theuselessgod's Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PlayStation 2) review

One of the freshest JRPGs I've ever played

The Short

Pros

- Essentially a mix between an excellent turn-based JRPG, a high school dating sim, and Pokemon.

- Lots of interesting characters with deep and compelling backstories

- Tons of fun (and funny) events and activities

- As much a time management sim as an RPG

- Also has practically a "breeding" game with regards to merging Personas

- Extremely addicting, very easy to sink 100+ hours into

- Music has a very unique style and flavor to it (very Jpop)

- JRPG battles are difficult, complex, and incredibly strategic

- Anime cutscenes are extremely high quality

- Game has a distinct visual style that is stylish, modern, and fantastic

- Voice acting is superb throughout

Cons

- Level grinding can get ridiculous in how much you have to do it

- Essentially only one dungeon that doesn't really change or evolve

- Enemies are pallet swapped frequently

- Has some disturbing elements that will turn a lot of people off

- Fusing Personas is one part fun another frustration: getting the ones you want can be a crapshoot

- Only able to control your main character in battle; your team auto-attacks

- The fact the spells aren't called "ice," etc. but instead called things like "bufu," etc. is a little jarring until you get used to it

- The music, while unique, has some very grating tracks (that battle song...urrrgh)

- The bonus content for FES is overly difficult and has an unsatisfying story

- Has a lot of characters, but never seems to encourage you to use them

- Has lots of voice acting, but not as much as one would hope

- Difficult to be a "player" trying to nab all the girls by the end

- Can't change difficulty mid-game.

- Cutscenes, while great, are infrequent

- While characters and character side-stories are fantastic, the main story is really lacking

- Has a game-breaking glitch that basically lets you kill everything, instantly, forever

Welcome back to high school. Which is about a billion times more exciting than your high school

The Long

A small disclaimer: I love JRPGs, but I don't really love Japan. I did the whole anime thing for several years, but gave it up cold turkey and never looked back quite a while ago. While I can understand the appeal, a lot about Japanese culture turns me off or just straight annoys me, to the point that watching most anime (or playing most extremely Japanese-style games) is an almost intolerable affair. And also, while I love JRPGs, I think it's a stagnating genre that isn't doing anything to evolve. While games like Lost Odyssey are nice because they embrace the old (and arguably obsolete) styles of gameplay, the concept of level grinding for hours on end to accomplish some small task is not an appealing one to me, especially when that consists of mashing the "X" button over and over and waiting for my experience points to show up.

Which is why it's really weird that I loved Persona 3: FES. It had every card in my deck stacked against it, and it still managed to completely grab me by its claws to the point that I was staying up late playing until three in the morning, because I had to do "one more week" because my character was so close to leveling up his knowledges and midterms were coming up soon and if I did good maybe the girl I was dating would social rank up with me and then that would unlock the next tier in her associated Persona class and...

Yeah. You get it. This game is dangerous. And it is totally, completely fantastic.

Now there's some famous last words

Persona 3: FES's story isn't that compelling. Basically there is an hour every night that nobody knows about between midnight and one 'o clock. During the "Dark Hour," regular people turn into coffins (which makes them safe), while a few others don't. The ones that stick around usually get chowed down on by monsters, driving them crazy and usually killing them. Also, during the dark hour your school turns into this massive evil tower known as Tartarus, filled to the brim with beasties you need to go murder. Yeah, it makes no freaking sense and is totally off the wall. Whatever.

You, an emo-sulky looking protagonist high schooler, are a transfer student from...somewhere. You arrive at your new school and find your dorm-mates are a bit...weird. You are apparently in a mixed-gender dorm (or if it wasn't mixed-gender before they made it one when you showed up. Oh yeah.) full of crazies that seem weirdly paranoid. Your first night there you are awoken sometime between midnight and one (dun dun dun!) because your building is under attack by crazy monsters! You run to the roof with one of your female dormmates, only to be cornered by a bunch of beasties. Luckily, she has a gun. Unluckily, she gets incapacitated before you can use it. So, doing what any normal person would do in this situation, you proceed to point the gun at your own head and fire.

That makes a whole lot of sense

Turns out the gun is an "Invoker," and it is used by an elite group of essentially vigilantes to summon their "Personas" during the Dark Hour. Personas are powerful creatures that can do battle for you (essentially they are required for all magic) and can level up, etc. Everybody in your dorm has only one single persona associated with them, but you (being the special emo kid you are) can have multiple personas (the number you can have in your "inventory" goes up the higher you level), and can even fuse personas together to make new personas. As Keanu Reeves would say: "Woah."

Thus begins your magical, head-shooting adventure into Persona 3: FES. If you are the kind of person where seeing a bunch of teenagers (and a robot, a ten-year-old, and a dog) repeatedly put guns to heir heads and fire (with nice blue sparklies of "magic gore" popping out the other end), you probably can quit this review and just forget Persona 3 exists (but you should go get Persona 4 instead. They swapped the guns for cards). If you are still with me, then you are in for a ride. Yes, beyond all that nonsense I just spouted, the game under all of this is totally bananas.

I'll just leave this right here. You perverts.

I'm going to try to break this down as best I can, and hopefully it 1. Makes sense and 2. Doesn't take forever. The game is essentially split into two main points of interaction: what you do during the day (school, extracurricular activities [if you know what I'm saying: LADIES!]) and what you do during the Dark Hour. I'll break these down for you now.

During the day you are given tons of options. You can raise your stats, which help with both school and the ability to interact with certain characters (essentially Knowledge, Charm, and Courage can be raised). The main three girls can only be "courted" if you have maxed out their associated stat, so keep that in mind. You can also interact with friends from school (girls or otherwise), spend time doing sports or other after-school hobbies, blow your money at the arcade, visit an elderly couple at a book shop, hang out with a kid whose parents are getting a divorce, and more. You can only do so much in a day, however, and certain characters and options are only available on certain days of the week (and at certain times), so if you want to hang out with a particular person you'd better learn their schedule.

There is more to this than just simply "dating." First off, nearly every character's story in this game is extremely well written and incredibly engrossing. Some are downright heartbreaking. There is a young man who only visits a shrine on Sunday afternoons who is dying of a terminal disease. When you meet him he has no hope for the future, but as you spend more and more time with him you are able to help him cope with his impending death. There is a young child whose parents are getting a divorce and who thinks it is her fault; she wants to run away from home but you have to help her decide what is the best course of action. A confrontation from the parents adds another layer of depth to this. There is an elderly couple whose son died in a car accident, and the memorial tree at your school is at risk of being cut down in favor of new buildings. These stories are very real and are perfectly paced: every intractable character (or "socially linked" character) has ten levels or pieces of the story you can work on. As you "level" their links up, you get deeper and deeper into their stories. It's amazing how even a simple, drunken monk who visits the bar on tuesday and thursday evenings can have such a compelling past.

Then you have this guy, who has the best nose in video gaming

There is a point to all this, however, beyond simply their stories. Each character is associated with a tarot symbol (Lovers, Tower, Death, etc.), and each persona you can unlock and equip is also associated with one of these symbols. The stronger your relationship with the person, the better personas you can make (and the better XP bonuses they get when you make them) that are associated with that tarot card. Meaning if you want the ultimate personas, you have to max as many social links as possible.

Personas are made in two ways. First, you get them as rewards for finishing battles, though the variety here is sparse. The real way to get personas is through fusing. Starting with just two or three personas (and working your way up to crazy, five-persona fusions) you can mix these different monsters to get a better, stronger (or at least different) persona. Each persona has its own associated moves and stats, and when you have this persona equipped in battle you can use its abilities. For example, Jack Frost is a persona with lots of ice moves. If you equip him in battle, you are given both his abilities (ice moves, sometimes healing), strengths (strong to ice), and weaknesses (weak to fire). In order to get Jack Frost, you can fuse two earlier level personas. Jack Frost is of the Magician tarot, so if you fuse him and have a high relationship with the Magician person at your school, he gets tons of bonus XP.

Still following? It gets worse.

Then the Pokemon breeding comes in. See, you can have personas inherit abilities from the personas you fused it from. For example, if you made Jack Frost by fusing a persona with heal and a persona with fire, you might end up with a Jack Frost with both ice and fire abilities (useful!). The same goes all the way down through the eighty bajillion personas that are in this game (and the FES version of Persona 3 added freaking more). As you might expect, it becomes insanely addicting to try and 1. Get the best personas 2. Fuse the best personas 3. Fuse the best personas with the best moves. Add to the fact that you can save any persona to the "compendium," which means you can then buy them back later for fusion, and this game has quickly turned into crack.

And I haven't even gotten to the actual JRPG parts of the game.

Here's a hint: It involves turn based battles

The RPG parts are pretty simple. The game dumps you in Tartarus, a multi-floored, randomly generated dungeon with treasures, monsters, and a boss every ten floors or so. You are restricted to a set number of floors based on story, and are expected to clear these floors before a deadline (while managing all your daytime). Fighting battles causes your party members to be fatigued, which gives them a weakness and requires them to be cycled out (least they suffer a penalty) for a few days if you choose to continue to go fight. You can't be cycled out, however, so if you are tired you are essentially just boned.

As stated, the game is turn-based, with a heavy emphasis on elemental weaknesses. How it works is simple: if you hit an enemy with its elemental weakness, the enemy will be "knocked down." That enemy forfits its next turn, giving you a free hit. This works the other way, though: if you are hit with your weakness, you fall on your butt, take bonus damage, and miss a turn.

How you smack the enemies with their weaknesses is based on which personas you have equipped. As I said above, the personas do all the heavy lifting when it comes to magic. You can swap to any persona in your inventory once a turn, and each has their own associated abilities and weaknesses. So it's less of creating the one "ultimate" persona (since they are all limited to six abilities before you have to start replacing them) and rather having a perfect team.

If you knock all your enemies down you have a chance for an "all out attack," where you do massive damage to all enemies at the cost of them no longer being downed. This also sparks a super goofy anime-esque animation, which I thought was pretty hilarious.

KILL!

All your party members, as I've already stated, each have one persona, which means their strengths and weaknesses are locked. A major downer of the PS2 release of this game is the fact that you can't control any of your party members directly (they fixed this in the PSP version). You can give basic strategic commands, like designate one as a healer, but they still sort of do their own thing. They love to not think more than one turn ahead, waste magic, and generally act stupid. Luckily if you find out an enemy's weakness they'll tend to exploit it (thank goodness), but as a whole the lack of direct control is sort of a downer.

So did you get all this? You go to school and hang out with chicks and dudes and grandpas in order to rank up their tarot cards, which in turn lets you fuse better personas with more unique abilities, which you can then equip on your character to exploit enemy weaknesses in battle, which you then level up (both yourself and your personas) as you battle your way to the top of Tartarus in an attempt to save the world. All while constantly shooting yourself in the head every time you cast a spell or use a persona.

That, in a nutshell, is Persona 3: FES. Let's never do this again.

Here's another one of these to make up for it. Come on, it was tiger striped boots.

This system is atrociously addicting. I seriously couldn't stop. While I'll admit Tartarus gets a bit monotonous at times (it's just the same level grinding over and over; even the unique battle system can only do so much), wanting to up my stats, up my social links, and fuse better personas was a massive timesink. It totally sucks you in, to the point where I didn't even care about actually using the personas I'd bothered to make, I just wanted to keep getting better ones. And learning more about the girl I was trying to woo. And learn what happened to the kid from my sports class with an injured knee. And...AAARRRGHH THIS GAME CONSUMED MY LIFE!

It is worth noting that while the story never really goes anywhere particularly interesting, it's a big oversight to not alter parts of it to accommodate my social links. I had totally maxed out one of the girls (read: we were an item) in my party and was about 3/4 of the way done with another one (yes, I'm a two-timing jerk. I NEEDED THOSE HIGH LEVEL PERSONAS), but in the story segments nobody says anything differently. There is one scene near the end, at Christmas, that changes depending on which girls you went for, but other than that? Nothing. Kind of a wasted opportunity, to be honest.

Persona 3: FES has a very distinctive style to every part of it. Oh crap, I forgot to talk about how you can fuse Personas to make better weapons. And how girls get jealous of each other, which can mess up your links. Urrrrrgh...

So...what about the rest of the game? Graphically, it isn't a technological wonder or anything, but the menus are extremely clean and the graphics adhere to a very well-realized art style. Having a "look" about your game can really go a long way, especially for games that aren't in high-definition, and Persona 3: FES nails it. Everything from character portraits, personas, menues, battle effects, and the cutscenes all fit neatly together and look fantastic.

The music is also...well, it's weird. It is not your traditional JRPG, with its usual orchestral sweeping scores and what-not. It's mostly JPop (or JRap), which is catchy in the worst way. As a whole it is inoffensive, with some tracks actually being really good, but that battle song...urrrgh. The game requires a heavy amount of level grinding (which is probably it's biggest setback) which means you hear the same stupid song over and over. Which isn't bad if a song is just music (or it isn't as bad, rather), but with weird JRap dude going at it? So annoying. I turned the sound off when I decided to level grind after about the half-way point.

Voice acting is solid throughout, I just wish there was more of it. Not really much more I can say on that; it's an Atlas game so localization is top notch. Everything is translated well and it doesn't fall into any "Engrish" traps, though it has some weird melodramatic spikes from time to time.

There's also a dog and a robot girl. Alrighty then.

I hate to drag this review on (it's already stupidly long), but I think I can say this fast: this game's biggest problem is it has too much level grinding, and it isn't fun. It has this amazing system built up around getting personas, forming social links, raising stats, and participating in difficult and unique turn based battles. And then it falls into that stupid JRPG trap of requiring you to fight a billion battles in order to be strong enough to beat a boss. I can understand this game would be almost impossible to balance had it not just made it really difficult (the persona fusion means skilled players can get some really good ones really quickly), but it quickly went from "fun" to "tedious." The is especially bad in the last areas of the dungeon, where enemies are really hard and don't seem to give enough rewards. I'm sure people will call me out because they found parts of this game to be easy and I "clearly don't know what I'm talking about," but the fact of the matter is on my first (and currently only) playthrough I had to level grind like a madman, and it got old fast. There. Complaint over.

Nicholas Cage, eat your heart out.

I could probably talk even more about this game, but I'm going to end there. The difference between vanilla Persona 3 and Persona 3: FES is the fact that the FES version has more personas, one additional social link (the robot girl), and a bonus, 30+ hour "epilogue" chapter that is both too hard and not interesting. If you beat this game and really want more Persona, I really suggest getting Persona 4, which is like Persona 3 but they took everything I complained about Persona 3 and fixed it (the music, the ability to control your whole party, the main story, the lack of a lot of voice acting...everything). Do that instead of playing the bonus chapter. Just trust me on this one: not worth your time.

This game, like all Atlas games it seems, has an "Atlas Tax" going on (probably because they all seem to get limited releases) which means that, despite being an old PS2 game, it goes for $30 used. Considering it came out when games were priced new at $50, that can be a hard sell. I, however, totally recommend it at this price (in fact you should probably get it now; it's only going to go up). Persona 3: FES is one of the best JRPGs to come out of Japan in years (the only others I can think of that are even comparable being Lost Odyssey and Nier), and is both addicting and has massive amounts of quality playtime.

For a star rating, I'd say four out of five. It is a superb game, and I think any JRPG fan should play it, but the minor niggles I mentioned above are enough for me to lop a star rating off.

And here is that damn battle song. I never want to hear it ever again.

More reviews like this at nathanvsvideogames.blogspot.com

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