Review: Shooting yourself in the head never felt so good...
During any given lifespan of a console, dozens of RPGs are released onto a system that don't do anything new. They just present players with something that's already been done in your typical save the world scenario. However, every once in a while there's a gem that defines the genre on any given system. From Chrono Trigger on the SNES to Xenogears and Final Fantasy VII on the PSone, these games represent breakthroughs in terms of storytelling, aesthetic value, and gameplay. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 for the PlayStation 2 is one of these.
One of the many spin-offs of the Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona 3 tells the story of a group of high school students in Japan, blessed with the ability to summon personas in order to defend the world from creatures known as ?shadows' during a hidden hour between 12:00 and 12:01 known as the Dark Hour. Although the plot starts off as your run-of-the-mill save the world anime plot, it's much more than that. It's a tale of sacrifice, hope, and what it means to be alive. Thankfully though, the game doesn't drive home these ideals. Instead it unravels them through the friendships you forge with others and the time you spend with them. Borrowing the characterization from visual-novel games, the player slowly learns about each character and begins to care deeply about each and every one of them.
During the game the player takes the role of a transfer student who moves into a co-ed dorm and joins a group of shadow fighters known as SEES. As a high school student, the player controls the hero's life using dating-sim style gameplay in order to build up their charisma, academics, and courage in order to meet friends and build up the powers of your personas. The stronger your relationship is with a person who belongs to a certain arcana, the stronger the corresponding persona will be.
Every day the player lives in is represented through several phases: morning, afternoon, evening, etc. With all of the fighting done specifically during the Dark Hour, players get the opportunity to run around town buying items, going to shrines, leveling up their social rankings, etc. While the game uses most of your conventional RPG elements (buying items, weapons, and armor) it's the way the game presents them that makes it unique. Instead of going to Shop A in Town B, you'll be going to the local mall in order to do all of your shopping. Enjoy karaoke singing? Your character will get the chance to do it while he raises his skill in courage. All of this is neatly wrapped around a carefully crafted simulation of the Japanese school year system, complete with all of the holidays, breaks, and vacations that you would expect your normal teen to go through in Japan.
As one of the game's most important aspects, it can make the game a bit tedious at times when you're waiting for the next important event to take place as you'll be doing quite a bit of running between school and the dorms in order to pass time. I also believe that some interaction with building up these skills rather than idling watching may have added some further enjoyment to the game.
In terms of battling, the game switches between important events that occur in town during the full moon and dungeon crawling in Tartarus. While most of the battling is done in Tartarus, a single tower, climbing the tower isn't for the faint of heart as it's 260 plus floors of exploration. Although it may seem boring to explore the same tower for an entire game, it creates a curiosity in the player as they begin to wonder what's at the top. If your main character dies, its game over for you and all the progress you made in the past hour or so are gone. This means that you'll be grinding lots and lots of times in the game, and often repeating the same grind again and again. Thankfully on every 10 floors or so, there are bosses and teleportation devices which allows you to teleport to the bottom and save your progress.
During battles, players don't control any of the characters other than the main one. Thankfully though, you can issue orders to them, and the AI is smart about what moves they usually do. If a spell doesn't work on a specific enemy, chances are they won't ever cast the same spell on that enemy ever again; provided you analyzed it. Using the Press Turn battle system famous in other Shin Megami games, your basic functions of attack, defend, wait, etc. are present although with one unique feature to the game: the option to switch Personas mid-battle. With specific skills being assigned to individual Persona, you'll be switching Personas constantly to try and get a type-advantage over the enemy. Hit an enemy with type-advantage, get an extra attack. Rinse and repeat. After each battle, there's a chance of a post-battle card game that allows players to get new personas, extra XP, gold, or weapons.
For people out there with an OCD disorder of trying to get the best equipment possible in the game, there's the time-consuming process of fusing your Personas in order to get the best moves possible for them. Not only does the fusion process allow you to get the strongest end-game Personas, but it also allows you to teach them moves they would never otherwise learn. I mean, what's more fun than watching a giant blob of goo perform ?Sexy Dance?'
Graphics wise, the game doesn't push the PS2s power too much. Instead, it relies on excellent art direction to create an urban atmosphere that you would expect if you went to Japan today. From the slums located at the back of the Port to Classroom 2-F, the artists went above and beyond in order to recreate the virtual town of the Bay Area. Complimenting the character models are hand-drawn character portraits and anime scene to show the game's heavy anime-based influence.
Music-wise, the game's use of an urban tech soundtrack combined with rap and haunting gospel music makes a unique soundtrack that suits the game extremely well. Of note is one of the more memorable pieces, the main title song ?Burn My Dread.? Believe me when I say that this piece will get stuck in your head long after you finish the game. Voice-acting wise, Atlus did an excellent job handling the dubbing with the possible exception of one or two miscasts. Seeing how most of the main characters have experience dubbing anime in the U.S., they do a marvelous job at bringing the characters to life.