you back a further $15, or $30 in total if you pick up the Digital Deluxe Edition of the game from the eShop.
That deluxe edition also comes with extra music, and two new dungeons that allow you to farm experience and money at a frankly ludicrous pace. These are features that, really, should’ve been included in the base game when it was upressed and ported to Switch (as well as PS4 and PC), so it’s a little disappointing to see them separated out and sold for extra. And that’s to say nothing of the early unlock option in the digital deluxe pacakge, which gives you access to the game a staggering four days early compared to the base version. It’s a strategy that Atlus and Sega has used in the past with their deluxe editions, notably with Persona 5 Strikers, and it feels a little bit like the company’s trying to cash in on early impressions and social media buzz to invoke FOMO in those who would otherwise wait. Your opinion of this strategy might be a little different to mine, but it feels bordering on a little bit gross for me, and I’d hope to see it dropped in future releases.
As far as remasters of 18-year-old games go, it’s hard to conjure up an example of a game that does it better than Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster. It was clearly an excellent game back in its day, and it remains so today, with crisp new assets, new voice acting, and a swathe of handy new features to smooth over the bumps of an aging experience. It can be repetitive and frustrating at times, and Sega’s DLC offerings can leave a bit of a sour taste in your mouth, but if you’re looking for a classic RPG to play, a place to jump into the SMT series, or just a chance to relive your childhood, it’s hard to go wrong here. It’s not a game you’ll want to miss out on.