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

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Persona 3 is a unique game that stands apart from its JRPG contemporaries.

Admittedly Japanese RPGs aren't really my thing. The combat tends to be too slow and the story and characters too often fall into cliché traps that have never really appealed to me. This makes it all the more shocking that I’d consider Persona 3 to be up on my list of favorite games. Persona 3 stands out with its unique structure, quick combat, and most importantly characters that feel realistic even if the situations they are in at times are anything but.

The Dark Hour leads itself to some creepy stuff, which Persona 3 embraces.
The Dark Hour leads itself to some creepy stuff, which Persona 3 embraces.

What if there was an extra hidden hour in the day unbeknownst to all but a few? That’s the premise behind the Dark Hour, a special hour that happens every day at midnight. All of the people are turned into coffins, creatures called shadows begin to roam, and a large tower called Tartarus appears. The only people who can operate during this time are Persona users, humans with the ability to summon what is basically their own personal demon to fight for them. You play as a high school transfer student who just so happens to be one of these Persona users. You quickly team up with other users in a group called SEES and it’s up to you to explore Tartarus and defeat the shadows. It’s a plot that on paper sounds a bit insane, and it is, but the game goes a good job doling out this information in a digestible manner that doesn't make it feel quite so ridiculous.

The most interesting part of Persona 3 is the way it’s structured. The game takes place over the course of a single year, and you get to play out each and every single day. You’ll go to school, hang out with friends after, do homework, and fight monsters. Every single thing you do is in service of a system. For example, paying attention in class increases your knowledge which helps you get better grades on the exams, which in turn provides bonuses. Spending your night at a karaoke bar increases your courage, which you need in order to hang out with a particular person.

Hanging out with people is one of the core mechanics of the game. When hanging out with a character you increase your social link rank with them. Each social link has an Arcana associated with them. This is important because every Persona is part of an Arcana, and the ranks from the social links provide bonuses to your Personas (more on that later). Even though social links help with battle purposes you’ll find yourself wanting to do them anyways for the characters. Each social link has its own character with a story. There’s an old couple at the book store that lost their son in a car crash, an athlete who wants to keep training even with an injury, or even a classmate that wants to date his teacher. These stories are never as big as saving the world but rather smaller, more human narratives. They all feel real and life changing to the characters, the kind of stuff that happens to everyday people. It’s rare to see these kinds of stories told in a medium that often feels the need to crank everything up to world ending levels, and it’s a nice change of pace.

The fast paced combat keeps the gameplay from getting tired.
The fast paced combat keeps the gameplay from getting tired.

In battle you fight with your Persona. Every party member has their own unique Persona. Like Pokémon with demons, Personas have their own levels and elemental powers, along with weaknesses. Your character however has the special ability to have multiple Personas which makes you unique in combat compared to everyone else. You’ll find more exploring Tartarus, but in order to get anywhere you must start to create your own. With the help of the eccentric long nosed Igor and his assistant Elizabeth, you’ll fuse lower level Personas together to create more powerful ones. This is where the social links come into play. For example, if you’re level 8 in the lovers Arcana and you create a Persona of the same Arcana, you’ll get a level 8 bonus amount of experience making that persona even more powerful. This is all necessary in order to get stronger and fight higher level shadows. Since the other party members can’t change Personas, it’s important that you create your personal Persona team to balance out everyone else.

The combat takes place in Tartarus, the game’s one and only dungeon. You and a party of three others slowly go up each randomly generated floor of the tower, fighting shadows. The combat is turn based but moves at a fast pace. It’s all about figuring out the shadows’ weakness to particular attacks, such as elemental attacks like fire, and exploiting it. When a shadow is hit with a weakness, they are knocked down, and when all the shadows are knocked down you are given the chance to rush them and deal bonus damage. This keeps combat moving quickly with a battle lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes and I never found myself ever truly getting bored of it. The biggest problem is that you only have direct control over you with the rest of your party being AI controlled. The AI is competent enough and you can give them tactics to use, like support, but it doesn't stop the occasional bad move that could lose you the battle.

The main narrative is good but does fall into that end of the world level threat I was talking about before and became a little less interesting to me as a result. The characters are the true heart of the game, though, and they mix in the overall story with their more personal struggles in ways that make you care about them very quickly. There’s one character in particular that I thought I wouldn't like from being too out there and Japanese for my tastes, but ending up being one of my favorite characters due to the very human and real way they are handled.

Spending time at school in a video game has never been more engaging.
Spending time at school in a video game has never been more engaging.

You’ll find yourself falling into a pattern. Go to school, hang out with social links, train in Tartarus, and then fight the boss. Fortunately the game provides plenty of story beats and events to mix things up just when things start to feel repetitive, such as a summer vacation on an island, or a plot-line that introduces a new party member. It all works together really well. The game is quite long, running at 95 recorded hours of playtime for me, which doesn't count the numerous deaths at the hands of bosses. It’s a time commitment for sure, but the day system works well allowing you to play it very slowly over a long period of time without fatigue.

On the outset Persona 3 seems like another bizarre Japanese role-playing game, and it is. But it’s also so much more. Its focus on everyday life and the struggles of regular people makes its stand out from other video games. This alone makes it worth a playthrough. It’s also a fun game in its own right, with a unique day system and battle mechanics that fit together well. Persona 3 is the perfect blend of quirky and serious and its characters and world will stick with you long after you've finished playing.

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