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Review: Persona 3 (PS2)

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p3_boxWhile it has celebrated decades of success in Japan, the Shin Megami Tensei series didn’t even come to America until Persona on the original Playstation. It wasn’t rebranded with the classic Shin Megami Tensei prefix until the release and mainstream love for Persona 3 and I can see why. If you read back to my Persona 1 & 2 review you will see that while I dug the direction it was going, I had major issues with both games that made the 50+ hour slogs through the campaigns less than enjoyable. All of these issues are addressed in Persona 3 without letting go of the core that got gamers interested in the first place. If you are a fan of JRPGs or have never played an epic dungeon-crawling quest, you should seriously consider giving Persona 3 a play because its modern setting, streamlined battle system, and socially integrated plotline will keep you playing for tens (if not hundreds) of hours.

The basic setup in Persona 3 is that you are a male (you have a female option as well in P3: FES and P3 Portable) second year high school student (think Junior in US terms) in Japan that has just transferred to a new school. As a student to a private academy, there are some differences to the public system: the only day off is Sunday, you wear a uniform, and students live in unisex dorms. Due to overcrowding, your character moves into an available dorm that is temporarily coed. It turns out that all of this dorm’s students have one thing in common: they are able to summon beings from within them named “personas”. These personas are capable of both physical and magical powers and are an extension of the individual controlling them. You also learn that each night at midnight an alternative realm known as “the dark hour” takes over the world and certain beings are allowed to roam freely while the rest of us reside in coffin-like structures, removed from this realm. Naturally persona users are one of the beings that can roam as are evil beings known as “shadows” that take on different forms. The goal of the shadows is to end the world and the persona users are rallied to prevent this. Wouldn’t you know, the main tower/source of evil is none other than the school, which transforms into a tall castle called Tartarus at night. Quite the setup, isn’t it?

p3_1

Sure, it’s a lot to take in, but the pacing of the game moves at a gradual but consistent rate that gets you caught up within the first five hours. During this time you will become acquainted with yourself, your peers, the town, school, and the basic battle system. Right off the bat this introduction is a massive improvement from the originals that just threw you into the mix to figure it out. Along the way the battle system ramps up, requiring you to know how to counter enemies – you can potentially harm yourself, strengthen a foe, or just plain waste a turn with the wrong type of attack. This was a huge oversight in the original games because the logic for what works with and against a creature isn’t obvious and the original games didn’t provide any reference guide to learn from. Now instead of mentioning a discovered weakness mid-battle that you need to memorize, the game will analyze characters for you and remember what you learn from them. Additionally your character is the rare single entity that can control multiple personas, each with unique attributes, attacks, and requirements. This is where Persona 3 seems to combine both Final Fantasy and Pokemon for an addicting battle mechanic that makes the hours you will spend in dungeons fighting the same enemies actually fun instead of menial. My biggest gripe of the previous two games was the endless random battles that would spring up every three steps or so and drag the pace of the game to a halt. In this title the battles are instead seen and the amount of time you spend in Tartarus is completely up to you (save for the occasional story mission), so that problem is gone altogether. As for the pace, the game is broken into an entire school year – the date, day of the week, and moon cycle are constantly displayed. It doesn’t seem to matter at first, but by the middle of the campaign you will be acutely aware of exactly what the date is and what it means. As I write this it still impresses me how I went from knowing almost nothing about Persona and came out a seasoned veteran.

p3_2On top of all that you have a life to manage. Not only is this a nightly slog through more than 250 total floors of enemies, but you are a high school student that has to manage schoolwork, social circles, jobs, and even dating. If you are told to meet a professor after school on a certain date, it’s up to you to remember that and show up. The same goes for swim team practice, making friends with an old couple that runs a bookstore, and picking up a hand-crafted weapon. If you are dating a girl and do something as innocent as hanging out with another there can be consequences. All of your social links give strength to your personas, making grinding much less necessary. By the way, did you do well on those final semester exams? There are also side missions doled out by Elizabeth, an employee of the Velvet Room, which assists you in creating and managing your personas. It sounds daunting, and it will be at first, but like everything else Persona 3 develops at a pace completely under the control of the player so your progress is natural. This is why some people get to the end in 40 hours, some get to the end in 80 hours, and others get to 200 hours, because the amount of playtime, side missions, and pace are up to you. This game is as limited or robust as you make it, but you should probably plan a minimum 60 hours to even get through the main story.

p3_3While there’s a lot to enjoy with Persona 3, don’t forget that it is a classic RPG underneath it all and will have some of the tropes that come with that fact. You will spend hours grinding to that certain level or get that persona boosted up so that you can complete a quest or overcome a brutal boss. Saving in the game can be a tricky circumstance – although you are free to save almost anywhere in the game, backtracking through floors in Tartarus can be a pain. On the other hand you might encounter a random lucky enemy that takes you out instantly and lose 30 floors of progress because you got cocky. Boss battles can be a frustrating endeavor when you get a puzzle boss or seemingly overpowered boss with one fatal weakness, but the game always gives you an opportunity to save (and you’d better take it) before any such encounter. Despite the focus on social relationships, once they are maxed out the character ceases to be of much value to you and there’s no way to establish a stronger relationship than close friends. If you max out someone who is in love with you, feel free to start working on another person the next morning. I also don’t like the all or nothing mentality of this series – doing one or two side quests usually doesn’t do anything unless you remain consistent and complete all of the side quests. I must also warn about the end of the game (don’t worry, no spoilers) where you will be forced to make a decision and there are drastic differences to the game depending on what you do. In fact, the “true” ending can only be achieved with one of these options, so I highly recommend you save before any major choices.

By the time you reach the end of Persona 3 you will have an intimate relationship with the game, something I rarely experience. In order to get there, though, the journey is long, sometimes tough, and time consuming. Depending on your gaming habits, you may want to consider picking up the portable version (Persona 3 Portable) on PSP, available digitally, and compatible with the Vita. Otherwise the definitive version of this game (Persona 3 FES) can be found digitally on PSN for the PS3 or in tangible disc form on the PS2. Regardless of how you obtain it, this is a new spin on the classic JRPG formula and I can safely say that I am of the converted. I rather despised most of my experiences in the first two games, but now I’m an avid fan that can’t wait to experience Persona 4. If you need something new or want to see the potential of this genre, then Persona 3 is a great way to break the ice.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Posted in PS2, PS3, PSP, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , , ,

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