Who knew shooting yourself could be so much fun?
Do I need to have played the previous Personas or Megaten games to understand Persona 3?Nope, there's some Persona 2 name-dropping during one of the Social Links, but that's just for fun and won't help you with the game. Igor is the only recurring character, but he introduces himself and his role anew with each new Persona.
As for other Megaten games, the only similarities they share are the creatures, but even then it's in name and looks only. In other Megaten games, including previous Personas, creatures like Pixie or Jack Frost are demons or devils while in Persona 3, they're facets of the main character's personality -- Personas, if you will.
Should I play Persona 3 before playing Persona 4?It's my opinion that you -should-, but it's definitely not necessary. Persona 3 and 4 do share the same world and a part of 4's story actually takes place at the Gekkoukan High School (the main place in Persona 3) and sees the return of a few characters found in 3. All you'll really miss out on if you hadn't played 3 before this point in 4 is the nostalgia factor of "Hey I remember those characters!", and some of the inside jokes they use won't make sense. It's certainly not game breaking.
The other reason I would recommend playing 3 before 4 is because 3 has a few quirks that might almost feel intolerable if you play 4 first. Persona 4 did a great job of fixing a few of the issues 3 suffered from -- the biggest being the option to control all your party members (more on that later).
Should I get Persona 3 or Persona 3 FES?Persona 3 FES, hands down. It was a re-release of the original game with an additional story added called "The Answer" that continues shortly after where the original game left off. It also tweaked some of the combinations, made some social links avalable on extra days and added an entirely new Social Link.
A quick run-down on the positives and the negatives!
The Good+ Awesome artwork and design -- Menus, dialogue boxes, portraits, etc. all look crisp, clean, and fantastic
+ Great soundtrack with the ability to choose different tracks while dungeon crawling. The final boss song is especially memorable.
+ Amazing localization -- possibly the best ever. Nearly all of the English voice work fits the characters and the dialogue is believable.
+ The story sucks you in and keeps you guessing until the end. It offers up plenty of plot twists as well as some light-hearted laughs.
+ Social Links are great way to learn more about the characters and the story, as well as helps you create more powerful Personas.
+ The characters are endearing and well fleshed out. They make believable decisions and the player could easily put themselves in the shoes of the cast.
+ Value -- The original game can take well over 80 hours to complete and "The Answer" takes about another 20 hours. That's a whole lotta bang for 20 bucks.
The Bad- You can only control the main character in combat. The other characters in your part are often not too bright and will cast the wrong spells at the wrong time.
- Tartarus (the main dungeon) gets to feel pretty monotonous, as you can climb more than 30 floors without any change in scenery.
- Not being able to choose what skills your Personas retain when combining them is very frustrating and can lead tons of time wasted trying to get those spells.
- Mid-boss fights - Every so many floors you come up against mid-bosses: some are pushovers while others are insane and will leave you super-frustrated.
- If the main character gets knocked out in combat, it's game over. Period.
Acquired Tastes(These are things that are heavily dependent on your own tastes. You may love em or you might hate em.)
~ Day-by-day structure - Alloting time to building up social links or building up traits can be either monotonous or a lot of fun, depending on your disposition.
~ Spell names -- Memorizing spell names definitely has a learning curve, remembering what spells like "Tentarafoo" do can take some time for newcomers.
~ The Final Boss -- Expect to spend at least 30 minutes on the last fight and risk having to do it all over again when it hits 1% HP. He's no cake-walk.
The story begins with our hero (whom you get to name, but let's call him "Hiro") catching the late train to his new dorm. At the stroke of midnight he finds himself alone at the subway station with the power off and strange coffins standing in place of where people once were. The atmosphere, the moon, everything's changed. Hiro's barely phased by this and continues on his way to his new home, where he is asked to sign a contract. Upon doing so he entered the Velvet Room and meets the mysterious Igor and his assistant, Elizabeth.
After an encounter with creatures known as "Shadows" the next night, Hiro learns what the "Dark Hour" is, what Personas are, and becomes a member of SEEDS - a group dedicated to fighting the Shadows (and who all happen to live in the same dorm). Igor invites him back to the Velvet Room and explains Personas and the concept of Social Links in more detail before sending Hiro on his way. School life begins, social links are created and soon Hiro, along with all of the SEEDs members, go to Tartarus -- the home of the Shadows. Tartarus is a massive labyrinth that stretches far into the sky, who's floors are constantly changing. In other words, think of Tartarus like the dungeon in Diablo, where the floors are different each time you revisit them.
Here is where you'll be doing the brunt of your dungeon-crawling. The catch is that you can only go so many floors up before being blocked until certain events occur that unlock more floors. Each floor consists of a staircase to the next level and a device that lets you return to the first floor. However, only floors where mid-bosses are located have transporter devices that allow you to return back to those floors from floor 1. If you return to the first floor on a normal floor, you're going to have to re-enter the dungeon at the last mid-boss floor you unlocked. On top of this your members will eventually suffer from fatigue if they fight too much. When fatigued they take more damage while doing less damage.
It becomes a game of chance between risking going all the way to the next mid-boss floor so you can unlock the transporter, or heading out when everyone's tired but having to redo all those floors again the next time you return. More often than not, you'll choose the latter option, as you'll need the extra experience to take on the mid-bosses, anyhow.
Speaking of Mid-bosses, here's where one of the issues with Persona 3 lies -- the difficulty of them can range from being push-overs to being much, much more difficult than the real story bosses. It seems completely random which ones are tough and which aren't and you can find yourself stuck, having to level grind at practically arbitrary points in Tartarus. The problem with their difficulty is compounded by the fact that you can't control any characters besides the main character. You can give broad commands like "focus on knocking them over" or "focus on healing" but even then, the characters will often make stupid decisions and end up healing the enemy, or not bothering to heal someone on your team who is hurt -- especially frustrating if it's the main character who's hurting, since if he dies it's game over.
Seriously, all of the flaws of Persona 3 culminate at these insanely difficult mid-bosses. If your AI isn't messing up, the boss is targeting the main character and getting lucky crits, killing him and giving you a game over before you know what hit you. If not that, they're immune to everything and the fight is 30 minutes of pure tedium, whittling them down while hoping they don't get a string of lucky crits. It can be pure hell at times.
Thankfully, not a lot of the mid-bosses are this frustrating, with most having weaknesses you can exploit -- and you better exploit them, otherwise you'll be in for a rough ride. The ability to freeze or paralyze an opponent may seem pointless at first, as they will recover from it on their next turn, but you'll quickly learn how useful those things are against some mid-bosses, as well as learning how to manipulate turn orders to your advantage.
Outside of Tartarus, your team will be forced to deal with Shadows in the city from time to time. These are a nice change of pace from the dungeon grind in Tartarus and help to progress the plot. The bosses in these areas often feel like they're abilities and weaknesses are taken right out of MMORPGs, which is pretty cool. For example, one pair of bosses need to be killed at the same time or they'll keep reviving each other, which is reminiscent of some of the bosses found in World of Warcraft.
While combat plays a big part of what you do in Persona, so too does building up social links and spending time working on skills such as intellect and courage. The hero forms social links with characters by having conversations with them, much like your typical dating-sim/ADV game. During the conversations your character will have to answer questions, building up trust based on which answer he gives. As trust builds, the Social Links gain in level. Each Social Link is bound to a tarot card, such as The Magician, The Lovers, etc. As the related social link grows, so does your power to create Personas of that card. For example, as you level your bond with Yukari (who's linked to The Lovers card), you'll receive a bonus whenever you create a Lovers-type persona.
Some Social Links can only be accessed when your skills are of a certain level. For example, you won't be able to speak with the exchange student until your knowledge is high enough to translate the note on his door. To do this, you must spend some of your available time studying -- be it at the library, or at home before going to sleep on days you decide not to go to Tartarus.
Trying to get every Social Link maxed the first time playing through Persona 3 is an effort in futility unless you play with a guide focused on doing such word-for-word. Honestly, I feel that would defeat the purpose of even playing -- you may as well just watch someone else if you're going to play it exactly as someone else has told you to do. You're really better off maxing your skills and focusing on the social links that really appeal to you. If you decide to play through again, you get to keep your skills at their current level as well as your characters level, items, and your Persona compendium making it much, much easier to max out all of the Social Links (and breeze through the game).
Depending on your tastes, building Social Links and skills can be either a lot of fun or a tedious grind. There's a lot of story and character development found during this aspect of the game, but at the same time, it's can become a monotonous endeavor of "okay, on Mondays I talk to this person, Monday nights I study, Tuesdays I talk to this person, etc etc". So if you're not the type to care about story and just want to max out Social Links, expect not to care about a huge chunk of the game and view it as a grind. On the other hand, if you're the type that enjoys character interactions, there's a lot to be found in the Social Link conversations -- some of them are deep and emotional while others can be quite funny and light-hearted. Some that really stand out are the Hermit who's crazy "l33t-speak" is actually believable and hilarious; the Devil (who makes a small return appearance in Persona 4) -- who is a self-centered jerk but still says some intelligent things; and the Tower -- an alcoholic, chain-smoking monk.
The one aspect of Chain Links that is a bit underdeveloped is the "girlfriend" side of things. After reaching a certain level in a girl's Chain Link, she'll get jealous if you talk to other girls and may eventually reverse the link (meaning you have to either pray/beg for forgiveness/etc) to get her to talk to you again. However, once you max out the relationship at level 10, you're free to go find another girl to mess around with. This seems really bizarre considering at level 10 they usually confess their love for you and you spend some "precious time together" in your bedroom... Is the main character that much of a player that he gets them in bed then ditches them? Seriously?
Thankfully, that's really the only issue with plot holes I have. The story is well-written and keeps you guessing up to and including the end -- heck, there's the whole "The Answer" story to answer the big question that the ending raises and tie off some other loose ends. The supporting cast are all endearing and their dialogue is terrific. The localization team deserves a medal for their amazing job, as do the majority of voice actors. Only a few voices didn't feel like they fit the characters, but it wasn't bad enough that it ruined those characters. The one thing I would change is giving Ken (the child) a different voice actor than Chidori (The girl who looks like a doll). Both of them are introduced around the same time and both have the same voice actor, so it's a bit strange hearing a lonesome woman talking in nearly the same voice as an energetic young boy.
The cast of Persona 3 is one of the most well-developed and "human" of any cast in recent memory. They make believable choices, have endearing personalities, and just feel "right", as if the writers sat down and said "What would I do if I was in this situation?", "How would I act if the person I loved did this or if they were in danger or if...?" This makes it so much easier for the player to suspend their disbelief and gives the writers more freedom in creating some crazy situations that might normally be viewed with more cynicism. It's hard to do so when the characters themselves voice the questions the player has in their head. For example, when the Dark Hour occurs and all power shuts off, Mitsuru's motorcycle still works. As soon as the player wonders how this is possible, Junpei asks her how the heck it can still work. She just says it's special. Fair enough, considering they at least addressed it and didn't leave the player wondering if they conveniently ignored the whole "no electronics work" thing.
The 2D portraits of the characters also do a great job of conveying emotion, with each character having plenty of different portraits, each expressing different emotions. It's typical anime-style game fare, but the production value is excellent, and there are anime cutscenes scattered throughout the game, as well. While the quality of those are a bit subpar, they are still a welcome addition to the game and help break up the monotony of watching static portraits talk back and forth. The sprites and 3D environments are alright. They're nothing to write home about, but again, the characters all have plenty of different emotions that are conveyed well.
The scenery of the city is great, with it looking more ragged as time passes due to more and more cases of Apathy Syndrome occurring. Litter starts piling up, graffiti starts showing up all over the place, and people suffering from Apathy Syndrome start hanging around areas with their mouths gaping open. You definitely get the feeling that no matter how hard your team is trying, whatever is causing all of this is one step ahead of you.
The only real issue with the graphics is the monotony of Tartarus. You can go through 40+ floors without the scenery changing. The higher up in the tower you go, the more floors it takes until the scenery changes. I'm not sure if this was due to time or budget constraints, but it just makes Tartarus feel a bit underwhelming and can add to a sense of monotony when you're grinding mobs just so you can beat a mid-boss. On the plus side of things, you can choose between five different musical tracks to listen to while dungeon crawling and change it on the fly.
Speaking of which, the music of Persona 3 does a great job. It's a bit of JPop, a bit of Hip Hop, a bit of electronic. It's a unique sound that works for the game, with the final boss music being exceptionally good. The only song that didn't quite work was the shop music -- a stripped down remix of one of overview map song, but that's being nitpicky, as you don't spend a lot of time in stores anyhow.
A small aside: There are some costumes you can find for your characters, and certain armor looks different from the norm, though it seems completely random which armor looks different. It would have been cool if there were more types of armor that looked different, but the fact that even a few look different than the norm is still pretty cool. Your characters will even gasp at you when you tell them to wear it. Akihiko, for example, will blink and say "Oh.. I get it, this is a test! I won't fail!"
While Social Links and dungeon-crawling are two large facets of the game, this review wouldn't be complete without covering the third large facet, and the namesake of the game -- Personas. After battles, you'll often be given the option to draw a card from a group of cards that will shuffle in different ways before you make your choice. These cards can range from new weapons, to money, to extra experience, to new Personas. The hero only starts out with one Persona, so you'll want to grab these new Personas whenever you can. With them, you can combine them to make even more powerful personas.
In the Velvet Room, you're given the option to fuse them in a couple of ways -- at first you can either fuse two or three together. When you fuse Personas, a new one is made and it will retain a few of the spells of the ones being combined. Which spells are kept is entirely random and you can cancel the fuse and retry in order to get different spells. Not being able to choose which spells to keep seems like a silly oversight, as if you spend enough time retrying, you will eventually get the spells you want to keep. You'll often find yourself fusing a persona with a spell that you must absolutely have in the new persona. Unfortunately, the game doesn't always share this sentiment, and it may take 100 or more retries for it to finally give that spell to the new Persona. And that's just one spell! Get ready for spending a LOT of time retrying if you want to keep two or three spells (especially if you're combining three or more Personas together, oy)!
Really, would it be too much to ask to be given the option to pick which spells to keep? Unfortunately, this was one change that didn't make it into Persona 4, so we'll have to keep our fingers crossed for it to happen in 5.
Moving on to "The Answer", I don't want to get into too much detail as it would spoil the original story, but it is much more focused on dungeon-crawling, though the scenery changes more often than it did in Tartarus. Persona fusing works a bit different as well, being streamlined somewhat as there are no Social Links to level and as such no bonuses to be gained.
"The Answer" is there to give closure to the events in the original story and does a great job of doing so. While it can feel heavy on the dungeon-crawling at times, there isn't the frustration of the mid-bosses found in the original story. The only difficult fights are towards the end, and they can be overcome with relative ease with the right strategies. The final boss is much easier than that of the original story, which was a relief as a second 30+ minute final boss who could wipe your party out in one turn when he was about to die would have been somewhat annoying.
If you played through the original game and enjoyed it, there's no reason not to play "The Answer".
Persona 3 FES is a breath of fresh air in the RPG genre. Superb localization, a terrific cast of characters, a great eye for design, and an involving story all make it easy to forgive Persona 3 its shortcomings. Make no mistake -- you WILL get frustrated by this game, but as some would say, "it's a good suck". Like Xenogears -- another game with some noticeable flaws -- I find it hard to hold those flaws against Persona 3 when the positives so heavily outweigh the negatives. While the game is not perfect, it raises the bar for what an RPG can and should do in many ways and feels like the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
If other games had characters who voiced the questions that the player asks themselves; if other games went to the same lengths to make sure the localization felt "Right"; if other games had an involving and recurring mythos that drew you into the world, I'm sure RPG fans would be a very, very happy lot. As it stands, Persona 3 is one of the few games that manages to do all of this and more, and because of that, it deserves a place in any RPG fan's library.