Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster preview for Nintendo Switch: New graphics, old gameplay

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Boss
Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Boss (Image credit: iMore)

Shin Megami Tensei III was first released on the PlayStation 2 in 2003, and its strange story and tough combat made the JRPG series a cult hit. While its sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV, was released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2013, Shin Megami Tensei III hasn't been available on any other console until now.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne Remaster will join the impressive collection of remakes and remasters on Nintendo Switch on May 25. I got to check out the first two and half hours of the game and found that while the graphics look good and the story and atmosphere are wonderfully creepy, the mechanics could have used some updates. Series loyalists who missed the game the first time around or haven't played it in a while will likely enjoy the chance to experience the franchise's history with some visual and audio improvements, but newcomers who prefer the quality of life improvements found in modern games might want to wait for Shin Megami Tensei V.

It's the end of the world as we know it

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Isamu

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Isamu (Image credit: iMore)

All of the Shin Megami Tensei games feature some sort of cosmic apocalypse, but Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster feels the most like a horror game. It starts with your protagonist and two of his high school classmates being asked to go to a hospital to meet with their teacher for some career advice. Somehow the students don't think it's peculiar they're being asked to go to a hospital instead of just meeting at the school until they show up and find the place abandoned.

It turns out the world is about to end, and you three have been chosen to survive the coming cataclysm and help shape what the new world will look like. When the destruction begins, you're visited by an extremely creepy veiled old woman and her childlike "little master" who has chosen to bestow you with demonic power, which takes the form of some impressive glowing tattoos. You awaken with new abilities in a hazardous world primarily occupied by demons and ghosts. You'll have to learn how to use your new power quickly to survive.

Updated visuals and voiced audio

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Fusion

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Fusion (Image credit: iMore)

The HD visuals Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster, for the most part, look great, though some flexible images like the demon fusion cinematics don't feel as sharp as the rest of the graphics. The game is pretty dark, which adds to the creepy vibe but makes it hard to make out details in the labyrinthine dungeons. I recommend turning up your brightness, though that still won't help with a lack of details in the world map, which can make it difficult to figure out where you need to go to enter a new zone.

The remaster has also added voiced audio for most of the key characters, though not everyone you interact with. The performances are solid, but the flat facial expressions and minimal movements on the animated characters can make the dialogue fairly off-putting. There are also some discrepancies between the audio and the written text that go beyond the modifications expected from a game where you can change character names. The update isn't as noticeable as you might think since there are such long stretches when you won't really interact with another voiced character. Luckily the soundtrack does plenty of heavy lifting, alternating between ethereal and thrumming electronic music.

Play on easy mode

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Pixie

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Pixie (Image credit: iMore)

I tried out the new Merciful difficulty for the preview, an easy mode meant for players who want to experience the story without worrying too much about the game's strategy. I found it exceptionally easy, with my character and his demon companions dodging most attacks and regularly critically hitting enemies, though they still did take some hits.

Your game's difficulty can be changed at any time, so you're welcome to try Merciful and then change to Normal if you want more of a challenge. I'd probably recommend avoiding frustration since the game doesn't auto-save, and save points are relatively uncommon, unlike in Shin Megami Tensei IV, where you can save at any point. A key part of the game is exploiting your enemies' weaknesses, and if you don't have the right team or abilities equipped to your protagonist, you can wind up in a much tougher fight than you were ready for. That's especially true since dungeons follow the old-school model of truly random encounters rather than showing you nearby enemies on the map.

Room for improvement

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Old Woman

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Old Woman (Image credit: iMore)

The gameplay in Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD wasn't changed, and it really shows its age compared to the quality of life improvements found in Shin Megami Tensei IV and more recent games. In Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD, you have to take an action that requires mana points to analyze an enemy to determine its elemental weaknesses and resistances. Even when you've figured them out, you can't refer back to that information later — you need to remember it.

You'll be spending a lot of time talking to demons to try to get them to join your party so that they'll fight on your behalf, or you can fuse them and your other demons into more powerful forms with new abilities. These negotiations are one of the most entertaining segments of the game, involving doling out bribes and being aware of how demons are affected by the waxing and waning of the new celestial object that guides the game's chaotic world. But in combat, you can't easily check your current demon inventory to see if you would want to recruit a demon or even double-check the families of your current demons to determine if you'll have an easier time negotiating with the one you're battling.

There's also no way to auto-heal your party after combat, a big time-saver in newer JRPGs. So far, you also can only fuse new demons at specific locations rather than being able to do it anywhere like in Shin Megami Tensei IV, though this power may unlock later in the game.

The world map also resembles the highly abstract ones found in the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor series, which worked well there because everywhere you went was ticking down your clock to the end of the world so you needed a big map to see all your options clearly. Here moving around your little arrows to talk to other arrows or try to figure out what areas of the map are accessible feels like a real waste of time.

Final thoughts

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Underground Facility

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Underground Facility (Image credit: iMore)

Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne HD is a bizarre and creepy game, and I look forward to exploring more of its story. I can absolutely understand why this title was beloved in 2003, but the fresh graphics put on it aren't really enough for it to feel up to the standards of a 2021 Nintendo Switch title. If ATLUS had made just a few gameplay improvements, I think the remaster would be truly great. As it is, I'm left feeling even more excited about Shin Megami Tensei V's release on the system later this year, which I hope will give me the dramatic story the series is known for combined with a more modern gaming experience.

Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD releases on May 25 on Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Steam, with early access on May 21 available with the purchase of the Digital Deluxe edition. Check back here next month for a full review.

Samantha Nelson

Samantha Nelson writes about gaming and electronics for iMore, Windows Central and Android Central while also covering nerd culture for publications including IGN and Polygon. She loves superheroes, RPGs, cooking, and spending time outside with her dog. You can follow her on Twitter @samanthanelson1.