Those crazy kids at Atlus, they like to surprise. First there was Odin Sphere back in April and before the summer could end they hit us with Persona 3, a stunning title that is quite possibly THE total package for RPG fans. You’ve got strong character development, an awesome story, stylized graphics, a funky soundtrack, rock-solid presentation and some of the best written dialogue in ages. Since I’m known around here for being the hardcore Japanese RPG fanatic and such I still don’t feel like I’m reaching with this score that I am handing out because the game is really a well made piece of interactive entertainment that you would be a fool to miss out on. It’s got a few foibles here and there, but that’s not stopping me from going to the local brick and mortar game shop to buy a second copy right now, provided they aren’t sold out.
One of the immediate driving forces behind Persona 3 is the factor of time. A lot of people seem to fail to realize that in your quest to make the ultimate bad-ass character, you are given infinite time. You’re right at the final boss; the world is about to end, but you’re about to get revenge on him for killing your whole family, everyone is counting in you… oh wait you need to go level up a bit. It sounds silly when you really think about it, and Persona 3 does away with it.
In this game, time is finite, days go by, and how you whittle them away will play heavily on how you experience Persona 3. You could do a myriad of things with the time given to you, and it all leads to something, whether it is a branch in the expansive story or developing your character’s stats. You really do get what you give in terms of how you spend your time. To put it in perspective on how large the game is, it takes places over a school year according to Japan’s educational system. The game starts in April, and ends in January. By July, I had logged over thirty hours of game time.
So what exactly are some of the things you can do in Persona 3? The list is surprisingly simple, but when you combine them in to a daily routine, you kind of liken it to the Sims only with a hell of a lot more control. You play the role of an unnamed silent protagonist high school student. You are attending Gekkoukan High School where everything appears fine and dandy, until you arrive at your dorm and find that some of the students hide a secret. During the night, there is a twenty-fifth hour, called the Dark Hour. These students are able to exist in the Dark Hour while other humans cannot. While there they are able to summon Persona, a manifestation of inner power that allows them to defeat monsters that come forth during the Dark Hour.
One of the interesting and definitely controversial points of the Persona is how they are summoned. Of course there is the typical ‘call forth’ type of dialogue, but the students all hold an ‘evoker’ that looks like a gun. Put the gun to your head, and pull the trigger, simple as that. These monsters that you combat with the Persona are responsible for wreaking havoc on the town and it’s up to this group of students who call themselves SEES and their newest recruit (you) to find the source of, and destroy these “Shadows.” Coincidentally, the “Shadows” seem to reside in a tower called Tartarus, and during the normal time of day, it’s your school. There are quite a few interesting turns in the story too, and it all makes sense, in a mind bending sort of way.
So a typical day in Persona goes something like this, you go to school during the day, and at night, you head out and kick ass. There is oh so much interaction that goes on in between though, like courtship of the classmates or studying for the semester exams, participating in extracurricular clubs, or joining one of the sports teams. Or you can really pull off a juggling act and go for it all. You really cannot experience Persona 3 the same way after your initial play through is complete, because one, you won’t remember line for line how you played it the first time through, and two, you’ll want to try to achieve everything you possibly can that you missed the first time around.
So while you are going to school you have three stats that are affected: you have academics which is increased by studying, charm which is increased by helping out a classmate answer a tough question or by scoring high on tests, and courage which is increased by brave acts of daring do. These stats will eventually lead you down specific paths to meeting new people. This all has a purpose and I am getting to it.
When you meet new people you create with them, a Social Link. These links are the key to powering the legion of Persona that you can command, as their stats are connected to the level of your Social Link. So that girl at the back of the class with her eye on you, yeah getting to know her will make your Persona stronger. But you’ve got to be Rico Suave before she’ll even look your way. And once you’ve become friends with people what you say to them and how you treat them will affect how much your friendship will grow. Of course friendships can be damaged and reconciled as well, over petty crap I might add. See, it really is like high school all over again, only without getting stuffed in to a locker.
All this interaction wouldn’t be worth much if the writing wasn’t well done. Atlus is known for having one of the best localization teams in the industry, and they have truly outdone themselves with Persona 3. I thought Odin Sphere was something impressive, but Persona’s character interactions take it to a whole new level. The dialogue is sharply written, with a bit of tongue in cheek humor and even a little bit of black humor from time to time. A lot of the dialogue feels very natural, though it is also at times interrupted by the use of Japanese relationships and suffixes. So even though the game is taking place in Japan, it is very strange to hear the suffix ‘senpai’ used after a character’s name.
This is especially strange hearing it come from the English voice track, which I must say is quite excellent. You’ve got some repeat cast from Odin Sphere along with a few other anime series’ veterans out there. One person in particular that shines more than others is the character Junpei. Whoever did his voice over deserves some kind of award, because he is done so well, and through the game the changes that he experiences are conveyed very well by the actor. So mad props go out to the group of actors and actresses that worked on this game, you were a key in making it an enjoyable experience.
You’ve also got a ton of activities to do outside of the normal school hours. You can head to the movies, visit the mall, go pray at a shrine for higher academics, grab a burger or some ramen for dinner, or meet with the friendly police officer who will hook you up with the latest in shadow killing technology. Or just head back to the dorm and play an MMO with a random stranger, who is also a social link I might add. Oh and to the guys and gals at Atlus, don’t think I’m not miffed about you guys pimping out Innocent Sin within Persona 3 without ever bringing out to America. I’m still a little sore about that.
Once your day is about to come to a close, it’s time to go back to the dorm, where you and the other students can decide if tonight is a good night to explore Tartarus. The shape-shifting dungeon will never take the same shape, and it’s a massive place to explore, that is ever growing as the story progresses. Shadows wander the halls of Tartarus hoping to impede your progress and bring your genocidal ways against their brethren to a halt. That is pretty much the only area where battle takes place. Outside of nights when the moon is full, that’s when the truly bizarre stuff comes out to play. Though the Dark Hour does take its toll on the human body, after a while your party members will grow tired and can even become sick from spending too much time in Tartarus, and your hero is also susceptible to this condition so watch out.
Battles play out in a turn based fashion. Though you only control the main character. The other members of your party operate on a fairly functional and customizable AI. You can tell them how you want them to attack, or let the computer decide the best course of action. Though, say for instance you want to exploit an enemy weakness and knock them down; there is a tactic for that you can assign to a member of your party. Or if you want them to stand down and focus on healing, they can do that with a surprising proficiency. The only place where this gets mucked up is in the main character’s death. If you aren’t careful, it is very easy to walk in to a fight unprepared and wind up on the losing side. Once the main character has been trounced in battle, that’s it, GAME OVER. Surprisingly harsh, but at the same time, you have the power to keep it from happening. Keep your HP and your guard up at all times. If there happens to be a way that this is avoidable, either through skills or assigning items to your team members please disregard this as I have no idea how to do it, and I didn’t get a manual with my review copy. So take what I say with a grain of salt.
So if I’ve gone this far without discussing the graphics there must be something here that isn’t so positive. For the most part, the game uses very simple character models, and still shots when conveying dialogue. But the game is very stylish, from its menu presentation to its locales that you can explore. Everything is vibrant and colorful, but then you get to the Dark Hour and you see the drab contrast to it. So while it is simple, it has no negative or positive bearing on the game as a whole. At the very least the character models look good, not great like Final Fantasy XII or anything like that, but they have their own certain charms. Couple that with the amazing artwork for all the characters and monsters, and you can really see that presentation of the graphics is where a lot of the effort was placed.
Music is also a style over substance thing. There is a lot of music that cross genres of jazz and rock and techno, and some of them are a little grating, and some of them are straight up awesome. One piece that sticks with me is the music from the school and the key boss battles that occur during full moons. A third striking piece has to be the dorm music which features some samples of old rap recordings over a funky jazz piece. If you’re picking this game up you are also getting a soundtrack and I highly recommend listening to it at least once.
So while I have gripes about the less than flashy graphics for such a late generation PS2 game, and difficulty that at times will turn you off. Believe me, nothing sucks worse than to be rolling along and then get steamrolled by an enemy that gets lucky on a critical strike and brings your adventure to an abrupt halt. Persona 3 is one of the most polished and enjoyable PS2 titles I have ever had the joy of playing and reviewing. It’s one of those games I aspire to make as I sit and dream from my armchair developer’s cradling seat. Bravo Atlus. Amidst delays for just the art book, rabid fans crying for the lack a Japanese voice track and content that Japan had to actually pay for because it was an expansion disc, and dealing with what would be some very questionable content, you present to us what has to be one of the best RPGs of the PS2’s life span.