M (Mature)Release Date:
April 22, 2008Screenshots: LinkAmazon: Buy Now!Written By:
The Persona series of games (part of the Megami Tensei, or ĎMegaTení franchise) has never caught on in the U.S. quite to the degree of peers Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Iíve never even played one for any significant amount of time. Itís not that I didnít like they games; they simply never appealed to me at face-value. Something about Persona 3, however, caught my eye. For those, like myself, who are unfamiliar with the series, its common themes basically boil down to a few bullet points. Shadowy spirit monsters inhabit modern day Japan, some people are able to summons spirits (Personas), and these people use their Personas to fight the evil spirits and monsters.
Persona 3 is kind of a fresh start for the series. While not a reboot, necessarily, its narrative isnít connect to any other games in the series. The player takes on a role not unfamiliar to Japanese RPGs: that of a troubled, loner, angsty teen with spectacular hair. A new transfer student to Gekkoukan High School, you are un-knowingly placed in a dorm occupied solely by a few student demon hunters. Every night at midnight the ĎDark Hourí occurs. Ordinary people are Ďtransmogrifiedí into ebony coffins. The high school transforms into a massive tower called ĎTartarusí and creatures called ĎShadowsí emerge to feast on the transformed humans. There are a select few people who are not transformed, protected by their guardian Personas. These people are called to use their powers to fight the Shadows every night during the Dark Hour. The player, after discovering his own Persona, is recruited by fellow classmate Shadow hunters calling themselves the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES).
The titular Personas themselves are comprised of various mythical gods, goddesses, spirits, and demons cobbled together from various ancient religions. Most fighting in the game is accomplished by summoning Personas to perform physical attacks or cast spells. With the exception of the player, characters come equipped with a set Persona that excels in different areas. One is better with physical attacks, one with ice attacks, one is mostly balanced--you get the idea. The player is the only character capable of switching between multiple Personas. Some of these are collected after battles, but most come from the process of fusion. In the Velvet Room, players can fuse together 2 or 3 Personas to make a more powerful one, and most Personas in the game are acquired this way.
The gameplay is divided into two distinct forms. At night, the player and SEES investigate the tower Tartarus, fighting Shadows and finding treasure along the way. This portion of the game is, I think, the most interesting. In a way it represents a distinctly Japanese approach to a Diablo-style hack and slash RPG. Tartarus is the only dungeon in the game and is comprised of many floors, which are randomized every time you enter one. You explore the dungeon by ascending the tower, fighting monsters, acquiring loot, and completing quests, and every several floors to reach a checkpoint that you can return to from other such checkpoints. Each night this potential grind is limited by the energy of you and your teammates. Exert yourself too much youíll all tire. Keep going and youíll get sick. Eventually, itís wise to return to the dorm to rest up for the next foray.
Also helping ease the grind is the combat system. Combat is fast-- really, really, fast. Only the main character is controlled by the player. You can set various tactical routines for your allies to follow but youíll rarely ever need them as the AI is almost always competent enough to know what to do. Combined with the ability to scan monsters for their weaknesses and chain together attacks, combat goes by at a blinding speed.
Now, thatís how the game plays at night. During the day, itís a much different story. During the day, the game plays out like a traditional Japanese social sim. You go to school, answer questions in class, take exams, hang out with friends, etc. Trust me, this part of the game is more fun than it sounds. Doing well in school and other activities raises your level in three different traits: academics, charm and courage. Raising these traits helps make new friends and unlock activities or scenes with existing friends. Certain Personas are attuned to certain classes (made up of Tarot card symbols), as are certain characters. Building your relationship with characters of a certain class increases your strength with Personas of that same class.
Also interesting is how these two very different components of the game interact with one-another. Work yourself too hard in school and you may be too tired to go to Tartarus. Donít be surprised to find yourself sleeping in class to keep up with the next big night of Shadow slaying. Conversely, donít be surprised to find yourself studying before bed, or sleeping early to be ready for school the next day. Trying to balance your double life is an important aspect of the game that adds a kind of meta-strategy element in the form of time and energy management... Seriously, itís a lot more fun than it sounds like.
Not all is perfect, however. Like in most RPGs with a silent protagonist, the player cha-racter is largely devoid of any personality. Interacting with friends never feels organic, and at times comes off more like youíre manipulating your friends than really having a relationship with them. Checkpoints in Tartarus can be spaced too-far apart for comfort, and you'íll often find yourself sacrificing progress to go back and save or rushing through floors to find the next checkpoint before becoming tired. Still, at the end of the day, Persona 3 delivers a refreshing take on an arguably stale genre. At the same time, it creates a thoroughly unique blend of game design that youíll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Itís fun, easy to get into, and surprisingly addictive. Itís on the long side, but JRPG fans are sure to find an endearing experience that isnít likely to let you down. Stick with it and experience one of the best JRPGs the PS2 has to offer.9/
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