Saving a world is easy. All you need to do is find a big bad guy, defeat him, and you're done. But how many heroes have to study for their exams late into the night? How many heroes need to meet up with friends after school, enjoy going out for dinner and singing some karaoke, or worry about staying up too late and being too tired to defeat evil when the next threat comes around?
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a game many people will find different from the usual role-playing game offerings. This isn't just because of its modern setting, nor because of its protagonists, which are essentially high school students. No, this difference extends far into the gameplay itself, and how you work with others in order to strengthen yourself, and what it means to have a life and still protect the world from monsters. It's the second game in the Persona series to be localized for western markets, and seems to have weathered the trip well.
The game revolves around a group of high-school students that attend Gekkoukan High School, and that appear to be the only line of defence between the world of people and the "Dark Hour". It's a period right after midnight where the normal people turn into coffins, and where those with "the Potential" find themselves in a changed world, warped and twisted with shadows and darkness. What those with Potential will find, as well, is that they are not alone in the world; the shadows themselves have physical form, and are not kind creatures. However, those with the Potential also have the ability to summon Personas, the manifestation of their inner strength, to defend them and help defeat the shadows. Most only work with one persona that symbolizes who they are. Your character, however, is unique in the fact that he can summon multiple Personas to his aid, which is both part of the story and crucial to the strategy of battles.
The main character comes in during the Night Hour, and meets a group that are like him, with Potential, and are actively fighting the shadows from the headquarters of their dormitory. What follows is a timeline of events that draw everybody into the mystery of the Shadows, where they come from. The game is somewhat unique in this regard, of having a timeline, since events occur on specific days and rely on you being prepared when they arrive.
The story does take center stage, especially in the beginning of the game, where it's an easy hour or so of text and introductions before you can even make some choices for yourself. Those who prefer action over text may not appreciate this abundance of reading. The presence of the timeline, however, makes for a story that is constantly moving forward and staying fresh; where one does not have to worry about finding the solution to the next puzzle, since the game will move the plot forward, whether you're ready or not.
The evil-fighting of the game takes place primarily in a twisted tower called Tartarus, a labyrinth of ever-changing pathways that appears during the Dark Hour. As you travel higher and higher up the twisting, dark, blood-filled corridors, more and more of the labyrinth will open up to you, and as you progress further, more secrets are revealed. Oh, and 'ever-changing' means randomly-generated; so the dungeon is different every time you enter it. The corridors are creepy to walk through, but tend to get repetitive after a while. Interestingly, you can split up your party, ordering them to explore the area or attack the shadows on their own. Any battles are automatically resolved after a bit of time, and you're your team will chime in when they've found treasure or a stairway to the next floor. In these halls, enemies wander around, and running into one (or hitting it with your weapon, for an advantage) starts turn-based combat.
In an odd twist, you can control your main character in battle, but not the other members of your group, at least, not directly. Various tactics can be assigned to the other characters like delegating them to a support and healing role, or telling them to focus on a particular enemy. Additionally, as the game progresses, you learn more tactics to assign to your allies. Direct control of only one person can be a fairly irritating aspect, since it makes planning a battle strategy tough. Even worse is the fact that when the main character dies, the game is over.
This little feature hit home quite a few times, especially when the enemy can use instant-death moves or other powerful attacks that results in a quick death. All it takes is a bit of bad luck, and you'll find yourself back at your previous save point, and all progress lost. In general, despite the solitary control of a single character, the AI of your group tends to be fairly smart, and will often make the right choice, exploiting weaknesses, defending if there is no other smart choice, and so forth.
Anyone who has played a Shin Megami Tensei game knows the importance of elemental strengths and weaknesses in the series, and Persona 3 is no different. Hitting an enemy with an attack they are weak to (whether elemental or physical, like slashing and piercing damage), causes them to collapse to the ground. This not only forces them to waste a turn getting to their feet (as well as granting you an extra chance to attack), but also gives you the option to send in all your characters at once if all of the enemies are forced to the ground. Then, you can kick the creatures as they're down, doing a substantial amount of damage. Your character's unique ability of using multiple Personas comes in handy here, since most Personas can only cast one or two types of elemental damage spells. Because of this, switching Persona in combat is vital to maximizing your enemies' weaknesses as well as is being wary of the weaknesses of your own Personas.
Many of the games in the SMT series also have the ability to fuse Persona in a variety of ways, which allow growth beyond just raising the levels of the beings through experience gain in combat. This system, present in Persona 3 via a mysterious little man in a place known as the Velvet Room, is important to finding the more powerful types of Personas in the game. It is interesting to experiment with, as new Personas often inherit the abilities of their fusing 'parents', but it's hard to find any logic in the system, and the game does not give you too much help in that regard. Trying to get the result of a particular Persona often means randomly testing various combinations (luckily, you can see the result before it is actually created).
It is also here in the Velvet Room where you can receive quests to complete within the twisted pathways of Tartarus. These are simple affairs, usually just involving getting a specific item, killing a specific enemy, creating a specific Persona with a certain spell, and so forth. Some of these must be completed before a particular day has passed, adding a sense of urgency to them. They don't have too much relevance to the game themselves, but they do add something else to do in the somewhat mundane Tartarus. Additionally, some of the rewards can be a great boon to your characters.
What is probably the most unique aspect of the game, however, is your character's social and academic life. As days pass, your character lives like any other high-schooler would: he attends class, hangs out with friends, goes to the mall, and fights evil. Well, perhaps not everybody fights evil. What is done during the free moments that your character has is where the social interaction and personal growth take place.
By spending time with various people and groups, like the student council or your friend in class, you raise levels in particular Arcana, which are the various groups into which Persona are classified. Raising levels in these Arcana means that, when fusion results in a Persona of an Arcana that has been levelled up through social interaction, they get additional experience, which is often enough to raise their level a couple times. So, as you spend more and more time interacting with social contacts, these levels rise, and so does the amount of experience given upon fusion, which makes this social aspect important to raising powerful Persona.
In addition to the ability to spend time with social links, your character is able to partake in various activities that will raise his three personal stats: Academics, Charm, and Courage. Raising these stats helps out indirectly in the main game, like being able to ace exams or use your charm to break someone away from their meal. Many of these result in useful results like being able to make more social links and even getting rewards from, for example, doing well in your tests.
The setting of the game, a small city, seems constrained at first. The local scope of it all, however, allows for some excellent character and location development. Many of the people you speak to have actual personalities that grow as you spend more time with them. This is reinforced by some excellent (except in one or two cases) voice acting and dialogue. The excellent music also contributes, ranging from catchy pop music to dark and sombre tunes. It makes for some excellent game playing, and since half the game itself is forging relationships, this is an extremely important element. The story progression is good, and though it takes a while before anything of note starts occurring, when it does, it's engaging and is easy to get into. The always-progressing time, day after day on the calendar, helps by making it feel like you're in an actual city that exists beyond just a home base for heroes.
Persona 3 is quite the interesting experience. It's not often one has to maintain a social life in an evil-battling RPG. The quality of the game is immediately apparent, from the high-quality anime cutscenes to the level of voice acting to the smooth graphics and style. The game is fun to play and, though the battle system may feel a little limited by only allowing control of one person, everything else in it means for a complex, if not a little frustrating at times, system. All in all, a very solid title, and a good buy for fans of the genre.