Persona is a franchise with a long and, unfortunately, slightly sordid history. It's a spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei series, joining other titles like Digital Devil Saga and Demikids in expanding the SMT universe. The first game in the franchise, Persona: Revelations, was actually the first SMT title to be released in the United States, but while Revelations was America's introduction to the long-running franchise, it wasn't the best of beginnings.
Revelations had a notoriously shoddy translation, with characters removed or altered to be "Americanized," an overall terrible English script, and entire game segments removed. Although it gained a small fan base, Revelations was largely ignored, and the SMT franchise fell to the wayside until Persona 2: Innocent Sin, a significantly better introduction, was released toward the end of the PlayStation's lifecycle. It has a solid (if occasionally odd) translation, and the entire game benefited from this.
Unfortunately, Persona 2 wasn't a flawless release. What U.S. gamers got as Persona 2 was in fact the second part of Persona 2, a two-game release. The first part never saw an American release, possibly due to the subject material it contained (including a guest appearance of by Adolf Hitler). While Persona 2 was mostly coherent on its own, some of the plot and many of the smaller details were lost without the first half of the game. In recent years, however, the SMT series has taken off in the U.S. SMT: Nocturne and spin-offs like Digital Devil Saga have been released to positive reviews and have managed to garner a solid following, but it isn't until the end of the PlayStation 2's lifecycle that Persona finally gets another chance to shine with the latest offering, Persona 3.
Unlike the post-apocalyptic settings fond in SMT: Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, Persona 3 takes place in modern-day Japan. You take the role of a self-named transfer student to Gekkoukan High School. As soon as you arrive, you begin to notice something is odd: The other students in your dorm carry handguns, and a mysterious sickness known as Apathy Syndrome is sweeping through the city. Before long, you discover the reasons behind this.
In this world, there are 25 hours in a day. At the end of each day, and before the next, there is a single extra hour called the "Dark Hour," during which the world undergoes a startling metamorphosis. Buildings twist and alter into terrible labyrinths, the sky turns a sickly green color, and most human beings are transmuted into coffins. Worst, perhaps, is that mysterious beings called "Shadows" stalk the world during the Dark Hours, preying on rare humans who, for some reason, haven't turned into coffins, and turning them into "The Lost," sufferers of Apathy Syndrome. Since most humans, including the police, are safe inside their coffins during this time, the only people capable of stopping the Shadows are the few who remain awake. Gathering at the dorm where your character lives, these humans have formed the SEES (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad), who seek to find and destroy the cause of the Shadows. The guns the SEES members carry are not weapons in the conventional sense; they are "Evokers," which allow the SEES to summon spirits that dwell within them: Persona.
Persona 3 is divided into two parts: the regular world and the Dark Hour. During the day, your character is an average student at Gekkoukan High School who has to take tests, join clubs and attend class every day. This may sound odd because if you're trying to save the world, does class really matter? Surprisingly, your activities during the regular hours of the day are as important, if not more important, than your actions during the Dark Hour. Persona are not simply spirits that dwell within your character; they're magical beings that are created directly from the character's psyche. While they can become more powerful through repeated combat, the true way for a Persona to gain power is through Social Links.
To put it simply, Social Links are friendships. When your protagonist makes friends with other characters in the game, a Social Link is formed, and the more time you spend with friends, the stronger the links become. Some are formed as part of the plot, but by and large, most of the Social Links are formed by the actions you take during your character's free time. You can hang out with friends, join an athletic club, or even play an MMORPG, which are amusingly modeled after older Persona games. Of course, not everyone is eager to be a friend right off the bat; some require you to complete certain activities before they'll even spend time talking to you.
During the off-hours, your character can also perform various activities to build up personal stats in Academics, Charm and Courage. Academics are a measure of intelligence, which can be improved by studying before bed or paying attention during class. Charm is popularity and can be increased by focusing on intelligence, doing exceptionally well in class, or other attention-gathering things. Courage is, of course, a measure of bravery and can be improved by karaoke and eating at the local sleazy restaurant. Certain characters and events are only available with high stats, so if you want to build strong Persona, you'll have to crack the books. Furthermore, some bonus items are available to your character if you work hard, so getting top scores on the examinations will earn you a reward that boosts your character's abilities.
Players eager to pick up Persona 3 should be warned that it isn't your average RPG. It's more akin to a "life simulation" like The Sims than a flat-out RPG, since 90% of your game time is spent in the real world, not in the Dark Hour. You'll be interacting with regular people most of the time, going through their various stories, events and activities. Players who are eager to jump in and punch enemies will be quite annoyed that combat isn't one of the large areas of focus in Persona 3.
That isn't to say that you won't be doing your fair share of fighting, though. Every night, your team has the ability to go into Tartarus, a gigantic ever-shifting dungeon that is home to Shadows. The player's goal is to climb Tartarus, find the source of the Shadows and destroy it. Rather than being a custom-created dungeon, Tartarus is basically a random dungeon crawler area. You climb higher and higher, finding new and more powerful enemies, portals, and the occasional boss monster. It isn't the most interesting place to talk about, since the actual level design isn't very interesting or creative, but luckily, the enemies do a lot to make up for this.
Enemies in Persona 3 aren't exactly simple foes, and if you don't fight smart, you can, and will be, torn apart by them. While Persona 3 doesn't use the Press Turn system like the other recent SMT titles, many of the same tactics apply. For the most part, combat is very similar to most RPGs; attacking and magic do damage, and healing recovers HP.
Tactics come into play with weaknesses. Every single attack has a type — swords are "Slash" types, the spell Bufu is an "Ice" type — and every enemy and Persona have different reactions to different attack types. Some take less damage or even nullify it completely, but others have a weakness to it. If an enemy (or character) is hit with an attack to which he is vulnerable, he's knocked down and rendered unable to act again for the next turn. Furthermore, if every enemy hit by that attack is weak to it, the attacker gains an extra consecutive turn. If every enemy in a group is knocked down, your team can even unleash a powerful all-out attack that hits every enemy for extra damage. Developing a good Persona team to exploit enemy weaknesses and cover your own team's weaknesses is key to surviving Tartarus.
In Tartarus, one concern is that the Dark Hour, more so than any other hour of the day, is harsher on human beings, and even spending a few minutes there can exhaust an unprepared human. Even your combat-ready team isn't 100% capable of handling Tartarus all of the time, and the more time you spend in the dungeon, the more tired your team becomes. Stay too long, and your characters gain the "Tired" status, where they suffer a nasty decrease in stats and are unable to return to Tartarus until they've had a few days to rest. This is another aspect of Persona 3 that sounds like it could easily grow annoying, but it works much better in actual gameplay because it forces you to determine exactly how often you plan to fight enemies. Even if you can easily burn through every enemy on a floor without taking a hit, it may be better to run past them or avoid them in order to conserve your strength. Tired characters regain their status by not venturing in Tartarus for a few days, although getting extra sleep and taking good care of your character can speed up the process.
There isn't random combat in Persona 3, either; enemies appear on the game map, rather than popping up whenever they feel it. Players can ambush them and attack (and vice versa), allowing them an extra attack round before the fight starts. The ability to ambush enemies depends on the weapon your protagonist has equipped; a sword is fast, but you have to be right next to an enemy to successfully surprise them, while a bow can be used from a distance but is very slow and leaves your hero open to attack. Naturally, bosses are immune to this, so when you fight a boss, you're going to start on equal ground.
Persona 3 does something fairly unique with RPG combat. While you take a party of four into Tartarus, you only get to control one member of the team, and the other members of the team are controlled by the computer. For most gamers, this would be the sort of thing that would turn them away, but the character AI in Persona 3 is very bright, and they generally know which action to perform in specific situations. They'll cast magic to which an enemy is vulnerable, use items to heal weak characters, and try to discover boss weaknesses. In specific cases, you can change their tactics by forcing them to only use healing abilities or stun the enemy with every attack. On paper, this sounds incredibly frustrating, and it is almost impossible to describe without making it sound that way, but the combat works fantastically well. It is fast, effective and you rarely feel limited or weakened by only controlling one character. Admittedly, there are a few times when a character used a move I didn't want him/her to, or didn't use the same tactics I would, but generally they are fairly good. Is it better than controlling every character? I wouldn't say that, but it isn't really worse, either.
Due to a unique aspect of his personality, your hero is the only character who has the ability to contain and use multiple Persona, while the average user has only one. While you begin with the persona Fool Orpheus, you quickly begin to gain new and more powerful Persona as you explore Tartarus. You get some Persona by winning them as prizes from fights, but most new Persona will be attained by fusing together older ones. By visiting the Velvet Room, a mysterious blue room that only the hero can see, the player can combine two or three older Persona to create new ones.
This is where Social Links come into play. Normally, you can only create a Persona with a level equal to, or lower than, your hero, but each Persona has an Arcana assigned to it. If you have a Social Link of the same Arcana, that Persona gains extra experience, usually enough to improve their level. Thus, strong Social links can give you Persona that are much stronger than their user, and certain Persona can only be created if you have a high Social Link with a specific character. This is why you can't just ignore the normal world section of the game.
The Shadows aren't only active in Tartarus, though. Specific powerful Shadows become active every 30 days or so, with the full moon and launch attacks outside of Tartarus, so players are forced to venture to new areas to find and defeat them before they cause irreparable damage to the city. Keeping track of these Shadows further requires the character to watch his time. While you can work yourself to exhaustion in Tartarus every night, the recovery time will catch up with you.
If you're not prepared for the full moon, you can probably survive, but it's going to be much harder. The war with the Shadows begins to escalate every month, and it quickly becomes a matter of time before the final battle comes, which means you'll have to be careful how you spend your time in the real world. Spending a month building up your academics may sound appealing at first, but if you're not careful, you'll pay for it. This can be a bit frustrating because it makes you feel quite rushed at all moments, and without a FAQ or guide, it isn't 100% clear exactly how much time you have to burn. Still, as long as you don't spend every single day doing nothing but eating fast food, you should have more than enough time to build up your Social Links.
Persona 3 has a really charming art style. The character models are a bit simplistic, but well-animated and instantly identifiable. The characters even wear different outfits, a far cry from those RPG heroes who wear the same thing through rain and shine. If the weather is warm, they might wear different outfits, and they don't wear the same things on weekends. Character emotions are shown in amusing ways, usually involving comic book panels with close-up of the characters' strong emotions. Even combat has this, as all-out attacks cause the entire team to rush forward and beat up the enemy, forming a cartoonish smoke cloud, complete with onomatopoeia for the beating received by the unlucky enemies. The graphics are not mind-blowing, but they do their job more than well enough.
Persona 3 has a whole lot of excellent voice acting, and it's all dubbed. There are a few squeaky voices and a number of excellent actors who actually manage to show emotion. When your team ventures into Tartarus, one of your Persona users stays behind to serve as a navigator; early on, she has a good voice and is very likeable, but unfortunately, she is later replaced by another navigator, with a significantly more annoying voice. She isn't terrible, and after a while you can get used to the change, but she's nowhere near as good as the original, and it is a change for the worst. Other than that, the only other issue is that the actors trip over Japanese words; when using honorifics like "-san" or "-senpai," they rarely sound natural.
Persona 3 does the franchise proud. The only "problem" that might make someone think twice about jumping in is the focus on character interaction over combat, but if that isn't a problem for you, you'll enjoy Persona 3 a lot. Persona 3 really manages to sound bad on paper: repetitive dungeons with AI-controlled partners and a time limit. It makes me nervous just typing it, but Persona 3 shows that effort was put into making the concept work. It's clever, witty, heartbreaking and exciting, all at the same time; it's a fantastic addition to the PlayStation 2 RPG library, and is possibly the last great PS2 RPG. All PS2 RPG fans should make it their priority to pick this up as soon as possible.
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