Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 PS2 Review
Sony’s Playstation 2 has become known as the console to have if you want to play RPGs, especially Japanese RPGs. The console is crammed full of great titles, and still doesn’t seem to be letting the genre die yet. The Shin Megami Tensei series is a popular franchise that has had a few spin offs, Persona being one of them, and is usually aimed at a mature audience. The games have contained questionable things like cults, demons, and the supernatural, even at one point it had Hitler himself. Persona 3 is no different in that aspect. It probably contains one of the weirdest and most extreme battle mechanics ever, putting a gun towards your head and pulling the trigger, it doesn’t kill you, it actually releases your Persona, yep, mature content here! Understandably fans were worried the game wouldn’t make it overseas from Japan because of the content. School kids pointing guns at their head isn’t something you’d think would manage to be released in America after problems they’ve had, yet it seems Atlus has managed to bring it over just fine without any censorship problems.
The story starts off with you playing as a nameless student who has just transferred to Gekkoukan High School in Tokyo. All seems normal at first glance until he is attacked by Shadows, strange unnatural creatures that feed on human minds. The assault awakens his Persona and gives him the strength to be able to defeat the critters. He learns afterwards that he isn’t the only one at the dorm who has this gift. There are other students who can also summon Personas. After hearing the situation with the Dark Hour (an hour that exists between 12am and 1am, only special people see this hour, everyone else turns into coffins and are unaware they have missed an hour.) and that the shadows are causing people to come down with Apathy Syndrome (makes them just a lifeless mess, not good) he decides to join the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) to help solve the calamity.
What makes this different from the other Persona games and RPGs in general is how the game is split into two core sections. By day you are a normal student who is attending classes (yes that means doing exams as well, ARGH!), activities, hanging with friends and even dating girls. These are all important teenage pastimes as dedicating time to them helps you build up stats. Answering questions and going to bars helps build up one of three things, Academics (makes you good at exams), Charm (to get the girls!) and Courage (eating someone’s bad cooking requires high courage), are all needed to unlock certain things. Hanging with friends is a key part of the school element. Establishing relationships with them opens up their own little story and also allows you to level up your Social Link. Each potential friend has a Social Link to a certain Persona arcana, meaning if you get a high level, all your Persona in that arcana class benefit from it in battle.
Taking a trip to Tartarus at night sets off the Dark Hour, which is the other major half of the game. Tartarus is a colossal multi floored building, like a skyscraper in which you have to explore. All normal fighting is done in the Dark Hour, as all the shadows roam freely around Tartarus and it’s up to you to survey all the floors and scrap with them, occasionally running into a floor guardian as well. You can’t spend too long every night in Tartarus as ultimately your team will get tired and sick, a good rest the next night will usually fix this, there’s nothing like a good sleep.
Another twist in Persona 3 is the battle system. In battles you only have full command over the main character. The other three participants are controlled by the computer. Options are there for you to give them some tactics, for example you can force them to heal only or attack certain enemies. The A.I for the team mates is actually pretty good, and I never found myself swearing at them for messing up, they’ll certainly help you finish the fight. There are no random battles in Persona 3; rather you can see black shadows crawling around. If the shadows spot you and touch you before you swing your sword, it will be a surprise attack from your enemy. Hitting them before they touch you ends up in a normal fight and striking them before they notice you ends up giving you the upper hand with a pre-emptive strike.
One thing that can be frustrating in fighting is that if you die, it’s straight to the game over screen. This doesn’t mean annihilation of your team, like in a typical RPG. This means if the main character is killed it’s game over. It doesn’t matter if anyone else dies, but if you do it’s the end. It can be very annoying at times, especially after having a good trip in Tartarus only to meet up with some shadow that decides it be a great laugh to cast an instant death spell on you.
Each character can attack in your typical turn based affair with a standard weapon or Persona. Personas are the meat of the fighting. They could be seen as your magic, but also come with physical attacks as well. Each assault has an element behind it. Bashing an enemy that is weak against it will knock it flat on its face. Managing to knock all the opponents down will permit all your characters to perform an “All-out Attack” which has them rushing into a big pile up, white smoke and all with words like “thwap” displayed around it, kind of like the old Batman TV show.
For story reasons the main character is the only person who has the ability to swap Personas. Personas are found after battles on cards as rewards. If you do well in battle you get the shuffle game that appears after. It’s a test of memory and eye skills as the cards will show you what there is to get, then flip over and swap spaces. There’s plenty to collect, which in itself is a quest if you want to get some of the most power Personas. As you build up a collection you can visit the velvet room, a mysterious room featuring a guy with a huge nose and a young woman. Here you can fuse together Personas to create much more powerful ones. The woman, Elizabeth, also has a database of all your Personas you’ve collected so far. Elizabeth also supplies the player with the games side quests, giving you plenty to do while fighting in Tartarus.
All these events take up time. Time is very precious as once you’ve used a day, you won’t be able to go back to it. The game starts from April 7th 2009 and finishes January 31st 2010. The days are split into sections, Early Morning, Morning, Dinnertime, Afternoon, After School, Evening, Late Evening and the Dark Hour. A majority of the time is spent after school and onwards. This is the time you spend with friends and fighting monsters. As the game progresses you’ll find yourself having to choose which people you want to hang around with, as you’ll no doubt find yourself with a big selection of buddies who just want to have a piece of you. Timing in games can sometimes be a big annoyance or end up making the player feel restricted. If you balance your time out then Persona 3 never has any of these problems.
It may sound like there’s plenty to do in Persona, but it comes with a feeling of déjà vu. There aren’t many areas to visit since the whole game is set in the small area around the school. So you’ll be seeing the same places over and over again. Tartarus is the worst offender here since you’ll be scaling over 200 floors, most of them looking the same. There are six different colour schemes for sections of Tartarus. The floors of Tartarus are randomly generated, which helps a little towards the repetition but ultimately there’s going to be a lot of the same appearing time and time again. If it wasn’t for the fantastic presentation and plenty of story scenes in between, Persona 3 would really just be a dungeon crawler.
While Persona 3 won’t win any awards for state of the art visuals, it should be noted that it has a superb presentation. The game has this dark, almost cel-shaded anime look on the character models, whilst detailed artwork appears on screen when the characters are speaking. The monsters are well designed and will also manage to shock. I don’t fully understand the arcana, but one of the bosses was a black and white female, with just a skimpy cloth covering her legs, which where open apart, but the most strangest thing was that on each of her breasts there was a letter, B on the left and J on the right. Now I don’t understand fully what it means, but I’m sure it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s also kind of eerie how well they’ve manage to pull off the head shooting, you never fall short of being shocked every time you see it, yet at the same time you are in awe at how cool it comes across. While they are not actually shooting real guns, the gun look-a-like weapons, called “Evokers” are still cool to watch as they push your Persona out of your head. Following through on that, Persona 3 features some very nice anime cut-scenes, even though there just aren’t enough of them.
A special mention has to go out to the soundtrack, composed by Shoji Meguro (Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga, Trauma Centre fame.) It’s certainly one of best soundtracks heard in the RPG genre for a long time. There’s just something about it that’s strangely addictive and different. Containing a variety of forms like rap, pop and rock, it manages to hook you in no matter what the situation is. For example you’ll be rapping the lyrics for the battle music (yep it’s a rap/pop song that plays while you fight) without you knowing it, all while you are putting guns to your head, blowing out glass shards of Persona. Other times you’ll be humming along and taping your feet while hanging out with a girl. It’s unnatural yet brilliant, mixed in with the interesting story, the music is secretly sending out subliminal messages making you want to play it just that bit more, orgasmic to the ears. Persona 3 features plenty of voice acting, all which is done believably well bringing out the personality of the characters. The game tries to stay near to the roots of Japanese culture, so a lot of the names will follow with suffixes, like -san and -chan when they speak.
If you are a fan of RPGs then it’s no brainer that Persona 3 comes highly recommended. Even with the flood of JRPGs on the console, it manages to stand out with its individuality. It has its share of minor faults, but it’s something different, and the overall presentation easily cancels out any nuisances it has. Persona 3 is deep, with plenty to do, yet at the same time is not too challenging and is easy to get into. The game will last the player 70+ hours on the first play through. If you are a perfectionist then you are easily looking at 100+ hours worth of play. It’s great value for money. There’s even a new game + mode that allows certain things to be carried forward, plus some new quests to try out. The year might not be over just yet, but a contender for best RPG has just arrived on the market, and boy is it surreal.
Unique, sinister and twisted, Persona 3 is a breath of fresh air that should please most RPG nuts.