Bought This AFTER Buying Persona 3
Persona 3 was THE best RPG I'd played in a VERY long time, and as an old-school fan of RPGs, it was nearly the perfect game. Occasionally atrocious ally AI and clunky inventory management are the only things that prevent it from achieving true perfection and adding on a 30+ hour campaign, new personae, new quests and new character interactions to what was already an INCREDIBLY robust game, then putting it at a budget price translates into no excuse for Japanese RPG fans not to play this game.
Your character, whom you name, is a new transfer student at Gekkokan High School, but things take a turn for the strange very early on as he visits a room that appears to be an eternally rising elevator inhabited by only two denizens: the owl-like Igor and his assistant Elizabeth. They inform you that things are about to take a turn for the strange and your unique powers will be needed. What powers? Oh you'll see...and quite quickly! There is apparently a "hidden hour" between midnight and 1AM in which normal people are encased in impeneratrable coffins, but a select few wander freely. During this time, the world is overrun by malevolent spirits called Shadows and the high school rises beyond the clouds as the massive structure Tartarus.
You move into the dorms with the extermely chipper Yukari Takeba and buttoned-up Mitsuru Kijiro, both of whom are aware of the so called Dark Hour, but before you can say, "Thanks for the warm welcome," another dormmate, Akihiko Sanada has been attacked by a shadow! The story continues from there, winding through the origins of Shadows and Tartarus, your party swells, though you can only have four with you at any time.
The game is divided into two radically different stages: by night you can go to Tartarus to slay the Shadows that roam the tower as well as visit Igor and Elizabeth to create new Personas, monsters that you and your allies can summon to use different skills. Your allies are only able to use one each, but you have the unique ability to swtich on the fly. By day you're a high school student struggling through classes, new friendships and even new love(s). You form bonds by joining clubs and just plain chatting with people both in and out of the school, but these bonds serve more than character development: each so called social link corresponds to a Major Arcana of the tarot, and the stronger that link becomes (to a maximum of 10), the more experience new personas will earn directly after being created.
The amazing thing that Persona 3 manages to do is make both sides of the game incredibly deep and satisfying. Your allies are not just warm bodies to absorb damage as you fight Shadows, each and every one of them are incredibly well written, well developed and even well-voiced characters. The enemy and persona designs are also incredibly well-realized and many illicit shivers at their disturbing imagery. Unfortunately, the designs are repeated a little too often with only pallette swaps or small additions, but this is easily forgivable.
A little less forgivable is the ally AI. You can only control your character directly, the others are simply issued broad scripts such as "Act Freely," "Heal/Support," or "Full Assault." As the game progresses, you can issue more scripts, but this doesn't help the fact that, just a little too often, your allies will make incredibly bone-headed moves. The best example of this is when fighting an enemy that has complete immunity to magic, your allies will use abilities (and precious SP) that power up their magicical attacks. Occassionally, this lack of control will lead to death, especially against boss characters. The only other significant gripe is the inventory system: much like in battle, only your inventory is under your direct control. In order to equip new equipment you must talk to the appropriate ally, select the appropriate dialogue option, and finally equip away. You must do that every time to each individual ally. This becomes especially annoying when buying new equipment. It can be hard to remember who has what and how powerful it is, especially later in the game when you reach seven party members, eight including yourself.
These minor grievances aside, the game offers incredible playability, around 100 hours for the campaign, and even some replayability since seeing everything your first time through is nearly impossible, but FES ups the ante by giving you a new campaign that takes place directly after the admittedly quizzical ending of the main campaign. This campaign is strictly a dungeon crawler, but gives you a new character, reunites the entire cast, minus one very notable party member, and offers enough of new content and a much more satisfying ending, making it an incredible deal for $30.