The MegaTen games have always taken a sort of gleefully perverse approach to the RPG format. Some have been centrally based on the idea of cannibalism, and others represent a sort of bizzaro Pokemon where the cute, cuddly creatures are replaced by soul-swallowing demons. By comparison, the most provocative feature of the latest entry in the Persona series practically seems tame. The controversy over “evokers” aside, Persona 3 is a very good game.
The conceit of the game is that manifestations of human emotion, called shadows, appear during a “Dark Hour” that occurs at midnight. During this time most people are encapsulated in weird coffins, but occasionally a person lacks this protection and his soul is at least temporarily consumed by the shadows. Fortunately, some teenagers have a special ability to release their own emotions in the form of “personas” (using the evokers) that can combat the shadows. Most of the characters in the game have only one persona, but the (unnamed) main character can carry and release up to twelve at a time, with a total variety of about 200. Some of his personas are acquired after battles, and additional ones can be made by “fusing” them with the assistance of a creepy old man in a secret room.
The powers and abilities of the personas the user is carrying are advanced by experience, as is typical for RPGs. However, the abilities of newly-fused personas are determined by “Social Links” or friendships between the main character and other characters in the game. Developing and maintaining these links is a significant part of the gameplay and a major factor in your combat ability: by maximizing these links you can create increasingly powerful personas to use in combat.
The social link system is very robust, and one of the best game features I have seen in years. Most games that feature a friendship system rely very heavily on the giving of gifts and such, but in Persona 3 most of the effort of developing a friendship lies in spending time with your friends and saying the right things to them at critical junctures. The difficulty involved varies greatly and appropriately — an old couple running a bookstore are generally just happy to see a friendly young man like yourself, while the teenage girls of the school are conversation minefields, easy to offend or just put off. The numerous social links and extensive scripting to go with them provides an immense quantity of gameplay. The main character can also devote time to improving his intelligence, bravery, and charisma; bringing these to certain levels is necessary to initiate some social links.
And then there’s the combat. Because it was the location of a secret lab that caused the shadows to appear, the high school is transformed at night into a devilish tower called “Tartarus”. In the spirit of roguelikes, the many floors of this tower are randomly generated on each visit, which means that in most cases if you go to the same floor twice in one night it will not look the same. These floors are densely populated by the shadows, and your primary task is to prepare yourself for significant monthly confrontations with “boss” shadows by training inside Tartarus.
The combat has a number of features that will feel familiar to MegaTen fans. Although it does not feature the devilish and unforgiving “Press Turn” system of Nocturne or DDS, combat in Persona 3 is dominated by elemental strengths and weaknesses. If an enemy strikes at your character’s weakness, you will be knocked down and your defenses weakened. To add insult to injury, the enemy who successfully struck your weak point gets an additional turn. This is true for the characters too, of course, and if they are lucky enough to knock down all their enemies, your party can carry out a punishing “all-out assault” that significantly damages your foes. Thus, it is imperative to learn and remember the weaknesses of all the enemies you encounter.
The major problem with the combat is that your allies are not under your control. I understand why this was done — a major theme of the game is that you cannot control others but grow stronger from understanding them. Unfortunately, the conceit of this theme relies on a successful illusion that your allies are people, and this illusion is shattered by the fact that they are dumb, dumb, DUMB. Their choices are frequently inscrutable, they waste energy on pointless spells, and they will repeatedly attack downed enemies (knocking them back onto their feet) rather than trying to knock down those that are standing in order to carry out a punishing assault. The player has limited control over the AI, and can tell them to prioritize knocking down enemies, but the AI setting is not carried over from battle to battle, and must therefore be reset every time. Even when the priorities are successfully set your allies will sometimes ignore them, and the priorities sometimes result in paralysis, with an ally opting to skip its turn even when a profitable action is available. Allies are also prone to casting buff or debuff spells when offense is in order, and curiously failing to use buffs or debuffs when offense is impossible. More subtle AI options were desperately needed here.
The other downside to this choice is that the combat amounts to a round-based system, which disengages the player. Early in each month, when new floors of Tartarus become available and the shadows are relatively strong and novel, this is not a serious problem. As each month progresses, however, the relative strength of the shadows falls so that no combat is a serious danger. At this point combat is still necessary, but becomes fairly dull and repetitive. The choice to disengage the player for the majority of the combat round then becomes an obstruction to enjoying the game.
As you might gather from this description, the combat in this game is “extremely easy” by MegaTen standards, which means it is “moderately difficult” by the standards of any normal game. You’ll probably only die 6-7 times unless you’re extremely careless and/or unlucky. By contrast, I died 10 times on a single boss battle in DDS 2. Some of the joint attacks that become available to the main character late in the game make the final battles extremely easy, if you wish them to be.
Other gameplay problems include the fact that the player has very few things to do during the “evening” period of the game “day”. The options, especially early on, are basically just three — fight, raise attributes, or go to sleep. Later on, one gains the option to develop a social link on certain evenings, but by this time the player may have raised his attributes to their max, further constraining the actions that are worthwhile. The result is that the player either fights, which has a tendency to lead to in-combat boredom and over-leveling, or sends his character straight to bed, which is dull. This will probably be exacerbated in a second play-through, as the academics, courage, and charm attributes are carried over. Sundays are a little hinky in terms of the day progression. The available social links are severely constrained in the period just before an exam at the school.
Equipping your characters and checking their status is also a bit of a hassle: you must speak to them to find out what equipment they have or how close they are to leveling. This is actually fairly necessary, because the experience derived from combat is extremely dependent on the character level and the number of characters in the party. The number shown after combat applies only to the main character himself, and is not the experience received either by the party members or even his own persona. This can make it somewhat difficult to determine if the experience yield from combat is actually sufficient to balance the time investment.
The other main weakness (for me) is that the game is too long. One could easily spend 100 hours on it in a normal playthrough. That’s something I don’t mind when I’m making a serious push for a complete game, but if I spend that amount of time just experiencing the main events then it becomes a pretty major investment. On the other hand, some people really are looking for that length from a game. This is a matter of personal taste, but you should be aware of it. On the upside, because the game time is so discretized, it’s easy to pick up Persona 3 and play it for just an hour or so, and then go do something else. You don’t have to invest a lot of time in any single play session, even though the cumulative length of the game is significant.
Graphically, the game is nice, though nothing special. Most of it is presented in a 3-D cel-shaded look, and character interactions are accompanied by well-drawn 2-D images. The character designs are done well, though some costume options were odd. The environments are attractive and sufficiently variable to remain interesting over the great length of the game — a nifty feat given that there are probably only 40 or so different “rooms” outside of Tartarus, of which maybe 15 are regularly visited. Tartarus itself is something of a disappointment. Although the different “regions” of the tower all have distinct looks, they all have the distinct feel of a building, which doesn’t seem quite appropriate for an enormous hell-tower. The artbook also suggests that the journey into Tartarus is intended to symbolize a trip into the human psyche, but this does not come across in the design at all. More could have been done, though I understand why it was not, given the constraints of keeping this all on a single disk.
Most of the personas the main character can get are essentially recycled artwork from previous MegaTen games, although the personas of the secondary characters all have excellent designs, as do the novel personas for the main character. The shadows are new artwork, but these designs are internally recycled quite a bit. In some cases there is a noticeable redesign to go with the repetition, but a number of the enemies are clear palette-swaps. The unique bosses have intriguing designs, however, and the final ‘real’ boss manages to twist a friendly character’s face into an interestingly ghastly rictus of evil.
The cutscenes that are not in the game engine are presented in anime format. The art in these scenes is passable, but has nothing to especially recommend it. The story they are used to convey is powerful in spots, and the mini-narratives that are built into the social links are heartwarming in most cases, and in some are really moving. There are some genuinely funny moments, but the script does not pussy-foot around. One of your friends is facing a terminal illness, several are dealing with divorce or family trouble, and alcoholism and student-teacher affairs appear as well. The problems presented in these narratives feel very real and have realistically ambivalent outcomes. Unfortunately, the main story is much more standard, featuring the by-now-obligatory “twist”, and characters who realize, “All this time I was just running away!”. Now there’s a phrase I’m tired of seeing in video game scripts. The central narrative could have used some work, but this game deserves a favorable rating on the basis of the social link stories.
The audio in the game is alright, but nothing to particularly rejoice at. The voice-acting is a little rough and sometimes doesn’t flow well from sentence to sentence, but the voices are mostly appropriate. The music is mostly appropriate and pleasing, but unfortunately you hear all of it a little too much over the course of the game. Most of the sound-effects are good, but frightened shadows running away from you make a terrible noise that will have you reaching for the mute button.
All in all Persona 3 is an excellent game that deserves major kudos for its robust social link system and the accompanying narratives, and for being the only MegaTen game that a normal person is likely to finish without destroying a controller. It’s a little long, and the central story is a little weak, but it’s mostly engaging and well worth your while, especially if what you’re looking for is a long RPG that’s long but can nonetheless be played in short sessions.