Review by ShiroCrest
"“Tartarus? ...Sounds like toothpaste”"
Tartarus? ...Sounds like toothpaste
Although the Shin Megami Tensei was been around for the more than a decade or so the last three years marks the arrival of the Shin Megami Tensei series on PAL shores in the form of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne/Lucifer's call, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2 and now Persona 3. Persona 3 marks the arrival of Atlus' Persona series to PAL territories. The Persona series is seen as a cult classic of in the rpg world and loyal following of gamers who enjoy the games digression from the convention rpg story and setting. However does Persona 3 live it to the legacy left by the previous games in the cult series and the expectations of the series or does it fall flat of being the game that Persona fans were expecting it to be.
Gamers familiar with the series predecessors will immediately notice the series trademark settings and storyline conventions have been inherited by Persona 3. This story contains all the staples of the Persona series such as high school students, the silent protagonist, demon summoning and a dark, occult themed storyline. The setting is modern day Japan and you take on the role of a typically unnamed protagonist (however in the official manga the protagonist is named Minato Arisato) who has just return to the city after the death of his parents to compete his education at Gekkoukan High. He is assigned to a dormitory with Yukari Takeba, Mitsuru Kirijo and Akihiko Sanada. However shortly after the introduction of the main character's new housemates we learn of the dark hour. The dark hour is a time in Persona 3 which occurs during midnight where the majority of people are transmogrified into coffins and creatures known as shadows roam the streets attacking those who are not lucky enough to be transmogrified. However some of those people who are unaffected by the transmogrification have the ability to call upon the power of persona as a means of combating the shadows. Also linked to the shadows and the dark hour is Tartarus a towering, twisted labyrinth containing a myriad of shadows spanning well over 200 floors. The main character and his fellow persona users under the guise of S.E.E.S take it upon themselves to explore Tartarus in an effort to explore the meaning behind the arrival of the shadows, the dark hour and for a way to rid the world of the dark hour and the shadows. However what is important to note is although a fair chunk of the game is setting grinding your way up the seemingly never ending floors of Tartarus the player has another role in this game, as a high school student.
Outside of the arduous and burdening task of saving the world the team of persona users must also undertake the task of going though the school year and management of the main characters day to day activities. The main character takes lessons, dates fellow pupils, takes part in sports and extracurricular activities and prepares and carries out end of semester exams. Persona 3's stresses the importance of embarking on these activities via the social links. Social links represent the formation and development of the relationship between the main character and various non playable characters in the game as well acting as side stories to the games main plot. Although social links have no major impact on the main storyline of the game they do permit for a fleshing out of the games NCPs as well as providing additional back stories of the other members of S.E.E.S such as Yukari, Mitsuru and the other girls on the team. The social links succeed in bringing to life some of the characters via their relationship with the main character which range from being fascinating to verging on the lacklustre and tedious. One downfall of the social links system is that once you have maxed out the social link there is no reason whatsoever to even talk to the NCP again.
Persona 3's story is without a doubt interesting and a refreshing change via its breaking of traditional rpg storyline conventions .However the story can sometimes seem to suffer from stopping midflow which is particularly felt during the exam preparation periods in the game where half the social links are unavailable and grinding in Tartarus for long periods becomes tiresome. At such moment players may find themselves almost skipping weeks by just sleeping in the dorm in game in order to progress the main storyline.
Persona 3 is defined in a number of reviews as a RPG-dating sim hybrid and that is the foremost way of describing its genre. The rpg aspect of Persona 3 encompasses many of the conventions of the genre which gamers have become accustom to. Battles almost exclusively (bar a number of storyline battles) take place in Tartarus. Players should become familiar with spending time in Tartarus battling shadows in order to acquire money, experience and personas because they will find themselves spending approximately 75% of their time here. The battles are the usual turn based rpg affair i.e. turn based battles with the reward of experiences points and items being the reward, the party and enemy taking turns to attack each other etc. You can use either your normal physical attacks to strike the opponent or use your persona's abilities, which operate as the tradition rpg magic and skills system. However where Persona 3 digresses from the usual rpg fare is that the player only controls the main protagonist and the games A.I controls the rest. The A.I is most of the time quite competent in choosing the correct action in the correct situation although the player is granted some control by selecting tactics for the rest of the party to suit the situation. For example if the player selects knock down as a tactic for one of the party he or she will attempt to knock the shadow by using a spell or attack which the enemy is weak too. If all the enemies in the battle are knocked down, which ranges usually between one and five, then this results in what is called all out attack . These are powerful attacks which result in the whole party rushing the opponent in a cartoonish melee which is usually enough to finish off most enemies. This for me was a double edged sword because on one hand it adds some strategy to battles by making having the right party and the right personas on the right floor essential. However it also means that by having the right party and personas the enemies can pose little or no threat as the majority of enemies on the same floor share one or two elemental weaknesses so using a wind move on a group of enemies which have a weakness to wind will result in a all out attack and thus completion of the battle in the first round. This , while simplifying battles and taking the challenge out of some on the random encounters, allows for a quicker grind which is a blessing in a game in which the can at some parts become a grind fest. Luckily for the players wishing avoid unnecessary grinding Atlus have done away with random, battles/encounters in favour of contact encounters. Battles can commence in two ways in Persona 3. If the shadows initiate battle by coming into contact with protagonist then the battle begins as an ambush with the opponent gaining the upper hand. However if the player strikes the shadow with his sword then the battle starts with the party getting the upper hand. If certain conditions are met in battle then the player can access shuffle time. This is where the player has a chance to gain new personas, weapons, money or receive healing via selection of a card from the collection offered.
Linked to Tartarus is the velvet room. The velvet room is the place to visit in order to fuse new persona from those already hoarded. In the beginning only two or three persona can be fused together but later on in the game up to 6 persona can be fused together to create to create powerful personas. Although it seems complicated at first fusing personas will soon become second nature the more time spent in the velvet room. The velvet room also becomes home to the persona compendium which contains information on all the personas accumulated or fused as well a means to resummon personas that have already been created. The velvet room also houses Elizabeth's requests. Elizabeth's requests are side quests which consist of completing tasks set by Igor's assistant which vary from collection quests to fusing a persona with a particular spell. These yield rewards ranging from weapons to money to the ability to create a new persona.
Outside of Tartarus lies the games second half. The second half of Persona 3's gameplay focuses on daytime hours of the in game world. The world outside of the dark hour the game is separated into the following segments: Early Morning, Morning, Daytime, Lunchtime, Afternoon, After School, Evening, Late Evening, From early morning to after school your actions are control by the game as you attend lessons and answer questions and make decisions which could increase your characters stats and talk to class mates and fellow party members whereas after school to late evening times are control by the player. These segments of the game focus on the formation and development of social links, the creation of personas and the main character's stats progression as well as shopping for new weapons and items in the mall. As touch on above the social links are the bond between the main character and Non playable characters as well as the girls in SEES. Social links not only aid in the fleshing out a characters relationship with the protagonist but also aid in the creation of personas. Social links are formed with a number of characters in the game and each social link belong to certain tarot arcane (magician, death, tower, sun etc) and as the social link progresses in rank personas can be created with bonus experience points. The main character three stats of charm, academics and courage are also raised in a similar manner via studying, watching movies, drinking coffee and singing karaoke. If certain stats are raised high enough new social links will be available. Social links and stat augmentation allows the player some digression from battling and grinding in Tartarus which comes as a blessing.
As persona can be separated into a dungeon crawler rpg and a dating/relationship sim both these could be scored separately. The dungeon crawler aspect of Persona 3 is a basic affair which can become tedious very quickly although given the fact that the player is not forced to enter Tartarus every day this unnecessary grind can be avoided. It is the dating /relationship simulation part of Persona which captivates and adds to the charm and novelty of Persona 3 whereas that the actual rpg section was seemingly neglected slightly in favour of focusing on the new additions of the Persona series.
Graphically Persona 3 is rendered n full 3D and cell shaded and anime styled. Although the game has been criticised in some reviews for being outdated in terms of graphics (with most comparing obviously to FFXII) I find the character designs and anime cut-scenes (which are few and far between) absolutely gorgeous to look at and fit the style of the game perfectly and it shows that there is still life in the PS2 yet. Battles are where the graphics and animation of Persona 3 really come into its own with each persona either been designed from scratch or are returning character models from previous PS2 incarnations of the Shin Megami Tensei series (specifically Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne/Lucifer's call) I did however myself again being let down by the graphics in Tartarus. Tartarus suffers from pallet swapped enemies which are only distinguished from each other by colour, name and on rare occasions size.
Sound and music in video games usually fall into two categories which are memorable or forgettable. In Persona 3 the music falls into a middle ground. Persona 3 is infused with a number of j-pop/j-rap/j-rock tunes some of which fit in with the games setting of modern day Japan. Some tunes will stick in your head like the iconic velvet room music which has been recycled from the previous games in the Persona series. The music is most noticeable during the daytime/school time hours of Persona 3 with a greater variety played depending on location. However voice acting is first-class with each voice artist making each of the characters memorable and succeeds in creating an individual personality of each character. Even the battle narration performed by Mitsuru/Fukka was a welcomed addition to keep battles entertaining.
Controls in rpgs usually boil down to the ease of control of character, menu navigation and control of the camera. Controlling the hero is your basic rpg affair which involves using the analogue stick and accessing the menu is done at the touch of a button. The camera is fully rotatable camera and bad angles were never a problem. Menu layout was simple enough and easy to navigate. My only misgiving was the inconvenient of having to talk to the other party members outside of battle in order to change their equipment and check their status.
Overall Persona 3 is best described as a hybrid of new and old conventions of the rpg genre and results in an interesting game that is not without its flaws. Although it's a very long game (you can easily clock in around 50 60 hours worth of game time on the first play through) the game suffers from tedium and grinding with a fluctuating difficultly (until you learn the shadows elemental weakness then the game becomes somewhat of a cake-walk). I applaud Atlus for adding originality to the game via the dating/life simulator aspect of the game however they seem to have neglected the dungeon crawler aspect of Persona 3 in favour of attempting to add something new to the genre. This attempt succeeds but at the expense of leaving a major fraction of the game feeling a hollow, lacklustre and a little bit basic. Despite its flaws Persona 3 has more than enough positive aspects of a solid rpg which despite containing characteristic which western gamers may be unaccustomed with will keep the player absorbed for the 50+ hours. Persona 3 is a fully accessible and solid entry into an overcrowded ps2 rpg library and shows that there is still life in the PS2.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/28/08
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (EU, 02/29/08)
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