Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Release: US 07/24/07
Japan 07/13/06

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Mark P. Tjan
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Mark P. Tjan

In recent years, a once little-known company named Atlus has earned a reputation for itself. Presenting games of macabre, yet slick and trendy design, with eye-catching art direction and in-depth storytelling has finally brought the company's premiere Japanese series a lot of Western attention. We're talking about Shin Megami Tensei (referred to affectionately as MegaTen), the dark mystery-thriller series that emerged on the SNES (Editor's Note: the two Megami Tensei games released on the 8-bit NES were developed and published by Namco) and has been taking the land of the rising sun by storm for years. Its presence has occasionally been felt in North America, and a strong cult following has been a key driving force in bringing more of the series to domestic shores. If the names Digital Devil Saga or Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne are familiar, we're on the same page.

Enter Persona. Persona is a side story to MegaTen which began in the early days of the original PlayStation. Where MegaTen was lighter on the story narrative and stronger on gameplay, Persona sought to bring a little more of the traditional console RPG feel to the series and eschew much of the moral finickiness of earlier games. MegaTen, famous for allowing the player to choose his or her path in life, to be good or evil, had spawned a child of tradition, but one that would infuse the genre with new life, using its dark themes and mystery-thriller plot devices to trap gamers in its world.

Now, Persona enters its third phase. In keeping with the rest of the series, the cast is largely made up of high schoolers who live regular, boring old lives. In previous installments of Persona, these lives have merely been a stage upon which to manifest the macabre and shatter the peaceful human existence. Here however, Atlus has decided to do something new (Editor's Note: Atlus USA also decided to do something new by attaching the "Shin Megami Tensei" namesake to the beginning, something they didn't do with previous Persona titles in the US or Japan).

Persona 3's daytime activities are important to building a character's statistics. Studying, athletics, talking with classmates, and generally living a student's life are all integral to character growth. This would seem to be a hearkening back to MegaTen's more traditional stat-focused gameplay, although injecting it with a civilian viewpoint. In this, Persona 3 may recall popular relationship sims such as Sakura Taisen, where the main character is charged with building good friendships and investing in romantic pursuits to influence performance during battle.

Now the question may be asked: "What does that have to do with the macabre? What's about all that was said in regards to fighting?"

Persona 3's battle system promises to be interesting. Battles take place at night when the school day is out. When the clock strikes midnight, the entire town changes and the "Shadow Hour" sets in. Like a twisted tale of Cinderella, the enchanted day is over and dystopia sets in.

There is a tower that appears within the main character's high school. This is known as Tartarus. Greek mythology buffs will no doubt recognise that Tartarus is a realm even below the underworld ruled by Hades, a truly infernal place of damnation and suffering. In this tower, every manner of demon awaits, ready to spill out and devour humanity. This foreboding place is where the heroes must venture, to win over the forces of darkness, and prevent whatever evil is at work from coming to fruition.

Tartarus is made up of randomly generated dungeon levels, through which players must hack, slash, and Persona their way upon subsequent levels. As with most RPGs these days, all enemies are visible on the playing field and a quick whack with the main character's weapon will give players an edge before entering battle.

Saving the world is a staple of RPGs, and this game is no different. But while most RPGs throw a sword and shield to the hero and tell him to go slay goblins, Persona 3 does something quite different. Part of the Persona tradition is the need to invoke beings conjoined to a character. Often referred to as "demons" (a misnomer on Atlus' part), these beings are drawn from the vast array of world mythology and religion, folklore, and natural belief.

Prior to Persona 3, both Persona and its sister series Digital Devil Saga had pretty standard invocations. Conjoin whatever being the character requires, hit the invoke command, and whoop, there it is. Persona 3 takes a rather disturbing twist and has the character in question take a gun, put it to his or her head, and with one pull of the trigger, commit suicide... Of course, once the battle is over and the Persona is no longer required, everyone's back to normal. It's somewhat eerie in the Fight Club sort of way.

In addition to summoning, the battle system also utilizes the Press Turn system from Digital Devil Saga. Here, it's termed "Once More," and allows players to stun enemies by exploiting their weaknesses. If all enemies are stunned, then a special rush command will be available in which all party members charge the opposing force for massive damage.

An odd point and large departure from previous titles is the inclusion of AI-controlled party members. Players will only take control of the nameless, silent protagonist, who acts as the paper doll through which they interact in the world. All other team members are controlled by computer, and while players can change around how they act, almost all direct input is relegated to the main character. This is similar to Square-Enix's Kingdom Hearts, where the main character Sora was the only controllable character and players merely dictated attitudes for his accomplices.

A standard of MegaTen related games has been the slick, minimalist artwork of Kazuma Kaneko, which is oddly absent from Persona 3. Here however is another familiar face: Shigenori Soejima. Soejima's work has graced two Atlus titles before. Of the two, the more noticable is the SRPG Stella Deus which came to domestic shores in 2005. The other is in fact Persona 2, where work was shared with Kaneko. Kaneko did the primary artwork, but all in-game portraits were rendered by Soejima. While not as alien as Kaneko's art, Soejima's art, influenced by abstractionism is sure to lend its own unique feel to the Persona series. In the end, uniqueness is what Persona is all about.

Persona 3 is a mix of old and new for the series. Back are the Personas, the high school setting, the macabre atmosphere. New are AI-controlled party members, random dungeons, and shooting yourself in the head. It even has day to day activities for players to partake in, from studying hard at school to customizing your dorm room. For what is sure to be a bookmark in unique design, look for this romp through the macabre to come just in time for the Summer months.


© 2007 Atlus. All Rights Reserved.

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