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Shin Megami Tensei 3 is awesome, but deserves more than a barebones PC port

Shin Megami Tensei 3
(Image credit: Atlus)

This is a pretty big deal. Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne is another long overdue remaster and PC port of a cult classic from Atlus, coming less than a year after the success of Persona 4 Golden's PC success. So what is Shin Megami Tensei 3, and why should you be excited? I had the same question going in. I'm a longtime PC player and didn't own a console until late into my teens, so I missed out on all the JRPGs of the '90s and '00s. Even among JRPG players, Shin Megami Tensei isn't as well known as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest: it's a series of odd, profane, and punishing adventures that alienate even genre fans. 

But after a few hours with the upcoming PC remaster I'm all in on this strange, horny, Satanic artifact from 2003, despite some major shortcomings in the graphics and display options. 

It's a disappointing port

Update: An Atlus rep confirmed the framerate is intentionally locked at 30.

The biggest bummer and banner caveat here: I'm hitting a 30 fps ceiling. A 30 fps cap feels like a relic from a bygone era of bad ports, so I suspect it's a bug in the pre-release version of the game. I've reached out to an Atlus rep to hopefully clear up the situation.

The action never gets so hectic that you need anything more than 30 fps to play, but it's still jarring as hell when everything else I play scoots along at 60 fps or higher. Worst case, it isn't fixed by launch, or ever: Your eyes will adjust, but it will take a while, and like me, you will probably complain the whole time. I'm still complaining now, in this paragraph. 

The graphics and display settings are super limited too. I don't expect much for a straightforward remaster like this, but more options and clarity would do SMT3 well. The render resolution doesn't cite specific percentages or resolutions, just high, medium, and low, so it's hard to know how significant of a change to look for between settings. Besides that, we've got an on-off switch for shadows, anti-aliasing, and v-sync. It's a damn desert.  

VIDEO: I talk through and walk through the graphics options in SMT3, then show off some gameplay, also available on YouTube

With everything cranked to the max, edges are still somewhat blurry and rough, and textures remain pretty low res, which looks worse the higher your native display resolution. SMT3 never looks awful though, and I think the Vaseline-smeared look works with the setting and mood to make post-apocalypse Tokyo feel like a fragmented, shared delusion. But for $50 I expect more. At least keyboard and mouse devotees will be happy to know that navigating menus with a cursor works well, in battle and elsewhere, and that every input can be reassigned. 

So it's not the best PC port, but it's at least functional, and its shortcomings do occasionally support the surreal atmosphere of SMT3's world. If you can squint through it and stomach the low fps, I commend you, because this is a deranged, inverted spherical hell-Tokyo worth exploring. 

But it's still a bleak, beautiful RPG worth playing (someday)

Finally, a Pokémon for sad adults

For real: SMT3 opens up with an apocalypse event that kills everyone in Tokyo, then turns the city Inception-style into a massive sphere, except the 'surface' runs along the inside. Demons are everywhere, so all the survivors are pissed and sad. Even the ghosts are pissed and sad. Worse, a spooky woman and spookier kid drop a centipede-looking thing down your throat, turning you into a teen-demon hybrid (so basically a full-on demon). It's a wild premise drained of color and hope, and I'm so, so into how uncomfortable and curious it makes me.

I really hope there's a cool mythos underlying all the weird here, because everything on the surface already has me hooked. Dark Souls crew, horror game crew—this might be one for you. 

SMT3

(Image credit: Atlus)

The early hours play out like a JRPG set inside an early '00s survival horror game, particularly Silent Hill. Shibuya is devoid of life, with strange mists and fissures in reality bordering each scene. The music goes from haunted jazz club synth and piano arrangements to straight-up punk rock that sounds like it was recorded in an empty warehouse. You fight imps and fairies and spirits in empty malls and hospitals. Grainy FMVs introduce bizarre vendors and enemies. Some neutral demons stand around to offer up obscure hints, or, in the case of an imp with a raging tentacle boner decorated with hearts, to tell you what a babe the healing spirit up ahead is. It's like someone strapped Persona 4 to a hospital gurney, etched pentagrams into its skin, and painted a new game with its blood. 

Because, functionally, SMT3 is very Persona. The sibling series share the same cosmology and similar battle systems, though SMT3's will feel a little dated. It's a simple turn-based affair, where enemies have elemental weaknesses to exploit for extra turns. Also like Persona, you can talk to demons to add them to your crew, but in SMT3 they fight directly alongside you. They even evolve. When my pixie evolved a badass haircut it was the hardest I've laughed at a game in a minute. Finally, a Pokémon for sad adults. 

My only major complaint is that choosing the right moment to talk to demons and which dialogue options to successfully recruit them is often unclear, so my party is pretty small at the moment. If you're playing on the default or hard difficulty, that's going to be an especially big problem, because SMT3 is hard. Expect to die a lot. Normal isn't easy either, so for now I'm getting my feet wet on the new Merciful difficulty setting, where I can safely wrap my head around how SMT3 works before juicing the challenge. Every difficulty setting benefits from the new Suspend save feature, which lets you dip out of the game at any moment, save point or not, and return to the exact same state the next time you launch SMT3. 

It's made getting to grips with the world and systems a breeze, though I can see why SMT3 was designed with extreme difficulty in mind. Failure is definitely part of its bleak bouquet. All the characters have these dark, droopy eyelids like they haven't slept in days, and who can blame them? Most of the people they knew are dead, so beating back or giving into the cosmic dread is the arc for a lot of the people you'll meet. 

The overworld map is amazing (and so are the tunes).  (Image credit: Atlus)

The demons don't have it easy either. After killing the first boss, a dudebro manta ray demon with half a man's head sticking out the top (wearing a crown), I ran into his friend, who was patiently waiting for their dudebro manta ray pal to show. Welp. 

The larger story doesn't have me hooked, but I'm coasting on premise, atmosphere, and these popcorn character encounters for the time being. Casually exploring the world to talk to ghosts, find any surviving friends, while slowly poking my nose into the cultish business that led to such a strange apocalypse has been more than enough to sustain my interest. Let's just hope the bummer vibes stay just as strong for a couple dozen more hours. 

James is PC Gamer’s bad boy, staying up late to cover Fortnite while cooking up radical ideas for the weekly livestream. He can still kickflip and swears a lot. You’ll find him somewhere in the west growing mushrooms and playing Dark Souls.