This week, Japanese video game developer Atlus released a remaster for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for Sony PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Released 18 years ago for PlayStation 2, Nocturne made for a challenging twist in the history of Japanese role-playing games with turn-based combat. The story opens in Tokyo on a sunny day that so happens to mark the end of the world.
The high school student Naoki emerges from a subway station as he’s rushing to meet his friends around town. His friends aren’t very friendly, though, and their teen dickishness will prove disastrous in due time. Gathered together in an abandoned hospital, Naoki, his classmates, their homeroom teacher, and a couple of mysterious strangers witness a global cataclysm known as the Conception, which wipes humanity from the earth. But the Conception spares the hospital, and so the few humans there emerge unscathed into the new world. Down in the morgue, Naoki meets two mysterious figures who persuade him to swallow a large parasitic worm, called a magatama, which makes Naoki half man, half demon. He’s now tattooed from head to toe in neon stripes. He’s able to regurgitate the parasite he’s ingested and consume the others that he acquires during his postapocalyptic travels. But Naoki can’t reverse his transformation. Henceforth, he’s known as the Demi-fiend.
Nocturne turns Tokyo into a crackling desert hellscape, but our stoic hero Demi-fiend rarely speaks. The soundtrack shreds—the series composer Shoji Meguro pumps a lot of metal and electronic influences into Nocturne—but otherwise this is a shockingly plaintive JRPG. It’s the most acclaimed entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series, which began with Shin Megami Tensei on Super Nintendo and will continue later this year with SMT V for Nintendo Switch.
Yet Nocturne and the other SMT titles have been eclipsed in recent years by the spinoff series Persona, which appropriates the combat and occultism of SMT in service of a brighter and more sociable experience: high school heroes working part-time jobs, cramming for exams, and going on dates in between excursions to the underworld. Unlike Nocturne, your friends in Persona are, well, friendly. Despite the demons and systems in common, Persona and Nocturne couldn’t be any more opposed to each other in terms of sensibility. Nocturne is grim and sparse; Persona is cute and groovy. Nocturne presents a ruined world with many possibilities for cultivating a new civilization in the subsequent political vacuum, but no clear path to global reconstitution. It’s a demon-eat-demon struggle from one save point to the next.
So the Demi-fiend explores the ruins of Tokyo in Nocturne. Time and again he encounters his old classmates Isamu and Chiaki, their former teacher Yuko, the doomsday-cult leader Hikawa, and the investigative journalist Hijiri. The Demi-fiend meets demons, too, and often they want to kill him, but sometimes they prefer to accompany him during the journey and can be summoned to fight alongside Naoki in battle.
The demons unleashed by the Conception overrun Tokyo only to mimic humanity’s pastimes, loitering in bars, malls, and parks, passing the time with small talk and aimless violence. The more ambitious demons hope to sponsor a human who develops a sound governing philosophy, also known as a Reason, for the soon-to-be-reborn world. The Demi-fiend can’t produce a Reason, given his compromised humanity, but his friends can and struggle to develop a durable one. Chiaki, a wealthy brat, becomes a genocidaire. Isamu, a vengeful loner, proposes a world where the new humans live in dreamlike isolation from one another. The Demi-fiend can only marvel at his friends’ intellectual depravity and lend his support or opposition to their respective world views. The discernment between the world views on offer hints at the branching of bad, good, and best endings often found in other role-playing games, including Persona. But the humans in Nocturne each produce Reasons with obvious dystopian shortcomings; there’s no “good” ending in the contest to succeed god. If the player clears several complex mazes and defeats a few tough bosses, the Demi-fiend can spurn the humans altogether and cast his lot with Lucifer. It’s good to have options!
The combat in Shin Megami Tensei and Persona somewhat resembles that of other popular JRPGs—most closely, Pokémon—but Atlus has developed a distinct series of mechanics and incentives in its turn-based games, including Nocturne. You gain extra turns for exploiting an opponent’s elemental weakness and scoring critical hits; you forfeit turns when you whiff on attacks or take hits to your own weaknesses. You must prioritize passive spells, such as stat boosts for your own team (“buffs”), or stat penalties for your opponents (“debuffs”), in order to multiply your effectiveness.
Persona bears these hallmarks, too, but it leaves a lot more room for improvisation and inattention to details. There’s no brute-forcing your way through Nocturne. You lose fights by ignoring the quirks of SMT combat, and you win fights by exploiting them. The early boss Matador, a fiend who blocks your party’s passage to Ikebukuro, more or less requires you to internalize the hallmarks of combat in SMT in order to overcome his impressive moves and stats. But the boss fights aren’t as troublesome as the frequent, randomized encounters with common enemies who are quick and strong enough to ambush your party and send you to the game-over screen before you can enter even a single command. On hard mode you may well get a game over in the opening tutorial. There’s a distinct thrill in Nocturne that always keeps you a turn or two away from collapse. So you strategize every turn like it’s your last.
The term “remaster” gets thrown around a lot to describe video games these days, sometimes meaning a remake, sometimes meaning a reboot; Nocturne might be more reasonably described as a rerelease. Even the remastered graphics are crude, and the remastered soundtrack remains garbled. The new version adds voice acting for the key characters, and this is the most audacious improvement upon the original game. I’d hoped Atlus would update the world map to represent the Demi-fiend as something other than a quaint blue marker, but no. Nocturne has always been a rough gem. You’ll die in random encounters. You’ll be lost and exhausted two hours into a subterranean maze. You’ll consult Google Maps for a more sensible rendition of Tokyo than the game offers. Nocturne gives you a hard time, for a long time—we’re talking about a 60-hour game here—and you’ll sit there wondering how you’ve managed to love every second.