SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: PERSONA 3 (2008) – ATLUS
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is oft considered as a modern classic; a game that came from virtually nowhere to give the JRPG genre a serious lesson in style in the midpart of the last decade. Mixing the simulation of a normal Japanese high school life with a dark story and a pulsating atmosphere, it won over critics and provided the base for the excellent sequel, Persona 4. This summer, I put aside some time to go through Persona 3 and see what makes it a fan favourite.
Persona 3 offers players a surprisingly deep and unusual storyline into which they can dig their teeth. You take control of a silent protagonist who has just transferred into the fictional city of Iwatodai for the period of one year, and will have to balance the requirements of every day school life with the duties of being part of SEES – a group of students with the power to awaken ‘Personas’, a representation of their inner selves who wield exceptional power. This is kind of useful, because each night at midnight, a phenomenon occurs called the Dark Hour, where malevolent beings called Shadows roam free and your school turns into an enormous creepy tower called Tartarus. As part of SEES, you will have to fight the Shadows, and solve the problem of the Dark Hour. And if that wasn’t enough weirdness to comprehend, you soon get joined by a robot and a dog amongst others who will join you in your fights. Who said creativity was dead?
Persona 4, despite its main story stem of investigating a murder case, managed to keep a surprisingly cheery feel to proceedings with its bright colours and occasional comic relief – Persona 3 on the other hand feels like a different beast altogether. The story keeps quite a grim feel to it throughout; for example, as each full moon approaches more and more people around the town will become gibbering wrecks as they become afflicted by shadows, and later on society as a whole appears to break down as doom closes ever further inwards. Don’t take this to be a bad thing however, the story is well written and quite emotional at times, and manages a few laugh out loud moments at times thanks to an eclectic cast. All things considered, there’s roughly 50+ hours of content – and if you are playing the FES version of the game, the extra chapter put into the game adds another 20 or so hours.
Where Persona 3 really differentiates from its successor is the battling gameplay, which the uninitiated might find quite unforgiving at times. Normal days are split into mornings and afternoons, where you will attend school and then be able to move around town exploring places and completing social links (bonds with certain people that can increase your options in battle- more on that in a bit) – no change there. When evening descends however, you then have the option of either hitting the town once more to do activities to raise your courage, intelligence and charisma, or asking your SEES operator to take you to Tarturus. Tartarus acts as the main dungeon and levelling spot of the game, a tower stretching high into the sky and split into five blocks which will gradually become accessible as time passes in game. Each floor is randomly generated (meaning treasure, enemy spawns and exit points will move about constantly), and then roughly every ten floors there will be a mini boss to fight before you can proceed further. Fighting in Tartarus is completely optional for the large part of the game, but should you choose to ignore the tower then the powerful Shadows that appear as part of the main story at the end of each month can easily overwhelm you. Similarly, you can’t just stay in the tower forever, as over exposure to fighting leads to your characters getting sick, meaning they will not be anywhere near as efficient when fighting and will require a few days rest before they are back up to speed. It really is a thinking man’s game and will require some tactical nous to get through. Although Tartarus is an intriguing place to fight (the interior décor changes in each block, as does the background music which slowly builds around the same melody), I preferred the more varied dungeon design and structure of fights that you find in P4.
The other thing that makes battling awkward (and makes me wish that I had played P3 before P4) is that you only control your character in battle – you may select up to three other members to take into fights with you, but they will act on their own accord unless you give them a specific set of orders. This can make some of the fights in the game an utter horror, as your party members will perform stupid actions that leads to their inevitable death and can cost you hours of levelling if you haven’t been saving on a regular basis. Compared to the open flexibility of being able to manually control all characters in P4, this system seems flawed and aged. On the plus side, exiting to the bottom of Tatarus replenishes your HP and SP, so making a regular pit stop is encouraged.
The last thing that affects fights with the Shadows is your Social Links. Throughout the game, the protagonist will meet with several interesting individuals who all have there own stories which get played out over time and will require your help in some way being going to meet them when the school day is done. These range from something as simple as hanging out at the basketball club at school, to some quite controversial content including helping a student get a date with a teacher and saving a deluded fellow high school student from losing all his money to a cult. Each social link will form a new arcana bond, which can then be used to access new Persona’s in battles. The stronger the social link, the more powerful Persona’s can be created and summoned. You can’t do several social links in the same day, so like with the battling system some prior planning is required in order to complete some Links before others can be made available. The actual fusion system for Persona’s is what you make of it – personally, I found that the Persona cards obtained after battle did an efficient enough job, and I only fused a grand total of two Persona’s during the entire game. Providing you level up a balanced party, it negates the need to do a great deal of fusion.
Persona 3 is equal parts intriguing and exasperating then. Upon completing it, I found myself mostly content with the way the game plays…although my elation that I had finally killed the final boss after near to two hours (it’s a loooooonnnnnggggg fight for the unprepared) factored into this quite heavily. Personally, I found Persona 4 to be overall the more user friendly experience, and thus I surmise that Persona 3 will appeal more to those who want a challenge from their JRPG.
If the gameplay doesn’t exactly grab you however, then perhaps the aforementioned infectious style will win you over. In a market that was in danger of suffocating under the sheer amount of fantasy storylines and exaggerating design, Persona 3 is a breath of fresh air which its funky presentation. This is mostly due to a excellent soundtrack, one of several from Shoji Meguro, which with tracks such as Memories Of The City, Joy and the battle theme Mass Destruction becomes quite catchy indeed. There’s also something to be said about the supposedly less interesting side of the gameplay – generally hanging at the compact but well thought out local hotspots in Iwatodai and talking the locals as they go about their lives becomes quite addictive. The ever changing interiors of Tartarus are also suitably moody, with the occasional blood stain of the floor to serve as a reminder of what could happen if your team mates mess up.
So, there’s tons of content, its well presented, has plenty of style and can kick your arse if you don’t show it enough respect – Persona 3 rightfully deserves its place not only as a fan favourite, but as one of the best JRPG’s of the past decade. I still personally prefer Persona 4 as an all round title, but you can’t go wrong with this one either.