Review by riderwaite

"One of the best on PS2"

Summary

A Japanese RPG that melds school life, social life and demonslaying.

Setup

19" stereo TV, normal UK retail copy.

Worth buying?

Absolutely, if you have the time to put in. If you like anime and rpgs, then it doesn't get much better than this.

Personal Comment

I've been quite keen on the devil summoner RPGs before, and Koei/Atlus games in general, but this is a different league from their previous stuff. This is one of the best experiences I've had on the PS2, and a game I'd choose if I was marooned on a desert island.

This type of game doesn't date like many genres, it's not based on advanced shaders or high-poly models, but on strong story and charming style. Even though it's a PS2 title, it has more fun in it than most of the next-gen games I own, and is something I'm going to come back to.

Technical

Persona 3 does well technically, given the limitations of the PS2.

Graphically, it's charming rather than awesome- it sticks to doing a few environments really nicely rather than lots poorly, and is heavily stylised. The stylisation of characters (a 'cartoony' style) along with fixed-viewpoint environments gives it a charming look, whilst hiding the technical limitations of the hardware. Persona also uses top-notch manga style 2d art extensively, which adds hugely to the pleasant nature of the graphics.

The cutscenes are not done in an anime style- they *are* anime, and this goes together with the 2d style to give the game a hyper-real look. The game is seamless in styles, and the cutscenes are a joy to watch.

The combat is turn-based with 3d models and is impeccably animated- indeed, most of the animation is better than many next-gen titles. The nature of the game means there's no slowdown, and the whole experience is smooth. The 3d exploration aspects are tight in the controls and intuitive.

The audio in Persona is one of the many high points- the voice acting is excellent (and there's a lot of it), and the music is by turns novel (J-pop) or creepy. There is a fair bit of repetition of the music tracks, so this may test your tolerance if you're not keen on the music.

Persona is still a rpg, so menus and text are very important. This, again, is a strong point and the menus are colourful, sharp and filled with good art. The text conversations with other characters are readable and again have quality art attached, so are much more amusing than would be expected.

Loading times, on the whole, are good. They are better than many PS2 titles and don't detract from the game. The game uses save points but there are pretty plentiful. It's a single player game only, and has no online features. However, there's masses of content, and it's the kind of game you could come back to after six months and play again.

Design and Gameplay

The gameplay is split into three basic parts- 'living' as a Japanese teen in and out of school, fighting shadows, and managing your team and Personas.

The living aspect is one of the best in any game- the calendar moves on relentlessly, and each day the player goes to school, then chooses activites after school and in the evening. These are done by talking to characters when walking around the environments. After making social links, each social link is effectively a sub-plot, and the player gets to choose what to say to try and advance these, whilst trying to manage their time to fit as much in as possible. If this sounds lightweight in theory, it's anything but in practise- it lets the player choose what to do, and once the player starts meeting people, they all have demands on your time- not to mention the fighting of demons and the studying for exams.

This brings onto the next part of gameplay- fighting. The player is one of a select group that can summon a Persona (a demon-like aspect of their Personality that uses classic rpg powers, like magic) and the plot hinges on this. Without giving too much away, the player and friends must explore a demon tower called Tartarus at night, which involves turn-based battles against shadows, weird monsters that inhabit Tartarus. Most of the metaplot involves this too, fighting more powerful shadows and investigating the mystery of Tartarus. The player explores Tartarus in 3d with their allies, and can engage or avoid the shadows found there. The lack of random battles is a good thing here; the player can choose and get an advantage over the shadows by attacking them first.

The battles are classic JRPG battling involving exploting enemies weaknesses. The battles are frequently challenging and are often brutal- if the player dies the game is over, regardless of the rest of the party, so caution is needed. This the only flaw in Persona's design; the enemies can use one-hit kill attacks, and an unlucky spate of enemy attacks can cause a game over. This is a staple of the Shin Mega Ten series, but it's starting to feel frustratingly old-school; more on this below. Despite this, the battles are generally fun and the range of enemies is good.

The third aspect of gameplay is management- managing your party's equipment and levels, but most importantly your Persona. Each Persona is effectively a set of abilities you can use (along with strengths/weaknesses) that you 'summon', and you can have multiple Personas (but only have one summoned at once). Each Persona is loosely based on a mythical creature, and most are attractive and interesting, and you can find more by beating shadows. The main part of these is being able to fuse two or three Persona to make new ones; essentially upgrading your abilities. It's a little like pokemon, but based on demons, and the range of Persona is fantastic.

The whole game uses a tarot card theme- each social link and type of Persona share a major arcana card (e.g. The Fool, Death, The Hanged Man etc;), so when you fuse Personas, the intensity of your social link is what determines their power. This is a fantastic piece of gameplay- it means to get the most out of your Personas when you battle, you have to try and get good social links going. Effectively, it links the fighting mechanics to the social life mechanics in an intuitive way, and one that is very satisfying in practice.

The social aspect also includes dating, and has three attributes- academics, charm and courage- that can be raised in many (often peculiar!) ways, and which allow you to interact with a wider range of people.

The plot is advanced, generally, by fighting bosses, which you get time to prepare for (use those evenings wisely). These story sections take place outside of Tartarus in a variety of locations, and are also challenging but enjoyable. Overall, Persona's actual gameplay is fun- it feels like a classic adventure game, with mysteries and ministories along with action.

Story and Characters

This is what rounds off the game- Persona has a fantastic story with some of the best characters and atmosphere on any system. The mood of the whole game is creepy but fun with a surreal (and dangerous) edge. The game has a touch of the 'Buffy' series with its teen social life and dark action, but in a Japanese style.

The main plot takes a while to get going, but is utterly compelling and surprising, and constantly delights in throwing new elements into the mix when it looks to be predictable. It's also funny- genuinely, actually funny, with some smart writing and classic scenarios; despite the dark occult theme and many horror elements. The main plot is superbly supported by the sub-plots in the social links, which are also smartly written and interesting. They range from the romantic to the tragic, to the just plain odd, but still have a sense of fun, and the player is well-rewarded by completing them.

None of this would be great without superb characterisation, which Persona has in spades. The main group are all great characters, and manage to be endearing whilst still being 'teens'. They are all strongly-written, well-acted and surprisingly deep characters, and it's hard not to care about them once the story kicks off. The hugely likeable characters and story fit so well with the style that it elevates Persona into the big league of games to be an actual memorable experience. Whilst there's no hugely original single element in Persona, everything is done with such style and verve that the whole is much larger that the sum of its parts. In addition to this, the occult details in the game are spot-on, and the story is surprisingly mature.

Criticism

My main criticism is the old-school nature of the battles- it's easy to die by a bit of bad luck (enemy crits luckily a couple of times in a row, or hits with an insta-kill ability), and then it's game over and reload. Losing twenty minutes of gameplay by having to reload isn't fun, made worse by the utterly arbitrary nature of this. I know this has been a staple of the SMT series, but I actually put down Nocturne becasue of this, despite loving the story. Persona isn't as extreme as the previous titles for this, and it's only happened to me a few times throughout my whole playing of Persona but I just wish they took it out entirely. Being able to die randomly along with limited save points has no gameplay positives to me- making the game tougher could be done in much better ways.

Persona is also rather 'grindy' if you want to level up your Persona and beat the bosses- you really do need to train in Tartarus, to make sure your team is good enough for the next challenge. This can be pretty time consuming- it's not boring, and you get to choose when to do it, but if you want to get the best items and complete quests you have to get in there and smack up shadows.

Persona starts pretty slowly too- I'd put in about 15 hours before the story really started to get going, but it's still enjoyable early on.

The other criticism I have is with the size- it's too difficult to do everything in one go, and it is quite a long game. It's honestly hard to get more than half a dozen social links to high levels and a smattering more at decent levels by the end of the game, unless your time management is incredibly strict.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/15/08

Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (EU, 02/29/08)


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