Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus U.S.A
N Amer - 08/14/2007
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Review
With the exception of a few special people, all who live in the world of Persona 3 are in bed by midnight. At that time the “special” ones enter the Dark Hour, the part of the day that stands outside the 24-hour cycle. Vicious creatures (known as Shadows) come out during the Dark Hour – you can fight them by visiting a land called Tartarus, a place where rooms are spontaneously formed like random dungeon battles. As if that weren’t odd enough, just wait till to you hear why normal humans aren’t aware of the Dark Hour: because they’re asleep in their coffins.
Persona 3 might very well be the most eyebrow-raising RPG for PlayStation 2. The general facts are pretty typical – you play as a young man attending high school. You’ll meet lots of new people and can try to hold onto your cool attitude by selecting the proper response to each situation. There’s a social connection element called Social Link, a love and friendship-based tool that does more than extend character interactions – it also affects how strong your Personas are.
Personas are the ally-aiding monsters that allow you to cast spells. This is where the game moves away from what’s typical and re-enters a world that’s too weird for words. To use a Persona’s powers, a character must fire an Evoker, a tool which is to be pointed at a character’s head. That doesn’t sound too outrageous, but Evokers are shaped like handguns. When you call upon the power of a Persona, the characters grab their Evokers, point them at their heads, and pull the trigger. It’s so eerie that one of the main characters comments on the Evoker in the early stages of the game, saying how strange it is to use the gun-like device in that manner.
In spite of the weirdness (or perhaps because of it), Persona 3 is a great RPG. It’s not for everyone, but if you like unusual things and prefer darker, more thoroughly developed stories, read on. This is the game you’ll wish never had to end.
Persona 3 opens with the following message: “No one can escape time. It delivers us all to the same end.” Those words reflect the timeline of the game, which moves forward not only through progress but also by an artificial month/day/year cycle. Days go by fast. The main, user-named character (let’s call him C) is automatically transported to school when he wakes up. One of his allies and potential love interest, Yukari, has an average of one conversation with C per day. He’ll make other friends, some who will be special (and thus can stay up during the Dark Hour and fight), but most are ordinary humans.
This is important because of the Social Link with humans and the power driven to your Personas. In many cases you will have multiple relationships to pursue, but only one may be nurtured on any given day. Time advances on its own – if you walk home with a friend after school, it’ll be dark out by the end of that scenario. C will be allowed out after dark, but others cannot leave due to the Dark Hour. Everyone seems to know it exists on some level, even though no one talks about it.
Since these characters’ bodies are not made to be up past midnight, you will grow tired from fighting during the Dark Hour. When a character drops below “good” status, he or she becomes fatigued and will no longer fight at full capacity. Attacks are not as strong when you’re tired. Magic is less effective, and there’s a good chance that an enemy could strike so hard that the fatigued character will be too weak to retaliate. He or she is not unconscious in this state and still holds a positive HP reading. You can push ahead but it’s not recommended. If you exit Tartarus for any reason, the fatigued party member(s) will head straight to bed.
Like all RPGs, Persona 3 is repetitive in some areas. But the time cycle and Dark Hour elements are effectively used to keep the game moving forward. Fatigued characters might need an extra day’s rest to recover. By deciding to stay in bed, the game automatically advances to the next day.
However, just because you decided to relax does not mean the game stopped moving. Unlike most RPGs, where a night at an inn has no effect on the game’s timeframe, Persona 3 continues to move ahead. Eager for action, you might not care to lose a day or two at the game’s onset. But once time-based missions – where you retrieve items in exchange for something more useful – are added to your roster, every day becomes important.
Single-Player, Single Fighter
In Persona 3, players have complete control over the main character. You decide his actions in and out of battle – determine when he sleeps, who he should hang out with, and so on. Game control ends there. Most will expect to have the power to select battle commands for each character. However, the only options available are simple presets like “target enemy” and “heal party.” The main character is handled like the lead fighter of any RPG, but his comrades are controlled by influence alone.
Amazingly, this doesn’t kill the game’s battle engine. I’m not content with my comrades’ item choices (they use healing powders that I’d rather save for later), but their attacks are more than acceptable – they’re often able to take down the enemy. Battles are frequent but avoidable with Shadows appearing before combat. You know the drill: the attack advantage is given to the one who strikes before combat is initiated.
Since 2/3 of your party run on auto-pilot, the game offers a rush feature that allows you to battle without ever touching the controller. Press the triangle button to start the process, which automates and speeds up attacks from all characters, including the one you typically control. This is great for leveling and general exploration, but is not a feature that should be used to take on new enemies.
When Two Personas Love Each Other Very Much…
Battles do not reward your party with money or health items. Instead, players are treated to a card shuffle. At least two cards appear on screen, showing their value. Cards come in a variety of types: money, weapons, stat increase, Persona, etc. Once you’ve examined the cards, press the X button to start the shuffle. They’ll flip over and shuffle around before control is given back to the player, who must then select a card.
When you get a money card, expect a hefty cash reward. Weapon cards add new swords, bows, and other deadly objects to your arsenal. Persona cards are the best – snatch one and the pictured Persona is yours. Only one of each Persona may be obtained, which is likely to frustrate players who lose a card right after receiving it. But there’s a reason for the frequent encounters with old Personas: merging. Players can merge Personas to form newer and more powerful monsters.
If your social link is strong with the Persona you wish to create, the resulting monster may offer the same moves as the two Personas you chose to merge. It’s a simple, point-and-click system that anyone can learn, but the growth potential is very expansive. Experimentation is the order of the day, as the game will tell you. And if you screw up, that’s where the old Persona cards become useful. When you merge, you sacrifice the Personas used in the process. But since many of them can be obtained a second time, there isn’t too much risk involved in the process.
These elements come together for what could be labeled the most unusual RPG on PlayStation 2. If you like the unknown, the uncharted – the places that few developers are willing to visit – Persona 3 is another chance to explore these things. The game’s backbone is its story, which as you can tell by my intro, is as outrageous as possible without being blatant or gratuitous. The story is also very entertaining and features a solid soundtrack, top-notch voice acting, and great anime sequences.
Review Scoring Details for Persona 3
Battles are quick and entertaining but lack full party controls. The Persona system, both in battle (using them to fight) and out of battle (merging and Social Link development) is pretty cool. If you break it down, the system isn’t much more than a name and/or aesthetic change from other RPGs that offer monster summoning and merging. But you’ll enjoy it just the same.
The washed-out backgrounds and stiff battle animations are barely worth mentioning. The brief anime sequences, however, demonstrate one of the few moments in a game where you should walk away from the controller. These scenes are not something you’ll want to skip.
Persona 3’s music is pleasurable, but the voice acting is this game’s best feature. The dialogue is entertaining and believable – you’ll begin to care about these characters within the first hour.
Easy if you stay on course and level up frequently – painful if you dare to venture into unknown territory before your characters are ready.
Persona 3 is one of the strangest games you will ever see on PlayStation 2. Its gameplay is by all accounts typical, but the story, Evoker device, and the overall presentation are as much of a turn-on as they are a turn-off. How a game can be both, I don’t know, you’d have to ask the developers that question.
This is not an RPG for the younger crowd, though it’s unlikely that kids will want to play it. If you like games that step outside the bounds of normality – games that defy reality and present the strangest imagery imaginable – Persona 3 is your RPG. But if you prefer the lighter Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy style of games, stick with those. Persona 3 was not made for that audience.
If you like games that step outside the bounds of normality – games that defy reality and present the strangest imagery imaginable – Persona 3 is your RPG
Reviewer: Louis Bedigian
Review Date: 07/23/2007