Review by TheLegendaryAuron
"A very Japanese RPG with an incredibly unique story, battle system, musical score and character cast that delivers a challenge."
Let me preface this review by saying I have never played any of the other Shin Megami Tensei games, but I have played many other RPGs: from Earthbound and Chrono Trigger to Final Fantasy and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I consider myself an avid gamer, especially in the RPG genre. Also, I did not write any part of this review until I completed the entirety of the game and the side-quests as well.
Also, it should be noted before anyone bothers reading this long review that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is HEAVILY influenced by Japanese culture, and is set in Japan. Japanese school, culture, social norms, anime cliches and the like are strewn all about the game. I wouldn't consider the comedy very anime-esque, however. If you are a person who is completely turned off by Japanese-style games or loathes anime with the entire fiber of your being, Persona 3 may be a bad choice for you. However, reading this review may change your mind if that is true!
Now, for those of you who want a quick summary of my review, scroll down to the bottom. Now, I'll start the actual review by breaking it into respective categories that I find the most important for an RPG.
Story: [7/10] Persona 3 is set in modern Japan (the year 2009) with the protagonist's name chosen by the player. The game throws your character into action quite quickly as you encounter the Dark Hour (the hidden hour between 12:00 AM and 12:01 AM that only certain people actually experience) and its perplexing horror. Soon, your first allies and classmates appear: Mitsuru, Akihiko and Yukari, who help you awaken your Persona for the first time. A Persona is a part of your soul in the form of a monster, devil, what have you, that fights for you after you shoot it out of your body with a gun-like weapon appropriately named an Evoker. Your quest is to defeat the 12 shadows that appear every full moon and destroy the Dark Hour while fighting off any who wish to protect it. Exploring a massive, randomly generated tower called Tartarus that takes over your school during the Dark Hour not only trains your characters for the battles against these 12 shadows, but also reveals the secrets of the shadows and those who wish to aid them. To tell more about the story is almost impossible without spoiling it, but rest assured there are many interesting plots within the characters who aid you, and their pasts greatly effect the outcome of your mission.
The story flips on its head a few times, changing what you thought the end of the game would be, which is great, however there are a few too many anime-esque cliches in the story. The over dramatic reactions and supernatural occurrences that make little sense due to the "hey, its a video game/anime" excuse are sometimes over the top, but luckily not frequent. However, because this game is rated M, the writers got away with a lot more blood, M-themes of suicide and death, as well as cursing to make the game more realistic to its setting and enjoyable due to the nature of the story.
A large part of the game's quality comes from the well-chosen voice actors and lines. Comedy is superb in the game, always at the right moment yet unexpected, very unique and sometimes side-splitting, such as when your history teacher skips the Paleolithic Era because "it doesn't have Samurai!" or when three of your male characters end up hitting on a transsexual who offers them dating advice. The Social Links (see Gameplay) give you some interesting options for acquaintances, such as a drinking, smoking Monk and an evil salesman who offers you advice on how to buy happiness.
The ending left me with a bit of a "that was it?" feeling, especially because Atlus released an "expansion" to Persona 3 called FES which adds a few more Social Links, characters, and an add-on to the ending. Sadly, the US will probably never see this expansion, as much as it saddens the huge fanbase Atlus has gained for the Shin Megami Tensei series with Persona 3. The conflicts were not resolved in as interesting of a way as I thought and hoped they would be after the climax of the story, but the way that they ended gave enough closure to enjoy it.
I gave the story an 8/10 because of the following: great support from the voice actors and great writing/lines, as well as a unique M-rated turn on a supposedly typical story, however not so great because of the anime cliches and cop out of the ending with a non-obtainable expansion that explains most of the ambiguities.
Gameplay: [9/10] Persona 3, as with most modern RPGs, has its strongest point here. There are 2 main parts to the gameplay in Persona 3: the making of friends and social links with people in the normal high school world, and the fighting of Shadows in Tartarus. I will discuss the combat first, since that is the core of the game and likely why you are reading this review at all.
First of all, yes this game is turn-based. You only control your main character and simply give tactical support to your allies, such as "Stand By," "Full Assault," and "Healing/Support," but make no mistake, this game is challenging even if you chose to grind. Every enemy save some bosses and the very toughest of enemies have at least one weakness, such as Fire or Wind (in Persona 3 the spells aren't called Fireball or Icestorm, they are called Agi and Bufu, and other unique names that make this game stand out even more). If any enemy's weakness is exploited by an attack, the character who exploited that weakness gets an extra turn, and if the enemy is attacked by its weakness, it falls down. When an enemy has fallen, it can't attack and takes more damage as well as has a higher chance to get crit. If all enemies are down, your characters can do an "All out Attack" that is more or less a 5 times damage, unavoidable attack that usually decimates the enemy unless it is a boss. Of course, enemies can do and very often do the exact same thing to your characters (except you cannot be All out Attacked, thankfully). Thus, switching of Personas, tactics, and equipment before each boss and storyline fight is essential.
All of your party members have one Persona, but your character can find them from enemies as well as create new ones by fusing old ones, which is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. Think of it as a demented version of Pokemon breeding (your Personas are never enemies you fight, always different) that is much more involved and useful. Your new Persona made from old ones can level up from Social Link Levels (see below) as well as inherit abilities from them, allowing you to completely customize your creation. Doing this is absolutely necessary to complete the game and defeat the storyline bosses, and adds a huge level of strategy to the game as you must make something to combat that enemy that just decimated your entire team in a couple of turns (I have had at least 20-30 game over screens in this game from taking on bosses underleveled and then I came back with a new, kick ass Persona and strategy to win).
Speaking of strategy, almost every spell is useful in Persona 3, from debuffs and buffs to the items that cast spells, I used almost all of them in order to win. Status effects are supremely deadly in this game, and they can and often have won boss battles for me. You can't just run in with your most damaging abilities for all the bosses, especially the optional ones. Overleveling is difficult, because after a certain amount of battles your party members get tired and stop fighting/get destroyed in combat. At first this is an annoyance, but then you get unlimited fight time the night before the full moon, and eventually your party members get tired very slowly.
Now, I'll talk about the Social Links of the game.
Throughout the game you'll meet people who you can hang out with after school, from class and clubmates to a random person at the train station or an elementary school student at the shrine. They are set, and there are around 20 each with 10 levels of Social Links to level up as you hang out with them, talk with them, and learn more about their past, problems, or love life. You can date quite a few girls and even help some people get their lives together. Overall, it is a very enjoyable experience that rewards you for having fun with your friends and it actually effects your fight against the shadows. For each level of Social Link you have with a specific Tarot Card (each Link is tied with a Tarot Card), a Persona that you fuse with the same Tarot Card gains experience and therefore new abilities. A maximum, level 10 Social Link with a character allows you to make a specific powerful Persona from that Tarot Card, and also gives any Persona you make of the same card about 5 levels. The characters are for the most part very interesting and unique, and you can pick and choose whichever you like to hang out with and learn about them, but of course being picky may hurt your Persona fusing ability.
If you choose to, you can avoid almost all of either Tartarus or the Social Links and focus on one, but then you will do horribly at the other. The game does a good enough job of allowing you to balance the two, and in between socializing and fighting, you can raise your three out of combat stats: Intelligence, Charm and Courage. These allow you to meet certain people, unlock certain Social Links, and most importantly allow you to go out with certain girls.
I gave the gameplay a 9/10 for the following reasons: difficult, involved combat that requires strategy and planning, and fun socializing in between Tartarus runs to break up the pace and make the game much more enjoyable. The only real flaws are the fact that the Japanese school system doesn't allow you to do clubs or really anything but study before and during testing, and the fact that it is almost impossible to finish your social links before the game ends. Also, some bosses have a trick that is so small and hard to find sometimes you get too frustrated. These are small flaws, especially considering that they don't exist in the New Game+ when your main character has his old equipment, level, stats, and Persona library.
Music: [9/10] Another great thing about Persona 3 is that it comes with an artbook and Official Soundtrack. It isn't the full soundtrack, sadly, because the game has probably over 30 pieces of music. Persona 3 doesn't have your typical musical score of violins and pianos during combat and dramatic scenes, but rather has rock, pop, jazz and hip-hop depending on the situation. If its a tough, fast-paced battle situation, you'll get the rock/hip-hop guitar song that gets you pumped, but if its a depressing time in the game you'll get the piano and jazz. I really enjoyed how immensely unique the soundtrack was, and how well it all fit together. Many of the tracks have English, Chinese and Japanese lyrics which is a nice change of pace from normal games. I remember just sitting at one scene of the game to listen to the music a few times. The boss music, normal "map" music, school and even your dorm music changes throughout the game, mixing it up depending on the atmosphere of the game. After I beat the game I went online and got the full soundtrack as soon as I could: it's that good.
Graphics: [8/10] Honestly, what saved this score from being a 7 was the art. The artist did an absolutely amazing job drawing the characters and anime cutscenes, and their facial expressions convey their emotions very well. However, the actual in-game graphics are lacking. They are about 2-3 years behind, but I think they didn't make them so advanced because the disk space was eaten up by the many thousands of lines of text and all of the dialogue/music. It certainly doesn't detract from the game, especially because it is an anime world, so anime graphics are expected. I saw no clipping, and the animations were fluid with no slowdown. For PS2, I am more than happy with the graphics.
Replay value and longevity: [9/10] The game took me 95 hours to complete getting my main character to the max level, beating the optional boss, and finishing all the quests. I did not finish getting all of the Personas and best equipment (costs way too much money and probably an extra 20 hours of boring grinding). However, after you beat the game you can choose to play a New Game+ where your main character's equipment, level, stats and Persona Compendium carry over, making the Tartarus part very easy so you can focus on the Social Links you didn't finish, which is absolutely great. I am currently doing that, going out with characters I completely ignored so I can enjoy all of the characters while not having to worry about spending 5 hours in Tartarus every full moon. I am very glad Atlus threw this in, and am actually surprised considering how long the game is.
Story: [7/10] A great cast with great voice actors supports an anime-cliche-filled yet still surprisingly dark and twisted story that is enjoyable to watch unfold as you learn the stories of your close friends and acquaintances.
Gameplay: [9/10] Difficult yet strategic combat is accompanied by a very rewarding and entertaining "date-sim" that allows you to get better in battle by making friends in and outside of school.
Music: [9/10] A spectacularly unique soundtrack adds an immense amount of atmosphere to the story, combat, and everyday in-game life. Persona 3 also comes with the Official Soundtrack for free.
Graphics: [8/10] Incredible, hand-drawn characters and anime cutscenes are followed by slightly but not so noticeably dated in-game graphics to deliver the mood of the game and emotions of the characters very well.
Replay: [9/10] Although a very, very long RPG, the New Game+ feature allows the player to go through anything missed the first time without the unneeded pressure of having to prepare for battle.
Not including replay value since it doesn't actually effect the quality of the game itself,
Total: 33/40 = 8.25/10.
Or, rounding down - 8/10
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 09/07/07
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (US, 08/14/07)
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