Also available on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 4, and Windows
Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 05/31/2021 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
Shin Megami Tensei is one of my absolute favorite series. My buddy Pat talked me into buying Shin Megami Tensei IV on 3DS in college, and that pretty much cemented him as a guy who knows what he’s talking about. I hadn’t played Nocturne before this HD remaster, but much to my shame, my PS2 copy has been sitting on my shelf for about five or six years just waiting to be played. Sorry, buddy, but your better-looking younger brother took your place.
Without spoiling anything, the basic premise of Shin Megami Tensei III is that a cult ended the world by starting “the Conception,” and you go turned into the “demi-fiend,” a being who isn’t totally human but also isn’t totally demon. Like Inuyasha but edgier and without a crush on a 15-year-old. You have to navigate through post-apocalyptic Tokyo as different demon factions fight for a resource called Magatsuhi to bring about their “Reason,” or what they want the new world to be. Do you side with one of these factions? Do you tell everyone to shove it? Do you live solely to cause chaos and bring misery? Depending on some of the actions you take throughout the game, you’ve pretty much got the freedom to make that choice for yourself.
For being an old sixth-generation game, this HD remaster looks fantastic. Well, for the most part. As is the norm with HD remasters, the pre-rendered cutscenes look like hot ass because they’re 480i cutscenes in a 4:3 ratio in a game that’s otherwise 1080p in a 16:9 ratio. I get it, it’s cheaper and easier to just use the original cut scenes rather than remake them in the proper resolution and aspect ratio, but man, it’s jarring to see the pretty game and then BAM, everything you tried to forget about the mid-2000s that didn’t have the last name Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld. There’s also some weirdness going on with the background music. In the overworld, in menus, and in in-engine cut scenes, the music sounds fantastic. In battle, though, it sounds bizarrely muffled and tinny. I have no idea why they’d do this if it’s intentional or how it got past QA if it’s unintentional, but to my admittedly amateurish ears, it sounds like they used the super-compressed audio files from the PS2 version for JUST the battle music and used higher quality files with less compression for the rest of the game’s music. It’s bizarre and jarring in its juxtaposition, but it doesn’t detract too much from the experience, and even if it’s unpleasantly muffled, the music is awesome regardless.
Now as for the gameplay for those who haven’t played a main series SMT game, it’s a monster collecting JRPG. Think Pokemon but edgy and you collect demons and angels instead of cute animals. There’s also a good bit of dungeon crawling and exploring involved. You can fuse these demons into stronger and different demons. The vast majority of these demons are from real-world mythologies, and the use of Judeo-Christian mythology is always especially interesting to me. Some of the bosses you might recognize are Thor, Beezlebub, Baal, and Metatron, and there are loads of other demons from mythologies all over the world. The game certainly isn’t an educational game as there’s no mythology being taught, but it is a great way to see just how varied mythologies throughout history have been because most of the visual depictions of the demons are at least fairly close to their depiction in myths.
My favorite thing about Shin Megami Tensei unlike its spin-off series, Persona, is how DARK it is. I admittedly have not played any of the pre-6th gen SMT games, but having played 3, 4, and 4 Apocalypse, they’re all super dark in tone, and I absolutely love it. Existence sucks, we’re all screwed, and happy endings are a lie. It’s a glorious break from the usual “hero saves the world” storyline in most JRPGs. It’s definitely not the only series that does dark hopelessness well, but I would argue that it’s the one that does it well the most consistently. I didn’t enjoy 3 quite as much as I did 4 or 4 Apocalypse, but by no means is that a strike against 3; it’s an absolutely fantastic game.
Unfortunately, though, there are some performance issues that need to be mentioned. I’ve already talked about the ugly 4:3 cutscenes and the weird compressed-sounding music, but there are some pretty major frame rate drops and stuttering issues in parts of this game at least on Switch; I can’t judge it on PS4. It’s mostly when there are fog effects which, admittedly, is where most games on most platforms tend to stumble performance-wise. Still, it’s disappointing to see the frame rate stay pretty reliably around 30 fps and then tank to the mid to high teens for a few seconds when you get to a foggy area or one with other more advanced lighting effects. This issue is also visible in some of the in-engine cutscenes; towards the end of the Diet Building dungeon, there’s a scene where you can watch the background behind the speaking character just churn along at like ten frames per second. Fortunately, as a turn-based game, this never affects gameplay, but it’s definitely a bit disorienting and disappointing when you do run into the performance hiccups.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is an absolutely fantastic JRPG and for me personally served as a great appetizer for the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V that is (theoretically) releasing later this year. The HD remaster definitely isn’t perfect, and it’s obvious that Atlus cut a few corners on it, but the core experience is fantastic and includes the Maniax content (although Dante from Devil May Cry is paid DLC), and most of the remaster is solid in spite of those few cut corners. It may not be perfect, but it’s still an absolute must-play for fans of dark apocalyptic stories or deep content-rich JRPGs. I’m not going to say that there’s no reason to play the PS2 original as nostalgia can enhance an older gamer’s enjoyment a lot, but the HD remaster is absolutely the way to go if it’s your first time playing.