Persona 3 FES
I'm really not someone who plays a lot of Japanese RPGs, as I've written about in the past. But based on the constant praise and discussion of Persona 3 I saw on my favorite message board, I decided to give its special edition FES a try, and 82 hours later have finally finished what is easily my most enjoyable experience with the genre ever. It's an interesting take on some of the conventions. Instead of new areas and plot points becoming available as you go to different places, everything advances through the passage of time. The game takes place over the course of the school year, as the main characters have to balance studying for tests and making friends with their secret quest to prevent the city from strange monsters called shadows that appear during a part of the day only they are aware of. They fight by summoning Personas, special reflections of their inner selves with unique powers. Overwrought stories are a staple of these kinds of games, but although there are some moments of maybe too much talking made worse when you're seeing something for the second time and can't just completely skip it, the plot in Persona 3 is one of the most intriguing and fulfilling I've seen in a game, and because of the immense length is more like a good TV series than a movie. The most important scenes are fully animated anime-style, and while the character designs don't completely mesh with the normal portraits and models in the game it still helps convey things well. Everything up to the end works, and the end itself was pretty brilliant and brought all the big parts of the game together. FES includes a new chapter that more fully explains what happens afterwards, although it doesn't seem necessary to appreciating it.
Besides special events every full moon, most of the normal RPG gameplay occurs in a gigantic tower with hundreds of randomly generated floors, and to be honest, after a while going back there over and over becomes pretty tiring. Fortunately, a few things save it. As you play, you start to realize you don't really have to go there that often, and can spend almost your entire month outside before having to return, and at least the combat system itself is enjoyable and satisfying. Instead of revolving around building up your stats through fighting repeatedly, the key to success is exploiting each enemy's weakness and finding especially useful Personas through fusing ones you find. There were a few times where I felt I had no choice but to get a little more health before being able to really take on a tough boss, but finding a strategy that eliminates their strengths and defeats them without having to level up is a great feeling. The player's inability to directly control the actions of other party members can make things more frustrating, although it's rare for it to become a true problem. There are a few other small annoyances, including the frustration where one slip can get your party killed and waste all the time spent since the last save, but in the end I found the combat really fun and rewarding.
Even more than the fighting though, I liked the social interaction aspect of the game. The main thrust of that part are the Social Links, connections you make with various students and other people around town that improve your ability to create certain Personas. Each person with a link represents a certain Arcana, and as you get closer to them any Personas you fuse in that Arcana get stronger, eventually unlocking the ultimate one. The execution wasn't perfect, as I soon learned that telling someone what they wanted to hear was usually a better option than what I really wanted to say, but it's an interesting idea that merges the two halves of the game. The normal schedule in the game is going to school Monday through Saturday with the afternoons and evenings off to shop for equipment, improve social stats, work on links or whatever, although there are special events frequently throughout the year that change it up and allow for some interesting and often quite funny interactions among the castmembers. The game spends a lot of time developing his characters, and it makes the rest of the game stronger when you just appreciate and like spending time with the different people you meet and often go into battle with. The voice acting and localization is fairly solid too, with only a few people totally failing. In general the audio is pretty decent. Although some of the music is kind of weird and you end up hearing it too much when the game takes so long to finish. In the end though, it is one of the better games I've played in a long time, and I already have the sequel waiting for me to dive into it.