Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster screen
Image: Atlus

Ahead of the game's launch on 25th May, we recently had the chance to sit down with a pre-release version of Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster. Here follows our hands-on impressions from intrepid Nintendo Life (p)reviewer, Mitch Vogel...

Before we get into impressions, let’s set the scene and take a brisk walk through the first thirty-ish minutes of the Shin Megami Tensei III (Nocturne HD Remaster) experience...

You start the game by stepping off a train and are immediately told that a riot recently took place in a nearby park, resulting in several fatalities. You meet up with two classmates to visit your sick teacher in a nearby hospital, only to find the hospital is completely abandoned, save for you three. One of your friends thinks it’s the base of a cult — she’s probably right. Undeterred, you press on alone into the bowels of the creepy building, presumably out of some mad belief that you’ll find your teacher chilling in a hospital bed somewhere...

Your search takes you to the basement (because of course it does), where you stumble upon an irritable man sitting alone in the dark. He’s mad that you disturbed his solitude, so he summons a demon to kill you, natch. Only he’s stopped when your teacher suddenly appears and threatens to break off their partnership(!?) if he goes through with it. The teacher asks you to meet her on the roof to explain some things and you join her, but not before coming across the spectral forms of an old woman and little boy in the hallway who seem to have taken an interest in you...

On the roof, while gazing out together over the beautiful cityscape, your teacher informs you that everyone who isn’t in the hospital will die in just a few minutes in an apocalyptic event ominously named “The Conception”. But it’s totally okay, she says, because the world needs to die first so it can reborn. She says it’s your fate to survive this event with her, but it might actually be more painful than just dying like everyone else. Might.

And then you watch the world end, taking everything you’ve ever known and loved with it.

Suffice to say, SMT III is the game your religious parents thought Pokémon was back in the late '90s. It’s dark, difficult, and depressing. Your character wanders the ravaged wastes of the new world alone, with only a handful of demons for company. Other RPGs usually take time to build up the worth of each party member, making each one a valued and continued asset to the team; here, your ‘party members’ are just there for you to use and toss once they’ve outlived their usefulness. You level them up a few times, get what you can out of them, then fuse them together for something better as soon as you can.

Then there’s the difficulty to contend with. The famed ‘Press Turn’ turn-based combat system is pretty easy to get to grips with, but it absolutely demands you engage with all its nuances. Basically, if you hit an enemy with attacks they’re weak to, you’re granted up to four extra turns to continue dishing out the pain. Enemies can (and will) do this to you, too, which can lead to a battle instantly going sideways as they pile on to your poorly-planned team and shred health points down to nothing.

thus far the experience has been enjoyable, though there are some lingering gripes

Luckily, this remaster gives the new option to play in ‘Merciful’ mode, which takes the intensity down a peg and makes things feel far more accessible. Even better, you can toggle the difficulty setting at will, meaning you can tweak things to your liking throughout the whole game.

For this preview, we’re only allowed to cover the first two hours or so of the game, and thus far the experience has been enjoyable, though there are some lingering gripes. This is exactly the SMT III you remember—in all its masochistic glory—though it perhaps is a little too much of the same. The visuals have gotten a nice bump to HD resolution, but the stiff animations and generally simplistic level layouts certainly betray the original’s sixth gen console roots. It’s not unsightly, of course, though it feels like perhaps a little more effort could’ve been made on this front.

Then there’s the music, which is just all over the place with its quality. Sometimes the music sounds full, other times it sounds like the music is being played underwater. It’s generally the battle music that sounds the worst, which can tend to grate quite a bit as you understandably listen to the battle music a lot in a JRPG with random encounters.

Included in this re-release is the manual skill inheritance feature, absent from the initial Japanese release but here at launch, which is a small, but enormously effective change in terms of modernizing the experience. No more spending all kinds of extra time praying to RNGesus that your latest fusion attempt will result in a demon with the skills you want. And battles in general go faster with the sped-up auto battle feature, too, which helps to cut down a bit on any grinding you may want to get in.

Overall, we’ve been having fun during our time with SMT III so far, even though there’s a lingering sense that there’s some missed potential with this HD remaster. Simply having the ability to play Nocturne on an easily accessible modern console (and a portable one, at that) is massive, and for many, this will be enough. Still, watching FMVs in their original resolution and contending with some dated game design concepts makes it seem like that fat price tag is a little steep for what appears at first blush to be a straight port with a couple of obligatory extras tossed in. As included in the Maniax release of the game, you can even fight and recruit Dante from Devil May Cry, although you'll need to shell out for the Maniax Pack that forms part of the Digital Deluxe Edition (the previously mentioned 'Merciful Difficulty' mode also appears to be a DDE exclusive feature).

We’ll have a final verdict ready for you in due course, but until then know that—despite concerns over missed potential—this is shaping up to be the best modern way to play an absolute RPG classic.