No spikey haired hero? No androgynous main character? No crystals to retrieve? No mind numbing fetchquests? Why it must be the latest in the Shin Megami Tensei series!
Persona 3??? When fellow gamers found out I was playing the review copy of Persona 3, the following question would inevitably pop up. “Isn’t that the dating-sim in which the characters point a gun to their heads, pull the trigger and blow their brains out in each battle?” My answer to this question would be: “Well, in a Reader’s Digest rudimentary way I suppose, however, no. What is Persona 3? One of, if not the most original, intriguing, and damned enjoyably addicting RPGs I’ve ever played-and I’ve been at it a while.
My review for Persona 3 has is a bit late for two reasons. One, I wanted to see the ending before my review and Two, I’ve been suffering from a bit of game reviewer’s writer’s block. I’ve not been quite sure just how to describe this game to those of you who enjoy my reviews, because I’ve never played a game like this. RPGs that actually make you feel as if you are the protagonist, not just watching some other guy’s story, are truly few and far between.
First, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, Persona 3 is the latest entry into the uniquely original, always controversial long running Shin Megami Tensei Persona series. The Shin Megami Tensei series also has many other entries which I won’t mention here, however I would highly recommend playing them all, but I digress. Persona 1 and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment were both released in the US on the Playstation. Well, it’s been 6 years since we’ve had played an original Persona, and US players should thank their lucky stars that publishers such as Atlus continue to provide us with games such as Persona 3, and the Playstation 2 allowed the developers to up the ante with graphics, voices, smooth battle animations, and hours of delicious gameplay. Yes, I know. As an old school RPG lover, I’m supposed to be above all of this, however with Persona 3 you won’t mind the icing on this cake, trust me. Okay, okay-you’ve been patient, so I’ll get to my review.
Our story begins with a lovely anime sequence introducing you to Mr. Protagonist (you name him). You’ll soon grow to know him very well, as I did. He is the new student at Gekkoukan High School, however his high school days are quite different from what the average high school guy would experience. By day, he does the usual-goes to class, makes friends, zooms the chicks, cruises malls and ramen stands etc. But by night, he fights monsters called Shadows which appear in during the Dark Hour, at time hidden from the average Joe (the Muggles of the city are transmogrified into coffins-). Only those who can summon Personas are able to experience the Dark Hour, and you discover your Persona Orpheus in another outstanding anime sequence. You then join the school club SEES: Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, (how cool is that) so that with other Persona users you can fight the Shadows in a place called the Tartarus, which is essentially an enormous randomly generated building which appears only during the Dark Hour. Persona 3’s story is intriguing and one that will keep you interested until the final battle. I’ll leave the story part of my review spoiler free and rely that you trust another RPG/SMT fan in saying that it will keep you hooked until the last battle.
First, School Life. What I found to be the most interesting and, dare I say, fun aspect of Persona 3 is the Social Links system. It’s not a dating sim at all really for the simple reason that while yes, girls can and do fall head over heels in love with the main character, however there are many more interesting people to make friends with. And your relationships affect the strength and stats of the Personas that you can fuse. Each persona has an Arcana, Fool, Magician, Lovers, etc. You’ll notice that when you establish a social link, each person has an affiliation with certain Arcana. Forging bonds with people will enable you to fuse strong Persona of the Arcana they represent. This, to me, was not a chore at all, but rather addicting. At Gekkoukan High, your day is for the most part yours to do with what you choose. In Japan, students attend school Monday through Saturday, Sunday being the day of rest. The school day is usually broken up as such: Early Morning, Morning, Daytime, Lunchtime, Afternoon, After School, Evening, Late Evening, and the Dark Hour.
It was amusing to me that many times in the Lunchtime period, you walk out of the classroom and a parade of people who want to hang out with you after school will appear. After school, you can hang out with friends, join clubs, shop, sing karaoke, and many other things. To me, the people that you meet at Gekkoukan High School and the surrounding city are just as interesting as battling in the Tartarus. You have three social stats to improve upon: Academics, Charm, and Courage. These stats are crucial to improve because some of the characters won’t initiate a relationship with you until you have a certain level of proficiency. How to do this is rather simple. Doing certain tasks in school and the surrounding city will assist in raising your stats. This is the reason why I hesitate to call Persona 3 a dating sim, as the people you can forge social links with aren’t only dateable girls, but with all types of people ranging from a lonely, sad little girl to an equally sad old couple who own a book store.
Once you start a social link, you are given an ample amount of time to progress it. However, be mindful that if you neglect your social links, they may reverse and you will have to make amends with the upset individual, which isn’t very difficult and simply involves saying the right thing. Also, keep in mind that if a certain girl likes you a lot (the game will tell you-) and you date another girl, she No Likey and will reverse your social link! Another surprising thing about Persona 3 is that in class, you have to answer questions to raise your Charm, which many times will test if you simply skipped the dialogue or paid attention in class. Other times, the game simply requires that you be smart, as the answers weren’t given in previous lessons-so be prepared to either Phone a Friend, buy the Strat Guide or hit Wikipedia!
I really could go on about Social Links as I loved this aspect of Persona 3, however now I’ll hit graphics, music, and voices..voices in particular because to may hardcore RPG folks this can make or break a game. Let not your heart be troubled..this is Atlus and they’ve never gone the cheap route with voices. The English voice acting is professional and never cloying, my favorites being Akihiko and Junpei. The voices suit the characters and I never secretly wished I had the Japanese voice track intact. The music is simply incredible. Again, I never wished the soundtrack would simply go away, it lives up to the fantastic tunes such as we enjoyed in Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, my favorites being Aria of the Soul, Changing Seasons and Burn My Dread.
Graphically, Persona 3 is a mixed bag. The character design is expertly accomplished by Shigenori Soejima (Stella Deus). Mitsuru and Shinjiro are my favorites. Small touches such as when the seasons changes during the school year, the characters clothing reflects the season. I know, small to some of you, however I think small touches such as this shows the developers are paying attention. Those of you who have played previous Shin Megami Tensei games will recognize many of the summon characters, such as Nekomatta and Jack Frost. The School and the City are well done and interesting to explore. The Tartarus is equally well done, however randomly generated areas can only be so exciting.
Finally, the Tartarus, battle system, and fusing Persona. As I mentioned earlier, during the Dark Hour, you can fight in the Tartarus, an enormous 200+ floor dungeon (it goes up..don’t dungeons go down..?) which you can level up your player and Persona(s). Essentially you and up to three other Persona users grind for experience, items, and other goodies and you climb the Tartarus. Usually, for me, grinding is a chore, however in Persona 3 I never really tired of it. For players of the Shin Megami Tensei series, certain aspects of the battle system are familiar. What was referred to as the Press Turn system in Digital Devil Saga in Persona 3 is now “One More”. The enemies you battle have certain weaknesses which you can have analyzed by a member of your team.
Exploiting this weakness will gain the attacking character one more attack. This weakness, can however be used against you, so thankfully when you analyze the enemy doesn’t eat up a turn so you can summon the appropriate Persona. You have some control over what your teammates do, such as heal, wait, knock down, etc. this wasn’t a problem to me, as the AI would usually do what I would’ve wanted them to do anyway, which usually involves using the appropriate Persona. This brings me to the technique of summoning. Yes, this is the part which the characters point a gun-like object called an Evoker to their heads, pull the trigger, bits of “soul”fly out of their heads, and the Persona is summoned. Never once was I creeped out or disturbed by this. In fact, I thought the animation was rather cool. So relax folks, I don’t think playing Persona 3 will result in mass evoking from the innocent gamers. After the battle, Shuffle Time may appear.
This gives you the option to choose from displayed cards, varying from a Persona, weapons, money, health, experience, etc. The cards are shown and then shuffled, keeping track of the card you want usually isn’t very difficult. The Persona you find and train can be entered into a compendium in the Velvet Room (sounds kinky, but it’s not, trust me.).by talking to a NPC called Elizabeth, who for some reason is stuck hanging out in said Velvet room with a goggle eyed old guy named Igor. I suggest entering your Persona in the compendium, because if you screw up fusion, you can retrieve a beloved, oft used Persona for a small fee. Several types of fusion are available, you can fuse two, three, four, or five Persona. This is another part of Persona which is rather addicting; I spent quite a bit of time hanging out in the Velvet Room fusing new Persona.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Thus goes the Tartarus.
In closing, for Playstation 2 RPG players, the last few months have been worth the wait. First, we have the wonderful Odin Sphere (lovingly localized by again..Atlus-) and now we have Persona 3. Those of you who know me know that I am a card carrying Atlus fan-person. They continue to bring to our shores original, innovative, and mature games such as Persona 3. Yeah, yeah-I love effeminate/spikey haired heroes saving the world while finding the correct crystals as much as the next person, however Persona 3 in my opinion, ups the ante in terms of story, originality, and attitude. It assumes that as gamers, we’ve grown up a bit and can handle more mature and controversial themes. To echo another reviewer’s words, games like Persona 3 are the type which Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¾ of the way through you become a bit sad that this awesome game experience will be over with the final boss battle, and the ensuing wrap up ending. Yes, it’s that good. There is, however a nice Game + when you finish, allowing you to keep much of what you gained in the first run through, also giving you a chance for the social links you missed in the first go around.
So, buy the game, and hopefully with enough sales Atlus will send English speaking fans the FES (festival) expansion to Persona 3, which provides 30+ hours more gameplay. With that, I’m off to level up in the Tartarus-I really need to level up the most awesome Persona I have, Chu Chulainn-