"Like the average fan of RPGs, I typically do not look back on my years in high school with fondness. So when Atlus began showing trailers of Persona 3, the most recent spin-off in the ever edgy Shin Megami Tensei series, I was obviously skeptical of the unusual format in which the player equally divides his or her time between school work and dungeon-crawling. I mean, this is the same series that had tried to revive Hitler; how did we go from that to sleeping through Engli..."
Like the average fan of RPGs, I typically do not look back on my years in high school with fondness. So when Atlus began showing trailers of Persona 3, the most recent spin-off in the ever edgy Shin Megami Tensei series, I was obviously skeptical of the unusual format in which the player equally divides his or her time between school work and dungeon-crawling. I mean, this is the same series that had tried to revive Hitler; how did we go from that to sleeping through English class?
I doubt I was alone in wondering why anyone would want to relive the angst, social awkwardness, and sexual frustration of their adolescent years, but it turns out that my apprehension was completely unfounded. The whole dungeon crawling juxtaposed with school work thing, with some free time to hang out with classmates in between, works together so well that at no moment did the two genres ever conflict. The characters are genuinely likable, the combat satisfying, and the whole experience unified by an underlying theme of companionship as the defining quality of the human condition. The result is a sublimely brilliant mix of compelling narrative and intuitive dungeon grinding; an RPG that single-handedly redeems the genre for the past eight years of mediocre story telling and asinine gameplay.
Apparently I wasn't alone in this conclusion since Persona 3 has been the most successful of the Megten games released stateside. So successful in fact, that Atlus USA has given us the gaming equivalent of oral sex by localizing Persona 3: FES.
In fact, FES may be better than oral sex (not that I would know recently). Generally when a developer creates something successful, they go on a port/remix whoring binge (also known as the Square-Enix paradigm) that shamelessly pads the original game's bosom with little substance. Such is not the case with FES -- the original game has been meticulously rebalanced, social links have been refined, plenty of new scenes and requests have been added (one of which has you sleeping with an attendant from an inter-dimensional elevator that exists in your subconscious), a new difficultly mode, new personae, new music, a new item shop, and a 30-hour pseudo-sequel (“The Answer”) that draws the whole thing the an extremely satisfying climax.
FES is for both people that played the original Persona 3 and for those that can't even spell Shin Megami Tensei. The refined social links and scheduling make the main campaign (“The Journey”) far less tedious, while The Answer is a full-fledged game in itself. If you have not played The Journey yet, then the changes made to this release will not be so drastic as to hinder your experience of the original. You play as an easy-to-identify-with new kid at school who is in dire need of a hair cut and who never removes his portable music player. Not long after moving into his new dorm, he experiences a phenomenon known as “The Dark Hour,” a hidden hour between midnight and 1:00 a.m. and to which everyone except a select few are oblivious. During this time, your school turns into a randomly generating dungeon and Shadows wander around flaying the minds of anyone who isn't hiding in a coffin. It turns out that your new dormmates not only know about the Dark Hour, they are actively exploring it and trying to understand why it occurs.
To this end, it is decided that you must venture into Tartarus, the sprawling 200+ floor dungeon that appears only during the Dark Hour, and climb to the top. While this might seem like a tedious activity to perform night after night, blazing through a dungeon crawling session is surprisingly non-intrusive. This is due in large part to a fast-paced turn-based (you read that correctly) combat engine that is easy to pick up and fun to master. Sure it uses the tried and true elemental strength/weakness thing, but there are so many subtleties that make it fun. When you hit an enemy's weakness, that enemy is knocked down, loses a turn, and the character that struck the blow gets another turn. Enemies can (and will) do this to you with surprising efficiency, like they have competent AI or something. Knocking down every enemy lets you perform an all out attack, complete with a cartoon-like cloud of dust as you beat the living hell out of everything that moves. This twist provides a pleasing layer of strategy to a formula that, by this point, is nearly 30 years old.
A surprising amount of balance has gone into the combat system compared to most other RPGs. I never found myself bogged down with a bunch of spells I never used, nor did I find myself spamming the same moves battle after battle. This is due to an overly complicated system for fusing personae, psychological projection thingies that aid you when you shoot yourself in the head. By combining two or more persona(e), you can make a new persona that possesses unique abilities while inheriting others from its parents – there's over 100 personae in total. One of them is Satan. Another is Oberon from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Another is a giant green penis riding a chariot.
The main character (sometimes called MC – I named him MC Hammer) has the uncanny ability to change personae at any time, which obviously comes in handy in battle. The whole shooting yourself in the head thing might seem like a knee-jerk tactic to make the game appear more edgy than it really is, but it is in fact beautifully integrated into Persona 3's mythos. Persona are awakened within in an individual as the result of emotional trauma – an experience that also coincides with a person's discovery that the Dark Hour exists. All of this has to do with a person's place in human society and all that. It's definitely not a coincidence that Persona 3 explicitly cites Carl Jung several times (you didn't think that all these Shadows and Personae were serendipity, did you?).
Anyway, blowing your head off to cast dia on an injured comrade is but one of the many drastic ways Persona 3 takes some daring stylistic moves. From the vibrant colors to the racy script to the bizarre blend of rap, J-pop, and techno that plays during battles, Persona 3 takes every opportunity it has to try something new. Characters grapple with problems like social anxiety instead of orcs, and divorce instead of wizards. One of your social links, an online gamer named “Maya” whom you meet playing an MMORPG called Innocent Sin: Online (get it?), speaks with a heavy 1337 inflection. It's details like this that show just how skillfully Atlus has managed to tap into the sub-culture that it is trying to represent. It's not often that a player meets characters in a game that literally act like people they know in real life.
Even if you have played The Journey in the original release of Persona 3, FES is still worth purchasing for The Answer, an approximately 30-hour event that occurs after the ending of the original adventure. This new quest excludes social links, school work, requests from Elizabeth, the persona compendium, and nearly every other aspect of the original game except its dungeon crawling. In brief, the Answer is about 90% grinding and 10% answering 100% of the questions still lingering from The Journey.
The Answer manages to avoid feeling repetitive, despite being repetitive, simply because the combat still kicks about ten thousand asses. What's even better is the faster pace your party will level up and the easier fusion recipes that can be used. The personae that were ridiculously complicated to make in The Journey can be made relatively easily here so that you can get back to the whole beating up shadows thing.
What truly makes The Answer worthwhile though is the conclusion that it offers to players. Persona 3 as a whole has some of the most memorable, most likable, and most human characters ever put into video game form. This is a good thing, since the primary focus of Persona 3 – indeed the entire point of it – is the relationships that build between characters. After school and in the evenings, you can spend time with the various inhabitants of the city, such as the down-on-his-luck monk at the bar, a classmate trying to get in bed with a teacher, the old couple at the book store, Death, and a few others. Feel free to date one or all of the girls at your school – I'd recommend Chihiro since glasses and bibliophilia are obviously sexy.
Excellent voice acting truly makes the characters come alive. While some, the most obvious being Fuuka, have the emotional complexity of a kitchen table, others can really tug at your heart strings. The performance for Junpei is one of the best I've ever heard in a game, and the actors for Akihiko and Yukari deliver their lines in such a way that they may very well bring a tear or two to your eyes. I remember one part when the actress playing Mitsuru delivered a few lines with a shaky voice, like she was on the verge of tears – I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't too.
You might be wondering what all this socializing and character development has to do with the repetitive dungeon exploring (remember the dungeon?), but fear not – the two work together surprisingly well. The arcana used to classify personae are linked to different characters that exemplify that archetype (e.g. the kid on the disciplinary committee and the Emperor; the fat kid and the Moon, etc). By becoming closer to a specific character, you become closer to personae of that type, which makes you better at beating up shadows. It sounds like a minor connection, but it manages to keep gameplay concerns in the back of your mind as you're trying to hook up with Yuko. And you better not stay out dungeon crawling too late, otherwise you'll become tired and fail your midterms.
While The Answer noticeably lacks the aforementioned social links, the relationships that develop between the people in your dorm is still just as interesting, albeit more linear. The end of the Journey leaves open a huge question in the plot, hence the title of this secondary quest. The Answer will perform its namesake in such a way that all the grinding is rendered a mute irritation at best. You'll further explore the pasts of characters that you've met, become closer to them, and make sense of the ending to The Journey (which is a feat in itself). It's the type of thing that really makes FES feel like a complete experience, and one that will likely make you a Megten fan if you aren't already.
I cannot heap enough praise on this game. If it was a person, I would rip off its clothes and have sex with it – I wouldn't even waste time closing the curtains or locking the front door. There hasn't been an RPG this original and this beautiful in nearly a decade – no review can do it justice. If you've found console RPGs dry or uninspired for the past few years, this will be the one game that wins you back. I don't care how you get it – buy, borrow, rent, steal, -- just get it, take it home, tear off that shrink wrap and thrust it into your PS2 without even bothering to find protection for the case. The RPG dry spell is finally over.
Featured community review by dagoss (September 16, 2008)
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