Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster preview | What’s old is new and horrifying again

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster preview hands-on Nintendo Switch Atlus Sega RPG

Back in 2013, the sky turned black as a harbinger of destruction descended from the heavens. For it was Shin Megami Tensei IV, sent by Atlus to completely wreck innocent Nintendo 3DS players. However, in the years since, and with the release of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse in 2016, Nintendo gamers have had a chance to get acclimated to this dark and brutal series. So they should be right at home with the release of Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster on Nintendo Switch.

We’ve been playing the game, and our preview impressions are restricted to discussing just the first few hours. Nevertheless, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is unmistakably a PlayStation 2 game given a fresh coat of paint, for better and for worse.

If you didn’t play the original SMTIII but did play SMTIV, they’re extremely similar experiences. The game begins with the apocalyptic destruction of the world, and Tokyo is reborn as a small sphere filled with demons and the souls of deceased humanity. You would think that would mean the narrative is really dense, but the opening hours actually offer very little story.

At the outset, you name your silent protagonist, a couple of his friends, and your teacher whom the game emphasizes is pretty hot for some reason. But you don’t get to watch any of them really react to the end of the world. Everyone just sort of accepts it matter-of-factly, which is pretty weird. The new voice acting, which comes in English and Japanese, fits nicely though, and there are options for French, German, Italian, and Spanish subtitles. Atlus says the localization has been “refreshed” as well.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster preview hands-on Nintendo Switch Atlus Sega RPG

Visually, the difference between Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster and the original is night and day. All of the backgrounds and 3D models have been completely remastered in HD, and it’s totally obvious. That’s not to say the game is beautiful — the dungeons and the world map are all still a little drab — but the character models look great in a way never possible on PlayStation 2. Likewise, everything seems pretty crisp overall whether playing docked or handheld. The frame rate has some hiccups here and there, but it’s nothing that hinders the experience.

The core gameplay of Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster feels oppressive by design. Almost all locations feel like mazes, and random battles can occur almost anywhere, even in “town” areas. There is a sense of constant danger as a result.

Battles are turn-based and use what’s called the “Press-Turn Battle System,” where successes are rewarded and failure is punished. Landing critical hits or exploiting weaknesses gives you or the enemy extra turns, while missing an attack or using an attack the enemy is strong against will take your turns away. Although this mechanic was used well immediately in Shin Megami Tensei IV, I was actually able to just spam physical attacks to get through the opening hours of Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster.

However, the opening hours of this game are surprisingly lenient in general. Shin Megami Tensei IV had enemies that could kill you in the first room of the game. By comparison, Nocturne starts you out with enemies who don’t hit nearly as hard, and trying to run away doesn’t feel like as risky a tactic. I even double-checked a few times that I wasn’t accidentally playing on the game’s new “Merciful” mode.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster preview hands-on Nintendo Switch Atlus Sega RPG

Merciful mode is an easy mode made available through free DLC that drops the encounter rate significantly, makes enemies way weaker and you way stronger, and rewards tons more experience and money. There is also a Hard mode where enemies hit harder, which is only recommended for series veterans and lunatics. Regardless, you can change the set difficulty whenever you want without penalty, which is an excellent touch. There is also a new Suspend option, which lets you make a temporary save of the game wherever you are so you can pick the game up again later. Otherwise, you can only save your game at designated terminals.

Throughout Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster, you have the ability to recruit many demons to your team by talking to them during battle and persuading them to join you, usually by giving gifts of money and items. There are things you can do to tip the negotiations in your favor, but the results still feel a little fickle. You can also fuse demons together into more powerful demons that inherit skills of their old forms. Skill management is critical, and the game gives you really powerful buff and debuff skills shockingly early, as if to warn you that you won’t get far without them.

The protagonist is unique in that all his skills come from equipping a Magatama, parasitic creatures that give you stat boosts and new elemental strengths and weaknesses. Magatama can teach you specific new skills when you level up, so there is terrific potential for customization. However, there are no weapons or armor to equip.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster preview hands-on Nintendo Switch Atlus Sega RPG

Notably, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster features the character Raidou from Atlus’ Devil Summoner, which is the first time he’s been available in the game in the West. However, the optional $9.99 Maniax Pack DLC (also included in the $69.99 digital deluxe edition) will bring Dante from Devil May Cry back into the game in Raidou’s stead, and that’s the version I’ve been playing. He only makes an ever-so-brief appearance on camera in the opening hours though.

Ultimately, as far as the opening hours of the game go, my only major complaint is how clunky its menu interface is across the board. For instance, when you’re looking at your characters’ stats, you can’t check what their skills do. You have to go to the Skills menu to see what skills do. This is even true in part when you’re fusing monsters. Likewise, the way the battle menu is organized just feels needlessly weird and inconvenient, and even the Atlus PR person felt the need to remind us of the button inputs required to talk to demons during battle.

When it officially launches in the West on May 25, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster will include the 1.02 and 1.03 patches previously released in Japan. And so far, the game is shaping up to be everything fans and RPG purists could hope for, with just a few nagging issues remaining from the PS2 days. Stay tuned for our final review in the days to come.

John Friscia
Head Copy Editor for Enthusiast Gaming, Managing Editor at The Escapist. I'm a writer who loves Super Nintendo and Japanese role-playing games to an impractical degree. I really miss living in South Korea. And I'm developing the game Boss Saga!