Johnny G's Persona 3 Review
Atlus should be damn proud of themselves. In an ever cluttered world of games they've managed to create a standout gem. In a marketplace that thrives on copycatting and borrowing, they've come up with something that is absolutely original. And whether you know anything of the Megaten or Persona series' or not, this is the game for you.
I'm going to get the bad out of the way first, and there really is only one negative point. The soundtrack for this game, for no justifiable reason, is atrocious. While past entries in the Megaten lineup have offered quite excellent orchestral rock fare, P3 offers a strange version of J-pop synth/jazz that is just terrible. The first time you hear it you'll cringe and laugh with disappointed shock. It really does rank among the worst ever. Eventually you get used to it (maybe even like it) but it's not great. Now apparently the special FES edition of the game (not available outside of Japan as of yet) allows you to select the soundtrack for certain parts of the game from a listing of P3 songs, as well as remixes from older titles in the series. If that is true then perhaps this one massive flaw can be lessened somewhat but for now it is what it is. That said if the soundtrack really does annoy you just play with the volume down and consider adding some of your own background music.
The reason behind Persona 3's greatness is truly its originality. It is completely unlike any game I've ever played before, and (from my understanding) quite unlike anything else on the market. It's an RPG, but it incorporates so many interesting features that it almost classifies as something else. And as each new feature is executed flawlessly there really is no way to criticize it beyond its soundtrack.
The plot works something like this. You're a player-named orphan transfer student sent to a new school. You are accidentally sent to live in a dorm of not-so-normal fellow students, and soon find out that they're actually a band of demon hunters. They endeavour to protect the city (and themselves) from these creatures that come out during the "dark hour", a hidden time that occurs at midnight every night. Most humans go into a state of stasis during this time and do not experience it but those that are awake are prey for the demons that also awaken during this time. Your dorm mates (and you, of course), are among a chosen few who have come to control Personas, a type of summoning power that enables you to fight demons. Thus you end up joining them and begin living a double life; high school student by day, demon-slayer by night.
On the surface that seems interesting enough, but not especially unique. The originality of the game actually comes from its presentation. You see, unlike most RPGs where the linear plot flows at the behest of the player, Persona 3 is governed by very real constraints of time. What does that mean? In your typical RPG you and your party are told of a dungeon that needs clearing out. You spend however much time you need to shopping and talking to NPCs in the town, then head out to the dungeon. Clearing it takes however long it takes you, the player, to figure out the puzzles and work through the battles and boss. You then go back to the town and the next dungeon or event is triggered. It's the standard – every event flows from the actions of the player. The story does not advance until you advance it.
Persona 3 is very different. Time flows ever onward in this game to an eventual pre-set end date (which is revealed through the story). You live a normal high-school life in 2009 Japan. You wake up and go to class, and you answer questions, talk to friends, set your sights on a girlfriend, etc. After school you go to art club, or student council, or whatever. After that you decide to go shopping for healing items. But by the time that's done it is now evening, so you have to go home. You spend your late night hours demon hunting or studying perhaps, if you're too tired to fight, or if exams are coming. And then the next day begins. The story always advances and forces you to budget your time accordingly.
The completely modern setting is also part of the games charm. There is the ever-present tension of knowing you are a demon hunter trying to protect otherwise helpless people, but at the same time you live a normal life doing normal things. And, as the player, this allows you to feel very connected to the characters and storyline. Understand that you have total control over the player – you decide everything he says and everything he does. Thus your "daytime" routine plays out much like a Sims life sim, or maybe a dating sim. Yet it is integrated into the actual RPG part of the game so well that you'll enjoy it tremendously.
All of the combat takes place during the dark hour in a dungeon called Tartarus, which is randomly generated each night. Tartarus serves no real purpose other than to level your characters; the story is pre-set to occur on certain calendar dates. The actual combat is very similar to past entries in the series and is executed well. Without going into detail, you can get bonus turns and attacks for exploiting enemy weaknesses. They can do the same to you. An interesting point is that you control only yourself and not any of your allies – they are entirely governed by AI. You can give them some general orders (prioritize healing etc), but they basically do whatever they think is best. At first glance this seems like a negative, but in keeping with the story it makes sense. You have complete control over your player character – it wouldn't make sense to suddenly seize control of your friends in battle. The fact that they act on their own adds a further dimension of individuality; you see them as separate entities, rather than simply pixels under you control. And as the AI makes generally good decisions and is able to learn from any mistakes it might make, it never poses much of a problem. If a fire spell is used (by any character) and it doesn't work due to an enemy strength, it will not be used again. The AI will adapt to different circumstances. In the end I actually came to really appreciate only having to manage/control the one character – it greatly speeds up battle times.
The real soul of combat is the Persona system. Recall that you fight by using summoned entities that protect you. These summoned creatures can be won at the end of battles, but the primary method for obtaining (good) personas is through fusion. This is where you take two of your personas and have them combined into one, which inherits various skills and stats from its "parents". The skills that are selected are randomized; one minor improvement for the game would have been to add a simple button press to "re-randomize" until you get something you liked. As it stands, you have to back out of the fusion and re-initiate it. This process only takes about five seconds, but as it might take 100 tries to get a skill list you like, having the convenience would've helped. Still, what's here is excellent. The fusion system is largely carried over from SMT: Nocturne and Devil Summoner, but with one vast improvement – your social links.
Remember how your day-to-day life plays like a dating sim? Well, one of the many goals for this is to make new friends and gradually build those relationships – these are called social links. Every persona in the game is categorized and each category has a social link attached to it. When you fuse a persona of a given category, the strength of the social link (if any) is measured and extra experience is given to the persona. This means that if you go to fuse a level 20 creature, and have the social link for it at rank 5, the resulting persona will be at level 23, with several extra skills. The added benefit of this is so overwhelming that it makes you yearn to find and maximize every link possible, and thus the daytime portion of the game becomes crucial to the nighttime demon hunting excursions.
When you combine the interesting, well-executed story of P3 with solid combat and game play and then offer it all with perfect presentation you get something that is truly outstanding. Other than the soundtrack there are really no flaws whatsoever. The game can take upwards of 100 hours to complete but you won't feel it. It never drags – you can level grind as much or as little as you want to. Simply leave the dungeon whenever you've had enough. An exit is never more than sixty seconds away. You can focus on the combat side of the game, or on the life-sim side. Spend hours fusing an incredible team of perfect personas, or work with what you're offered after battle and only complete the most basic of fusions. The game really does play out to your own specific traits and play-style. Any RPG fan should give it a try, for the sheer originality of it if nothing else. It is completely unlike any game you have ever played, I guarantee it. And it will not waste your time either. I have played a lot of games (especially role playing) and I can safely say that this is the best RPG ever made.
Atlus should be damn proud.
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