This review contains broad spoilers about the conclusion of the game.
Whenever I start an encounter in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, first I look at the phases of the moon—which is not actually a moon. What hangs in the sky now is Kagatsuchi, a false moon that sends pulses of energy through the remnants of Tokyo. This energy changes the temperament of the demons who now live there. When you talk to demons in the throes of Kagatsuchi's energies they won't be able to understand you. They'll moan and growl at you like wild animals. When Kagatsuchi is at its least powerful, a new moon, demons don't seem all that different from the humans who once called Tokyo home.
That's Nocturne in a nutshell. The world has ended, humanity is dead and gone, demons roam their cities and towns, and the moon has been supplanted in the sky by a malevolent impostor; not that much has changed.
As a series, Shin Megami Tensei is focused on both the technological and the mythological. The first game in the series, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, released on September 11, 1987, tells the story of a Japanese teen who opens a demon summoning program on his computer and loses control of it, unleashing demons upon the world. This original game, which is still mostly playable via emulation, establishes all of the major hallmarks of the series. It features dungeon crawling, demon negotiation, even the cults and ideological viewpoints that would go on to be the spine of every single Shin Megami Tensei game. Most notably this game is preoccupied with the apocalypse, and the idea of the world ending comes back again and again in the series.
Thematically, 2003's Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne—re-released this week on Switch, PC, and PlayStation as Nocturne HD Remaster—is a soup of ideas that percolated through the 90s and then bloomed into being in the 2000s. Shin Megami Tensei as a series was already fascinated by both the power of tribalism, ideology and the internet. But Nocturne is the first of this series to be responding to both the post-9/11 world and the rise of the internet as a truly mass communications platform. It's not subtle: Tokyo is a city of ashes, inhabited by demons but still haunted by the spirits of human beings killed by the apocalypse, who are terrified. They're unable to distinguish between you and the other demons. It's not clear if all of them know they're dead. Meanwhile, the demons themselves inhabit two realities: the physical streets of Tokyo, and the Amala Network, a kind of demon internet that allows you to fast travel to different locations in the game. There are places you can only get to by using the Amala Network, and it's the only place to find some of the things you need.
You play as a young man who watched Tokyo transform from a populated city to a decrepit ghost town overnight. You, too, have been transformed by this apocalypse. You're now the Demi-Fiend, who can talk to demons and enlist them to assist you in turn-based encounters as you scour through dungeons and solve puzzles. Your role as the Demi-Fiend gives you a central role in the game's plot, but most important overall is that it allows you to speak the language of Demons. It's Pokémon, but instead of capturing cute monsters you're summoning the powers of gods and demons.
The main drive of the plot is about amassing Magatsushi, a resource that demons covet and feed on. As the Demi-Fiend, you need Magatsushi in order to become powerful enough to summon a demon sponsor for a Reason. Your Reason is essentially a justification for bringing forth a new world. Whatever Reason you choose, the new world will be built in the image of that ideology.
Your human friends who conveniently survived the end of the world alongside end up creating their own Reasons. Chiaka, a popular girl who is clearly traumatized by her own uselessness in the face of the apocalypse, develops the Reason of Yosuga, which will create a Darwinist new world that obeys nothing except the survival of the fittest. The nihilistic Isamu develops the Reason of Musubi as reflection of his low self esteem. The world of Musubi is one where each person inhabits their own, private universe, free from the judgement of others. The only person that can bring any of these Reasons into being is the Demi-Fiend. It's your job to birth the world.
Human society in these games is the last, incomplete Imperial Fabergé Egg, never presented to the Tzar in 1917 because of the February Revolution. You're playing in a world on the cusp of something brand new, and when that revolution happens in the game's prologue no one is prepared, least of all you. In fact, when you meet the spirits of dead humans who linger in Tokyo, some of them don't even seem aware that they've died, and their existence is simply no longer relevant.
The esoterica built into Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is something that should irritate me, but doesn't. Take something like recruiting new demons. Unlike a game like Pokemon, demons don't necessarily want to come with you. By selecting the "talk" option in battle, you can try to convince them to join your party. A lot of the time this involves fulfilling specific requests, like giving them specific items or money. Sometimes they take all that and still won't join you, and you won't know why.
Like other games developed by Atlus, Nocturne also features enemies who have one-hit-kill attacks. Not just in boss battles; enemies in random encounters can end your game and kill you outright. Although this can happen at any time, it tends to happen to me after I've been playing for a long time between save points, effectively erasing all the progress I've made. A lot of people hate mechanics like this for extremely obvious reasons. In other Atlus games, I've gotten so frustrated from being hit with such an attack that I've put the game down for months.
In Nocturne, the parts of the world that exist beyond your understanding feel like the point. Not only that, but the mechanics of turn-based dungeon crawling feels appropriately meditative. These kinds of games have fallen out of favor because of how repetitive random encounters can be, but Nocturne's dungeons are engrossing now because of that same aspect.
A lot of the gameplay you'll see in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne has gone out of vogue in the intervening years. While Japanese role playing games had been reliably turned based for most of the the 2000s, through the 2010s things like random encounters have slowly faded as mechanics. Nocturne is firmly rooted in that older sense of design, and revisiting it now, when it's rarer to come across it, it's incredible how much easier it is to slip back into these conventions than I thought it would be.
Though Nocturne often aims to surprise—and frustrate—the player with powerful attacks that come out of nowhere, the systems of its gameplay nonetheless feel fair, even in moments of deep unfairness. If you already know that there's a chance, in every random encounter, that an enemy has a one-hit-kill move that can just merk you or your best demons, then you're going to get ready for that or risk losing your progress. Even the long treks from save point to save point feel less of a big deal in the remastered version of the game. In this version, you can create a "suspend save," allowing you to put the game down and return to that save state later. With only minor quality of life adjustments, Nocturne plays like a very modern game.
After hours and hours, even something like random encounters start to take on associations that only become clear now that I have distance from the turn of the millennium. After a while, talking to demons and tracking the phases of Kagutsuchi becomes just another thing you have to do; the Demi-Fiend wakes up every day and does their silly little tasks like the rest of us. I don't think I would describe it as boring, but it was interesting how quickly the changed Tokyo stops feeling novel. Even after it's been torn apart and put back together, it is just a place where people, and now demons, live.
What you discover in encounter after encounter is that this destroyed world is actually quite alive. Each demon you talk to has a personality; some of them wants, needs, desires, and even relationships. The very first Pixie you recruit asks you to take her to the other Pixies in the nearby park. If you talk to those Pixies, they tell you that you've got their friend in their party, and to take good care of her.
Although you're on the search for a new ideology to power the world, some things about it are still familiar. There are still night clubs, populated by Demons instead of humans, and there are still shops, and even religion. It's different from how you remember it, but it's still there.
Ideology, or its absence, in the face of the apocalypse marks Nocturne as a game that is as much of its historical moment as a commentary upon it. Usually in Shin Megami Tensei games, groups of human beings form cults centered around the various ethical points of view for the broader game. The tussle between these forces is often a huge part of the plot, especially in the first two Shin Megami Tensei games.
In Nocturne, everyone from those cults have died before the game began. The philosophical debate has already finished. It's an ironic twist on the political and ideological complacency of the late 90s, encapsulated by political scientist Francis Fukuyama's uniquely ill-fated assertion that the world stood at the "end of history" and that there was no longer any room for further ideological advancements in the human race.
Symbols that have strong meanings and associations in our world simply have no meaning in Nocturne. Lucifer, in the guise of, alternately, a little boy and a geriactric man, gave me a Menorah to guide me through my quest, at one point. I own a Menorah. I've lit its candles and said blessings over it. In Nocturne, its meaning has shifted so much that it might as well be an alien object. Weirdly, it's the way that Nocturne takes all the religious mysticism almost literally that makes these moments feel the most foreign. If you've played Nocturne, your working understanding of Kabbalistic mysticism is probably on par with Madonna.
Nocturne is not the first piece of media from Japan to use imagery from Christianity and Judaism in a fast and loose way. Neon Genesis Evangelion, the renowned anime, is peppered with cross shaped explosions for little reason other than they look cool. But everything is remixed in the Tokyo that exists after the apocalypse. None of the wards are even in the same place after the end, which the game highlights by letting you play in the "normal" Tokyo in the game's prologue. As soon as you re-enter the world after hiding out through its end, at first it seems unrecognizable.
But that's not true. Shibuya and Shinjuku are still there, you just need to find new ways to get to them. The world is a hollow sphere, characters will explain, with what used to be Tokyo lining the inside of the shell. In the Demi-Fiend's quest for a Reason, you'll encounter more and broader ideologies than just Yosuga and Musubi. Traditionally, Shin Megami Tensei games let players align with three different points of view: Order, Chaos and Neutrality. Order, associated with Angels, isn't necessarily good, and Chaos, associated with Lucifer, isn't necessarily bad. In most games, the Neutral ending is the one that feels the most like a "good" ending.
In Nocturne, the Neutral ending returns Tokyo to what it was before the start of the game, which is "good" in the sense that the people who were dead are now alive again. It's still the loss of an entire world, one whose esoteric customs I've grown fond of as I play. Nocturne has one final trick up its sleeve, though. Instead of finding a Reason, there is a plotline that allows you to supersede the process of the world being born again. It might be a half life for the Demons, Manikins and wandering spirits. It's still a living.