Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Renan Fontes 18.05.2021

Review for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster on Nintendo Switch

Shin Megami Tensei is an RPG franchise unlike any other, defying genre norms at virtually every turn. The series has defined itself throughout the years with its often philosophical storytelling, strategic gameplay loops, and an oppressive tone that strongly contrasts with the likes of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Originally released for PlayStation 2, Nocturne is widely considered to be one of the strongest entries in the franchise and its HD Remaster makes it easy to see why. Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster gives a wide audience access to one of the greatest RPGs Atlus has ever created.

On the surface level, what distinguishes Shin Megami Tensei most from its genre counterparts is its setting. Almost every mainline entry in the franchise has eschewed traditional fantasy framing typical of RPGs in favour of setting stories firmly in a modern day context (in the case of SMT III, the early 2000s). This is then taken one step further by an apocalyptic event that redefines the status quo while introducing demons to mankind and placing humanity at a distinct disadvantage. From there, players are usually left to their devices as they're made to explore a dying world where danger lurks around every corner.

For Nocturne in particular, the narrative is kicked off by a catastrophe called the Calamity, an event which renders the Earth unlivable — blotting out the sky as the planet twists itself into the fully round Vortex World. The only human survivors are the protagonist, who's colloquially known as Demi-Fiend, and a small supporting cast who regularly weave in and out of the plot. As a result, there isn't much character focus and what development there is tends to be more thematic than anything. This isn't a bad thing, however.

The script's writing prioritises its themes above all else, using the Demi-Fiend's supporting cast as a means to dissect and analyze conflicting ideologies. How players respond to other characters influences their alignment, ultimately determining which of six endings plays out. These ideologies are referred to as Reasons, with each one representing a different philosophical outcome for humanity: whether that be a world built on survival of the fittest or an isolationist paradise catered solely towards the ego. While there are similarities to Shin Megami Tensei's standard Law, Chaos, and Neutral dynamic, Reasons are considerably more profound in subject matter.

Audiences are expected to pay close attention to the information they're being given and speaking to NPCs is downright necessary for gaining a sense of direction. Those too accustomed to modern RPGs might find this style of pacing aimless, but the end result is an experience that follows the player's discretion and never lingers too long on cutscenes. With the average playthrough clocking in at around 50 hours, it's impressive that the grand majority is pure gameplay.

The narrative throwing players into the deep end, so to speak, helps instill an oppressive tone all around. Very few demons are willing to help the Demi-Fiend amicably and the tension amongst the supporting cast only rises. The main story will typically ensure Demi-Fiend always has some discernible goal, but it's up to players to piece together where to go next and how. Fortunately, NPCs are always a pleasure to talk to thanks to their colourful personalities and dialogue that adds to the worldbuilding. It's always a toss up whether a Demon will exposit some genuine wisdom, crack a surprisingly good joke, or actually offer a helping hand. Sometimes they'll just attack on engagement, but that's the harsh reality of the Vortex World.

Screenshot for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster on Nintendo Switch

Although not everyone will take to abstract storytelling, it's hard not to get swept up in the atmosphere of it all. The Vortex World is a lonely and hostile wasteland with the only signs of life relegated to what few remnants of Tokyo still stand. Demons and the souls of the deceased now congregate in towns that have been ripped apart. One would think that exploring Japan's many subway stations would get tiring, but even the most mundane locations feature enough branching paths or optional rooms to keep them engaging. Area layouts in general are rarely linear, pushing audiences to periodically check their map.

It's important to note the differences between overworld traversal and exploring towns or dungeons. While adventuring throughout the Vortex World, the Demi-Fiend sprite will be signified by a blue marker. Similarly, the Vortex World isn't a fully rendered 3D world but a traditional overhead map. It might seem insignificant, but this lends a sense of scale to the Vortex World while minimizing ways players can get themselves lost. In actual areas, Demi-Fiend assumes his 3D model where players are free to explore in third person. While traditional for RPGs, Shin Megami Tensei actually used first person gameplay before Nocturne, in turn making the sophisticated level design even more impressive.

Dungeons are a constant highlight, juggling strong environmental storytelling with unique gimmicks that force players to think critically about their surroundings. Navigation can feel like a puzzle in the later dungeons. Trap floors, trick walls, teleporters, and copious random encounters demand careful play at all times. There are Terminals for saving along with Healing Fountains inside most dungeons (and towns for that matter), but never too generously. Audiences are expected to fight their way to safety and very little is on their side. The Obelisk is a grueling climb that tests party endurance. The Diet Building is a standout dungeon that rewards observant players with progression. The Amala Network is an unstable, claustrophobic plane of reality that's constantly glitching out.

Nocturne's absolute best dungeon is the Labyrinth of Amala, an optional location that can be revisited over the course of the story and eventually ties into its own ending. The Labyrinth itself is divided into five floors called Kalpas, which can only be entered by acquiring their respective Menoras (translated as Candelabrum in the original localisation). Each Menora is wielded by a Fiend — a powerful boss — who the Demi-Fiend must defeat to obtain. Beyond starting the questline, the Labyrinth of Amala is totally optional. That said, it's where players will eventually recruit Raidou Kuzunoha, who replaces Dante from Devil May Cry's role in the story, and everything surrounding the Labyrinth (from Fiends to level design) makes it an exemplary RPG dungeon.

While dungeons are well designed enough to be the main draw, Shin Megami Tensei III's strongest quality is the introduction of the Press Turn battle system — still a series staple to this day. The Press Turn system is built on the idea of giving every individual action more weight in combat. Every party member (up to a total of four) adds an Icon during the Player's Turn which is spent whenever someone attacks. Missing or having an attack blocked eats up two Icons, and getting an attack repelled or absorbed costumes every Icon. Conversely, landing a critical hit, exploiting an elemental weakness, or passing to the next party member uses half an Icon.

Screenshot for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster on Nintendo Switch

Enemies also have their own Icons and will take advantage of the Press Turn system if they're left unchecked. It only takes one careless turn to suffer a party wipe, so it's important to treat every random encounter as a dance with death. Every facet of Press Turn encourages strategic gameplay which has the effect of making MP an immensely valuable resource. Basic attacks will drag out battles too long when exploiting Press Turn can prevent enemies from fighting back altogether. Buffs, debuffs, and targeting weaknesses simply must be weaponized to get through the harder fights.

The difficulty curve on a whole only gets higher the further players get into the story. Random encounters can consist of a wide variety of enemies with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, along with potentially overwhelming the player during the lengthier dungeons. It's important to keep a healthy stock of items on hand and to confront new enemies carefully, especially bosses. The average boss fight cannot be brute forced and demands smart thinking. Beyond successfully using Press Turn, there's a level of foresight required on the player's part to stay alive. Bosses will never be so random where a party wipe will be immediate, but prepare to counter specific attack patterns or suffer the consequences.

Aside from Demi-Fiend, the player's party is composed of recruitable demons. Demon negotiation is the other half of SMT III's battle system and an essential component when it comes to party composition. Players can recruit new demons into their party by killing all the surrounding enemies and then using Demi-Fiend's Talk ability. This triggers a conversation where demons will prompt the player with several requests or questions. Most demons are hard to bargain with, but there's a level of trial and error to the process that needs to be felt out. Every Demon has to be treated differently and the randomness adds to the hostile combat loop. Making demons too friendly takes away from the tone.

While most party recruitment will be done through Demi-Fiend, certain demons have their own forms of negotiation from Seduction to Scouting. Outside of befriending demons through battles, the Cathedral of Shadows allows players to fuse their party members together. Different demons can be fused together, resulting in new creations who inherit the Skills of their bases. In the original release, Skill Inheritance was randomised, but the remake allows for manual inheritance. While this does make the gameplay easier in some regards (since there's now less of a potential downside to fusion), combat is significantly more rewarding when demons are truly customisable.

Previously fused and registered demons can be resummoned via the compendium (which does not unlock immediately), demons can be enhanced, and the Cathedral of Shadows offers special sacrificial fusions on Full Kagutsuchi phases. Similar to the Lunar Cycle present in other Shin Megami Tensei titles, the Kagutsuchi moves through distinct phases that also influence how demons behave. Full and New phases in particular can make recruitment easier, but there are downsides to the cycle as well. While Full Kagutsuchi is the only way to unlock sacrificial fusion, using the Cathedral of Shadows on a full phase raises the risk of fusion accidents by a fair degree.

Screenshot for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster on Nintendo Switch

Players don't have control over much in Nocturne, but they do get to allocate the Demi-Fiend's stats. Leveling up rewards the Demi-Fiend with 1 stat which can be placed into Strength, Magic, Vitality, Agility, or Luck. Strength raises damage done by physical attacks and HP based Skills; Magic increases MP, raises defense against magical attacks, and enhances MP based Skills; Vitality increases HP and slightly raises damage; Agility greatly affects accuracy and evasion; and Luck increases the rate of critical hits, successful escapes, and item drops. HP and MP rise innately no matter which stat is leveled, but slow enough where it's worth leveling Vitality or Magic.

Resist the urge to build a balanced Demi-Fiend and instead dedicate leveling 2-3 key stats. Similarly, take advantage of the Magatama system in regards to the chosen build (whether it be mainly Strength or Magic). Different Magatama have their own stat buffs, but they also teach the Demi-Fiend new Skills at set levels. Only one Magatmaa can be ingested at a time, which means players need to pick and choose which Skills to learn. Since there's no way to check what a Magatama is going to teach ahead of time, there's also an element of hoping for the best. There are several Magatama hidden throughout the Vortex World and it's worth collecting them all, if only for how much variety having them on-hand offers.

Along with teaching new Skills, the Magatamas features a risk/reward system when it comes to leveling up. The Demi-Fiend's Magatama will react upon leveling, offering a random outcome depending on what's equipped. The whole party can get healed, a random stat can gain an extra level, or Demi-Fiend can get cursed. This isn't too much of a problem near a Save Terminal or a Healing Fountain, but the Magatama's random effects can potentially hinder players in a dungeon if luck isn't on their side. On a whole, the Magatama system adds an incredible amount of build variety to an RPG that doesn't so much as utilise equippable weapons or armor.

As far as performance is concerned, Nocturne HD Remaster runs much better on Nintendo Switch than it did in 2020 when it was released in Japan. There are some frame rate dips in certain areas, but nothing particularly egregious. Both Docked and Undocked gameplay run well, with no major hiccups to note. The remaster on a whole touches up the graphics while keeping the original aesthetic intact. Colours pop with more vibrancy, background visuals are crisper across the board, and character and demon models look fantastic. The field of view has also been expanded, lending dungeons and cutscenes greater spatial depth.

A host of new audio has been recorded for the remaster, including an English dub and the original Japanese vocal track. Voiced lines for characters adds a nice layer to dialogue and the performances are endearing across both recordings. The English localisation maintains Atlus' modern standard for high quality dub direction. Fortunately, anyone looking for a more authentic experience can disable voices in the options menu via a volume slider. The difficulty can also be lowered or raised at any time unlike the original release.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is an excellent re-release that improves upon its PlayStation 2 source material in a sensible and respectable manner. What quality of life features there are enhance the gameplay with tweaks that don't take away from the difficulty or oppressive tone. The smoother visuals breathe new life into the Vortex World and Raidou's presence makes for a more appropriate (if less tongue in cheek) story that ties into the rest of the franchise in a meaningful way. Even without these touch-ups, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne would be worth devoting hours to.

Screenshot for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10

Between the steep difficulty curve and unconventional story, Shin Megami Tensei III won't appeal to everyone — but those who can stomach strategizing through even random battles while reading between the script's lines will be rewarded with an outstanding RPG. Tokyo's warped state post-Conception leads to a hostile atmosphere that's carried all the way to the credits, and dungeons are elaborately designed and make use of consistently fresh gimmicks. Multiple endings keep the story replayable, with Hard Mode offering series veterans even more challenge. There's nuance to every aspect of gameplay, from the Press Turn battle system to Demon fusion and recruitment. As true in 2021 as it was in 2003, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is nothing short of a must-play RPG.

Also known as

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne






Turn Based RPG



C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

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