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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PlayStation 2) artwork

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PlayStation 2) review

"You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have...tedium interrupted by occasional awesome moments."

I've heard that Persona 3 is the game that gave the Megami Tensei series a huge boost as far as gaining a true foothold in America goes. Don't get me wrong -- I'm glad that one of the more interesting and challenging families of RPGs has gained enough popularity over here that it's actually possible to find many of its titles for an affordable price, but trying to figure out how this one got the job done, as opposed to the superior Nocturne, just reaffirms that after a few decades of gaming, I must be a good bit out of touch with the public.

While playing through the enhanced FES remake of Persona 3, I was confused as to why so many reviewers gave this one sparkling grades (the only MT game with a superior aggregate is Persona 4). It's a solid game, but marred too much by vigorously enforced tedium to be an actual classic. I found there to be some really good ideas, but the overall execution made this a chore to get through -- a game I put away multiple times before finally bludgeoning my way through the last couple months of in-game time to reach the final challenges.

One could essentially say that you're playing two games in one with Persona 3, with both aspects being promising in concept, but flawed in execution. Half the game involves racing through dungeon corridors while dealing with the usual apocalyptic plot one expects from any game with the MT name. The other half is essentially a high school simulator, as your character makes friends while juggling a full social life, as well as exams and extracurricular school activities. Both halves are connected, as the more social networking you do, the better you'll be at summoning Personas to fight for you while dungeon crawling. As anyone familiar with these games knows, whether you're dealing with demons or Personas, you can only create ones that are your level or weaker. However, by strengthening your bonds with other people in this game, you can give Personas additional experience. By completing a relationship with a friend, any Persona that corresponds to that person will gain five additional levels, which is a great loophole allowing you to be more powerful in battle than your level would normally indicate.

Atlus also deserves credit for making the main characters a well-written group, particularly Yukari and Junpei, the two who spend the most time directly interacting with your guy. As a group of high schoolers taking on the responsibility to save the world from a threat most everyone has no clue exists, they have a lot of weight on their shoulders and some great storytelling shows them regularly suffering from the stress only to get picked back up, resolving to keep up the good fight. The game takes place over the course of an entire school year and it's really neat to watch these characters grow together and mature as individuals before your eyes -- a process that continues right up until you've reached one of the most awesomely bittersweet endings found in a video game.

Unfortunately, only four of the many social interactions you can undergo in Persona 3 are with these people -- characters whom you develop a bond with and actually care about. The rest are with a rag-tag assortment of random classmates and townspeople. While there is the occasional touching moment, such as when your presence helps a drunken monk decide to reconcile with his estranged family, for the most part, these things are tedious time-wasters where you're often just telling the other person what they want to hear and occasionally giving hilariously horrible advice such as telling a little girl upset because her parents are splitting up to teach them a lesson by running away from home, as well as totally bro-encouraging a classmate that his one teacher definitely has the hots for him.

They also come off as completely divorced from the story because, with one minor exception, they operate in their own little bubbles where the activities of the main plot hold no bearing. Regardless of how crappy things are getting in the game's world, you'll still be going out to eat with fellow students and solving their petty problems with nary a word about how people are disappearing and some mysterious prophet is preaching about the end of times. You'll find yourself consoling a heartbroken teammate after plot developments get more traumatic than usual and then immediately jaunt off to hang out with your jock friend to encourage him to "MAN UP" and fight through the pain even if it causes his leg to fall right off his body. The thing is, I really loved a lot of the main story. It was sad, touching and ultimately left an imprint upon me. It's just too bad that, if I wanted to optimize my character, I'd have to let it regularly take second stage to a bunch of frivolous nonsense.

After a while, things just get ludicrous. Look, I may have been a bit of an outcast in high school and I may have spent virtually the entire four years dreaming of the day I graduated just to get away from those people, but…man, this game. If you do everything right, you'll wind up as the big man on campus looked upon for advice and validation from virtually every social demographic imaginable, whether it be a fat kid nobody likes or a super-rich and super-corrupt businessman. You'll be the smartest kid in your class, you'll be an elite athlete, you'll hook up with every girl who crosses your path, ranging from a shy wallflower to the most popular girl in school. You're a god in a teen's body taking his new school by storm and, no, I'm sure nobody's overcompensating for anything in his or her life. Not at all.

But, like I said, that's only half the game. The other half involves dungeon-crawling and monster-battling -- the two reasons I enjoy MegaTen. And with no reservation whatsoever, I can say Atlus almost completely nailed half of that equation. Fighting monsters (known as Shadows) is easily the high point in this game. You can't just mash the attack button to get through battles, as it's essentially mandatory to figure out a Shadow's weaknesses and exploit them, lest your foes start throwing around spells and damaging attacks left and right. This game is not an easy one, even if you're being diligent with social calls.

You also have to balance your party members. Three characters can join the main guy during trips to Tartarus (the game's dungeon), but you'll eventually have seven or so sidekicks, each possessing their own strengths and weaknesses. Stay in the dungeon for too long and party members will get tired, reducing their effectiveness for the day or two it takes them to recover. Checkpoints are found sporadically throughout the dungeon on floors containing boss fights, allowing you to warp back to the ground floor to save and recover life and magic. Oftentimes, the challenge is to make it from one boss floor to the next without wearing out your team. As you gain levels, characters are able to last a bit longer before fatigue sets in and, as you get tougher, Shadows that originally charged you to instigate combat will now actively try to avoid your party, making it easier to advance from floor to floor.

There are a lot of cool aspects to battle. You can sneak up on Shadows in the dungeon and instigate battle by swinging your weapon at their icon to get a pre-emptive strike. But if they run into you before you can hit them, there's a good chance they'll get first strike, which can be very, very bad in a series as notoriously unforgiving of blunders as MT. About the only qualm I have is that your teammates are all computer-controlled. While the A.I. is pretty solid, there still were enough moments where I got annoyed by some of the little flaws that this is worth mentioning. Watching Mitsuru repeatedly attempt to inflict various status ailments on a lone (and weakened) enemy got tiresome, as did the group's interesting feelings about keeping everyone healthy. They're quite diligent with casting healing spells (or using restorative items) on critically-injured allies, but apparently completely ignorant of anything involving status effects unless I switched their tactics to a pure "heal/support" mode (which then had them burn through magic by casting healing spells the instant someone took any damage), forcing me to waste turns with my superior, more versatile, hero in order to keep them going.

But that problem is a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the glaring flaw of the dungeon crawling -- the dungeon itself. Tartarus is, to be frank, a horrible place that threatens to suck the joy out of life. I've played a number of games in the MT family through multiple generations of systems and most of them boasted intricate dungeons loaded with tricks and traps. Not only did you have tough fights, but you had to navigate through places that would have seemed at home in an old Wizardry or AD&D Gold Box games. Not here. With the exception of boss floors, every level in Tartarus is a simplistic maze of corridors that is randomly generated. And there are over 250 of them, with the only real change being that the background graphics will occasionally become different to signify you advancing from one block of the dungeon to another.

These floors are designed in such a dull manner that after realizing things weren't going to get better, I just wanted to sprint through each one as quickly as possible. That's actually a good idea, as spending too much time on any floor will attract the attention of a gun-packin' Grim Reaper, combat with whom will be fatal to any party that's not ready for the end-game fights. That fellow shows up even more quickly when the game randomly decides that a particular floor will be "different" by giving you an enemy-free level or one loaded with special gold shadows that essentially serve as this game's version of the Metal Slime. At the very least, when your party's never-silent navigator squeaks loudly about how Death is coming, the boredom of navigating Tartarus' endless array of identical corridors does change to a "uh, when did I last save?!?" sort of panic for a brief period of time, so I guess there is one interesting aspect to this place.

That's Persona 3 in a nutshell. You have the typically excellent MT battle system diminished by the most painfully boring dungeon I've ever experienced. You also have an intriguing life simulator marred by how most of it was completely detached from the actual game. Give with one hand and take away with the other. With the FES expansion, there's also a second quest taking place after the events of the actual game where you don't have any of the high school stuff, but will still be doing a lot of boring dungeon crawling with the game locked into hard mode, which sounds very unappealing to me after enduring the main game even if it does offer closure to that aforementioned bittersweet ending. I'd describe this game as completely mediocre when it's all said and done, but I have to admit there's a certain goofy charm in how it relishes taking refuge in audacity.

You have a crew of high school students fighting against the end of the world who get joined by a much younger child, a knife-wielding dog and a robot learning to be human. Opposing them are a trio consisting of a goth chick, a computer geek and Evil Hippie Jesus. Summoning Personas requires an act that visually resembles shooting oneself in the head. While all of this is going on, your ears will be treated to a bizarre, yet strangely catchy, soundtrack that constantly changes depending on exactly where you are and how far you've progressed through the game. One of your social interactions is with a man who turns out to be a ghost, while one of the teachers at the school is into voodoo. And no one anywhere bats an eye at all this. Knowing that I'm controlling a character seemingly placed in the world's largest insane asylum where no one is remotely aware of just how crazy they all are is almost enough to get me to forgive just how tedious existing there actually is. Almost.


overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (August 31, 2014)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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- posted August 31, 2014:

Top review. Even though I love Persona 3, I can totally understand why you thought it was a rather mediocre game. You're right in that Tartarus is hugely lacking in design.

The social links were actually probably my favourite part. A few I struggled to care about, but most were quite affecting and the way they tied in to the final boss battle was quite something.

I never played The Answer, but more recently I did complete Persona 3 Portable. Although most of the problems you had with The Journey remain here, you are actually able to control your party members rather than rely on AI, which I was grateful for - especially in boss fights.

Incidentally, I have never played Nocturne or any of the other Shin Megami Tensei games apart from Personas 3, 4, and 4 Arena.
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Germ posted August 31, 2014:

Persona 3 is the game that changed my mind about JRPGs, and I absolutely love it. But I can see what you're saying. The empowerment fantasy is a particular thing I like to joke about with my friends who are into Persona and it is taken to EXTREME levels. But I still enjoy it. The PSP version is also the only one I played, and like Ben pointed out you can control your party in it.
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overdrive posted August 31, 2014:

Yeah, I saw that the PSP version gave you full control of your party. I prefer that to be an option, with computer control of allies being an option you can click if you desire.

I've played SMT I (would have been good if not for the utterly insane battle frequency), Nocturne, SMT IV, P3, Revelations: Persona and the Raidou Kuz...whatever vs. the something Army action-RPG. And one of the Game Boy games that is affiliated with SMT in some form (Revelations: The Demon Slayer).

Nocturne and SMT IV are the best two. P3 and SMT I, I'd probably rank about the same, but for different reasons. Revelations: The Demon Slayer was very meh. Revelations: Persona gets an incomplete because when I played it, I didn't understand the Persona system at all and was a total screw-up who wound up completely doomed when I got to the dungeon where you had to only use magic.
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- posted August 31, 2014:

SMT IV is the 3DS one, right? I've been itching to try that since it came out in North America. It hasn't hit European shores yet, sadly.

I thought 4 was okay but didn't love it. 3 had better characters and I liked the darker tone of its narrative a lot more.

For what it's worth, even though the PSP version improved on a couple of things, it took away parts like running around the town (navigation outside of Tartarus is point and click instead) and full animated cut-scenes. So while the PSP game plays better, ultimately I preferred the experience on the PS2 (plus nostalgia and such - being the first time I played through it).

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