Saturday, June 12, 2021

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster

An Immaculate Conception

The PlayStation 2 has the honor of being the videogame console for which I’ve played and reviewed the most roleplaying games, among them being Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, which I received as a gift the Christmas after its release. I didn’t care much for it at first, but experiencing other spinoffs of the MegaTen series, namely the Digital Devil Saga duology, gave me a new appreciation for Nocturne. Generations later, Atlus would rerelease an upgraded version of the game worldwide, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster, with plentiful tweaks and an ideal way for a new generation of gamers to experience the classic title.

If the player has downloaded certain DLC alongside the core game, they’ll have the option of starting a new game in “Maniax” mode, which keeps Dante from Capcom’s Devil May Cry series as an extra recruitable demon. The latest iteration of Nocturne is based on the Chronicles edition of the game released in Japan only as part of the release of the second PlayStation 2 Devil Summoner game, with that subseries’ protagonist, Raidou Kuzunoha, replacing Dante, and generally being significantly less fanservicey. Available as free DLC, as well, is a casual difficulty option, Merciful, which further makes the remaster accessible to mainstream players.

Nocturne opens with a Japanese high-schooler in Tokyo visiting a hospital to visit a teacher, only to find it seemingly abandoned, and a cataclysmic event known as the Conception transforming the city into a Vortex World centered by a sun/moon hybrid, the Kagutsuchi. The main character himself transforms into a Demi-fiend, and traverses the Vortex World, able to recruit demons to fight alongside him and encountering various survivors of the Conception that formulate their own Reasons with or against which the hero can align himself, accounting for different storyline events and varied endings.

Some have accused Nocturne of not having a narrative, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a central storyline, which just isn’t forced down the player’s throat as various other RPGs have attempted through efforts at creating “cinematic” experiences. Virtually all dialogue is skippable, and the extra dungeon, the Labyrinth of Amala, provides supplemental backstory on the Vortex World, with the additional labyrinth’s completion necessary towards the acquisition of the “best” ending in the game. Granted, regardless of which ending the player receives, they largely feel anticlimactic, the occasional poor direction of how to advance the central plot not helping.

The localization definitely helps the plotline rise above average, with intelligible dialogue that has plentiful profanity and occasional humor, an absence of honorifics despite the Japanese setting, and strong religious overtones that escaped censorship. The menus are also well-translated and free of blemish, with the skill names unique to the series helping Nocturne stand well apart from other RPG franchises. However, Atlus could have certainly made effort to Anglicize more of the Japanese names of demons, items, and such, and there are occasional glaring errors such as “Decreased all stats performance!” Regardless, the translation helps the remaster more than hurts.

A tasty way to exploit elemental weakness.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the experience, the Demi-fiend acquiring Magatama that determine strengths and weaknesses to various damage types, also functioning akin to Espers from Final Fantasy VI in that they may provide him an active or passive skill when leveling, the protagonist able to hold eight at any given time, and needing to “forget” one ability to learn another when his skillset is full. The movement and illumination of the Magatama icons on their respective interface screen hints at how close the Demi-fiend is to acquiring a skill from one of them when leveling.

During dungeon exploration, the color of the player’s compass, in enemy-infested areas, gradually shifts from yellow to red to indicate how close they are to encountering enemies, which as always alleviates the tension affiliated with random battles. Certain items and abilities can adjust the encounter rate, as well, which is perfectly fair even without modifications. Treasures in the various dungeons also come in two varieties: floating cache cubes that may bear an item, trap, or battle, and mystical chests, which provide the best loot when the Kagutsuchi is full, else they may yield inferior treasure.

Battles themselves pit the Demi-fiend against an enemy party, the demonic protagonist able to parley with enemies to get them to join his party, or give money and treasure, the first choice typically the most preferrable option. Demons will make demands such as money or items including Chakra Drops and Life Stones, and tend at times to flake out on negotiation and run away with the provided offering, although one demon skill can eliminate this loss. Monsters may also ask philosophical questions that the player needs to answer “correctly,” else they may flee or surprise-attack the player’s party, with some occasional inconsistency as to which responses are “right”, even with the same demons.

Once the player acquires a demon, they register in the Demon Compendium, from which the Demi-fiend can summon a registered incarnation for a price, which I personally found vastly preferrable to recruiting the same monsters again through the unpredictable negotiation process. Regularly registering current demons, especially if the player has leveled them, spares them the need to regrind them, and also at Cathedrals of Shadows, the player can fuse two demons (and sacrifice a third during a full Kagutsuchi) to create another, with this method being my chief method of acquiring new allies, occasionally resummoning older ones from the Compendium to either grind them further or fuse them.

As with most other RPGs, though, the player can battle encountered demons, with the Demi-fiend’s party consisting of himself and up to three demonic allies squaring off against foes, with each side having separate turn sessions. Each side has a number of Press Turn icons depending upon how many units there are for either party, with the standard successful performance of an action consuming one of the icons. However, either passing to the next character with the next-highest agility, exploiting an elemental weakness, or landing a critical physical attack or skill strike, consumes only half an icon, which is a significant strategic aspect towards success throughout the game.

However, if one character or opponent’s command the other side voids, two Press Turn icons disappear, with the reflection or absorption of skills outright ending one side’s session and letting the other take their turns. Battles are significantly quicker than average for a turn-based RPG, with standard fights rarely exceeding a minute, or even half of one, making grinding for experience and money (each of which the player can accomplish even more easily through paid DLC maps) largely a cinch. When leveling, the Demi-fiend may learn a skill from his current Magatama, with ally demon skills occasionally unlocked as well, like the hero only able to have eight at once.

Demonic allies may occasionally give the Demi-fiend gifts in the form of gems the player can use at a special shop in Ginza to purchase rare items and elemental allies or powerful consumable items, with the protagonist gaining one point per level obtained that the player can invest into one of five different stats, with several areas in the main extra dungeon, the Labyrinth of Amala, requiring a certain amount of strength (as does the acquisition of a Magatama from behind a locked door), magic, or luck to access, so players may wish to focus initially on those stats.

Especially on difficulties above Merciful, Nocturne is definitely one of those games the player has to “git gud” at, since death can come easily if the player isn’t careful, the Demi-fiend’s death giving players a trip back to the title screen (although the Game Over is one of the more creative ones in JRPG land). There are a few Guide Dang It! moments as well, particularly with respect to acquiring some of the higher-level Magatama, and there are other things of which the player, especially if new to the game or franchise, needs to be aware of, such as the loss of access to the main extra dungeon if advancing far enough without exploring at least the First Kalpa. As long as the player plays their cards right, however, combat is a very satisfying, rewarding experience.

Most of the dungeon design is absolutely superb.

Nocturne also sports some of the strongest dungeon design in the history of Japanese RPGs, with the automaps in particularly especially helping players through some of the more complicated ones, although a minimap on the main exploration screen would have spared frequent trips to the maps. The Vortex World, however, doesn’t have a map, and the game is occasionally vague as to where the player needs to go next to advance the central storyline without the use of a guide. Control does have plentiful positive aspects such as the easy menus, skippable cutscene text, and ability to warp between major visited areas via save terminals. Interaction, however, does have other issues such as the sometimes-iffy placement of save points and inability to view playtime except on the save screen, but otherwise, Nocturne generally interacts well with players.

The remaster definitely sounds the part, with composer Shoji Meguro providing a number of excellent tracks that sound superb and create an excellent ambience. Nocturne further averts the typical JRPG issue of repetitive battle music with many different themes even during normal battles, different boss tracks depending upon how critical said bosses are, and the ability through paid DLC to switch the overworld exploration and battle music to those from other mainline Shin Megami Tensei games. The rerelease also sports voice acting in English and Japanese, the former sounding great for the most part, the occasional voice clips for demons in combat intact, as well. There are some areas without music, and occasional overlap of voice clips, but otherwise, the game sounds excellent.

The remastered visuals are look pretty, the cel-shaded style of the original version retained with significantly-fewer jaggies and superb character and demon models with realistic anatomy and animation. The art direction is also solid, with the humanoid characters containing distinctive designs, and there’s a noticeable deficit of reskinned adversaries. The combat graphics shine as well, with great animation on both sides and details such as units on either side flinching when attacked, which in the case of standard attacks occurs with actual combat instead of telekinetically like in older games. There are some parts that eluded remastery such as the FMVs and occasional blurry, pixilated textures, but Nocturne is very much a graphical treat.

Finally, the remaster is neither too long or short, taking somewhere from one to two days’ worth of playtime to finish, with extras such as the extra dungeons, different plot decisions and endings, PlayStation Trophies, and New Game+ enhancing lasting appeal very well.

In the end Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster is an excellent rerelease that hits many of the right notes, particularly with regards to its quick and tight game mechanics, above-average control, great narrative with potential variations, superb soundtrack, pretty visuals, and plentiful lasting appeal. There are some things, however, of which mainstream gamers need to be aware before purchase such as issues with control and plot direction, as well as the potential difficulty of going into the game blind, but it’s definitely a bucket-list game, and points towards a bright future for the series with the possibility of further rereleases of its many brethren.

This review is based on a playthrough of the Digital Deluxe Edition purchased and downloaded to the reviewer’s PlayStation 4 on Merciful difficulty with the True Demon Ending attained.

The Good:
+Quick, tight, strategic battle system with adjustable difficulty.
+Superb dungeon design with helpful in-game maps.
+Great story with multiple branches and endings that never feels forced down the player’s throat.
+Excellent sound.
+Remastered graphics create awesome atmosphere.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Don’t go into the game blind.
-Some issues with control and plot direction.
-A few parts of the graphics eluded remastery.

The Bottom Line:
“Required reading” for those with a passing interest in Japanese RPGs.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Localization: 8.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 9.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2+ Days

Overall: 9.5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment