When Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne was re-released as a PS2 Classic for the PlayStation 3, I thought that was as good as it would get. Atlus’ pre-Persona 3 cult classic didn’t have nearly the same weight as modern Atlus releases. Games and gaming have changed dramatically since 2003 though, and Nocturne has received the HD remaster treatment. 

Considering Nocturne is nearly 20 years old and owning a PS2 copy was a small miracle until a much later reprint, a lot of folks will be trying it for the first time. In some ways, it’s a good thing this HD remaster is following the breakout success of Persona 5, due to that game having more in common with Nocturne than previous Persona entries. That said, you’re looking at a very different overall experience here. Instead of bright colors, sharp outlines and pop music, Nocturne uses faded colors and blurred edges to paint a sense of foreboding over its whole world. 

Nocturne isn’t a JRPG about saving the world, nor is it about destroying. It’s about finding a “Reason,” a philosophical drive to be used as a mold for reshaping society. But as the player, you aren’t in the driver seat; instead you find yourself in a wild card position. Your presence is a disruption in a multi-pronged power struggle and will inevitably tip the balance. And it’s up to you to figure out how your influence, or lack thereof, will manifest.  

Nocturne starts off in a modern, mundane Japan, as you and your friends head to visit a teacher in the hospital. It turns out that hospital has become ground zero for the apocalypse, and it isn’t long before you find yourself in the “Vortex World,” a decimated and corrupted Earth populated by demons. Your non-chance at survival is bolstered by an unknown party, which transforms you into the Demi-Fiend. Now half demon, you’re unable to enact your own change into the next world directly. 

But your unique biology has produced unmatched power, allowing you to explore the remnants of Japan, absorb the state of things through multiple perspectives and ultimately find a cause to fight for (or be manipulated into). This isn’t a game of Paragon and Renegade choices and dialogue trees. It’s a clash of warped ideologies from damaged people under the weight of forces beyond understanding. You may not like where you end up, or even understand it fully. After all, the Demi-Fiend is one small piece of a cosmic transition.

If Persona is an anime-flavored ensemble adventure to solve a deadly mystery, Shin Megami Tensei is often a journey through the ways human psychology can steer the whole world. And in Nocturne, that journey is largely spent in isolation. There are no party members, character arcs or romances. All the Demi-Fiend can rely on is himself and any demons he can persuade into servitude.

That’s where the videogame part kicks in, and what many Persona or SMT fans otherwise will find most familiar and comforting in Nocturne HD Remaster. As you get demons to join you and learn more skills (and maybe evolve!), you can register them in the compendium and fuse them together to make new ones. Some small tweaks have been made here, giving players more control over which skills are inherited after a fusion.

It’s all mostly straightforward, with a few purposefully underexplained twists that are the heart and soul of so many online guides. Phases of the moon, certain items and additional sacrifices can influence a demon fusion, in a twisted game of monster collecting. The cool thing about Nocturne and SMT compared to Persona, is that the demons take up party slots alongside the playable human characters or in this case, the Demi-Fiend. 

Related: Preview: Hands-On With Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster

Combat is pretty straightforward and turn-based, fueled by random encounters the way an early-aughts PS2 JRPG should be. The “Press Turn” system makes its debut here, which is the series’ current formula of exploiting weaknesses for extra turns. Here though, hitting a weakness doesn’t mean an extra turn for that attacker; the number of turns is simply expanded. There’s a rotation based on agility, and managing the order of operations is another factor. This also means your opponents can capitalize on opportunities as well, leading to some easy Game Over screens.

Nocturne is, perhaps unfairly, most notorious to those in the know for its difficulty. This is a game that will punish you for being underleveled, unorganized or just plain unlucky. For some that’s a draw, but for the HD Remaster version Atlus has added a “Merciful” difficulty option, along with a quick save. If the challenge is too harsh, swapping down to Merciful practically guarantees success. And having it as a choice you can make any time makes easing into the intended experience an organic possibility.

For the Demi-Fiend, rather than equipment there’s a system driven by “Magatama,” strange relics he can ingest to alter stat bonuses and queue up some new skills. There are several of these obtained by various means, and allow for quite a bit of customization for the player character. This system feels a bit intimidating at first, but once you get a feel for it it’s a real boon to Nocturne’s focus on preparation. There’s also an element of completion there, as these things aren’t always easy to find.

If you’re a Persona fan dipping into core SMT for the first time, there will be a lot to get used to. But at the same time, there’s a lot that’ll let you know you’re still in the same space you’re used to, just older. Your hee-hoin’ pal Jack Frost is still here, along with dozens of other recognizable demon staples. Shoji Meguro’s musical style is immediately recognizable in Nocturne, even though it’s way more about dread than fun. 

There are also certain aspects that make Nocturne really stand out, such as an adherence to series artist Kazuma Kaneko’s distinct style. Many later games in the SMT family pull away somewhat, but here it’s a full-on 3D translation and all the character models look awesome. I just love the way he draws human faces, y’all. 

It isn’t easy to find problems with Nocturne, because all of it is so thoughtfully put together. But it is a JRPG of its era, and that means the dungeons can be on the frustrating side. Most dungeons are built around floor hazards and navigation puzzles, some of which can take some real time and brute force to figure out. 

I’ve done my time as a JRPG veteran, and frankly I start to groan these days when I know I’m about to deal with a teleporter puzzle. That kind of thing can often distract from Nocturne’s captivating environmental style and ambiance, because you’re too busy popping in and out of the map and taking mental notes to appreciate your surroundings.

Beyond that, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster really is a special game. It’s wild to see such a cult classic come back with such reverence, retail physical release and everything. Years ago I never would have expected something like this, and yet here we are. “Core” SMT has often struggled to find its place in this region, but with Nocturne and SMT V on the way, Atlus and Sega are really giving it a push this time. There’s even a brand new English dub and Japanese VO, and they’re both really good! 

Nocturne is not an easy game, nor is it a game that leads you along on a digestible, anime-like adventure. It’s a challenging trek from danger to danger, through a world that doesn’t care even a little about you. But it’s a world you have a say in, and you can feel that weight all the way through. Nocturne is dark without being edgy, and it’s difficult without being unfair. There are multiple endings, secret characters, optional boss fights and more. You can even meet Dante for an extra few bucks.

This game has been on my “GOAT” list for almost two decades, and revisiting it in 2021 hasn’t changed a thing.


 

Pros:

  • Small QoL tweaks with big impact
  • All-time great JRPG experience
  • HD facelift, new VO and updated localization

Cons:

  • Some performance dips (reviewed on Switch)
  • Dungeon puzzles can be more annoying than stimulating
  • Gap between original "Normal" and "Merciful" difficulties feels a bit too wide
  • Recruiting Dante/Raidou is kind of a detriment to party building

Score: 9/10

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review