LTTP or ‘late to the party’ pieces are opportunities for us to catch up and write about games we missed out on the first time around. They may contain spoilers.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve invested 80+ hours into a Japanese role playing game. I’ve played my share of them, but nothing quite like Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES. I’ve played RPGs which placed me in medieval times, in space and far into the future, but never as a Japanese school student living in modern Japan. Now, I’ve said I spent 80+ hours with it, but was it all worth it? I believe the obvious answer is: yes.
Repetition and the cycle of time are two prominent themes and devices used within Persona 3. From the radial battle menu to the day and night cycle, Persona 3 makes no attempts of hiding the fact that you’ll be cycling through familliar content. And if you can’t accept this fact, you’re not going to find much enjoyment out of Persona 3. As the newest member of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), I spent my days at school learning and my nights fighting supernatural beings known as ‘Shadows’ – not very creative, but the name fits.
At the stroke of midnight, the ‘Dark Hour’ begins. Then the option of exploring a tower consisting of 262 levels worth of randomly generated rooms and hallways, dubbed Tartarus, becomes available. This mysterious tower is filled with Shadows roaming aimlessly, awaiting their demise. Although, it is possible to avoid such encounters, level progression in Persona 3 is something you should stay on top of. The game’s difficulty curve ramped up naturally and gently, however there was just enough incentive to retread ground for additional experience points.
Fortunately, Persona 3’s battle system allowed for an unprecedented amount of easy grinding – just look at the inclusion of an auto attack mode as an example. Since you only directly control the main character, the tedious tasks of healing and buffing can be assigned to other members of the team. Team members will also intelligently exploit enemy weakness if the opportunity presents itself. And since using a super effective attack on an enemy knocks them down, you can leave most battles without a scratch – especially if you unleash an “All Out” attack. Sure, there were occasions where I scratched my head wondering why my healer decided to use her ‘full heal’ on me instead where a ‘heal all’ could have topped off the entire team, but overall I was thoroughly impressed.
So what is a Persona? Think of them as summons or even Pokemon. They’re physical manifestations of the character’s heart, but while every other Persona user in the game has only one, the main character employed multiple Personas. Tarot cards dropped by defeated enemies offered new Personas and new abilities, but if you wanted to get anywhere with Personas, you have to get into the art of Persona fusing. It’s a system which can be as complicated or as simple as you want. I took the easy route and simply mixed and matched Personas until I produced the most powerful Persona I could.
And here is where Persona 3’s battle gameplay links with its social and relationship side.
When I wasn’t battling Shadows in Tartarus, I was establishing ‘Social Links’ through the participation of school activities or ‘making friends’. Each of the NPCs which you can establish a relationship with corresponds to a Major Arcana type. The stronger the ‘Social Link’, the greater the bonus experience given during Persona fusion. It’s not a complicated process and it contrasted well against the battle heavy Tartarus segments. I’ve never played a ‘dating sim’ before, but I imagine Persona 3’s menu driven relationship system to be very similar – right down to the embarrassing ‘special moments’. Don’t worry, you don’t see anything, but it’s implied.
It wasn’t all awkward flirting, though. In fact, now that I think about it, most of the more interesting ones didn’t involve intimate relationships at all. For instance, there was Kakushi of the Kendo club who risked his knee’s well being just to become the best or that little girl, Maako, who was stuck in the middle of divorce. Most of these tales are cliché, but it isn’t until you dive deep enough that you’re given enough to piece it all together. That’s what kept me playing Persona 3, though: the well thought out drip feeding of changing content.
Think about it. How else are you going to motivate players and keep them on this arduous task of scaling Tartarus and going through a year’s worth of school? The entirety of Tartarus was broken up into segments; each with its own aesthetic. Somehow, despite the limited amount of enemies, skills and color palettes, the developers managed to lay it all out in a way which kept things somewhat fresh. With the day-to-day activities of school life, sometimes I would be asked a question in class, sometimes I won’t. Certain days of the week have after school activities, some don’t. Every month, a new character debuts or another suddenly leaves. Every season something significant happens. And that’s how they did it. It may not work for you, but it worked for me.
The bulk of the main story was told through the use of both in-game and animated cutscenes while surprisingly well executed voice work brought out the characters. Junpei, the stereotypical slacker and goof, was amongst my favorites. The main character didn’t utter a word and even that was fine during the main story segments, but not during the actual relationships. Although I was given plenty of opportunities to express my opinion, an initially jarring narrator interjected most of the situations with descriptors like: “Yukari seems to be enjoying herself.” And “It’s getting dark. You decided to head back to the dorm.” Obviously, I got used to them, but having the game tell you how you should feel and how the characters are reacting to your actions so blatantly feels awfully cheap. Were the developers not confident in conveying it all through the visuals? They shouldn’t have been, since the visuals sported some real panache.
I see ‘The Journey’ portion of Persona 3 FES as a long running anime series with each month or so acting as a new season. At the time of writing, I have just scratched the surface of the epilogue, “The Answer”, which works a lot like an OVA. I appreciate Persona 3 FES for being ostensibly different from its kin. The clashing of a streamlined battle system and a surprisingly fascinating social aspect produced quite the experience. Persona 3 isn’t without its faults, but aside from the amount of dedication you need to invest, I can’t pin anything significant against Persona 3 FES. I was drawn in by the images of teens shooting themselves in the head with silver pistol shaped devices and ended up staying for the rest of this wacky tale. So, if you’re one who can stomach a meal of this size or looking for some Japanese schooling from the comforts of your own home: I say go for it. It’s certainly up there as one of the best PlayStation 2 role playing games out there.
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For more information on Persona 3 FES, visit the official website.