Review by Crofty
"A rare breed: A game you don't want to end"
Not very often does a game leave such a lasting impression. Personally, even out of the countless great games I've played, I can't think of more than three or four games that really got me emotionally attached. I say that without any shame too, as while it may still be seen as sad or pathetic to a lot of modern non-gamers, a game like Persona 3 is so good at what it does that it easily rivals and in some cases betters the emotional feeling given by even my most favourite of films.
There's one character you may or may not meet in Persona 3 (choice being one of the many reasons why this game is excellent), who defines exactly how I felt towards the game during and after playing it. He says that whenever he reads a book he tends to avoid finishing it, and the reason is because he's so absorbed in the story, and fond of the characters that he doesn't want it to end.
I'd be the first to admit I wasn't exactly brimming with huge enthusiasm when I first booted the game up. I mean, I was expecting a deep dungeon-crawling RPG at most, which was fine, but nothing as engaging or as emotional as something like Final Fantasy, especially when the main cast of characters are teenagers decked almost permanently in school uniforms.
I'm a relative novice to the whole JRPG genre, and of anime, so it's probably fair to see where I'm coming from here, but that Persona 3 managed to destroy my initial less-than-excellent impressions within the 3 hour mark pretty much says how well the game does at making you like it.
The way the cut-scenes are played out reminded me of Max Payne, in that they're not conventional in the Western sense, and yet because of their unique nature and artistic flair, stand out above your typical in-game/CGI events played out in other videogames. I didn't fully appreciate the opening anime movie until I was properly into the game, but now I adore the style the game is presented in, and would already recommend it over other games easily.
That's not to say that all the best visual experiences in Persona 3 are present exclusively in cut-scenes, though, as the in-game experience offers plenty of joy too. The locations you visit outside of the combat area are varied and a pleasure to explore, while the characters are represented superbly via anime artwork during conversations. The sound only adds to the great atmosphere too, with countless catchy tunes and even some more emotionally driven pieces that prevent it from falling into that general easily ignored background music' in most games.
It's here, though, that I must take a shot at the game, even if tugs at my heart strings in doing so. See, while I do admit the game offers more good than bad visually, there are areas where the graphics just don't do enough. This isn't me being all prejudice because of 360/PS3 efforts either, on the contrary, I still think Last-Gen' games look a damn sight better than most newly released games. No, what I mean is that even though the PS2 is an old console, it's still clearly capable of offering nice visuals (you only need look at God of War II or Okami to see that), but Persona 3 doesn't manage to do that in a few key areas.
For one thing, the game tasks you with exploring a tremendous tower known as Tartarus, however, most levels in this place offer the same bland and repetitive design which contradicts the flair of other aspects of the game. I can understand that designing a new layout for each floor would be absurd (and to be fair, the floors do change appearance after a while), but something a bit more dynamic would have been preferable seen as you spend a decent chunk of time in there. Even the monsters (or rather, Shadows) you face take the same out-of-combat form on every floor. While I appreciate being able to pre-meditate combat than having random encounters, mixing up how the shadows look again would have been preferable. I'm not asking for the Shadow's in-combat avatar to be displayed (seriously, that would just kill the PS2's processing power), but anything different from the re-used model would have sufficed. Basically, when you mix repetitive dungeon designs with even more repetitive on-field monster designs, you end up with an experience that can get more boring than it should be.
Fortunately the actual turn-based combat is a vast improvement, so you can put up with the repetition of Tartarus' design once you realise the combat keeps things fun and interesting. Everything seems to be in place and order, with your typical elemental rock/paper/scissors formula, and various strategies required to defeat certain enemies. A neat twist to the combat is that your party effectively summon powerful creatures (Personas) to fight for them via shooting themselves in the head. It sounds rather sick, but it's actually pretty cool to watch and the results equal beautifully designed creatures to appear and cast whatever attack/spell you've chosen.
You'll be in control of the main character's Personas and general abilities, though the rest of your party (up-to 3 more can join) will act via AI functionality. I'll be honest and say that I would have preferred to have been able to issue their commands myself, because as sophisticated as the AI can be, it's still not as effective or reliable as your own mind. You can give objectives for your party members to issue in combat, and that can reduce sticky situations occurring, but something akin to the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII would help to avoid the player getting annoyed if their party ends up screwing things up. In all honesty, it's not very often your party will actually mess up, but letting AI be responsible for a large part of the game's combat seems a bit too risky to me.
Of course, Persona 3 flings all of the general item/levelling/rare treasure/side-quest stuff into the RPG bag, so there's plenty to do for all us dungeon-crawling fanatics out there. However, on-top of that already deep content, being able to manage and even fuse your Personas together adds a layer of depth beyond the average parameters. You could play the game with a set-plan to obtain and fuse certain Personas so that you end up with an ultra-powerful Persona with certain spells, or merely grab Personas as you go along and keep the ones you're most comfortable with. The choices are limitless, and that's by no means a negative thing in a game like this.
I could end the review right now and say something like Persona 3 is a great JRPG dungeon-crawling adventure, full of excellent and deep turn-based battling, and that would be enough to sell the game to plenty of gamers already. However, to further add on to what is already a fine game in its own right, Persona 3 goes one further and gives the player the opportunity to essentially experience another game.
The ability to socialise and interact with a vast array of people, both young and old, is not only fun to take part in, but is ultimately rewarding to your experience as whole. For example, if you make friends with somebody you'll be rewarded with extra experience points, abilities and even the prospect of stronger Personas in the specific category that friend falls in. The Personas come under different classes, if you will, and so one relation with a person will equal results for one class, while another person will equal results in another. If you wish to progress effectively, then the key is to find the person who holds the class for the Persona you like using most, and then forming a long lasting relationship with them, therefore strengthening your Persona's abilities.
As if the incentive of stronger Personas wasn't enough, the actual interaction you have with characters is superb anyway. Quite frankly, I would have still enjoyed having conversations with NPCs even if I weren't to receive any rewards at all, it's that good. The game even offers a KotOR-like multiple-option selection for your character's response in conversations, which only adds yet more depth to the game.
A slight issue with there being so much interactivity, though, is that when you hang out with somebody they may want to change location (e.g. leave from school to go to a local restaurant) and this can cause a problem for even the most patient of gamers as the loading screens are pretty frequent. They're not overly long or anything, but just too common, and with the areas of exploring being pretty small it can get a tad annoying.
No more annoying than when you die, though. Frustration does, unfortunately, rear its ugly head from time to time. Even for all of its charms and fresh gameplay mechanics, Persona 3 still insists on using the ancient save system found in similar games. You can only save in certain areas, and if you die you can only load from your last save which could have been hours ago if you're been grinding in Tartarus. Be prepared for wasting a few hours because you got an unlucky hit from an enemy while grinding, and then getting angry while the game has to load the I'm dead cut-scene', and then again while it loads through the pre-game openings. I'm not asking for the ability to save anywhere anytime, but rather a mere checkpoint system that saves your progress after so much time/battles. It's a shame that Persona 3 has to use such a method, as the game clearly deserves to offer better than this age-old method of making things difficult.
It's a good job Persona 3 thrusts you to keep going, especially with such an engaging and captivating storyline. Dieing may be the highest degree of annoying, especially when it's via a typical turn-based lucky hit, but your love of the characters and what happens next outweighs that bad feeling every time.
If I could offer advice to anyone thinking of playing Persona 3 then it would be to saviour every moment. The game plays out like a real-time calendar, and on a certain date your game-time will end, which is upsetting (in a good way) as you can see your experiences in the game coming to a close. It's probably not possible to see and do everything the game has to offer in one play-through, but if you're like me and too sensitive, you'll want to avoid starting a new game just because of the depression it'll cause in knowing that you're not experiencing the game for the first time. But if you do want to get everything out of the game and I'd completely understand if you did then you're looking at 80+ hours for one play-through, with maybe a further 60 odd a second time round. Good stuff, especially at the price-tag.
The only real incentive that could get me to go through the game again is if the expansion edition, otherwise known as FES, were released here in the UK. That prospect seems unlikely though, which makes me even sadder whenever I think about the game, as anything that can extend such a marvellous experience truly does need to be bought immediately.
And as I opened the review, I'll close it with a similar tone.
It's not very often that a game leaves a lasting impression, but even less often, is a game that's so good it makes you feel physically upset when it's over. In a time when the majority still feels that movies and music are the only way to experience true emotional feelings, Persona 3 goes to prove how videogames are just as reliable. It's blend of story-telling, visual flair, likeable characters, social interaction, and engaging combat push it beyond the mere boundaries of any other RPG, and once again show how the PS2 is still showing the Next-Gen lot how to do it.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/28/08
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (EU, 02/29/08)
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