The best way to play a legendary game, but maybe not the best it could have been.
I was shocked and excited when an HD remaster of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was announced last summer in a Nintendo Partner Showcase; despite being a fan of SMT and its spin-off subseries,I never had the opportunity to play the original PlayStation 2 game back in the day. Nearly 20 years later Nocturne has finally made its way to Nintendo systems, and Atlus hasn’t sacrificed any of the game’s uniquely bleak themes or incredible difficulty to make it happen—although a relaxed “merciful” difficulty has been added for the sake of those who just want to see the story. This classic JRPG has been faithfully ported to Switch with minimal changes, but unfortunately some of the hardware limitations of the PS2 have come along for the ride as well.
Nocturne wastes no time in establishing its tone, as the apocalyptic end of the world known as the Conception occurs within the game’s first half hour. Tokyo has folded in on itself to become a concave sphere, and demons now roam the land in place of humans. You are one of the few survivors of the Conception and have been granted arcane powers that transform you into a being known as the Demi-Fiend. My preview time with the game was limited—we were only allowed to cover the first two and a half hours of gameplay—so I have no idea where the story goes from there. But I do know that it somehow features Dante from the Devil May Cry series (or, if you haven’t purchased the Maniax DLC, Raidou Kuzunoha from SMT: Devil Summoner). The majority of the game’s opening is spent in Shinjuku Medical Center, which fills the role of a dungeon. The only objective given to you is to leave the hospital, which is easier said than done due to the presence of a powerful demon called Forneus who is guarding the only exit. Simply getting to Forneus is a challenging task in itself since you need to navigate the hospital and explore its multiple floors in order to find security passes to let you through locked doors and navigate through an underground facility with no clear direction. It’s easy to get lost and turned around with so much of the dungeon looking the same, but the inclusion of a comprehensive map on the pause menu makes it easy to tell where you have and have not been. If you’re not sure where to go, then an unexplored section of the map is a good place to start.
Simply getting to Forneus is only half the battle though, since you will have to literally do battle with him and countless other demons along the way in order to secure your safety. Combat is turn-based and heavily influenced by an elemental weakness system. If you’ve never played an SMT game before it kind of works like Pokémon, with enemies being weak or strong against certain elements (although there’s no firm consistency; being strong against ice doesn’t necessarily make you weak to fire). This will obviously affect the damage being dealt in a fight, but it also affects the turn order, which is probably more important in a fight than your raw damage output.
Turn order in Nocturne works off of a system called “Turn Press”, where actions are kind of like a consumable resource represented by turn icons in the corner of the screen. At the start of your turn you’ll usually have as many turn icons as you do party members with each action consuming one turn icon. Once you’re out of turn icons control passes to the enemy demons. Successfully hitting an enemy’s weakness will only consume half of a turn icon, so you can effectively double your number of actions before the enemy’s next turn. Poor outcomes such as missing an attack or hitting an enemy with an element that they’re strong against will instead double the number of turn icons consumed, returning control to the opponent faster. Enemy demons also play by the same rules with their own turn icons, so you’ll need to pay attention to your team’s strengths and weaknesses in order to get the most out of your turns while trying to prevent the opponent from getting the chance to steamroll you.
Nocturne’s greatest weakness is probably how unfriendly it is to new players. It effectively has no tutorial, throwing you directly into the action and giving you a real fight (which can and probably will defeat you on harder difficulty levels). Key mechanics like how to convince demons to join you or the phases-of-the-moon system that affects enemy demon strength are only explained by missable nameless NPCs who only explain the surface-level details of the mechanics. I didn’t really feel like this was a problem since Nocturne is nearly two decades old, so there are plenty of resources online that can explain the game’s systems in detail, but this is something that newcomers will need to be aware of from the start of the game. To truly understand what you’re doing you’ll either have to do some independent studying online or a lot of trial and error. As for the experience of playing the remaster on Switch, it is certainly an improvement from the PS2 original but I am left pretty disappointed by some of the things they chose not to improve. Major story scenes are now fully voice-acted, which is a welcome addition alongside a touched-up localization that’s gone over the game’s entire script to give dialogue more personality. Demon fusion has also been improved with the ability to manually select skills to be inherited instead of them being randomly chosen, but since fusion is only unlocked a couple minutes before the preview cut-off I didn’t get a chance to really experiment with it.
The biggest downside in the remaster is the heavy audio compression that’s wreaked havoc on the game’s battle music. Nocturne’s soundtrack was significantly degraded in order to save space on the original PS2 disc, and this has sadly not been improved in the remaster. The result is a horrific clash of quality as the pristinely recorded voice acting leads into music that sounds like it was crunched down to fit on an N64 cartridge. It’s baffling and incredibly disappointing that this was considered acceptable for a 2021 release on modern hardware since you can pull up a rip of the OST that was uploaded to YouTube before the Obama administration and it’ll still be a better audio quality than this remaster. Every battle track in the game seems to be affected, so this problem is extremely pervasive over the course of a long JRPG.
Given the game’s greath length, I can tell that my time so far has barely scratched the surface. I’ve hardly had time to really experiment with the gameplay mechanics, and I don’t have much of an idea at all as to where the story will take me from here. Despite this I’m incredibly excited to see more; with deep combat mechanics and an intriguing and twisted world to explore I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen so far a lot. Nocturne is a beloved JRPG with a fantastic pedigree, so I only expect it to get even better from here.