M (Mature)Screenshots: LinkAmazon: Buy NOW!Release Date:
August 14, 2007 Written By:
Daniel Sims“Two in harmony surpasses one in perfection.”
--Kijiro Family Motto
Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei games, particularly ones of the Persona branch, have made a point of clashing role playing game conventions with contemporary Japanese settings. Persona 3 however, brings things to another level, attempting to take that whole “high school student by day, hero by night” dynamic seen so often in television and recreate it in an interactive game. The result is a sort of videogame interpretation of themes like teamwork, friendship, and sociology – a rarity for single-player RPGs.
First however, a forewarning of what players are getting into. The Shin Megami Tensei (or “Megaten”) brand is known for some notoriously hardcore games, almost to the point where the brand itself could be considered a niche, even within the world of Japanese RPGs. Although Persona 3 is probably an excellent entry point into Megaten games for new players, many who jump into it out of the blue will likely not have an easy time understanding it.
Not only is Persona3’s gameplay essentially a fusion of two of the oldest and possibly least accessible genres known to console gaming (more on that later) packed into a quest lasting well over 50 hours, it’s presentation is also quite nerd-oriented.
Simply put, Persona 3 reads like it was translated by anime fansubbers. Whether it’s because of Megaten’s established status as a niche franchise, this particular game’s setting, or both, there is virtually no attempt in Persona 3’s American localization to make the game more understandable to the mainstream American audience. Although they speak English in the US version, characters in Persona 3 will liberally use Japanese honorables and other terms like “Senpai,” “kun,” and “chan.”
The game is also firmly set in urban Japan. Players will go to school Monday thru Saturday from April to the next March, celebrate Japanese holidays (and no western ones), and often be asked questions concerning what might be common knowledge to Japanese, but virtually unknown to Americans.
Persona 3, expectedly, is also heavily anime-influenced in its visual style from the character designs to the game’s elaborate Japanese music video opening. The game also employs a somewhat streamlined and minimalist presentation. Its graphics, while colorful and successful in painting the game’s world, are low-polygon, even for a PS2 game.
You don’t necessarily have to have played other Megaten games in order to “get” Persona 3, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some prior knowledge of Japanese language and culture before trying to play it.
Those to whom Persona 3 does prove to be accessible will find an experience that is certainly unique, even within its own genre. In order to fully portray two sides of the life of a demon-slaying high-school student, Persona 3 combines two of the oldest and most hardcore Japanese game genres: the text-based adventure and the dungeon crawl. Elements of both come together to create a game that got me thinking in a more social, more team-oriented manner than any other single-player RPG I’ve played.
Players are cast as a high school transfer student in a contemporary Japanese city. By day they engage in a sort of text-based adventure where they live out a whole school year studying, joining clubs, and making friends. By night during a mysterious time called the “Dark Hour” which occurs between midnight and 12:01am, players command a team of students called the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (S.E.E.S.) as they dungeon crawl through Tartarus – a massive tower of well over 200 stories, all the while fighting beings they call “shadows.” How the whole “command” element of the game is executed is what sets Persona 3’s combat apart.
Persona 3 employs a battle system similar to that of the other Playstation 2 Megaten games. It puts so much importance on elemental properties that they alone can affect the very turn order of a battle. Generally, Persona 3 rewards careful planning like few other turn-based RPGs do. The twist that gives off a unique mood in playing this game is its command system.
Instead of giving players full control over each party member, Persona 3 only gives them control over the main character while others are controlled by AI. RPGs that do this have been known for relying on half-assed AI and even worse command systems for that AI. The only traditional RPG in recent memory to ever do it right was Final Fantasy XII. Persona 3 is one game whose AI and AI command system actually work to its benefit, but it accomplishes this by doing the exact opposite of what FFXII did.
Final Fantasy XII had no specific “main character,” and instead simply let players take complete, utter, and equal control over a group of characters by pre-programming their very behavior. Persona 3’s AI system makes players learn to work with, not control, pre-set party members.
Players can tell other characters to take support roles, keep certain enemies suppressed, and give other commands that, while broad, fit the context of the battle system. Because of how dependable Persona 3’s AI is, coordinating teammates to carry out battle strategies is very easy as long as players always consider each character’s strengths and weaknesses. While exploring Tartarus players can also order the party to split up in order to find things faster, and even call for support from an analyst who performs all kinds of functions.
The fact that the main character is the only one directly controlled by the player, along with other gameplay mechanics like having to check up on how each party member is feeling and whether they are available for expeditions into Tartarus, gives off the feeling of actually being one guy who’s leading a party instead of an omnipresent player who’s directly commanding every character. The only downside to this is that the main character’s death alone will result in Game Over, which, along with the presence of some spells that I personally think are unfair, means battles can be lost much more easily than in most other RPGs. Some may still prefer the way of complete and direct control, but Persona 3 is one game that successfully positions AI suggestion – a mechanic that usually fails in RPGs, in a way that works.
The major mechanic of Persona 3 that links its demon-slaying, dungeon-crawling half to its high school dating sim half is the use of creatures called “Personas.” All magic in Persona 3 is cast through these “Personas” – corporeal manifestations of the owner’s mind that are released and commanded when characters shoot themselves in the head with a magic gun called an Evoker. These personas bring a pretty cool element of strategy to battles. Each one has its own set of spells and its own elemental strengths and weaknesses. Because the main character in the game is unique in that he can keep multiple personas as well as switch between them during battle, players have the ability to essentially change their movesets and elemental properties in the middle of battle. In a battle system that puts so much weight on elemental advantages, this forces them to consider which persona is right for each situation, especially during boss fights. Furthermore, personas can be fused, which unlocks new, more powerful personas that can take on the abilities of their component personas. As the corporeal manifestations of the owner’s mind, the personas are by nature affected by the owner’s experiences in life, in the case of this game, the relationships they form at school.
The emotional and psychological nature of the personas is interpreted into Persona 3 through devices called Social Links (or S. Links) that are established when players begin relationships with characters at school. This turns the relationships with these characters into more than just friendships or stories, but also tools that affect players’ abilities in battle, which has a weird effect on how players may perceive these relationships. Do they provide meaningful or at least entertaining interactive storylines for players, or are they just a utility to help them in battle?
When managing time and deciding which relationships to engage in each day, players may, like in real life, act based on whom they like personally. On the other hand, they might just act based on what S. Links and personas they need. The ultimate example of the oddity of this is Persona 3’s dating system.
There are several girls that players can enter romantic relationships with in Persona 3, each one of which establishes an S. Link. However, once the strength of each S. Link is maxed out and an “unbreakable bond” is forged, players no longer have to continue interacting with the corresponding person. This includes potential love interests, even up to the point where there are essentially no consequences for cheating on them. In fact, in order to gain as many S. Links as possible and strengthen more personas in combat, players are essentially encouraged to date several women throughout the course of the game, even while technically none of the relationships end!
I myself chose to engage in relationships in school based on which characters I liked personally, and then see that reflected in which personas I used in battle, but players may take things the other way around and simply treat their school relationships as a tool to help themselves in combat, even if that completely destroys any suspension of disbelief that may have existed in that half of the game.Bottom Line
Persona 3 takes two of the oldest, and in some ways most antiquated styles of Japanese videogame and fuses them to create an experience that feels new and successfully takes the Persona series’ theme of an RPG starring contemporary Japanese students to the next level, even if it is essentially designed from top to bottom to ultimately be a niche game.8.5/
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