Review by Moogy0
"The perfect game."
Persona 3 represents the ultimate culmination of two decades of a genre. Beginning with Dragon Quest, the field of the console RPG has always strove to produce an intimate connection between the gamer and the characters onscreen while providing an enjoyable gameplay experience to complement the storyline. Early console RPGs unilaterally featured silent protagonists whose actions and words were defined by the player; this trend began to fade as technology improved and storylines broadened in scope. However, a few franchises have stuck by this style of storytelling. In nearly all cases, however, this results in a diminished experience. Dragon Quest, for example, is hurt by its refusal to adapt to the modern era of the console RPG; with gameplay ripped straight from the 80's and empty protagonists, DQ festers in a pit of misguided nostalgia. The problem with DQ is that the protagonists are simply meaningless - they do not represent a real character or even an avatar into the world. They're just a puppet for the player to control.
However, there are a few good examples of an effective silent protagonist. The most obvious example is Chrono Trigger, one of the most widely-played console RPGs ever. Crono is a character in his own right, even though he has no dialogue. He also serves as a window into the world for the player; rather than being a faceless doll for the player to use, he is someone whose eyes the player can see through. Chrono Trigger would be perhaps the only example of an effective silent protagonist, were it not for a franchise called Shin Megami Tensei.
I'll skip the history lesson; all you need to know is that MegaTen began on the Famicom and MSX as Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei 1 and 2, created by Wolf Team and published by Namco. These games were based on novels of the same name. Atlus later acquired the series and created Shin Megami Tensei for the Super Famicom, sending the series in a new direction. Throughout the years, the series has seen many different incarnations and spinoffs; since this is a review of Persona 3, let us focus on the Persona franchise.
Beginning in 1996 with Megami Ibunroku Persona: Be Your True Mind, Persona took the core elements of the MegaTen series - demons, irreverence, and extremely in-depth gameplay - and framed them with a high school setting. Unfortunately for English-speakers, the English language release of Persona was bungled by Atlus. Over a third of the game was cut out, and plot elements and characters were extensively changed, all in order to appeal to an American audience. Unsurprisingly, the game bombed in America.
Three years later, in 1999, Persona 2: Innocent Sin would appear. Featuring most of the same characters as the original Persona, Innocent Sin refined the series further. Unfortunately, Innocent Sin would never see an English release - thanks to concerns about violence in schools at the time of its release, Atlus decided not to localize it. The sequel, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, did see a release in America, though. Eternal Punishment is perhaps the one stumbling point in Atlus's tradition of silent protagonists; by taking Maya, a character known for her upbeat personality and talkative nature, and making her silent, Atlus kind of killed her.
Anyway, back to the main point of silent protagonists: All MegaTen games (except for one special case that I'll explain later) have silent protagonists. Rather than being alienating or disinteresting, however, Atlus always manages to make their main characters interesting. See my example of Crono for an idea of what I mean. Trust me, I nearly universally dislike silent protagonists, but the protagonists in MegaTen games... just work.
So, this is a review of Persona 3, not some grandiloquent essay about silent protagonists and histories of franchises. So let's delve into P3.
After Shin Megami Tensei III, Atlus decided to reboot all three main series in the MegaTen line, since the original director left. This led to Digital Devil Saga, Kuzunoha Raidou, and... Persona 3.
Since Persona 3 is a reboot, it requires no familiarity with the original three games in order to enjoy it. Indeed, Persona 3 essentially renders its predecessors obsolete - every idea proposed throughout the entire MegaTen series has been appraised for its worth and either improved or rejected before being added to Persona 3. As I said previously, Persona 3 represents a culmination; in this case, not only of MegaTen, but of console RPGs in general. Every element that makes up the genre has been examined. Every flaw has been removed. Everything that has ever been done right has been improved upon.
To put it as bluntly as possible: Persona 3 is perfect. I can find no flaws in it. Yet, Atlus made it even better - I'll discuss that at the end.
An overview of Persona 3 is fairly simple: It's a school life simulator combined with a dungeon crawling RPG. The simulation aspect is something entirely new to the MegaTen line, so I'm not sure how Atlus managed to implement it so perfectly and make it enjoyable on its own. But they did! The RPG gameplay is also flawless - after around two decades of refining it, that's what you'd expect, eh?
As for the storyline... Basically, you're a high school student who finds out that he can summon demons. You join a team of monster hunters operating under the guise of a club, and it goes from there. Over a period of nine months, the storyline develops in... I hesitate to use the word "incredible," but I suppose I must - the storyline develops in simply incredible ways.
However, the plot itself takes a backseat to the characters. MegaTen games have always had excellent characterization; Persona 3 takes it to the next level by introducing the most realistic and likable cast of characters ever seen in an RPG. And thanks to the player's unique perspective via the main character as an avatar, the player gets to know them all intimately over the period of nine months that the game covers.
Really, I cannot place enough emphasis on the character development in this game. At the end of the game, it is just immensely rewarding to see the fulfillment of their individual journies, as well as the conclusion of the group's journey as a whole. Really, the ending of Persona 3 is utterly fantastic in all regards. I urge everyone to beat the game if only to see the wonderful ending.
Beyond just the characters, storyline, and gameplay, Persona 3 also excels in the aesthetic department. The 3D graphics are clean, sharp, and bright; the anime cutscenes are never out of place and are always stylish; and the 2D character sprites are crisp, fluid, and expressive.
And finally, the second most important part of P3, only beaten out by the characters: The music. The music is what ties the game together. Shoji Meguro provides the soundtrack yet again - the guy has to be obscenely overworked by now. This time, though, he doesn't stick to his previous style, instead (mostly) eschewing hard rock in favor of techno, hiphop, funk, jazz, and soul. Of course, he also throws in a few hard rock battle themes for old time's sake, and there are some excellent orchestral and instrumental pieces to round out the soundtrack. The soundtrack has something for everyone, and always manages to capture the mood perfectly. Hell, it's what got me interested in the game in the first place!
One thing that has really struck me about Persona 3 is that Atlus seems committed to actually moving forward with the game. Unlike a company such as Enix, which is shackled with the bonds of "tradition for the sake of tradition," Atlus realizes when it needs to scrap aging aspects of their games and replace them with new ones. MegaTen games would still be first-person if Atlus didn't know this! The decision to add the school simulation aspect is just one example of how Atlus is dedicated to keeping their games fresh. And it really shows; I'd say that Persona 3 is easily the most original and innovative console RPG to come out in this millennium.
Which brings us to FES. Persona 3 FES is the expansion pack, as it were, to the original Persona 3. It adds a veritable motherlode of new content to the original game, but let's set that aside for now. The important part is that FES adds a new scenario - essentially a new game (albeit a short[er] one, clocking in at "only" 20-30 hours), entitled Episode Aegis.
Episode Aegis does not have a silent protagonist. That's right. A twenty-year tradition spanning across thirty games is broken just like that, all for the sake of telling the story more effectively! This, to me, really speaks of Atlus's commitment to making sure their games stay relevant. Hopefully new games in the MegaTen franchise will continue to discard tradition in favor of a better gaming experience.
(Though, to be honest, I really don't know how Atlus will manage to top Persona 3. Here's to hoping for it, though.)
To sum it all up: Persona 3 is the culmination of the entire genre of console RPGs, not only the Megami Tensei series. Every element is finetuned to perfection, and absolutely nothing is lacking. If you consider yourself a fan of console RPGs in any way, shape, or form, do yourself and Atlus a favor by buying Persona 3. Hopefully enough people will realize what a gem this game is that Atlus will decide to localize FES.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 09/04/07
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (US, 08/14/07)
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