Review by zenandi

"The Ultimate Fusion."

"Thou art I, and I am thou. From the sea of thy soul I come forth. I am Orpheus -- Master of Strings."

And with these words, the first of more than a hundred persona is summoned to the service of the protagonist, and Persona 3 lifts off the ground and truly takes flight.

Welcome to Persona 3 -- an unusual mix of Mythology, Dating-Sim and Dungeon-Crawling RPG. To borrow game terminology, it is a spectacular Triangle Fusion and the result, as character Mitsuru Kirijo might say, is Tres Bien.
The meat of the RPG element is your exploration of Tartarus -- a foreboding tower that appears only during the Dark Hour. Using a concept previously seen in the PS One game Azure Dreams, you will spend hours battling 'Shadows' as you scale Tartarus, with its ever changing floors. As anyone who ever played that game will tell you, that concept gets stale fast, and it is to Persona 3's huge credit that it manages to keep egging you on with little things like sidequests and stuff.

The combat is unlike any other RPG as well, using a 'One-More' system that allows you one more turn if you manage to land a critical or exploit a weakness. When all enemies have been knocked down, you get to do an ALL-OUT attack that deals significant damage. Therefore, with the right Persona equipped, you could conceivable have the protagonist do all the work, land everyone on their backsides, and call for an all-out -- all this within one turn. Whilst it is highly skewed in favour of the player, the game compensates by having Game-Overs whenever the Main Character - who is the only one you directly control - dies, never mind if the other three of your party are still standing.

The Second component, the Sim portion, is a welcome distraction whenever Tartarus starts to get stale. The basic concept is this: The Social Links you build directly correlate to an Arcana to which each Persona belong. The higher you get those Social Links, the stronger the Personas of that Arcana you can fuse. At it basest level, this means you want to Max out those social links simply because you get more experience for your Personas at fusion. Once again, it is to Persona's 3 huge credit that the individual storylines for each S.Links become absorbing enough that it soon becomes the main motivation for wanting to see that relationship out to its end.

The Third component, the Mythology, refers to the huge roster of Personas available for duty at the protagonist's calling. While your teammates each hold one Persona, the Main Character can wield 12 at once from a diverse selection ranging from angels to demons, and from mythologies from celtic to chinese. Cu Chulaine not doing it for you? Switch to the Chinese Monkey God and hit them with your ever-extending pole. Combat getting stale? Have the hilarious Jack Brothers sweep them off their feet!

The bulk of your playing time will be spent trying to fuse these personas into a superior form, thereby creating your dream or ultimate persona with the ideal skill set.

At its very core, Persona is an extremely linear, streamlined, and no-fuss RPG. You get all your supplies at the local mall throughout the game, no secret vendor and the sort. Ditto for the RPG element -- you can't really get lost in Tartarus, nor is there much motivation to explore. Boss fights occur every full moon like clockwork. All this makes for an extremely linear game experience, although to its credit again, Persona 3 always find ways to keep you entertained, either with monumental plot revelations or little side trips that the protagonist will occasionally embark on.

What choices you have, though, are significant --- Chief among these is your choice of which S.Link to max out, thereby giving you access to each Arcana's Ultimate Persona, as well as a huge bank of experience points to feed your Persona at fusion. Because it is extremely unlikely that someone 'winging it' on the first run could max all S.Links, the player effectively chooses which Arcanas he abandons in pursuit of other powers.

The Second chief choice you must make is how often you do attempt to scale Tartarus, because you can't be in two places at once, and going to Tartarus means you neglect your personal life, reflected in your level of Charm, Academics and Courage, which affects whether you can access certain quests and S.Links. Of course, neglecting Tartarus, on the other hand, means you're likely under-levelled when the next Full Moon boss comes calling.

The one complaint regarding gameplay has to be the numerous loading screens that you will get used to seeing throughout a single game day. Whilst they are not particularly long on their own, it all adds up to provide the single minor irritant in an otherwise great game.

Without throwing out significant spoilers, the story of Persona 3 can best be described as an attempt to incorporate several myths into one. As such, it will often seem cliched, and certain element will appear redundant or even ridiculous.

A case in point is the addition of a dog as part of the player's team. For the most parts, Koromaru serves no particular role, is barely involved in the story, and some might say thrown in for the sake of throwing in a dog. In fact, the dog's existence is highly symbolic, since a canine is often highly conspicuous in depictions of the Fool tarot card.

Examples of such symbolism and correlation with the mythos are prevalent within Persona 3's storyline and characters, and attempting to decipher them can sometimes be as enjoyable as playing the actual game.

The storyline proper, though, is your standard doomsday fare, with hero and company saving the world, defeating their own demons as they go along. Whilst it is cliched, the superbly delivered voice acting and witty and humourous dialogue makes it enjoyable.

The graphics are nothing special although its not half-bad either. Tartarus starts to look old after you enter it for the upteenth time, and some of the enemy models are clearly recycled. The Personas themselves uses unique models, but as you might expect since there are hundreds of them, they don't look particularly impressive or glossy.

The soundtrack though, is in a class of its own, and worth the entrance fee alone.

Playtime and Replayability
Persona 3 cannot be finished at a seating, simply because of its very deliberate pacing, and the sheer volume of time you will have to spend, both in Tartarus and in the Velvet Room, where you fuse your Personas.

As for replayability, unless you happened to follow a guide and maxed every S.Link on the first run, you will be very much inclined to replay the game just so you can max out those you missed last time around.

Final Recommendation
Past the visually sensationalistic pseudo head-shooting and highly symbolic/mythology-inspired story, Persona 3 is a highly enjoyable and philosophical ride that explores the meaning of life, love, friendship and the reasons we carry on living --- and all this without appearing to be flat-out preaching ala Metal Gear Solid, and with a healthy dose of comedy and laughter. The game tends to pick up slowly and eases you into each of its facets -- the Tartarus climb, the Sim, and the Fusion -- but it all works out for a truly unique RPG experience.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 10/22/07

Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (US, 08/14/07)

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