Game Ramblings #182 – Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne HD Remaster

More Info from Atlus

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Windows, Switch
  • Originally On: PS2

Normally this would probably be a How’d It Age, but honestly I don’t really want to talk about the game here – at least not specifically. The game under normal circumstances would have ramblings specifically matching my shelving of Shin Megami Tensei V. What I am instead going to talk about is specifically the Merciful DLC that they added to the remaster and why it’s the best thing that Atlus may have done for their core JRPG gameplay in years.

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At its core Merciful is an easy mode, and it definitely is easy. However, it can be turned on and off at will, so I generally ended up using it for making the trash grind more mindless. Trash has never been difficult per-se in SMT. Once you learn the weaknesses of the enemies in the general area, it’s butter. Being on easy just meant that I could concentrate on the story and bosses. However, easy mode also came with three numbers I want to focus on:

  • Encounter rate – Approx 1/2
  • Experience – Approx 4x

However, the most important one is 18:36. That was my time to completion, +/- a bit of untracked time to deaths.

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Judging by How Long to Beat, I shaved on average about 30 hours or about 60% of the average run. To me, that sits about where these games should be. These should never be 50 hour games with a ton of useless trash fights, because that isn’t the fun part of the game. They should be relatively quick and fast leveling so you can crank through a bunch of different party setups and summon as many demons as possible and have them be immediately powerful and useful.

One of the biggest problems I had when I shelved SMT5 was that it was taking me 25-30 fights to get a single level. It was such an absurd level of grind that it sucked all of the fun out of what is an inherently very good turn-based combat system. In merciful mode, I was getting levels every 5 or 6 battles, if not quicker. It was such an incredible change to the flow of the game that it makes me want this XP rate in standard difficulty.

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The other part that I really noticed was improved was the overall dungeon flow, thanks to an overall reduction in trips back to town. In SMT4 it always felt like a slog getting further in a dungeon. You’d slowly make your way through a dungeon getting stronger, generally getting to a point where you could comfortably make it one save point further before needing to teleport back. Frankly, the Persona subseries is the same way in that regard. It’s just such a time sink having to retread the same ground over and over purely because there’s so much combat and the XP rate is so slow. On Merciful though? I could get through dungeons in one go without losing all my items, so I was able to be prepared to go back up to normal for boss fights.

I get why this might come across as a negative change, and honestly I don’t necessarily disagree. I guess where I fall with this is that I want the overall dungeon mechanic to change. Rather than mid-dungeon save points being a way to get back to town, I would rather they be permanent fast travel points across the board. Allow players to continue their progress at any point where they get to a safe spot, reducing overall retread churn and increasing the pace of play as a positive. Combine this with the increased XP rate to really tighten up the game as a whole.

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The Shin Megami Tensei series is the perfect example of a JRPG that is long for the sake of being long, and it’s one of the few series that hasn’t really adapted to a tighter modern gameplay loop. Merciful mode may not be exactly the solution, but I think there’s ideas here they can pull from. These games have never had the pure content amount to support being a 50 hour experience and cranking through this one in sub-20 proves that to me. This is a series that would benefit from keeping its difficulty but modernizing to be a faster experience, because even this little experimental DLC feels like such a huge improvement. Combine the quick XP rate and reduced encounter rate with a better overall travel system to reduce retread, and I think SMT6 could feel surprisingly modern without having to lose its soul.

How’d It Age #8 – Star Ocean: The Second Story R

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Switch, Windows

In a year of wonderful remasters and remakes I’m finishing the year on another wonderful remake. This one is very similar to Super Mario RPG in that it left the gameplay largely intact while overhauling the visuals, but it took a decidedly more retro approach. Luckily, like SMRPG, it is also similarly still a ton of fun.

Having somewhat recently played some Star Ocean I apparoached this kind of knowing what kind of game I was getting into. I knew that combat wasn’t going to be overly complicated, but I knew it was going to be fun. What surprised me was how well this one scaled between low and high enemy counts, which is something that newer entries don’t necessarily do.

One of the big things that separates this entry is that there’s a very well telegraphed attack tell, which you can combine with a dodge button to knock away at a stun meter. You can also do that through normal attacks, but the dodge is way more effective. In a one-on-one or party-on-one situation, this is INCREDIBLY effective at knocking down the meter and stunning an enemy. However, you can also play a game of prioritizing attack cancels and just preventing the enemy from attacking nearly wholesale. This works great in multi-enemy fights as you can spread your party to focus on individual one-on-one fights. However, there are some fights that really penalize this and force you to set the party into full focus. Figuring out the fights with different strategies really works well to push some variety and keep combat from getting stale. It’s surprising to see how well this is achieved in such an old title, as the newer Star Ocean games really failed in this regard.

However, you start to see the age of the game when it comes to balance. It happens sort of slowly throughout the game, but over time the game’s intended balance of what you’re fighting and the practical balance of the bosses got clearly off. I never really narrowed it down to what I was doing wrong, but to not be one-shot by the end game bosses, I was ending up about 15-20 levels higher than the game was telling me was “appropriate” for my party, but it got me through. Luckily the game compensates – intentionally or not – with some grind reduction systems. Once an enemy icon changes from red to green, there’s a system to auto complete the fight in the overworld. This basically runs stretches of getting a level from minutes to 30 seconds or less, so the time to actually level up and move up is pretty forgiving. If you aren’t at the right spot in power, you just run around and auto battle a bit, adjust strategy a bit, and good to go.

This was ultimately probably a problem of me not digging deeper into the underlying crafting systems, partly because I’m lazy and partly because they are just too deep. There’s a three-page menu of crafting and helper-style stuff that you can level up per party member. It runs the gamut from actual equipment crafting to item creation to cooking to buff creation to stat up creation and more. It’s just so deep that unless I had time to really invest in a strategy to min/max my party, I was always going to fail on doing it right. As it stood I did it well enough to get decently high end items, but I think there was a clear path for me to do better and get more out of it to make my overall path through the game far more efficient.

The rest of the remake from a visual and audio perspective is extremely impressive. It’s obvious that Square is really leaning into the HD2D style that they started pushing in Octopath Traveler, but this one is a bit different. The environments are still pretty low-tech, but they’re a lot more traditional 3D with really good 2D character sprites to create a fairly interesting mix in styles. From an audio perspective it’s still the pieces you’d want with modern orchestration and voice acting. Where HD2D feels like a fun idea that can be a bit kitschy at full scale, this feels like a more practical middle ground that allows for them to be a bit separated from the environmental restrictions of the full HD2D titles. This is mixed with some modern UX touches (thank you wonderful maps) that really feel like they’re pointing at a way to do a SNES/PS1 style sprite RPG in a modern wrapping.

I guess if nothing else I’m glad this exists and I’m glad that it’s good. Star Ocean has had a pretty rough draw since the 360 era (and I know some people would also tell me that Star Ocean 3 was garbage). This one proves that there’s a place that the series should maybe go that’s a bit lower budget and a bit lower scope and really just make a fun sci-fi story that isn’t trying to reach to AAA status. The Divine Force felt like it was moving in that direction, but in full 3D. This title perhaps offers another path they could go. It feels like a game that is still worth playing despite being 25 years old, and that’s something to celebrate.

How’d It Age #7 – Super Mario RPG

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: SNES, Virtual Console, SNES Classic

It’s a bit surprising that I’m doing back to back remakes of old games that came out in the late 90s, but here we are. Where Pharaoh felt like it strayed too close to the original and could have benefited from more modernization, Super Mario RPG feels like it does a good job of maintaining what worked in the original and smoothing out some things for a modern audience while also adding a couple new features here and there that maybe don’t work as well.

I guess we’ll start out with combat, since it’s where most of the changes occurred that stood out in my head. In this case, I’ll start with the two things that didn’t necessarily work out well for me.

The first is the little meter in the bottom left corner of that screenshot. This is one of the new mechanics tied to action buttons, where you can get bonus offensive or defensive boosts if you time an A button press based on the action occurring. In this case, the meter builds up when you get good action buttons until you hit 100%. At that point you can activate a move based on the composition of your team, with each team combo having some different move. The problem I have with these is that situationally they can be very useful in a niche, but aren’t generally that useful in most cases.

For example, one of the moves heals all party members both on and off the field. It’s useful if you got nuked by a big boss move, but you’d have to have the right party combo (Mario/Peach/Mallow) be alive to activate it anyway. The big offensive combo of Mario/Bowser/Geno does a series of random attacks and buffs which can be useful in the start of a boss battle to buff your party, but it requires your healers to then skip out on the buffs. It then takes a fair number of turns to recharge the meter so often I’d be sitting there holding onto it considering whether it’s worth using only to then finish the fights anyway. It’s one of those ideas that on paper sounds good, but in practice falls to a lot of the classic JRPG problem of holding onto something for so long that you lose the chance to use it.

Another thing that didn’t work out as well for me was the inclusion of randomized special enemies. These are nice in one respect in that they drop frog coins, which makes collecting them much easier than in the original game. However, the special enemies have weird mechanics (ex: nearly immune to physical damage, faster move speed, etc) and very little other over the top reward, so it again feels like a case where the idea is good on paper but not really baked enough to be a fun feature.

However, new things are much more positive for me from there. There are three small changes tied to the action button mechanic that all end up summing up to a much greater whole for the feature.

The first is the inclusion of a little (!) symbol to teach you the timing. This will show up the first handful of times you have to hit the action on a new move, both offensively and defensively. It allows you to learn the timing on the fly without the guess work of the original game. The nice thing is that once you get the timing right a few times, it goes away. However, if you later start to then miss the timing consistently it will come back until you learn the timing again. This is a fantastic way to teach players quickly about new moves, while allowing timing to be wildly different for different types of attacks. It also removes the feeling of being hand holdy by going away and letting the player succeed through repetition or fail for a while before it comes back.

The second is that successful action button attacks now change the damage to be AoE, doing about 25% damage to all non-targeted NPCs in the attack. My initial instinct was that this was going to make the game much easier, and it certainly does. However, where that ease comes in is just making trash fights much quicker. Now if I’m not quite one-shotting enemies, I can still just move on and attack other NPCs. More often than not, I would be able to clear a normal 3-person trash fight in 3 attacks by simply focusing each target once and letting the AoE take over. It’s ultimately a huge time saving reward for getting your action timing right, and not something that necessarily is negatively impacting difficulty.

The third is the chain mechanic. Getting action button timing right will build up the chain, providing stacking buffs to the entire party. Each party member then has stats tied to them that apply to this. For example, Mallow increases magic attack while Geno increases physical attack and speed. What this allows you to do as the player is to mix and match your party for the situation beyond just what moves the member does. It’s again something that has the effect of making the game easier on paper, but also providing a strong incentive towards hitting your timing just right. This becomes incredibly important in the post-game when the player is fighting boss rematches on the way to fighting the ultimate form of Culex.

The final thing that I want to point out is how much better inventory management is. Rather than being a fixed list of 20 or so items that you can carry, you can now carry infinite items but with a limit per item type. For example, you can carry 10 mushrooms total or 6 pick me ups total. Anything over that amount is sent back to storage at Mario’s house. This just gets rid of so much hassle from the original game. You’re no longer keeping an empty slot just to pick up flower tabs. You’re no longer fighting with whether a revive is more important than a syrup. You’re no longer scrolling through the long unwieldy list for one specific thing. It’s such a small change but it modernizes the game incredibly well.

This is very clearly a lovingly crafted remake. It maintains the wonderful gameplay of the original game, completely revamps the visuals (because hoooooo boy the 2D didn’t age well on non-CRTs), reorchestrates the wonderful soundtrack, and does just enough to play the balance between nostalgia and modernization. It shows why the original game was so well received 25+ years ago and manages to still feel like a great experience now.