Amidst surprisingly reputable, believable hype over the last month that we could be seeing a second Persona 3 remake/remaster this year, Atlus bringing fans to games they previously couldn’t play may also cast a light on a different game they revisited just a couple years ago.
However, the mainline Shin Megami Tensei franchise may be under the same ‘umbrella’ as Persona, and it may include many familiar ‘demons’ to players who have played Persona, but it overall plays far, far differently. Today’s review is going to have a look at a game in that franchise Atlus touched up a couple short years ago- the third iteration dubbed “Nocturne.”
Before looking at the pros and cons, let’s discuss briefly how SMT 3 differs from the Persona series in a few quick blurbs
- It is mainly combat oriented. Fighting mechanics and various combat related gimmicks are generally much, much more intricate than Persona. Moreover, there are absolutely zero Social Links.
- The game is much less hand-holdy than Persona. There is no Navigator here to shower your team with buffs and healing all the time. There is no easy, free way the game gives to memorize an enemy’s resistances and weaknesses. Of course, if the main character dies, the game ends and sends the player back to the main menu- this could cause a massive loss of progress if the player doesn’t make sure to save their game often.
- There is no real ‘down time’ in this game. Most of the traversable world exposes the player to random combat encounters, and there’s generally always a specific goal the game is giving the player. Predictably, there is basically zero ‘slice of life’ anything in this game that would put the main narrative on hold.
- All of the aforementioned points make Nocturne, in a nutshell, quite a bit more challenging than Persona games. Depending on how experienced the player is with RPG mechanics, they may find themselves needing to ‘level grind’ to overcome a particular challenge a handful of times in this game.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk “Great, Good, Bad and Ugly” as per usual.
Not only does the majority of Tokyo look absolutely visually stunning, even for a game made in 2003, but each city as well as the overworld plays really, really well. They’re all quite distinct and many give the player reasons to come back later, whether story related or due to the need to visit a specific merchant or other location. Dungeons are typically quite fun or even thrilling to engage with as well, offering unique gimmicks that help them to really stand out. Manipulating the phases of the moon to complete puzzles inside the Obelisk was probably the most intricate. Going through several trippy optical illusions at the Diet Building, invading the quarters of a god to steal ancient currency as a quest item and having what is basically a cage match with Thor to escape a prison are also not things I would have expected from a game in 2003.
Even after receiving an HD Remastering, this game definitely shows its age as far as graphical fidelity goes. However, it is very clear that a lot of love went into making it look as good as humanly possible, in charming, thoughtful ways that modern video games simply miss on for the most part. In the above animation, Mother Harlot gives a funny, simple ‘cheers’ with her glass, shouts “now die!” and casts her spell. We range from this, to a hilariously over the top “HELL YEAH!” before Hell Biker crashes straight into an enemy with his motorcycle, all the way to Trumpeter’s trumpet actually playing music when he goes to use an attack of his own, even having unique tunes for his exclusive Melody attacks.
In today’s world, this sort of charm and general wit is either expressed completely differently or, more frequently, simply doesn’t exist. Things like this are how you can tell the game came before micro-transactions, money-fueled publisher demands or general “politicing” started becoming commonplace.
Matador Boss Fight
This boss fight is an absolute gem, and is probably the overall best the game has to offer. It’s an absolutely amazing ‘teacher’ as Matador is essentially the first real boss the player has to face after they complete the “tutorial” of sorts. He comes out of the gate guns a-blazing, revealing an exclusive move of his that throws a real wrench in the formula the game has shown the player to this point. He has no weaknesses to exploit, forcing the player to confront his gimmick to prevail. This does a stellar job setting the table and giving the player a way to figure out how to deal with other conflicts found later in the game.
This boss wasn’t just great for the fight itself, however. The cutscene prior to the fight is very entertaining. Matador’s voice is very distinct and threatening. The script writing is very on point. And the small dimensional hellscape the player finds themselves in, combined with the music, make for a really nice battlefield. It’s slightly over the top, but to an enjoyable extent.
Death, taxes and Atlus making absolutely stellar music in their video games are just what we should automatically expect out of life. Especially by 2003 standards, the tracks in this game are just glorious. The Beelzebub fight has six different instruments played at once, played quickly in perfect harmony. It’s a way that’s incredibly over the top, but not to the point where it becomes too chaotic or annoying to listen to for this lengthy encounter. Apart from that, the themes played while traversing the Labyrinth of Amala, Ikebukuro or Shibuya are genuinely infectious; the type of music that ends up stuck in your head all day at your 9-5 or during school.
It might be more of a challenge to actually find a track that isn’t somehow a total banger, than it would be to identify a track that’s particularly good or great in this game.
The Voice Acting of Patrick Seitz
He doesn’t get too many lines, but the small selection of lines Hell Biker reads are just amazing. Patrick Seitz genuinely makes Hell Biker sound like Randy Savage, cruising around in a loud motorcycle engine amidst some type of flaming purgatory, set to do battle with the player. What’s better is, if the player adds Hell Biker to their own team, they get to hear him “YEEHAW”, “HELL YEAH” and “TAKE THIS!” when fighting for them quite frequently.
There is a lot of charm in this game in general. As was alluded to previously, it’s evident that Atlus put a lot of love into this game that ascends its dated graphics easily. There really isn’t any hand holding in this game, so Atlus had a lot more room to mess with the player’s mind in fair but also funny and creative ways that just exude charm. In the above example, the Soul shown will fully heal the player’s team seemingly for a very small fee. However, as the Soul is a bartender, she will continually push drinks onto the player if they accept that not only end up costing them much more money, but cause them to black out and end up warped back to the beginning of the dungeon they were in. There is never any warning that anything other than spending money to get healed will take place, apart from the somewhat shady, skeptical way the player is greeted by this Soul. Countless examples of genuine charm could be given about this game, and it’s another way of showing Atlus really put their all into this it, for more than just the bottom line.
Of course, compared to Persona, this game abandons the social or slice of life aspect completely, in favor of providing challenging, rewarding combat-focused gameplay. That clearly means the fighting has to be pretty solid. And here, it is. For the most part, it’s what you’d expect out of a turn based RPG. Those who have played Persona, or even a different turn based game like Pokémon, will quickly feel right at home. In that sense, it’s basic enough to provide a player friendly surface level experience.
On a more intricate level, mechanics in this game are hit or miss, but tend to overall pass more than fail. Perhaps the most notable difference between this game and Persona are how ‘buffs’ and ‘debuffs’ which influence active stats work. Here, Attack, Defense and Evasion can go all the way to +4 or -4, and unlike Persona, these afflictions remain for the entirety of combat unless someone uses a move that overrides the buff or debuff manually. Naturally, that makes these moves even more valuable than they are in Persona, and they were already incredibly valuable in Persona to begin with.
As far as more niche, focused mechanics pertaining to bosses go, this is mostly what caused this topic to end up under “Good” instead of “Great.” That isn’t to say the boss fights are at all bad- quite the opposite, Matador and co. can definitely offer some stiff, fun opposition. However, two bosses with highly controversial, debatable mechanics come to mind- Trumpeter and Beelzebub. These two, without providing spoilers, can wield powers that can instantly defeat the player without any warning, and their counterplay is obscure and lacking in any intuition at all. Unless you Google them, there is simply no way for the player to know how to defend themselves against these. Once the player learns, it turns out these two mechanics are decently fun and unique to deal with- it’s just a bit cumbersome that there’s no telegraph on how to do so at all, whatsoever.
Overall, there really isn’t too much to criticize this game for. There will be nothing for the ‘Ugly’ category, and even the one thing for ‘Bad’ isn’t even too, too big of a blunder.
In all, there are six endings, five if you play the very first, original version on the PlayStation 2. This includes a “True” Ending, a “Bad” Ending, and four endings which can be boiled down to “you chose to side with *this character* and this is how things panned out, for better or worse.” On paper, these endings are fairly simple to explain and even to achieve should the player specifically aim for them.
The issue with these endings has nothing to do with what any of them entail, but rather how they are acquired. For the most part, they aren’t really achieved by fighting certain bosses, obtaining certain items or playing the game with a certain specific playstyle. Endings in this game have ‘flags’, and every single one of them is checked off through dialogue. Scarcely, dialogue is straightforward, such as choosing whether or not to betray Futomimi and the Manikins in Asakusa or whether or not to fight Hikawa at the Diet Building. At other points, without looking it up, the player could very easily render an ending impossible to achieve by unknowingly clicking one button during a conversation that seems to have nothing in the manner of importance to it.
Essentially, this dilemma is similar in nature to the Beelzebub/Trumpeter caveat discussed earlier. It lacks in intuition. Sure, we don’t need a Persona-esque bunching together of huge text in a weird font that constantly tells the player what to do. But if the player is about to make a massive decision that will change the landscape of their entire playthrough, it should either be very obvious, or at the very least shouldn’t take place amidst what is otherwise completely casual dialogue.
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