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For those of you who are fans of Atlus' flagship Megami Tensei series and its Persona spinoffs, you're used to dark, occult-themed storylines, battle-heavy gameplay, negotiating with demons, and fusing. Now with the arrival of Persona 3, you'll probably be expecting all of that. But I've got news for you: you'll only be getting two of the four. Don't worry, though, I don't think you'll mind.
Burn My Dread
Persona 3 follows the setting convention established by its 3 predecessors (Persona 2 was two games). The place is a Japanese metropolis, and the time is March, 2009. The main character is an orphaned transfer student of the town's island-situated school, Gekkoukan High. As part of the package, he is assigned to a Dorm in Iwatodai. Every night at midnight most people transmogrify into coffins and a period called the Dark Hour takes place. In the Dark Hour, creatures named Shadows come out to attack those who haven't transmogrified. Some of those people possess a power called Persona, which allows them to summon a spiritual aid to fight the shadows. Eventually, he finds out that the students at the dorm are also Persona users and part of a secret organization called the Specialized Exctracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), whose task it is to protect people from shadows. In addition, during the Dark Hour, Gekkoukan High turns into a giant twisted tower called Tartarus. It is up to the main character and his party to explore Tartarus as well as fight any shadows that come out of it.
Of course, this would make for a pretty boring story, except for the fact that SEES members also have to go through their daily lives as high school students: studying for and taking exams, making friends, and hooking up. Sure, the main storyline is great, with cool plot twists here and there, but the best part is the interactions between the main character and his dorm mates, teachers, and fellow students. See, in order to strengthen your ability to create Personae, you have to establish Social Links with people, one for each of the Tarot Arcana. You establish Social Links by making friends, and grow the links by talking to and hanging out with them. Persona 3 basically forces you to interact with the NPCs throughout the game, managing relationships and your personal development, making the game more of a relationship sim than a traditional RPG. Honestly, the change is very refreshing.
What makes this system work is the excellent characterization of all the NPCs, as well as the PCs. I actually felt myself connecting to all of them in a way that I can't in most RPGs. Some of the relationships are humorous, some are heartbreaking, and some are downright goofy. Each of the characters made an impact, and since you follow them through the course of the school year, you see them grow and develop as you interact. I applaud Atlus for not just for changing the formula, but for doing it well and making it work. Story gets a 95%.
When the Moon's Reaching out Stars
The gameplay in Persona 3 is extremely off the beaten path for the most part, so I'll start with the more mundane aspect: battle. Most battles occur in the giant tower called Tartarus, which is 260+ floors of randomly generated dungeon. Enemies are visible on the screen, and if you approach and attack from behind, you get a surprise attack. You can have a max of 4 party members in combat, and you and the enemies take turns. You can either use your weapons for a physical attack (pierce, slash, or strike) or use one of your Persona's abilities, which consume spirit points. Enemies are weak against certain attacks and strong against others, as are your party members. Since you have the ability to swap Personae in battle, their stats (along with their strengths and weaknesses) become your stats, and so there is a lot of room for strategizing. Sometimes, at the end of battle, you'll get the chance to draw a card which can increase experience, give you a weapon or money, heal you, or give you a new Persona. Both you and your Persona level up after gaining enough experience.
Since the enemies change as you go higher in Tartarus, it's important to create Personae that can effectively exploit their weaknesses as well as stand up to their abilities. To do this, visit the Velvet Room and fuse new Personae from the ones you already have. You start with the ability to fuse two or three Personae together, but eventually expand that ability. In addition, the higher your social link level for the resulting Persona's arcana, the more experience the Persona will get, and the higher its stats/broader its ability base will be. Both battle and fusion are solid systems that have shown up in previous MegaTen games, and they work well.
Now, let's talk turkey, shall we? While battle and fusion are fun, the best part about Persona 3's gameplay is the social interaction. You play through almost a year of school. Most days are broken up into Early Morning, Morning, Daytime, Lunchtime, Afternoon, After School, Evening, Late Evening, and the Dark Hour. On school days (this is Japan, so that's Monday-Saturday) you go to school. Based on what day it is, certain events occur, such as showing you what you're learning in class and giving you a chance to answer questions of grammar, culture, Japanese culture, and magic. Some of these questions are tough, especially for people not all that familiar with Japan, but getting the correct answer can help you improve your stats and prepare you for your exams. The school simulation part of it was excellent, and each teacher has his or her own quirks which made them all highly entertaining. During the after school phase of a day you can interact with your fellow students and other social links participants in order to increase your friendship with them. Some of them demand hard work and a lot of your free time to cultivate, but the results in both the ability to create better Personae and highly enjoyable dialogue are well worth it.
Of course, you also need to cultivate yourself, in order to raise your personal stats: Academics, Charm, and Courage. Participating in certain activities can increase these, and you must achieve certain levels of these stats in order to gain access to certain social links. The hardest thing you'll have to do is learn how to manage your time. Think Harvest Moon people, but not in real time.
I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of relationship games, but the relationship aspect in Persona 3 was immeasurably enjoyable, and I had so much fun with it, I'm playing it through again to try and cultivate some of the social links I neglected in my first playthrough. Everything comes together so perfectly that gameplay gets a 98%.
The graphics in Persona 3 are very nice. I was initially worried when I found out that series designer Kazuma Kaneko wasn't going to be working on the character design, but Shigenori Soejima of Stella Deus fame did an excellent job, and I really enjoyed the art style. And best of all, Kaneko's demon designs have been reused from previous MegaTen games, so all your favorites are here from Mother Harlot to Jack Frost (hee ho!). I wish I could say the same about the anime cutscenes, but they look really terrible, stylistically, and considering the high quality of the rest of the game, this was a big disappointment to me.
Fortunately, the area designs are great. Iwatodai and Port Island really convey a sense of day after next Tuesday Japan, while Tartarus is suitably twisted. Enemy designs range from the silly to the twisted, and the Dark Hour locales are great with coffins and blood everywhere, all covered with a greenish hue. There is a sense of "otherness" in the game that fits nicely.
Of course, one aspect of imagery that was very controversial in this game is the Evoker. In order to summon Persona, the characters must use an Evoker, which is basically a gun-shaped object, which they put to their head and blammo! Seeing a bunch of high-school students and even an elementary kid shooting themselves in the head at least once a battle (of which there are many) gets to you at first, especially considering that their heads jerk and polygons come flying out when they do it. There is certainly shock value to it, but over time, it becomes routine (which may be a bad thing), but you can't accuse Atlus of shying away from controversial imagery. And, while you won't find anything that pushes the envelope of graphics technology, it all looks good and so gets a solid 90%.
Street of Memories
The music in Persona 3 is some of series composer Shoji Meguro's best work to date, rivaling that of Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga. Meguro is known for his fast-paced and gritty techno-inspired tracks, and that definitely returns. However, he's not given enough credit for his excellent minimalist piano compositions, and he should, as he's got some great ones in Persona 3. The soundtrack manages to match up to every event perfectly, setting the emotional tone whether it be upbeat, hopeful, or tragic. There is also a bit of rapping in some of the songs, such as Iwatodai Dorm and the battle theme Mass Destruction. Sometimes it's a bit silly, but it's done pretty well, and fits right in alongside the other tracks.
There is also voice acting, and Persona 3 has some of the best and worst of it I've heard lately. On the one hand, we have the excellent VA for characters such as Akihiko, Yukari, and Junpei, and on the other, we have really awful VA for Fuuka and the Chairman. While there is some middle ground (Aigis and Ken), most is either hit-or-miss. Still, Junpei is now one of my favorite characters, mostly due to the way his VA delivered his lines. Sound/music gets a melodious 92%.
Master of Tartarus
The controls in the game are excellent, and the menus are laid out with ease of access in mind. There's not a whole lot to say here, as controls don't play a big part, but ergonomics of interface does, and it is done with aplomb. I never had one complaint, with fully-rotatable environments and excellent camera adjustment. I give control a 97%.
Poem of Everybody's Soul
As you probably noticed from my Editor's Choice award, I loved Persona 3. It delivered an experience that was both novel and familiar, and with the exception of the anime cutscenes and some of the voice acting, did so with excellent quality. MegaTen fan or not, I whole-heartedly recommend this game to all RPG fans out there. My only regret is that we probably won't get the excellent expansion, called FES, which features an amazingly high amount of new content. In any case, excellent job Atlus, you get a 96%.