Shin Megami Tensai: Persona 3 Review (PS2)

The majority of Japanese RPGs have a tendency to focus on young, happy children crawling through a series of dungeons in order to save the world. The Persona series is quite a bit different; it still focuses on saving the world, but it does so in a much more macabre fashion. Persona 3 is the first entry in the series to see a worldwide release – but don’t worry, the game’s story stands alone, though gamers who did manage to get a hold of the first two will enjoy a few references to the other Persona games.

Players take the role of a teenager who has just moved back to his home city, which just happens to be where he was orphaned. Shortly after transferring to the Gekkoukan High School, he is attacked by creatures called shadows. Shadows have been attacking the locals for some time, spreading a disease called apathy syndrome, which causes the infected victim to become vacant minded and a shell of their former selves. The shadows confine their activities to a time called the Dark Hour, which is an extra hour during the day that takes place between midnight and 1am.

School’s about to get a whole lot more interesting
The Persona designs are really something special

Most people are oblivious to the events of the Dark Hour, as they are transformed into coffins where they are safe from the shadows. However, some special individuals remain awake during the Dark Hour, and have sworn to fight the forces of the shadows. Humans cannot fight the shadows, so they must summon Personas to do the fighting for them. Summoning a Persona essentially requires the user to shoot themselves in the head – a pretty grisly summoning method, but quite effective. These individuals have formed a group at the high school, called the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES). Regular SEES members can only summon a single Persona to do their bidding, but our hero is capable of summoning many different ones. Many different things can be done in Persona 3 to acquire additional Personas, and that’s where the game becomes particularly interesting.

The look and feel of Persona 3 is very intriguing. Although the game is not a technical beast, the art is overflowing with personality and the animation is quite expressive. Some of the game’s effects are particularly chilling – particularly the summoning effects. Anime-style cutscenes do an excellent job of furthering the main story points, and are quite well produced. Voice acting is surprisingly non-grating, and even good in some bits, but the soundtrack really steals the show. The soundtrack consists of a mix of gothic orchestral tracks and Japanese pop numbers – really interesting stuff, and great to listen to.

As dark as it all sounds, most of Persona 3 is actually set in your character’s day to day life at high school. You live in the dorms, attend classes, join clubs and participate in sports. The bonds your character forms with other students and the attributes he develops are tied to what Personas he’ll be able to summon. Furthermore, each Persona is affected by the strength of the bonds you make – if you have a falling out with a friend, then the associated Persona will be weakened. Each day at school is quite limited, not just from a time perspective, but from a gameplay one as well. Don’t expect to be able to have full, free control over your character during his time at school, and you’ll be fine.

From the back row of the classroom, I stab at thee!
School can be scary, but not this scary

Persona 3’s night life is quite a different animal to your school life. Shadows come from a massive labyrinth called Tartarus, which just happens to appear in the exact place of Gekkoukan High School during the Dark Hour each night. Basically, Tartarus is the game’s equivalent of a dungeon – there’s only one, but it has many levels, and you can only progress so far before your characters will need to be leveled up in order to fight the stronger creatures that lurk above. Your presence at Tartarus is not required every night, so you can choose to study or hang out with friends instead.

The battle system, dubbed Once More, is inspired by the battle system featured in Digital Devil Saga. Battles are turn based, but players only have direct control over the main character – the rest of your team acts autonomously, though you can specify orders and behaviours. Events from your daily life come into play in battles too – if a character is sick or tired, their battle performance will be affected. Take a rest the next night, and they’ll be fighting strong again. The Persona which is summoned will pass on its natural attributes to the character. The majority of enemies have weaknesses that can be exploited by certain Persona skills or your character’s standard weapon. Hitting the enemy’s weak point earns your player an extra turn and causes the enemy to fall down – knock every enemy down, and your team can do an all out attack.

After each battle, you’ll be presented with 3 cards containing your loot – these will be shuffled, and you’ll have to select one to take with you. Some Personas can also be acquired through this system, so watch carefully. Once you’ve acquired a couple of Personas, you can journey to a place called the Velvet Room, which allows you to fuse them together. Fusing together a few Personas will generate a new, stronger Persona – though the process is a little mysterious, and the game provides little if any guidance on which Personas fuse best.

Persona 3 is a long game – it will take the average RPG fan at least 50 hours to see most of what the game has to offer, if not a little more. With the game’s calendar system, certain tasks need to be completed by certain dates that sometimes aren’t specifically explained – and whether or not you do these tasks will affect how the rest of the game goes, so you may not always get the desired result. The game is also very heavy on grinding and leveling up – Tartarus becomes a rather boring place when you have to consistently fight the same monsters on the same floors in order to be able to face the boss and head into the next section. The Persona relationship system also takes a lot of time to develop and maintain – simply put, if you’re not someone with a lot of spare time, then Persona 3 may not be right for you.

One minute, you’re shooting yourself in the head to save your life
Next, you’re running track

With that in mind, if you’ve got enough time to give Persona 3, you’re going to be in for a good show. Persona 3’s story is much more interesting than the standard RPG fare, the visual designs are great, the soundtrack is wonderful, and the gameplay is extremely deep. RPG fans are going to love it, but anyone else might take a little longer to discover what makes the game so good.

Top Game Moment: When the Character’s shoot themselves in the head in order to summon their Persona.