The Shin Megami Tensei series is known for having mature themes and being more difficult than your average Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs). They have been largely ignored by western gamers, but it has gathered a cult following. Atlus’ Persona 3 is a more accessible game for JRPG gamers due to the inclusion of an easy mode and friendlier atmosphere. Persona 3 takes an interesting approach by combining sim-dating elements with traditional RPG elements, but how well does it mix them? Does it create a mess or a masterpiece?
You take the role of a nameless, transferred high school student. Upon arriving, the main protagonist notices an unusual change in the city and his classmates living at the dorm won’t tell him anything. After a shadow attack and awakening to his persona, his classmates finally tell him about all the shadows and the “Dark Hour” – a period of time that occurs every midnight which only a few people are aware of and remain conscious during that hour, and shadows appear.
Along with the Dark Hour, the main protagonist learns about the mysterious, enormous tower that appears during the dark hour: Tartarus. Where did the Dark Hour, shadows and Tartarus all originate? In order to answer these questions, he agrees to join SEES and use his persona abilities to fight off shadows. Now you have to balance your double life – high school student at day and shadow hunter at night.
You don’t need to play the previous entries in order to understand the story. The plot starts off slow, but it’s worth the wait. The story is excellent and is filled with exciting, unexpected twists. While there are a few pacing issues and you’re sometimes waiting for the plot to advance, it actually works well for a 70+ story. Translation and dialogue are very strong and witty at some occasions. Characters are well designed and filled with great and unique personality. There was one character in the party that added nothing to the story, and there was no good reason for the person to join the party other than having the persona ability.
One of the beauties of Persona 3 is interaction. You’re the main protagonist; you not only play but become a part of Persona 3. For the main story, there will be a couple of dialogue options in which you decide what the main protagonist will say. It’s a nice feature to have, but there were a few problems. A few dialogue options felt completely unnecessary, and the options you had were pretty much the same. Another underwhelming thing is they are one-liners. It was rarely a complete conversation between you and another person.
The best implemented interaction is the social links, and this is where the sim-dating elements come into play. Persona 3 uses a day-to-day calendar, and each day is divided into different times: morning, after school, evening and the dark hour. During the morning, the main protagonist goes to high school where he will make new friends, take tests and participate in some funny school events. In order to be a successful, well known high school student, you need to build up his attributes which include courage, charm and knowledge.
After school, you can hang out with your classmates, meet new people or date. When you hang out with a person, you’re given dialogue options and choosing the wrong line can cause you to lose that person’s friendship. One of the best things about the social links is each person has a unique story. You learn a lot from the person and all the struggles the person is experiencing.
Persona 3 uses a traditional turn-based battle system with a few twists. Only the main protagonist is controllable, while the AI controls your party members. You can’t give them specific commands, but you can change their tactics. You can tell one party member to be on support, and that member will heal party members or remove ailments. For the most part, the AI can handle itself pretty well, but there will be times when they will frustrate you by casting something you didn’t want. Enemies are visible in the dungeons, so battles aren’t randomly encountered. If you attack the shadow from behind, you are given a player advantage which grants the whole party a full turn to attack. If an enemy attacks you first, there will be an enemy advantage which grants them the first full turn to attack.
Each shadow and persona has their own strengths, weaknesses or nulls. Exploiting the enemy’s weakness knocks down the enemy and gives you another turn. When all enemies are knocked down, the party can go for an all-out attack which resembles like a cartoony, comic brawl. Beware; enemies can also exploit the party’s weakness which will grant them another turn, but they can’t go for an all-out attack. It becomes frustrating when the enemy knocks you down because you’ll just use your turn getting up instead of attacking or supporting your allies. Battles in Persona 3 are difficult, but they are fun to play and satisfying after you beat them.
Personas can be best described as summons, and a character can summon a persona by shooting themselves in the head with an evoker which resembles a handgun. What’s cooler than seeing high school students shooting themselves in the head? The main protagonist is the only one who can change between multiple personas during a battle, but he can only one change one per turn.
When you’re running out of room for personas, you’re able to register them in the compendium at the Velvet Room. You can fuse your personas in order to create a whole new persona. Building a strong social link can increase the experience earned for the fused persona. Some problems when fusing are the personas might not likely have the skill you desire, and you won’t know what the skill does. Even I, who has played a good amount of Shin Megami Tensei titles, had problems figuring out what those skills did.
Exploring one huge tower isn’t pretty and can become tedious. You’ll have to explore several floors before you reach a save point, and it becomes frustrating when you die after you explored a nice amount of floors and have to start all over again. Excessive grinding is required to advance through floors and to battle against bosses. Boss battles never seem to be repetitive, and most are filled with some nice twists keeping you on the edge of your seat. They are some of the best boss battles I’ve seen in a JRPG.
Once you decide to end the exploration of Tartarus, the day is over and a new day begins. Persona 3 becomes addicting and gives you the “just one more day” feeling. There were times where I said to myself, “I’ll just finish the next day and stop playing after that.” Nope; I continued playing and after each day, I kept telling myself the same thing over and over again.
SMT music composer, Shoji Meguro, does a fantastic job on the soundtrack and wonderfully combines J-Pop, rock and hip-hop. At first it might be a little embarrassing to listen, but it’ll eventually become stuck in your head. Surprisingly, the battle theme never gets old and becomes catchy. There were a few music selections that felt weird and a little annoying, but overall it’s a solid soundtrack. Voiceovers are pretty good, especially for a JRPG. Most of the voice actors really nailed the personality of the characters especially the character of Junpei. I wish there was an option to shut Fuuka up.
Persona 3 focuses on art style instead of being a technical powerhouse. Personas and shadows have great designs, and the levels also have a great art design and style. One of the best thing about Persona 3 is the use of anime-styled cutscenes instead of CGI.
Atlus has delivered a unique and memorable experience by seamlessly combining sim-dating and traditional RPG elements. The story and characters are great, combat is fun, character interaction is wonderful, and the day-to-day calendar gives you an addiction. While the excessive grinding, length and not being able to control your party members might turn some players off, especially newcomers to JRPGs, this is one of the best and freshest JRPGs to hit the PS2.
Great art style, solid story and nice, well designed characters. There are a few pacing issues, and having one giant dungeon isn’t pretty.
High school has never been this fun. Character interaction by making friends and dating is great. Battling is fun, but not being able to control your party members is a little underwhelming. Dungeon crawling can easily become repetitive.
Solid voice acting for most characters. The music is great and catchy, but there are some weird song selections.
The game will take you over 70 hours to complete on your first turn. There are additional quests to do, personas to find and social links to master. A new game mode transfers all your stats, so you’ll have an easier time to master those social links.
One of the most unique and entertaining JRPGs on the PS2.