Review by HailToTheGun
"Macabre subtlety, brilliant voice acting, unique simulation integrated with traditional Japanese Role-Playing make Persona 3 one of the best PS2 RPGs."
To SEES or not to SEES
Do me a favor. Stay up until midnight tonight. At 12:00, watch the clock. Watch it closely, and, 60 seconds later, when it turns 12:01, ask yourself, "Did 1 minute really go by?" If you were to ask the members of Persona 3's Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES hereon out), they'd tell you no. A whole hour had gone by.
Such is the premise of Persona 3; between midnight and 12:01 exists a 25th hour, appropriately titled the "Dark Hour," which only few humans are capable of experiencing; among those, and making up a majority of them, are our friends in SEES - the game's main protagonists. During this Dark Hour, terrible beings of otherworldly form appear, collectively known as "Shadows," and infest a gargantuan tower known as Tartarus that consumes the local high school at which your characters attend. Our SEES members venture out nightly to do battle against these foes and explore the mysteries surrounding this enigmatic skyscraper. And how do they battle? By summoning forth their inner emotions - fear, pain, sadness, anger - in the form of physical meta-beings known as Personas. They do this all by aiming a pistol-shaped device called an Evoker at their heads and blasting away. Controversial? You bet. But that's why we love it.
Now, that's the most basic setup I can think of as a means of explaining the story. To delve deeper would be to spoil everything; play the game yourself to find out the rest. So, with that behind us, let's move onto the meat and potatoes of the game - combat.
Persona 3's Combat and Beyond
For those unfamiliar with Atlus' previous installments in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, the battle mechanics of Persona 3 may seem a bit disjointed at first. But trust me in saying it's one of the most simplistic, yet effective combat systems ever in an RPG. You control the main character (whose name is entirely up to you, first and last; but for the purposes of this review, let's call him "Minato," which is his Japanese canonical name.) He is a recent transfer student, who comes in part-way through the beginning of the school year (the beginning of the game). Minato is easily the most gifted member of SEES, your group of friends whom also accompany you into battle (with up to 3 of them along with Minato). Why is he so special? Well unlike his allies who can only control one Persona, Minato has the ability to manipulate various types and is able to seamlessly switch between them in and out of battle. This is a key factor of combat because Minato is the ONLY character you can directly control, in that you determine his actions right down to the "T."
Your fellow SEES-mates are controlled simply by a very loose strategy system, in that you can order them to heal, use a specific type of attack, or defend. That's it. Their methods of carrying out those actions is then handed over to the game's AI, which is surprisingly - and thankfully - pretty intelligent. Enemies, and characters alike (according to their Persona's elemental attribute) have weaknesses and strengths. These are the main factors of battle and can often turn a hopeless fight into a walk in the park. Exposing an enemy's weakness, or having your own weakness exposed, knocks the enemy or character down into a temporary inactive state. The character is unable to move for one turn. What's more, using a spell that an enemy is weak against is extremely effective numerically; the damage is drastically more than a normal attack and can often one-hit KO moderate-to-weak enemies. The other plus side to the weakness mechanic is that if, by chance, you manage to knock down every enemy on the field, you then have the option of performing a group "special" in which all active characters will rush the enemies in a comic-book style dust cloud with captions of onomatopoeias appearing around the screen. It's a comedic effect, but it's also extremely useful, and more times than not, all of the enemies will have been completely wiped out from this.
In a more traditional sense as well, all encounters have the potentiality to be avoided - with the exception of scripted boss battles and such. This is, of course, not recommended, as the game is brutally difficult and will kick your ass if you're not prepared. But all normal-encounter enemies are firstly witnessed on the actual field and must be contacted to trigger a battle. In typical fashion, if you manage to strike an unaware enemy first, you'll gain the upper hand in battle. If the enemy sneaks up on you, vice versa. If you encounter an enemy face-to-face, the fastest character or enemy will act first. It's simple, but more than effective.
Grafix R Da Bestest Part of Gaems
Atlus has never tried to prove itself with high-definition graphics. Perhaps this is a flaw for many, especially those who wish to enjoy a truly cinematic experience when playing a game. If that's you, watch a blu-ray movie on a PS3. Persona 3 is not about flaunting the PS2's obviously out-dated hardware. Persona 3 is a story that does exactly what it set out to do - captivate and mesmerize. And it does that without 1080p resolution, next-gen graphics, and fancy motion controls. The game is rendered in somewhat cell shaded visuals with very traditional-Atlus touches. The thing about these games is, if you've played one of them, you can recognize another one anywhere . They're all similarly designed and somehow, contrary to mainstream belief, it's remained effective - at least for the crowd that acknowledges these games. The true beauty, though, comes from the fully-animated cut scenes that depict the game's more pivotal moments. Its like watching an anime straight out of Japan's finest. If that's not your kind of visual style, perhaps you'll come around after watching a few of these scenes.
This One's For You, Social Outcasts
An unintentionally misleading sub-title, here I'll talk about the game play. The reason I said that was because it directly relates to the game's second half (that is, the combat is one half, and everything else is well, you get it). While you're exploring the ungodly dungeon of Tartarus at night, during the day you're literally living the life of a teenager in school. You'll go to class, take exams, hang out with friends - it's like a simplified version of The Sims. But all is not in vain. There is truly a method to this madness, and one that molds perfectly with the game's darker half.
The short version: Your character's daily interactions at school and with friends affect your performance at night in combat; the better your relationships are, the stronger you become.
The long version: Every character you can directly associate with is attributed to a specific Persona "class," (the game labels this as Commu). Each Commu is named after the various categories of oracle fortune telling (Arcana): The Fool, The Magician, The Emperor, The Lovers, etc. Of the literally hundreds of Persona available for your character to use and fuse together, each of them are categorized into these various Arcana, or Commus. There is a total of 10 level ranks for each one, and there is one person for each Commu (for a total of 22 Commus). Your interactions with these people directly reflects that of your abilities to use those specific Persona; in other words, the stronger your relationship, the stronger the Persona under that Commu. Obviously, achieving rank 10 is a feat that quite literally can take the entire game, but the benefits are more than worth the price - these Personas are the crème of the crop. Also, you are not simply limited to maximizing or working on one specific Commu. In fact, the game encourages you to broaden your friendship as much as possible - the more available Commus you have and the higher the rank, the stronger you become as a whole.
The game's pacing, however, adds a sense of urgency and a necessity for strategy to your plans. Where as in most other RPGs, spending the night in an Inn doing various side quests ultimately consumes no time at all, everything - everything - in Persona 3 affects time. Time is automatically manipulated depending on the actions you choose. After school, you're often free to do what you want; explore the local mall for potential Commus, buy weapons/items, and build your Charm (during the day) and Courage (at night. I'll go into Charm and Courage in a little bit). Doing one action, such as hanging out with a friend during the day will immediately progress the game to night after that specific event is finished, during which case you'll be automatically transposed back at your dorm. From here you're free to explore Tartarus more, but you can also stay home and go directly to sleep or study - which will affect your Academics.
Now, as I said, I'll talk about Charm, Courage, and also Academics; these are three personal stats that directly affect YOU - that is, Minato - instead of your Personas. The higher these stats, the more Commus available to you. You can raise your Charm in two ways; giving test answers to a classmate during certain class events, at which time other classmates will overhear and envy you for being so smart, or by drinking pheromone coffee at the local coffee shop in the mall (daytime only).
Your Courage is affected in, likewise, two ways; at night, during the weekends, you can go to the mall and sing at the local karaoke bar, or during the day at school, when your character becomes "sick" (through lack of sleep or a lot of battling in Tartarus without any rest), you can go to the nurse and brave yourself by taking his experimental medicine; take note, this does NOT make the sick status go away. It only makes you braver.
Your Academics is affected in a variety of more ways, though somewhat similar. During class events, when the teacher asks you questions, you can obviously answer them correctly for Academic points; as well, in class, if your character becomes tired you will be presented with the option of falling asleep or staying up. If you go to sleep, your character has a high chance of getting a "Great" status, thereby making him very fit for battle. Or, if you stay awake, you'll remain tired but gain Academics. As well, like I mentioned above, when you're back at the dorm you can choose to go to your dorm room and study - or, you can study in the library at the school.
All of these unique simulation mechanics work exceptionally well, and lends the game a perfectly balanced method of progression through daily social life and night-time battles. If ever there was a flawlessly influential cycle, this would be it.
The Sound of Music (And Persona 3)
Perhaps my favorite feature of the game is its eclectic soundtrack and mostly-superb voice acting. The music consists of a variety of jPop/jRap, techno, and classical beats which, oddly enough, reflect the game's tone perfectly. At first disgruntled, after I had finally become accustomed to the game's diverse soundtrack, I began to love each and every song; from the dorm room's trumpet-blaring jRap theme to the battle music's spitfire vocals and techno rhythm.
Getting passed the music itself, the voice acting is 95% on the mark. This is truly some of the best voice acting I've ever heard in an RPG, let alone in a video game in general. The main character, Minato, rarely speaks, but on the occasions that he does (mostly in battle when he shouts the names of the Persona he is summoning, or in the initial case when he summons his first one during an anime-rendered cutscene and says "Per-so-na" in an pained yet eerily sadistic tone), it's pure brilliance. He also serves up the voices for two other main characters in the game; a visionary little boy that often encounters Minato in his sleep or during the Dark Hour to give prophetic comments, named Pharos, and a late-game character who transfers to the school during the Winter months of the year named Ryoji. His voice for each character is different, and equally brilliant.
Secondly, there's the sub-character of Junpei - easily my favorite of the entire SEES bunch. He's the loveable yet goofy sidekick of the group. His dialogue is often witty, quickly and precisely delivered, and somewhat lifelike. He's the guy you know in class who likes to make everyone laugh but thinks he's the coolest kid when he really isn't. That's Junpei, in a nutshell.
The other characters are also done exceptionally well for the most part; the only concerns I had were with those of Fuuka and Ken, two other latter-members of SEES. Their voices were not bad, they were simply average and sometimes below par. In Fuuka's case especially, I often found myself skipping through her dialogue simply because it was delivered with very little feeling and emotion. The monotony of her actor was all too disappointing. All concerns aside, as a whole, the sound of the game is superb.
And The Verdict Is
So, in summation, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a near-flawless RPG that delivers an emotional and powerful storyline wrapped up in a neatly organized, perfectly paced, exceptionally well executed bundle for the Playstation 2. Macabre subtlety, brilliant voice acting, unique simulation integrated with traditional Japanese Role-Playing make Persona 3 one of the best RPGs in a very, very long time.
Pros: Beautifully designed anime-cut scenes; perfect mesh of RPG and simulation; one of the best storylines to ever grace an RPG; mature themes are likely to stick in your mind for a while after the game's ending; a refreshingly challenging, lengthy pace clocking in at no less than 70 hours.
Cons: The battles of Tartarus can get somewhat repetitive (it is a dungeon crawl); likewise, daily social interactions may become a trouble to maintain late in the game; voice acting for some characters is sub par.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 04/24/08
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (US, 08/14/07)
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