By this point in time, it’d be easy to believe that the Persona series is Atlus’ flagship franchise due to how easily audiences seem to have connected with the lighthearted high schooler antics featured there. In actuality, Persona is itself a spin-off of Shin Megami Tensei, Atlus’ true flagship franchise which has been around for a lot longer and acted as the progenitor of many elements that would go on to become staples of the Persona experience. It remains to be seen whether Shin Megami Tensei V will finally be the entry to bring this parent franchise out of its spin-off’s shadow, but in the meantime Atlus figured that now is as good a time as any to bring back Shin Megami Tensei III for a new generation.
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is exactly what it sounds like, a prettied-up and slightly modified take on this oft-forgotten sixth generation RPG classic. Sometimes that feels like a good thing and sometimes it doesn’t; Shin Megami Tensei III hasn’t aged as gracefully as some may have hoped, but it also is quite easy to see that this has all the elements of a pretty great RPG. The unique mixture of a dark atmosphere, heavy religious themes, and punishing difficulty is simply unlike anything else out there, and it’s the sort of thing that can become quite enchanting once it hits its stride.
Shin Megami Tensei III is not a feel-good game by any means; the whole thing plays out a bit like how you’d expect the optional ‘bad ending’ of a typical JRPG to go. Your character—an everyman sort of guy who’s referred to as “The Demi-fiend”—has the privilege of watching the apocalypse happen in a terrifying cosmic event called The Conception and is subsequently transformed into a demon-human hybrid when Satan himself forces him to eat a worm. That’s just the first hour.
From there, the Demi-fiend wanders the resulting wasteland with a harem of demons in tow who help him fight off the hordes of other demons that now roam free and bask in the chaos of this awful new hellscape. There is a modicum of hope, however, as the world is technically not destined to stay ruined. Instead, it’s more like the world is trapped in a limbo state, and what the ‘new’ world will look like is ultimately decided by your Demi-fiend’s actions.
This is where a great deal of the philosophy of Shin Megami Tensei III comes in, as nearly all of the important NPCs you interact with each represent a different school of thought, none of which are any more right or wrong than the others. Ruminations on the importance of control and freedom in the lives of sentient beings are par for the course here, and while it’s not exactly an exhaustive lesson on the nuances of, say, the deontological vs. consequential ethics debate, the narrative nonetheless feels a little more highbrow than the standard ‘save the world from evil’ song and dance that many JRPGs roll with. After all, there isn’t even really a world left to save here.
This focus on high-concept ideas is interesting in its own way, but it seems that it comes at the cost of actual plot. The Demi-fiend’s journey is a lonely and meandering one, and what little character development exists in this story only occurs in the various supporting characters who come off as barely more than walking ideologies. There’s not much in the way of meaningful or emotional interaction between characters, and though everyone but the Demi-fiend has a goal, these parallel subplots never consolidate into an overarching plot that makes you care about what happens to the world or its inhabitants. In this regard, the narrative of Shin Megami Tensei III could absolutely be described as interesting, but it would be a stretch to call it gripping.
As you wander between locales in search of the next plot device or person needed to move things forward, gameplay plays out much akin to a standard dungeon crawling JRPG. There’s an overworld which serves to connect various dungeons and towns together, and you bounce from one place to the next as the story dictates. Combat is a real highlight, as it plays out like a more polished take on the standard turn-based system used in many JRPGs. The ‘Press Turn’ system gives each of your party members one turn per round, but if anybody manages to land a critical hit or an attack the enemy is weak to, one more turn will be added to your party’s bank.
This means that you can potentially double your party’s output if you’re smart about how you respond to the enemy, and it pushes the player to think more about building teams around elemental weaknesses. This is especially true when you consider that enemies can also hit your weaknesses, thus earning them more turns to bring even more pain. In practice, this leads to a battle system that’s quite simple to understand, but also requires you to ‘keep your eye on the ball’ if you want to prevent your team from wiping in one turn.
Much like in the Pokémon games, almost all the enemies you fight can also become your friends with a little persuasion. Towards the end of most random battles, you can usually try to talk to the last surviving demon, which initiates a tense negotiating session that ideally results in them joining your party. Most of the time, it’ll end with them telling you to get bent as they run off with the money they swindled from you. To say that demon negotiation is frustrating in Shin Megami Tensei III is a massive understatement. It’s a critical part of the game, but there is almost no telling what it takes to actually convince a demon to join you. Sometimes the demons want you to agree with them. Sometimes they don’t. You basically just have to hope that random chance will be on your side each time you go in for negotiation, and this aspect greatly weakens an otherwise interesting part of the gameplay loop. Demon negotiation is certainly fun in theory, but this is one area of Shin Megami Tensei III that feels quite dated, especially compared to the more refined take on the concept that later games used.
Alongside using diplomacy to fill out your ranks, you also have the option of using demon fusion to keep your party in fighting shape. Using this, you can take two or more demons in your stock and combine them into a more powerful demon that carries some of their skills. Luckily, Atlus has seen fit to change the rules on this a bit for the re-release, as you can now directly choose some of the skills that the new demon gets to inherit. This may seem like a small change, but it takes a lot of the guesswork and randomness out of the process, which makes for an overall more streamlined and enjoyable take on this.
As for the Demi-fiend himself, his progression is tied to a sort of Job system that dictates which skills he’ll learn on leveling up. One ‘Magatama’ can be equipped to him at a time, and each one will alter his stats and elemental weaknesses in different ways. These can be picked up from shops or from beating bosses, and each one brings in another potential strategy you can roll with as you face increasingly tougher demons.
There isn’t much new content being brought in for this HD re-release, with the bulk of the changes being mostly small additions to smooth over the more dated aspects. Aside from the above-mentioned retooling of skill inheritance, the most notable new feature is the inclusion of a new easy mode (which comes in the form of free DLC). Here, you dish out a lot more damage and take less, while you earn about three times as much EXP and money after each fight. The savage difficulty of the ‘normal’ mode is very much part of the charm, but we’d very much recommend you give merciful mode a shot if you want an experience more in line with a typical RPG.
Aside from that, certain characters now have full voice acting and there’s a suspend save option for quickly saving your game when you aren’t near a save point. Those of you looking for a remake, then, may be a little disappointed, as this is more or less ‘just’ the original game with a few bells and whistles.
One area that feels like a noticeable let-down this time around is the compressed music, which can sometimes be jarringly poor quality. Some tracks aren’t too bad, but recurring tracks like the main battle theme sound like they’re being played from under a blanket on the other side of the room. Considering that the OST already received a remaster some time ago, it just flat out doesn’t make sense that Atlus didn’t deem it worthwhile to put that new music into this new release. It’s not a game-breaking shortcoming by any means, but this is such a weird and easily fixed problem that needlessly drags down an already uneven experience.
From a graphical perspective, Shin Megami Tensei III certainly looks the best it ever has, but there’s also no mistaking this game for something that initially saw a release eighteen years ago. Janky animations, lifeless models, low quality textures, and unimpressive effects are all over the place here, and many of the FMV sequences maintain their original SD resolution and aspect ratio. To be fair, this was never pitched as a remake, so there’s only so much one can expect out of the visuals for this release, but the comparatively simplistic visuals are nonetheless something to bear in mind.
There’s plenty of content on offer for those of you looking for bang for your buck, as the full experience is found in doing several replays. There are several potential endings depending on who your Demi-fiend chooses to back and how he does so, and each standard playthrough should take you about sixty to seventy hours to clear. It may seem a little much to replay a game like this six or more times, but even just one playthrough feels packed with enough variety to be worth your time.
We feel that it’s important to highlight that—at least at launch—the asking price for Shin Megami Tensei III HD Remaster feels a little high considering what’s on offer here. As we mentioned before, there are some new additions, but this is pretty much just the original game repackaged for a new generation. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s being priced as if it’s something more. Now, having the option to play Shin Megami Tensei III on the go isn’t something to be dismissed out of hand, but we’d very much encourage you to think hard about whether that nearly full retail price aligns well with your interests. If you happen to have a PS3, you can pick up the original version there for ten bucks and get mostly the same experience.