Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

This was the first main series title to get an international release, I guess because the moral guardians finally quieted down enough for Atlus to feel comfortable floating their screed about the many evils of Christianity to the rest of the world. But did you know it’s actually not the first entry in the overall franchise to get such a privilege? A few spinoff games got American releases earlier, where the series title was localized as Revelations. That’s genuinely such a great title. “Resurrection of the Goddess” may be literally accurate to the Japanese title, but it’s an artifact title with no meaning for most of the games. But “Revelations” so neatly encapsulates what the games are about both literally and symbolically on so many levels, and it’s a Bible reference!

So of course when it came time to finally bring a main series title international they decided to throw that in the garbage so they could not bother translating the title at all instead, because what is localization.

So it’s time to explore Revelations Untranslated Word Salad III: Nocturne, the third numbered entry which is actually the fourth entry, or sixth if you count the pre-reboot Megami Tensei games. The franchisening has truly begun.

This game is for the PS2 rather than the SNES, so it’s a huge jump in quality on many levels. We get a proper third-person camera instead of first-person staring at walls all the time, everyone has fully-animated models, demons can level up, and the battle system is more complex.

This game introduces the “press turn” system used in Devil Survivor and the rest of the franchise, where striking an elemental weakness gets you an extra turn but hitting a resistance costs you turns. I like this, because it adds more tactical depth to using elements than just “do more damage”, and also requires you to think more carefully about AoE attacks, because if one enemy is weak but one is resistant the effects can cancel out. This goes double when a lot of enemies reflect or absorb attacks instead of just blocking them. I feel it does run into the problem that hitting elemental weaknesses is what’s tactically optimal anyway, so it’s not like you’re making a choice between tradeoffs, just rewarded even more for playing optimally. It’s still better than most jRPGs.

Unfortunately, they also made the baffling decision to incorporate misses and criticals into this system too, so your turns can get wildly swingy through nothing but random chance. (There’s one early boss in particular who is an absolute brick wall because of this.) It makes evasive enemies an absolute nightmare to deal with, and can allow bosses to annihilate you without warning if they happen to get an extra turn through a lucky crit.

The game adds a number of other interesting mechanics as well. Most significantly: demons can level up now! This helps a lot to avoid making EXP feel “wasted” and allows you to keep a demon competitive if you really like it. It does, however, make it a bit less clear that you’re supposed to fuse demons up; this confused me in Devil Survivor, where for a while I didn’t understand why my demons were getting so weak even though they were leveling up. Fusion is still encouraged, but more subtly: Demons’ EXP requirements grow much faster than your character’s, so they will fall behind and plateau until you fuse them into stronger demons.

We also see here the introduction of passive skills. While not as much a cornerstone of strategy as they would become in Devil Survivor, it was nice to see them again. In particular, there are passive skills that assist in negotiations, including one that prevents the demon from just taking your money and running, which is very welcome after how often that happened to me in previous games. However, unlike in Devil Survivor, active and passive skills compete for the same skill slots, which makes them a bit tricky to juggle. This goes double because, again unlike in Devil Survivor, you can’t swap out skills freely; if you discard a skill to make room in your limited skill space, it’s gone forever. This is my one big gripe with the game, as it forces you to be a generalist and makes niche specialist skills like the Boosts essentially unusable. Permanently sacrificing even one-fourth of your elemental coverage to make one spell slightly stronger is madness, especially given how strongly the press turn system values elemental play. Devil Survivor constantly engaged your brain by letting you mix-and-match your character builds for every fight, but here you’re just doing the same thing every fight.

But more interesting than passive skills is that demons can initiate conversation themselves now! There are actually several different “speech” skills each with their own gimmicks, such as specifically asking for items/money rather than recruitment, or being more effective when you are above or below the target in level. The only problem is that they take up the same space as regular skills, so they’re often first on the chopping block. Since they’re rarely better than your main character’s regular talk skill that doesn’t take up a slot, they’re rarely worth keeping over a more useful battle ability. I do really like the idea, though, since it gives us more demon-demon interactions. I just wish it could have been its own slot separate from regular skills.

Oh, and equipment is gone now, which is a welcome change. The equipment system in the previous games felt more like an artifact of the series’ RPG inspirations that only served to distract from the demon mechanics, often because human weapons far outclassed anything a demon could do. You do sort of have equipment here, but it’s a highly streamlined all-in-one system: You can bond with demonic symbiotes that give you elemental resistances (and weaknesses!) and stat boosts as well as teaching you new skills, but you can only use one at a time. It works really well, nice and snappy and gives you multiple tradeoffs to think about.

Fortunately, the game avoids the Pokemon problem of money being meaningless without equipment to buy, because of yet another new feature: Any demon you’ve already obtained can be resummoned at any time for a small fortune. This saves so, so much time compared to fiddling with Bronze Boxes. The costs are affordable enough that you can use them in a pinch when you really need a specific demon, but expensive enough that you can’t abuse it to avoid going out and grabbing new demons like you’re supposed to. As a bonus, it lets you summon your particular demon, not the factory default, so if you spend ages configuring the perfect build for a demon you can fuse it off without losing all that work forever. It also saves experience levels, which as a completionist made me feel better about fusing demons without maxing out their levels first; you can always resummon them later and continue where you left off.

Finally, a minor thing that disappointed me: They seem to have removed the unique flavor of Hama vs. Mudo. In previous games, Hama was specialized while Mudo was generalized; Hama was almost guaranteed to work against undead but useless or near-useless against everything else, while most demons were at least somewhat vulnerable to Mudo but very few were outright weak to it. Here they seem to have the same baseline effectiveness, making them interchangeable unless you’re fighting undead or angels. They also seem to have severely nerfed both of them in general, as even using the upgraded versions against enemies supposedly weak to them failed more often than not in my experience. (This hits Daisoujou particularly hard since he specializes in them; he’s clearly supposed to be a terrifying death god who can wipe entire encounters with a single spell, but in practice that almost never happens.)

So, I’m overall extremely pleased with the new gameplay features. The previous SMT games were solid, but still pretty basic jRPGs beyond the demon summoning mechanic. This game is where SMT truly becomes SMT and introduces many great mechanics that form the core identity of the franchise going forward.

If only it didn’t have to be paired with a dumpster fire of a plot.

This game is a reboot, starting us in pre-apocalypse Tokyo and then speedrunning into the apocalypse immediately after the prologue. Unlike in previous games, you have no human party members: the protagonist himself starts human but is turned into a demon to help him survive the apocalypse. As a transhumanist nerd I found this very cool, and a much better explanation for how our protagonist can go toe-to-toe with demons.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly transhumanist enough. His demon-ness is mostly limited to superficial traits like his tattoos and eye color. I was hoping for him to grow more demonic as the plot progressed, but no such luck.

Also, bear with me here, but I feel it would have been better if he hadn’t kept any clothes at all. We needn’t have full frontal underage nudity; they could have covered him up with fur or Ken doll anatomy. But human clothes are just, well, so human. It distracts from the story’s insistence that he’s not really human anymore when he can’t even ditch his goofy sneakers. Give him cool claw feet or faun legs, something. This is especially bizarre when they did this exactly right in the previous game: Check out Amon!Akira from If, who looks far more inhuman despite only being possessed by a demon. How they managed to go from that to this is beyond me.

Although, speaking of inappropriate nudity…

This is what angels look like in this game. For reference, this was their sprite in the SNES games:

Wikipedia tells me the same artist designed both, so I have no idea what’s going on. I guess he’s more into 3D e-girls than 2D, or he got really into BDSM between games? Weirdly, the Nekomata is actually less sexualized in this game (SMTIII vs. SMTII), but the angel more than makes up for it. I guess he was into angels but not furries.

Anyway, back to the plot. If that felt like a jarringly abrupt transition, you have a good idea of what it feels like to watch the cutscenes. The plot is an absolutely incoherent mess that gives the player no agency. I was constantly asking myself, “Wait, what am I doing again?” because you’re just buffeted from one event flag to the next with zero effort put into connecting them. Every single plot point is an NPC telling you something is happening somewhere so you should go there, whereupon you get to sit around while other NPCs have a plot around you, then they tell you to go to a completely different location not because it logically connects to anything but because the plot says so.

The main character is just appallingly passive. We are told at the beginning of the story that the protagonist is special because his strong will has the capacity to shape the new world, but in actuality he is a complete doormat who just goes along with whatever people tell him, including letting other characters narrate how he’s feeling because he’s not given any dialogue to express that himself. I think the peak of this might be when some bad guys say they’re going to throw him in jail and he just lets them do that instead of fighting back in any way, even when of course this is later resolved by him beating up his jailers. Or maybe it’s when you’re given a fetch quest by an NPC, you’re given the choice to refuse, but you still have to complete the fetch quest and then you calmly hand over the MacGuffin the next time you meet even though you just said you wouldn’t. The previous games weren’t great at giving the player meaningful choice, as I said, but it at least felt like they were genuinely trying instead of smacking me with a stick any time I tried to move off the railroad.

At this point you may notice I haven’t even explained what the actual plot is even though we’re halfway through the review. That, too, is consistent with the game, which took 30 hours to fully explain its basic premise. Here’s what it should have explained from the start: The fates have decreed that it is time for the world to die and a new world to be reborn in its place. The transitory “Vortex World” created between these states is an arena where individuals will compete for the right to create the new world, EXCEPT for some inexplicable reason demons aren’t allowed to come up with a direction for the new world and can only follow the ideals of humans. (What purpose demons serve in populating the Vortex World if this is the case is never explained.) Because you’re a demon, this also applies to you, so you aren’t allowed to come up with your own ideal, only choose between three options pitched to you by various NPCs. Again, this is only explained about 30 hours in, with one of the pitch NPCs being the main antagonist you’ve been fighting up to this point who you can suddenly decide to follow out of nowhere. Would have made a lot more sense if we had gotten all those pitches in the first 3 hours instead, but that would have been too coherent I guess.

When I reviewed Devil Survivor 2 I was told that it rehashed many of the same ideas used in this game, and I can definitely see the similarity. However, this game feels like a rough draft of DeSu2. No, sorry, that’s too generous; this game feels like the outline of a rough draft scribbled on napkins in-between snorting cocaine. For all DeSu2’s faults, I would not call it incoherent; the overall plot was fine, it was just all the details that were terrible. With Nocturne, the only way I can see to fix it would be to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. Which I guess is what they did with DeSu2.

Probably the biggest difference between the two, and I suspect the root of most of Nocturne‘s problems, is that there are no human party members here. You can still make a good plot under that framework as long as you understand how to work around its limitations, but Nocturne‘s writers did not. They seemingly wrote the story as a standard SMT story where you did have other PCs to carry the story for the silent protagonist… but those other PCs don’t exist so you’re just left with the silent protagonist. Every single scene is just the protagonist staring gormlessly while other characters talk at him to tell him how he’s feeling and what he should do. Like I said, complete doormat. He has the personality of a blob of jelly.

The plot still features your human friend group as major characters, they’re just NPCs who refuse to join up with you for absolutely no reason. You’re initially separated after the apocalypse, but when you do finally reunite, they just suddenly decide to split up again. They go from “Oh thank God I thought you were dead and I was the only human left in the whole world” to “Anyway, bye” in the span of a few lines. One of them even has the gall to yell at you for not helping him after he ran off ahead of you and immediately got captured while you solved everything on your own.

Oh, and, despite the plot making a huge deal about your demon transformation being the only way you can stand up to demons, you encounter your still totally normal human friends at random points in the apocalypse, and they are somehow never reduced to giblets. I get assaulted by demons every time I take a step, but these normies can circumnavigate the globe untouched? I think not. To make this even more of a plot hole, there’s another human character who does behave logically, making a big point of only moving via the teleporters and never setting foot outside safe zones. So which is it, game?!

I have to wonder if the human characters were meant to be PCs at one point, but they changed that late in development? Then they didn’t want to throw away these characters they already designed, so they awkwardly crammed them into the new plot even though they didn’t fit?

This all combines to mean I have no reason to care about the hero’s friends, because that would require him expressing any opinion at all instead of just staring in to the distance as they monologue at him. This in turn means there is absolutely zero pathos when they turn evil and you ~tragically~ have to fight them. I know I said the first SMT’s take on this also fell flat, but geez, at least it understood you needed to spend time with them to get attached. The story seems preoccupied with rushing to the “good bits” of the original SMT without understanding the setup those bits require.

I don’t understand why the writers had so much trouble with this. It’s not like they forgot dialogue choices were a thing, because you do get them, it’s just all your options are utterly devoid of personality (and, as in the fetch quest example, meaningless). How hard would it have been to have our human friends freak out at our demon form and put the ball in our court to talk them down instead of them magically and instantly recognizing the demon who just walked in? That would have let us decide how we feel about our transformation and about his former friends! That would have been fun! Instead our avatar just stares silently while they tell us how we’re supposed to feel. Every single scene is like this.

Hijiri was the only character I liked, just because he was the only person in the entire world who seemed to have his head on straight. I like the part where he works with you to accomplish logical goals instead of running around the apocalypse like a headless chicken and then abruptly deciding to become a cult leader. So of course he gets offed right before the climax while implying a dizzying bevy of lore implications that both come out of and go nowhere. I get the impression there was supposed to be more with him.

And after all that, the story ends with a whimper. God forbid we actually get to see the world we create, you know, the entire point of the plot, no, just use the same generic shot of some city appearing for every ending and then cut to credits. I didn’t think DeSu2’s ability to pull off that level of basic storytelling competence was noteworthy, but apparently it was. I retrospectively respect you, DeSu2; I see now that, as hard as it is to believe, you could have been so much worse.

That’s pretty much my takeaway from this as a whole: This game’s story was so bad it managed to make DeSu2 look good. And DeSu2 is still pretty bad. That does not bode well for the rest of the series.

4 Comments

  1. Nerem says:

    If you want to know why the series is not called “Revelations” it’s because it has nothing to do with Christianity. Like… fuck, that should be obvious. Like the “screeds about the evil of Christianity” part made it pretty clear that you didn’t really understand things. The series doesn’t really have a hostile view of Christianity, and it makes all sorts of religions into bad guys and good guys, depending on how things shake out. Apocalypse has the East Asian gods all be the villains, while in 4 it’s SMT2 happening after the Conception.

    You might be mistaking The Great Will for being a reference to YHVH, but it isn’t. Instead it’s a bigger threat that uses YHVH, which is easier when YHVH is corrupted. Though it’s instead behind most of the villians in the series, and is counteracted by the Great Reason, who seems to be YHVH’s true master and a benevolent god.

    Revelations isn’t really a great title for Persona 1, which is why they ditched it. While “Alternate Goddess Tales” isn’t a great title, it does convey that it’s an alternate timeline from Shin Megami Tensei. ‘Shin Megami Tensei’ is a better distinct brand name anyways.

    By the way the the titular goddess reincarnations are actually relatively important throughout the series, it’s not a full artifact title. Three’s really the main one without an important

    You did miss quite a bit of the plot, to be honest. I suspect you didn’t do the optional dungeons, which add a lot of plot. You are correct that a lot of the character work is weak because silent protag + no one to speak for him. This isn’t a reboot, but a ‘fork’. This was actually the game that did a lot to set up the alternate timeline setup of the series.

    The Demi-Fiend changing shape and becoming demonic all over would have clashed with his whole theme of being a human-demon. Demi-Fiend is not quite a great translation though it’s probably the snappiest one considering they decided to call all the Chosen Demons ‘Fiend’. His Japanese name is Hitoshura, or Human War-God, in the context of “Person who battles endlessly for the sake of battle alone”. He’s a demon in human form, made to kill until he wins or loses.

    This game is actually about how the world was fixed after the calamity of SMT2, and leads into the rest of the SMT series.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      The series that features the literal Christian God has nothing to do with Christianity, really? I suppose you’re going to argue next that it doesn’t have anything to do with Shinto when it features the entire Shinto pantheon in an incredibly on-the-nose subplot about the poor woobie Shinto gods getting betrayed and suppressed by the Judeo-Christian God?

      Apocalypse has the East Asian gods all be the villains

      How dare I base my analysis on the games I have played instead of the one I haven’t. How foolish of me.

      Telling me I “missed” everything without telling me what I missed is useless, and incredibly rude. If you actually care about this, tell me the missing pieces instead of just sneering about what an idiot I am.

    2. Seed of Bismuth says:

      By the by if a lot of plot is locked behind the optional dungeons, then that is bad writing. Its in the title optional i.e. player choice to engage or not engage with the system. So if main character has more of a personality (i.e. dialogue with friends and fiends). Or you learn more about the factions he could join’s motives and/or goals that should have been in the main quest.

      1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

        In this case it’s even worse than what you’re thinking: The optional dungeon was exclusive to the international re-release. So it was basically “Buy a second copy of the game if you want to understand the plot.” Fortunately it’s automatically bundled with the latest Switch remaster, but yikes.

        The optional dungeon honestly raises more questions than it answers; it’s where we get the “YHWH is only a part of the Great Will” lore, which is really just kicking the can down the road, and also it reveals out of nowhere that one of the major characters in the main plot is actually the protagonist of SMT2, without explaining how that is possible when this is clearly a different universe from SMT2, nor how this is at all relevant to anything. I presume it’s teasing ideas that would be developed in future games.

        It’s also where we get confirmation that God is once again the bad guy, when this was the first numbered entry where God had seemingly no influence on the plot. Which makes the claim the series “has nothing to do with Christianity” even more absurd.

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