"The effort you must apply toward the protagonist’s social progression is one of the most interesting things about Persona 3. If he doesn’t seize every opportunity for a conversation with one of his peers at the local high school (or in the community that lies outside its halls), he’ll be significantly outclassed by his enemies when battles occur."
Between the end of one day and the beginning of the next, there exists a secret “Dark Hour” when shadowy beasts creep forth from their lairs and a sickly green glow spreads across the sky like pond scum. During that time, brave young warriors put gun-like implements to their foreheads and pull triggers, sending ethereal particles flying outward like brain matter as they summon the strength to confront the darkness. If you let that potentially disturbing detail or any of several other odd plot quirks prevent you from playing Persona 3, though, or if you assume the game relies on shock value instead of great gameplay, you’d be making a serious mistake and missing one of the deepest and most rewarding role-playing titles ever created.
In Persona 3, players assume the role of a high school Junior who lives in a dormitory with some strange people. He soon realizes that he’s the strangest of all, that he possesses skills that make him uniquely qualified to save the city from the shadows. As the game progresses he’ll encounter numerous friends and enemies, experience heartache and love, battle through a monstrous dungeon, explore the darkest reaches of the city and work hard to maintain a passing grade despite the extracurricular activity. Such matters are handled with care and detail that really involves you in each event, whether you’re crossing your fingers as the protagonist heads over to the board to check his test scores, or hoping that you’ll get to meet up with a friend after school for some Ramen (Persona 3 is very Japanese, something the localization crew didn’t try to ‘fix’).
The effort you must apply toward the protagonist’s social progression is one of the most interesting things about Persona 3. If he doesn’t seize every opportunity for a conversation with one of his peers at the local high school (or in the community that lies outside its halls), he’ll be significantly outclassed by his enemies when battles occur. There’s limited time to do everything, too, so that what might prove dull in another game becomes urgent here. Days are too valuable to waste, so giving the wrong answer at a dialogue branch can really hurt you. It’s sort of like throwing out a powerful sword in a Final Fantasy game by mistake.
An in-game day consists of three chunks. You only watch events transpire in the morning, but you’ll have choices and opportunities for interaction by the time the afternoon arrives. A student may approach in the hall and ask to meet after school, for instance. A teacher may quiz you in class. This leads to an eventual decision about how you want to spend your time. There are numerous options, from meeting a girl at the shrine, to shopping for weapons and items at the local mall, to conversing with a shady businessman, to talking with a drunken monk at the local club. You can also engage in other activities that will boost the hero’s courage, charm or academic proficiency. Once you decide how to spend that time, several hours pass and evening arrives. At that point, you typically can explore the mall, head up to your room… or enter Tarturus!
There’s exactly one dungeon in the game, called Tarturus. As one of your friends notes, it sounds like a kind of toothpaste. However, such jokes lose their appeal the minute you encounter your first battle. As you roam the randomly-generated floors, you’ll come across enemies moving about, orange dots on your map. Touching one, whether you’ve gotten the drop on them by striking them with your sword or have instead strolled into an ambush, will trigger a battle.
Each battle in Persona 3 could realistically be your last. Even after you’ve leveled up your characters to a significant point, a group of three harmless looking birds might spell your complete annihilation. That’s partly because the game recycles monster models like they’re going out of style (an unfortunate flaw but one you’ll learn to ignore) and partly because even the same monster that you crushed in the past can surprise you.
If you’ve played Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, you have an idea of what you should expect. Each hero and monster has elemental affinities and weaknesses. To successfully survive nearly every encounter, you must take such things into full account and plan your moves accordingly. Low-level monsters will prove difficult to defeat if you’re trying to hit them with ice and they have a skill that nullifies such attacks, but powerful beasts can fall in an instant if you use a Mudoon spell and your adversary is weak against the black arts. Mistakes along those lines in other games are inconvenient, but here they could have you cursing. There also are status ailments to consider. If one of your strongest characters suddenly decides to carve you up because he fell victim to a charm spell, it might be the end of you. Because each battle is a high-stakes brawl that requires your attention, struggles with enemies are seldom tedious.
Persona 3 features other touches for the battle weary, as well. For one thing, you control only the hero. He’s joined in combat by up to three allies of his choosing, and tactical options are available, but your buddies can mostly be left to their own devices because they learn from their mistakes. For example, Akihiko might attack a given enemy with lightning, find that the assault was useless, then never try that skill again on that particular foe. That sort of AI is definitely appreciated, plus it speeds things up quite nicely. There are other instances where a party member might stupidly use an ice attack on a creature that has been throwing around frosty magic of its own, but at least she only makes such blunders once. Better yet, computer-controlled characters may stumble upon excellent strategies you didn’t even realize were available.
The game also keeps your best interests in mind outside of battle. You’ll be making numerous trips into the dungeon, slowly climbing ever higher as you seek conflict with increasingly powerful beasts and try to work out the structure’s dark secret. Sometimes, though, wandering through each hallway becomes tiresome. In such cases, you can split up your party so that everyone will independently search for items and the stairway to the next floor. This simplifies working through the early areas that you’ve already cleared, though you’ll soon learn not to use it on higher levels until you’ve powered up your characters sufficiently.
Besides trying to find your way to the top of the tower, you’ll also find reason to search key floors. That’s because of a ‘requests’ system the game has in place. You can visit a place called the Velvet Room, where you’ll fuse powerful Persona beasts to fight for you in battle. Those fantastic creatures, which are the same as demons you’ve battled or recruited in the Shin Megami Tensei games, determine the hero’s efficiencies and deficiencies. He can switch between them on the fly, and carry up to 12 as his strength increases. It’s to his benefit to have as many of them available as possible. This only happens if he accepts missions, which might entail something simple like fusing a certain beast, but more often are treasure hunts that will ask him to seek out the most powerful shadows from a given portion of the tower.
Deadlines make the available missions especially interesting. If you haven’t accomplished a goal by a certain date, it could be gone forever (and with it your chance of ever recruiting some of the most powerful beasts). An additional complication is the fact that you can only fight in Tarturus for a certain amount of time on any one evening before your characters grow fatigued and retreat to the dormitory. You must plan carefully, from the game’s beginning to its conclusion.
That dynamic also means that the careless player might become stuck. During key junctures in the game, you’ll battle monsters outside of Tartarus. These tend to be high-level creatures (at the time you encounter them), so you’re completely screwed if you didn’t level up your characters sufficiently. You can’t even go back to level grind. There are numerous reminders along the way so that you don’t come into these situations uninformed, but it’s still a concern that adds yet another layer of complexity to a game that already demands so much.
There’s so much more to say about Persona 3. It’s beautiful, with anime sequences interspersed throughout and some beautiful environments. The localization is nearly flawless, with some of the most amazing voice acting you’ve ever heard. Perhaps as a result, the plot is also intriguing and should go a long way toward keeping you playing for the 80 or so hours it will take to complete your first trip through the game. There’s depth in the play mechanics, too, both because of the built-in monster compendium from the Shin Megami Tensei games (put to excellent use here) and because of the intricate social system. In the end, though, the most important thing to remember is that Persona 3 is one of the deepest and most rewarding experiences around. Atlus must realize that, too, as the company is going the extra mile and packaging the game with a deluxe art book and a soundtrack CD that includes 18 of the game’s eclectic compositions. Buy it while you can.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 23, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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