Remaster Demonic Tokyo in 'Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne’

It's sort of like Pokémon's creepy uncle

Key Takeaways

  • Nocturne trades the typical swords and dragons for a twisted tour through real-world mythology.
  • Even its Normal Mode is a serious challenge, but a new Merciful difficulty opens it up for interested newbies.
  • If "full-contact death philosophy" sounds like your jam, you're Nocturne's target audience.
Screenshot from 'Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne'

One of the toughest, strangest Japanese RPGs of its generation is now back on store shelves.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne already felt like a throwback of a game back in 2004. At a time when JRPGs were continuing their evolution into full-bore cinematic experiences, Nocturne is a bizarre dungeon crawler from an older school.

It's tempting to draw comparisons to Pokémon, since you spend a lot of Nocturne capturing and micro-managing your personal squad of monsters, but Nocturne really is its own thing. It combines traditional JRPG mechanics with a high difficulty curve and a dark storyline, and the result is still remarkably unique 17 years later.

I'd argue it's an acquired taste. In a genre that's usually known for black-and-white morality and simple stories, Nocturne sets up some dark, Gnostic moral and ethical clashes. It's basically a 50-hour philosophy thesis with a lot of punching demons.

So What Does That Title Mean, Anyway?

Shin Megami Tensei, depending on how literally you want to translate it, could mean either "true reincarnation of the goddess" or "true goddess metempsychosis."

Screenshot from 'Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne'

The series, which has been running since 1987 in Japan, heavily deals with Buddhist symbolism, and most of the games involve reincarnation as a plot element and/or a game mechanic. In Nocturne's case, it's both.

You begin the game as a high school student, who becomes one of the few survivors when an event called the Conception turns Tokyo inside out. Most of the city is destroyed, and what's left is transformed into the monster-infested Vortex World. You're subsequently transformed into a half-demon, which gives you just enough power to survive on your own and set out in search of answers.

You quickly discover this wasn't an apocalypse so much as a reset switch. The Vortex World is a liminal state for Earth, and multiple factions of demons and human survivors are vying to determine the shape of the world to come. That leaves you in the wildcard spot, where you can determine who wins the conflict, and thus what life on Earth will become, or shape things for yourself.

What I like here is that Nocturne isn't running off of a typical good-vs-evil system. While a couple of factions are visibly flawed—looking right at you, Hikawa—they've all got understandable philosophies, with points both for and against them. You can treat Nocturne like one big personality test, side with your favorite NPC, or blow everything up for fun, without the game visibly shoving you in a certain moral direction.

Screenshot from 'Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne'

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

Nocturne has been infamous for the last 17 years as one of the toughest JRPGs out there. The HD Remaster adds a free download that enables "Merciful" difficulty, which tones it down to a human level, but without that, Nocturne's a killer.

The game features a turn-based combat system, like older JRPGs. By default, your character's the only member of your team, but you can recruit (read: bribe/intimidate) almost any random monster you run into.

The combat's central quirk, and the most engaging thing about Nocturne, is that you can game the system to get multiple bonus actions. By exploiting an enemy's vulnerabilities, like hitting an elemental weak point, you can dramatically extend your turn, which gives you that much more time in which to rack up damage on a target. However, your enemies also can do the same thing to you.

Once Nocturne's training wheels come off, which is about two hours into the game, every fight has a tense edge to it. Resources are scarce, enemies are everywhere, there are no safe zones, and even a simple random encounter could put you behind the eight-ball without warning.

Screenshot from 'Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne'

I got stuck on a boss fight for the better part of an evening because he loves to hit my entire party with Force-based spells, and it turns out my best two monsters are both vulnerable to that, so he got to do it three times in a row. Exit monsters, and shortly afterward, me.

I had to spend the next two hours recruiting new monsters in order to survive. Then I found out that was just the boss's first phase.

It's tough, and not entirely fair, but overall, Nocturne has aged surprisingly well. This sort of '90s throwback game is back in fashion now, and more importantly, it's not just another swords-and-sorcery romp. Even 20 years later, there's still nothing quite like it, and that's worth a look all by itself.

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