Nocturne’s Brutal Difficulty is Brilliant


  • SMT 3: Nocturne‘s punishing combat and lack of hand-holding make it one of the hardest JRPGs, but its difficulty is well-designed and balanced.
  • The game’s unique turn-based combat system and emphasis on strategy over grinding make for a challenging but rewarding experience.
  • Nocturne‘s intense difficulty feeds into its horror atmosphere, with grueling dungeons and punishing encounters that add tension and character development to the story.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is notorious among JRPG fans for being one of the hardest games in the genre, and it’s easy to see why. The game’s punishing combat and lack of hand-holding make it a daunting challenge for even the most experienced JRPG fans. It’s an unforgiving experience with a level of difficulty that’s only matched by other Shin Megami Tensei games. However, while the game may seem overwhelming or downright unfair to first-time players, Nocturne‘s intense difficulty makes it one of the best JRPGs of all time.

Unlike many other infamously difficult games, Nocturne’s challenge isn’t the result of poor design or an overreliance on luck-based systems. Instead, the game manages to deliver a carefully crafted experience that requires little to no grinding and avoids many issues commonly seen throughout other JRPGs. Despite its reputation, Nocturne is a masterclass in designing difficulty for JRPGs and a near-perfect showcase of Atlus’ deep understanding of the genre.

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Nocturne is Perfectly Balanced in the Most Unusual Way

Matador from Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event known as the Conception, which has left the world in ruins and overrun by demons. Fortunately, this desolate wasteland also serves as an opportunity for the last surviving humans to reshape the world according to their own ideologies, which are referred to as “reasons.” While the main character isn’t one of these lucky few, having been transformed into a semi-demonic being known as the Demi-fiend, he has the power to help one of the survivors turn their reason into reality. Using his newfound demonic abilities, the Demi-fiend embarks on a perilous journey through the demon-infested ruins of Tokyo, with the player’s choices determining if he will align himself with one of the survivors or forge his own destructive path.

Anybody who’s played a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game will already be familiar with the mechanics that comprise Nocturne‘s turn-based combat. But for those who don’t know, Nocturne uses a unique battle system known as the press-turn system, wherein both the player and their foes can exploit the opposition’s elemental weaknesses to gain extra turns. However, an attack that misses or uses an element that the enemy is completely immune to will result in the attacker losing one or all of their remaining turns. Additionally, players can choose to negotiate with the demons they encounter to receive items or recruit them into the party. Nocturne’s combat is deceptively simple, but its complexities become clearer as the game progresses.

Rather than explaining its mechanics in a long-winded tutorial, Nocturne wastes little time before it thrusts players into its first dungeon, wherein even the weakest foes can pummel the Demi-fiend within an inch of his life. However, after some trial and error, players will have formed a small party and learned the basics of the press-turn system. Nocturne‘s early hours are considerably more difficult than most other JRPG titles, but its hands-off tutorial is still manageable enough for most players to overcome. In fact, most won’t understand how Nocturne earned its monumental reputation until they encounter the infamous Matador.

Matador signifies Nocturne‘s first massive difficulty spike and the true introduction to its unforgiving design. Many players might consider dropping the game after their first few attempts at defeating Matador, as it takes only a couple of turns for him to wipe out an unprepared party. However, in contrast to many other difficult JRPG boss fights, Matador requires players to think strategically rather than simply grind for levels. Players who want to pass through his punishing defense need to devise a party that can withstand his elemental attacks and make use of both buffs and debuffs to combat his stat-raising abilities. The fight against Matador is a brutal trial by fire—one that ensures players who overcome it will be prepared for the significant step-up in challenge that defines the rest of Nocturne.

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Of course, Nocturne‘s battles aren’t as simple as relying on one specific tactic. Enemies are unpredictable and will push the player’s resources, which means every turn matters. Against the toughest bosses, even the slightest mistake or an unlucky miss can lead to a quick death. Because of this, strategy is far more important than stats in Nocturne, and trying to grind for levels will only get players so far before they run into another overwhelming difficulty spike. Learning to adapt to the challenges of each area, either by swapping out party members or approaching battles with a different strategy, is vital to overcoming Nocturne‘s deadliest encounters. This isn’t to say that stats don’t matter in Nocturne, but they primarily serve to determine each party member’s strengths and weaknesses rather than their odds of survival.

However, Nocturne doesn’t always play by its own rules. As players progress through the game and recruit stronger demons, Nocturne begins to find creative ways of changing its own mechanics through the numerous creative boss fights that make Matador seem like a pushover. Late-game bosses will often rely on extremely powerful abilities that change their elemental weaknesses, grant themselves additional turns, or fully restore their own health. In any other game, these types of bosses would be frustrating and unfair, but Nocturne balances their intimidating abilities by allowing players to assemble an equally overpowered party.

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With proper planning and a party of powerful demons, players can eventually steamroll past large portions of the Nocturne, turning the game’s fearsome demons into waves of cannon fodder. After hours of struggling against most foes, seeing a carefully devised party dispatch foes with little effort can be incredibly cathartic. This also serves to give players a slight chance against the game’s seemingly undefeatable foes, even if they’re capable of destroying the party in an instant.

All of this gives Nocturne a unique difficulty curve, one that doesn’t gradually ramp up, but instead fluctuates between being a brutally hardcore challenge and an enthralling power fantasy (though the latter never lasts for long). Although the game constantly finds new ways to surprise and pulverize its players, the process of learning to overcome its challenges and eventually break its mechanics is one of the most rewarding experiences of any JRPG title. For all its quirks and seemingly malicious design choices, Nocturne is one of the few JRPGs that succeeds at delivering a consistently entertaining and engaging experience. It will test the player’s patience and persistence at every opportunity but always provides the tools needed to push back.

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Nocturne’s Intense Difficulty Feeds Into Its Horror

Demi-Fiend and Raidou Kuzunoha XIV in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

While not explicitly a horror game, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne possesses a bleak and desolate atmosphere that rivals many survival horror classics. This is largely due to the barren locales and wastelands that players spend most of their time exploring, with friendly characters and shops being rare sights in the game’s otherwise hostile setting. Moreover, most dungeons are designed to be incredibly difficult, with maze-like layouts and an abundance of hidden traps. While this sounds like a dull or frustrating experience, Nocturne‘s intense difficulty and frequent random encounters transform the game into a genuinely tense experience.

Much like the combat, there are plenty of moments where Nocturne‘s environments break their own rules. Some areas are shrouded in darkness, which completely blinds players unless they use an item to temporarily brighten the area. Others use one-way doors, hidden portals, and damaging floor tiles to disorient the player or leave them vulnerable to sudden ambushes. One of the game’s most memorable sections embraces Nocturne‘s horror elements by forcing players to flee from an unstoppable enemy who pursues the Demi-fiend through a puzzle-filled labyrinth. If Nocturne‘s difficult combat doesn’t chase players away, its grueling dungeons most likely will. Even so, overcoming their merciless trials can be incredibly rewarding. The game’s mean-spirited approach to dungeon design won’t appeal to everyone, but most Shin Megami Tensei fans will feel at home in its hostile hallways.

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In addition to shaping Nocturne‘s unsettling environments, the harsh challenge and frequent difficulty spikes play a role in characterizing the Demi-fiend. Although he’s a silent protagonist (apart from occasional dialogue options) and mainly serves as a player-insert, the Demi-fiend undergoes a subtle character development throughout his journey. The player’s choices determine how the Demi-fiend will use his powers to assist the survivors with their plans to reshape the world. Regardless of this decision, multiple characters will acknowledge how he’s slowly growing more demonic with an increasing lust for power.

While the story only provides subtle hints about the Demi-fiend’s changing personality, Nocturne highlights his personal growth through gameplay. Combat initially serves as nothing more than a means to survive, but once the story introduces the survivors’ various ideological reasons, the Demi-fiend’s journey begins to take shape. What starts as a fight for survival quickly morphs into a pursuit of power as he climbs the ranks of the demonic hierarchy, eliminating powerful leaders and wiping out entire factions along the way. Furthermore, his increasing strength changes how battles are perceived. Enemies that start as genuine threats eventually become stepping stones in his path to defeating greater foes, which makes each boss fight seem like a truly significant event.

Nocturne is not for the faint of heart, but those who overcome its relentless challenge and nerve-wracking encounters will discover one of the most memorable experiences in any JRPG. There are plenty of moments where the game lets up on the difficulty and allows players to relax, but these rare occasions make its overwhelming struggles feel even more intimidating. Few games provide as difficult a challenge as Nocturne, and even fewer do so with its impressively clever design and masterful pacing. Even if Nocturne isn’t the hardest Shin Megami Tensei game (that honor belongs to Strange Journey), it’s undoubtedly one of the series’ best.

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