Persona 3 Reader Review
Persona 3 begins with a stylish, striking animated cutscene that sets the tone for the rest of the game. Right from the off there is an infectious sense of freshness and vibrancy that will keep most players hooked throughout the cinematic-heavy opening hour - and for many dozen hours afterwards.
A spin-off from the Shin Megami Tensei universe, Persona 3 is set in modern day Japan, and concerns the exploits of a 16-year-old transfer student - yes, that�s you - who is about to begin life at his new school, Gekkoukan High.
He soon comes to learn of the Dark Hour, which occurs every night at midnight, a time when almost every human being is transmogrified into a coffin and dark beings known as Shadows emerge. During this time the school transforms into an imposing tower named Tartarus, itself teeming with shadows.
Our hero also learns of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), a small team of fellow Gekkoukan students established to fight Shadows and solve the mystery of Tartarus and the Dark Hour. All SEES members are unaffected by the Dark Hour and possess the ability to summon a persona - a powerful creature from the depths of their psyche. The hero, who is able to summon multiple personas, is hastily recruited.
Back to school
There are two distinct, yet closely connected, aspects to the gameplay: Persona 3 is part dungeon crawler, part school/dating sim. Starting in March, the game takes place over an entire Japanese school year; school on Saturday, exams, and all.
During the day the player attends school and, later, can wander around the town, where they are able to interact with classmates and townspeople and establish social links. This involves spending valuable time with them after school (you can only do this once per day, so choose wisely). Each character has a story of their own, and how you respond to the multiple-choice questions during these segments will determine how quickly you befriend them and increase their social link.
In battle is where the importance of social links becomes apparent. For every type of Persona there is a corresponding social link. The main character is able to fuse new, more powerful Personae from two or more existing ones, and how many bonus experience points the new Persona receives depends upon the level of its corresponding social link. It will also level more quickly.
The player is also able to level up three attributes: intelligence, charm, and bravery. There are several ways to do this: answering questions in class or studying will increase intelligence; being seen at the right places or helping classmates will increase charm; and taking in a horror film at the town�s cinema or going to karaoke will increase bravery. These attributes will have benefit later in the game, but must be balanced with forming and maintaining relationships with students and townspeople.
Suspended for fighting
By night the team ventures into Tartarus, a randomly generated dungeon of over two hundred floors. The battle system is a variant of the turn-press system featured in other Shin Megami Tensei games. Characters can either attack with their weapon or summon their Persona and perform a special move.
Exploiting an enemy�s weakness - most have at least one, either to one of three types of physical attack or various types of magic - will knock them down, giving the player an extra turn. If all enemies are knocked down the player is able to perform a powerful rush attack with all other available party members. The key to victory in battle is, therefore, to assemble a diverse group of Personae and attempt to down all enemies as quickly as possible. The enemy can, of course, exploit the player�s weaknesses in a similar fashion, adding another dimension of strategy.
In a twist to the tried and tested turn-based formula, the player controls only the main character. Up to three team mates can participate in battle, and all are controlled by the AI. They can, however, be assigned various duties to perform - such as healing/support or attacking a specific enemy. These amount of these options available increase as the game progresses, giving the player more control. There will invariably be moments when the AI fails to perform a desired action, and the player will occasional lament the lack of full control over the party, but more often that not it's up to the job. What it does do is expedite the combat, of which there is a lot.
Persona 3 does so many things right: instead of navigating tedious menus to heal after battle, the player can simply do so by speaking to a party member with a healing skill; enemies can be scanned at any time during battle at no cost (that is, a lost turn); and enemies visibly roam the dungeon halls and be either avoided or attacked in order to gain an often crucial initiative.
I hated art and music
While it's not as technically accomplished as many late PS2 games, Persona 3 boasts attractive character designs from Stella Deus designer Shigenori Soejima, stylish menus, and several visually arresting anime cutscenes. The town and school have an authentic Japanese look, but much of the game will be spent in Tartarus, with its floor after floor of blandly designed corridors.
The music is more impressive: in keeping with the game's modern day setting, the soundtrack - which is included with the US special edition - has a contemporary flavour, with plenty of upbeat electro, J-pop and hip-hop on offer. Not my favourite genres, admittedly, but it works well.
It�s hard not to feel uplifted by Persona�s main themes: we have one life and even through loss and against seemingly insurmountable odds we must decide whether we want to face it head on or simply run away. Not only do each of the characters have to contend with the issues associated with being teenagers, they also have to save the world - a thankless task for they are the only ones aware of the dark hour - and come to terms with their own personal demons along the way. Friendship also plays an important role, highlighted by the way in which stronger social links result in stronger Personae.
But fear not, cynical internet hordes; it�s not all emo nonsense. The principle characters are wonderfully realised and their interactions are a joy. The social link stories run the gamut from sad to downright bizarre, but most are at least entertaining. The dialogue is snappy and the script, bolstered by another sparkling translation from Atlus and some excellent performances from the English cast, is peppered with jokes and banter.
Persona 3 is without doubt the best game I've played this year - one which kept me occupied for over 100 hours this past summer - and is one of the best JRPGs on the PS2 - if not the best. With interesting design, genuinely tactical battle and life-stealing fusion systems, an unusual setting, and a strong cast, any JRPG fan would missing out by not playing it. There is, however, a caveat: if you're averse to turn-based combat, Japanese storytelling, or excessive dungeon crawling, subtract a few points. If the prospect of going back to school causes you to develop a sudden stomach ache, headache, or sore throat, deduct 8.
9 / 10