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Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei series has always been a fan favorite, dealing with themes of the occult, witchcraft, and demons while thrusting players into gameplay that's likely too hard and unforgiving for their own good. The Persona series, in particular, always had a penchant for taking these themes and placing them within the confines of modern day settings, to fairly admirable success. A few years after the last entry in the series, Atlus has finally seen fit to release the third game of the series, and while it is a significantly impressive game, the intense departures from the norm, even for the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, may make it more of an acquired taste than an instant hit.
Persona 3 takes place in modern day Japan, where the main character of the story (which is, for all intents and purposes, the player himself) arrives as a newly transferred exchange student. As he arrives at the dorms where he's to live for the school year, he meets a handful of bizarre individuals; first a young boy who gets his signature on a contract, then a girl with a gun who doesn't seem too pleased. A few days into his transfer, our wordless hero is woken up in the middle of the night by a ruckus caused by unknown assailants on the dorm, which turn out to be evil creatures spawned by the darkness, called Shadows. At this, he somehow conjures up the ability to summon powerful demons called Personae to do his bidding and annihilates the entire legion of creatures.
The game's story is quite well written and excellently localized, as per Atlus' track record of impeccable translations. Each of the many characters in the game has a unique feel and personality to him or her, unveiled slowly as the game progresses. In addition, the Japanese school environment is excellently reproduced in English without losing any of the uniqueness that the special setting offers. The degree of character development in Persona 3, while not unprecedented, is incredible and definitely makes it one of the best RPGs I've ever played, story-wise.
The graphics in the game are rendered in full 3D, and while not totally remarkable by any stretch of the imagination, are quite good and properly do what they're meant to do. Where the game really shines is the character and Persona designs. The artistic style for the game is unique and fresh without being completely new, and the myriad of Personae available for creation and summoning are a welcome dose of customization available for the player.
Persona 3's sound is pretty much a hit-or-miss. The music is a bizarre mix of rap and normal composition, and while well done, will net a varied amount of opinion among players of the game. Most of the tunes are well composed, however, and fit the game's life simulation aspect rather well. Similarly, the voice acting ranges from great to grinding - some characters have wonderful voice work, while others end up being nearly painful to listen to. Most voices are stuck in the middle ground, not being terrible, but at the same time not particularly excelling in any sense of the word, either. In any case, the music and voice work never bad enough to make the game any less enjoyable.
The aspect in which Persona 3 most differentiates itself, however, is in its gameplay. The game's only dungeon is a humongous tower, called Tartarus, with over 250 floors for the player to explore. Most of the floors in this dungeon are randomized , with the few that are not reserved for mini bosses to gauge the player's strength, as well as serving as 'check points' for the player to return to later, as parts of the dungeon only become available after certain points in the game. Each floor is relatively short, with treasures and enemies strewn about. Enemies can be seen on the map screen, are intensely aggressive, and will chase the player around if he or she is spotted. Coming into contact with an enemy will lead to battle, though it's best to hit the enemy with the main character's held weapon first in order to gain an advantage early in the battle.
During battle, the player is only allowed to take control of one character - the main character, to be exact. Every other character in the party will act of their own accord, only changing their tactics in accordance with the orders that the player gives them. Generally, your party members make good decisions in battle and will prioritize your survival over theirs, as the game ends if the main character dies. Sometimes, though, your party members will make moronic moves that will either lead directly to their death or indirectly to yours, so it's best to take note of your HP so as to make sure you're not going to die anytime soon.
All of the main character's stats (except HP and MP) are determined by the Persona the main character has equipped. The damage given and taken, special abilities, spells, and elemental strengths/weaknesses are all determined completely by the equipped Persona, so players are encouraged to try out and assemble a large number of Persona for battle. The player can also switch Persona on the fly once per round during battle to adjust stats, strengths, and weaknesses. If a combatant on either side scores a critical hit or uses an element on a character susceptible to it, not only will the recipient of the attack go into downed status (meaning they cannot perform any action on the next turn), but the attacker will get another turn to act. If all the enemies are in downed status, the party can use a combination attack to massively damage all the enemies at once while reversing their downed status. Unfortunately, this system also means that if the enemy gets in a lucky blow it's basically curtains for the player.
Aside from the hero, each character in the party has a Persona unique to him or her that remains mostly static throughout the entire game, giving them each an individual strength and weakness. Unlike the other characters, who have Persona that gain strength relatively quickly and learn new spells at high levels, most Personae available to the player don't learn anything new after a few levels and grow at a snail's pace comparatively. Therefore, the game gives the main character use of multiple Personae. Each Persona, as mentioned before, give specific strengths, weaknesses, skillsets, and stats, so it pays off to have a large collection of different Persona available for use. Certain Persona, when available for use to the player at the same time, can create 'Mix Raid' attacks that create absurdly powerful abilities that are immensely useful in battle. New Persona can be obtained by defeating enemies in Tartarus, but the number of Persona available in the dungeon are so few and so weak that it's really not worth the trouble to use them; instead, most new Persona the player will be using will be gained from Persona fusion.
Available from the start of the game, Persona fusion allows the player to combine two, three, and eventually four, five, or even six Persona together to create a new, more powerful one. However, the main character must be at a level equal to or higher than the Persona that will result from the fusion, otherwise the fusion cannot be initiated. The rather confusing Persona creation system is further complicated by the fact that there are so many Persona in the game; fortunately, there is a Persona compendium offered in the Persona fusion menu in order to allow the player to buy Persona he or she has had access to before in order to use them as fusion material again. However, Persona strength is not only determined by experience and battles, but also by the actions that the main character takes in 'real life.'
Half of the enjoyment present in Persona 3 is the life simulation aspect. When not fighting the forces of darkness, each character in the party is just like any other high school student - they have to go to school, participate in after school activities, do homework, take tests, hang out with friends, and go to the bathroom. Pretty much everything you need to do in real life is reflected in the life simulation part of the game - sometimes the characters will even catch a cold and have hugely decreased stats in battle. Thankfully, the female members never get PMS - that'd be a real pain for the player in the middle of demon fighting.
The life-sim aspect is not just for looks, though - the way in which the main character interacts with other characters in the game can affect Persona growth enormously. First of all is the attribute system, which is composed of Courage, Charm, and Academics. These three attributes play a large role in determining if many of the characters in the game are willing to interact with the main character on a more personal level. For example, Yukari will refuse to be anything more than an ally in battle unless the player has achieved a high Charm attribute. Each of the 19 characters available for interaction in the game is associated with a certain tarot card, such as Fool, Lovers, Emperor, and the like, with a Social Link level for each character as well. As the player spends more time with a certain acquaintance, his or her Social Link level will increase. However, if the player spends too little time with a friend, they'll become angry at the neglect they're receiving and the hero will have to grovel for forgiveness before he can continue increasing their Social Link level. Some female acquaintances will become the main character's girlfriend when their Social Link reaches a certain level, but the player must beware if he or she is dealing with more than one girl in this way; if they catch wind of his two timing ways, the hero will pay dearly for his treachery - but that's the price you pay for being two-faced, and it's a pretty big 'if' anyway. Que sera sera.
The Social Link system is linked directly to the Persona fusion system - each Persona falls under a certain tarot sign, and the level of the Social Link associated with said tarot sign determines how much bonus experience the Persona will gain when it is created. As such, it pays to be nice to friends, as a higher degree of affection for the main character equates to higher level persona at the end game. Getting a certain Social Link to the maximum level also grants the player special items that unlock the ability to create the strongest Persona available to the associated tarot sign.
Each element in the game, while appearing unrelated to one another, are intertwined in such a way that each aspect of the game affects another, creating a tightly wound gameplay system where no action is without meaning. This makes for an incredibly engaging experience, and it's very rewarding when your efforts in a particular friendship pay off by creating a near indestructible force of darkness.
Persona 3 is quite long - it took me 50 hours to play through the first time, without tackling any of the extra side quests or the optional dungeon. Engaging in the optional tasks and dungeon will likely increase playtime by up to 30 hours, and by the end of it all my clock went well over 100 hours; this game offers you more than enough gameplay for your $50. Unlike most other Shin Megami Tensei games however, Persona 3 is not overly difficult; that's not to say it's an easy game, because it isn't. Compared to other games of the franchise, however, Persona 3 is pretty much as easy as they come, especially if you choose the easy setting, which gives you ten free continues whenever you lose the game.
Persona 3 is not for everyone. It has many different unique gameplay features and a daunting Persona creation system that some may find unsavory. Its style, both in soundtrack and graphics, may be a turn off for certain people. However, for those willing to try something new and different, Persona 3 is an incredibly entertaining and enjoyable game. Its setting, gameplay style, story and characters, and visual and aural characteristics all combine to create one of the best RPGs I've played on the PS2.