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The Shin Megami Tensei franchise - including spin-off series Persona - is known for its difficulty. Sure, some titles will give you easy difficulty options, but they also serve up challenges that will beat you down so hard you'll be nursing your ego long after, while you grind to make your party stronger. In this regard, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is the hardest SMT game I've played, and I both love and hate it for that.
Playing on the standard difficulty, I was amazed how almost any enemy encounter could end my run. SMT3 uses the Press System: a turn-based gameplay style where both your party and your enemies can earn extra moves by hitting a weakness or inflicting critical hits. This mechanic is present in most of the franchise's instalments, so fans of more modern games will still feel at home in this older title. However, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster has a unique quality.
At first, I thought I just wasn't getting it. I was convinced there was some flaw in my playstyle, but the truth is SMT3 is genuinely brutal. How you respond to this determines whether this game is for you or not. If you take the majority of your demises in stride, thinking about how you can improve next time, then Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is your kind of game. If every death drives you to make feral animal noises while cursing the time you've invested so far, then this game probably isn't your bag.
Yes, there is an easier difficulty. Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster has a newly added 'Merciful' setting which does make the game significantly less challenging, but it's not fool-proof. There are still foes that demand respect, even on Merciful, so save often and pay attention to enemy strategies. In other words, you can make the game more accessible, but you'll still need to put in some work to see this story through.
In my preview, I found Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster both modern and dated. As I played more of the game, that initial feeling didn't go away. Movement around the environments is as fluid as you'd like, even though it looks stiff, but there were plenty of times where I would be slightly off when trying to interact with a character or door, despite there being no apparent problem to the naked eye. Then there's the overworld, where your humanoid character is replaced by a cursor, which proves, above all else, that this game originally came out back in 2003.
Don't get me wrong, I know the past is the past, but when you keep such archaic elements in a modern re-release, they're bound to look and feel out of place by modern standards. Not terrible but not impressive, and that's fine because they do the job, but they seem so outdated compared to most of the other gameplay elements in SMT3. It also begs the question of why bother playing this game when there are more modern alternatives?
Well, for one thing there's the art style. Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is one of the most interesting looking games I've played. The visuals are eerily off, appearing both polished and primitive. I know there's an argument to be made here that this is another age thing, but it all feels intended, as SMT3 has a general sense of discomfort throughout. The world seems to have a translucent haze over it, making everything feel like a nightmarish vision of a doomed reality. It's so engrossing that I found myself both obsessed with and detached from in-game events.
The characters add to the unsettling atmosphere. Sure, there are demons in Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster, but the Manikins are far more freakish. These humanoid creatures describe themselves as "we're like humans but we're not", and that awkward analysis says it all. They're hard to look at, with their blank expressions and unnatural movements making you feel as far away from home as you've ever been. However, the most unsettling NPCs are the humans.
Even your in-game friends Chiaki and Isamu are unnerving, with their faces falling somewhere between 'uncanny valley' and porcelain doll. Their unappealing visages perfectly ground them in the world of SMT3, because the whole thing feels like a distorted dream world that you want to escape and explore at the same time.
The soundtrack adds further depth to Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster. Ranging from metal-inspired techno to modernised (for 2003) classical pieces, the music of SMT3 is truly excellent at times because it breathes authenticity into the obviously fantastical in-game world. Music is often an important part of a game, but it's never felt as integral to the verisimilitude of a title as it does in Nocturne.
Despite the genius way Atlus created a believable world with Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster, it's still far from perfect. Gameplay is meant to be hard, so you will die a few times, but the process of being kicked back to the title screen is unforgivably frustrating. It's a little thing, but it kills your momentum and feels unwelcome in a 2021 title, even if it is a remaster.
Then there's the lack of clear direction. At times, I was told what to do next without being given reasonable instruction on how to do that. I'm not asking for them to hold my hand because we all know that just wouldn't be fun, but when I'm sent looking for an item or to a new location, it would be handy to know which enemy is holding it, or whereabouts on the map I should be looking.
Overall, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster is a unique game with some truly marvelous qualities to it. Visually, it's beyond compare thanks to its unusual art style and the surreal, unnerving way it brings everything together. Sadly, SMT3 will probably be appreciated a lot more by fans of the original because of its obvious age, but I'd encourage any JRPG fan to give it a try.
Pros: Unique experience, challenging gameplay, excellent soundtrack
Cons: Shows its age, not always clear how to progress
For fans of: Shin Megami Tensei, Persona, Final Fantasy
Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster was played on PlayStation 4 with code provided by the publisher. The game releases for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC on May 25th. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here
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