Platform: PlayStation 2
Genre: Turn-based RPG
Release Date: April 22nd, 2008
Rumor has it, there is another hour in the day. At the stroke of midnight comes the Dark Hour, an hour where the world sleeps, except for a select few. A new transfer student at Gekkoukan High School has been experiencing the Dark Hour for a good portion of his life. Little does he know that the members of his new dormitory are investigating the source of this strange phenomenon, and is recruited as a member of their team, known as SEES. After a monster attack during a Full Moon, He awakens to his Persona, a source of power that comes from the hidden part of one’s self. With their Personas, SEES investigates the source of the Dark Hour, and learn of its horrifying secrets.
The Shin Megami Tensei series of games have always been a wonderful blend of modern day settings, with a mixture of supernatural and horror elements. What really defines the Persona 3 storyline is the fact that the story progresses from day-to-day. You wake up, go to school, hang out with people at lunch and/or after school, and go and do things in the evening, like troll the mall or investigate the Dark Hour. While this system can seem mundane at first, it sets the tone of each game, as well as setting a sort of progression clock on the game. At first, major plot points happen during every full moon, and then other factors down the road affect when other plot points are introduced. While some can seem like a fixed time frame for story is detrimental to gameplay, you are given more than enough time to get as far as you can in your exploration and be at a sufficient level for the next plot point.
The re-release, Persona 3: FES, includes a second storyline after the main game, that gives some explanation as to how everyone moves on after the events of the main story. I’ve always been a big fan of the aftermath of stories, and after the ending of this game, it was nice to get some clarification.
What truly defines the Persona series is the representation of its cast of characters. From the members of SEES, to the friends and enemies you will make during the course of the game, each one has their story to tell.
Your party members are very unique characters in their own right, and their Personas reflect that personality. Since a Persona’s class is defined by a Major Arcana of the tarot, these characters’ personalities are influenced by that Arcana as well. For example, the senior class member of SEES, Akihiko Sanada, represents The Emperor Arcana, and grows into that role throughout the game.
Many friends you can make inside and outside of school will be a part of your circle of Social Links. Spending time with these people will provide insight into their story; what they enjoy, what their problems are in their lives, and even their aspirations. Your conversation choices during these scenes will affect how quickly that relationship grows, and even if you end up in a relationship with the female social links. (Note, this game does not offer same-sex relationships.)
The visuals in Persona 3 are pretty straightforward 3D environments with anime cut-scenes. One of the most notable things i can say about the visuals however is this. The Dark Hour is creepy! The choices of colours represent the difference in time, the spattered blood all over the walls and floors adds to the atmosphere, and the fact that people that can’t live in the Dark Hour are represented as coffins. The hour after midnight has never been scarier.
The creature and Persona designs are also well designed. The Personas are representations of typical Shin Megami Tensei demons. For those not familiar with the franchise, many of these figures are representations of angels, demons, even deities from several religions, including Ganesha from the Hindu faith, and Thor of the Norse gods. As for the monsters, they have their own unique designs. Most, if not all of the monsters also wear a mask of some sorts, to represent they are the hidden shadows of mankind.
The musical score for Persona 3 was vital in setting the atmosphere for the story. During the day, it’s upbeat, chipper, and expected of a world that has no idea of what’s going on in the shadows. Once you enter the Dark Hour, everything gets darker, and more intense. As an added hint of atmosphere and pure terror, if you stay on a dungeon floor for too long, you start hearing the clanging of chains. This terrifying sound means that a creature only known as Death is coming for you, and early on, (Hell, even in some of the near end points) you do NOT want to encounter him.
The musical score was composed by Shoji Meguro, a composer whose works include many titles, such as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Persona 4 and Catherine.
The North American release of the game included only an English dub, including voices such as Yuri Lowenthal, Tara Platt, and Vic Mignogna. (Note, do not look up the voice cast before playing the game if you haven’t played this before, as it may contain spoilers.)
Gameplay – Exploration
Once school is over, or it’s a Sunday and you don’t have school, you are able to spend the day around the city. This can include heading to the Mall to replenish your items and get new gear, hitting a restaurant for some grub, and you can also spend time with one of your friends/classmates.
At night, you can do some of these things as well, but not all of them as some stores are closed. This is also an option to rest up and wait for the Dark Hour so that you may explore Tartarus, the main dungeon area for the game.
Tartarus exploration is done in a bird’s eye camera angle, and is pretty typical of a dungeon design. Most floors are designed randomly, with the exception of boss floors. While exploring, you will find treasure chests and monsters all around. Since encounters are visible on the map, you have the ability to try and sneak up on them and land a turn 1 advantage in combat. If the monster is glowing red on the map, then it indicates a more powerful encounter for that floor.
Since Tartarus is the main dungeon in the game, it has over 200 floors. You will be stopped from progressing during points of the game until enough plot has advanced. Sorry guys, no power grinding throughout the game.
Gameplay – Combat
Time for a Fight! Combat is largely turn based in Persona 3, but the biggest point to be made is that you are only able to select the actions for your main character. Your party members are all AI controlled. This has its benefits and disadvantages. I did find that at times, the AI was not very bright, putting themselves in situations that got them killed. While it is a nuisance, it wasn’t a really big issue until the final boss fight. The boss would repel physical damage, and my party members would run up to it and hit it, only to be dealt their own damage. Oops! You are able to set simple party commands, like Focus on healing, or don’t use skills, and it does mitigate some of this.
When you do get your turn, you have several options. You can do a physical attack, use an item, or call your Persona to use a skill. I struggled with whether or not to add this to the visuals portion, but since it is combat, it felt that I should mention here that the animation for summoning a Persona is what sets this game apart from the others. SEES members use a device called an evoker to summon their Persona, which is essentially a gun. Each character will put that gun to their head and pull the trigger in order to use a Persona skill. The psychological effect of shooting yourself in the head is intense, and therefore the display of this is one of the many points that this game belongs in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise.
Your main character is also special, in that he has the ability to house many Personas inside him, and you can change your Persona once per turn as a free action.
Monsters will have weaknesses, resistance, and can even absorb some types of attacks. The key to combat is exploiting weaknesses as best as you can, when you hit a weakness, or score a critical hit, the enemy will be incapacitated for a turn. This also applies to you and your party, so getting to know what enemies you are fighting really helps keep you alive. If all enemies are down due to being hit with weaknesses, you will be prompted to perform an all-out attack, where your whole party does group damage to the enemies.
The last thing to keep in mind is that if the main character dies, it’s game over. This will add some challenge to the game, as making sure your hero is protected properly is more important than ever.
Gameplay – Character Progression
Typically, Persona 3 grants experience points for levels, HP and SP boosts, and your base stats are based on your Persona, which also level using the same system. Since your party members are only able to use one Persona, this doesn’t look very typical from levelling up. For your hero, things are a bit different. Since he can use multiple Personas, each persona has its own set of stats, skills, weaknesses and resistances. Only the active Persona that has equipped will receive experience at the end of a fight.
There are three ways to obtain new Personas. Some may be made available to you after a fight. You will encounter a post combat menu that gives you cards to choose from, some may include money, bonus experience, healing, or a new Persona.
The next method is through Fusion. The main character has access to a place called the velvet room, and its denizens can fuse two or more of your Personas into a newer, Stronger Persona. The new Persona will also inherit some of the skills of its parents, and may also gain bonus levels based on how well you have progressed with your friends and social links.
The last method is by registering your Personas in the Velvet Room. By registering them, they can be repurchased with the same stats that they had when you registered them. The stronger they are, the more expensive it is to do this, so mind your money.
Gameplay – Optional Content/Sidequests
While I feel that this is not really optional for Persona 3, from a gameplay technical standpoint, it is. The Social Link system has been mentioned a few times in here, and it does have dual importance. From a gameplay perspective, advancing your social links improves the experience gained during Persona fusion for Personas of that social link’s Arcana. From a storyline perspective, it shows the main character’s growth as a person by establishing bonds and friendships. It is entirely possible to max out every social link by the end of the game, but it does take a LOT of planning and time management. I personally have not been successful at maxing all of them out, but have gotten pretty close.
There is also a New Game + option for the main story. Once you have access to Tartarus, there will be an extra door available for another set of bonus floors. These floors include higher level monsters than the final dungeon areas, and allow you to grind faster and progress through the game at a higher rate. There is also a bonus boss at the end of this part of the dungeon, and it is incredibly difficult, since you cannot fight this boss with a party.
Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, The Answer is a separate side story available for play that continues the story after the main game’s events. The game plays very similarly to the main story, but the game is set to a harder difficulty. If you want some closure in the story, and are up for a challenge, this is the way to do it.
I played Persona 3: FES much later than I think I should have. It was a great change of pace from traditional RPG storylines and gameplay elements. It took something familiar, and spun it around to be very unique and enjoyable experience. The main game was ported over to the PlayStation Portable a few years back, which improved certain aspects and added new content. I hope to review it at some point down the road when I finally get through the infamous backlog.