Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 - Staff Review  

The Burden of Responsibility
by Michael "CactuarJoe" Beckett

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Easy to Moderate
80 to 105 Hours
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    The Shin Megami Tensei games have always focused on the concept of choice, allowing the player to choose between several unique paths based on the philosophy the player wishes to follow. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 takes this idea to extremes, giving the player control over the daily routine of a high school student. Players will decide everything from who they ask out on dates and whether or not to take a nap during a particularly boring lecture, to whether or not the end of the world comes about. Of course, simply making decisions aren't quite enough; the main theme of Persona 3 is that of consequence, of taking responsibility for the choices you make. Insult someone once too often, blow off a date with a girl, or generally make a mess of things and it will have consequences for the Personas you summon. The game uses its theme with a fair degree of deftness, developing characters slowly but with a great deal of impact. Although Persona 3 isn't the most technologically stunning game, it has a very unique style both in visuals and sound, a challenging combat system, and a strong story, all of which makes it a highly recommended game for veterans of the Shin Megami Tensei series, as well as anyone looking for a decent jumping-on point.

    Persona 3's combat system bears a strong resemblance to the Press Turn system used in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and the Digital Devil Saga series. Combat overall is turn based, with only the player character being directly controlled. In this kind of combat system, ally AI can make a huge difference in how the game plays. Thankfully, the AI is fairly capable. It's smart enough to use the proper spell on elementally weak opponents, it offers assistance in the form of healing and protection when necessary, and is reasonably good about not attacking when it shouldn't. The player can also issue general commands to any ally, or to the group as a whole. This gives players a certain amount of control while still allowing each character to act individually, which helps maintain the illusion that your party members are people rather than characters.

   While most of the characters have access to only one Persona, the player character can create multiple Personas and even switch between them in combat. Using a system almost identical to Demon Fusion in SMT: Nocturne and Devil Summoner, the player can create new Personas to alter the main character's stats, and more importantly, his elemental resistances. These resistances play a huge part in combat, as hitting an enemy's elemental weakness will score the player an additional turn. Unlike the Press Turn system, however, doing this will also knock the affected character to the ground, costing them a turn to recover. Furthermore, knocking all of the enemies to the ground will allow the player a chance to use an All-Out Attack, a combined strike on all foes by the entire party. What all of this means is that the combat system is extremely focused on elemental resistances and weaknesses, and since the consequences of having more than one character struck prone at the same time can be very severe, the game can swing either way very suddenly. Which Personas the player chooses to create have an enormous bearing on how smoothly combat progresses, which is why Social Links are so important.

A lot of the Persona designs are repeats, but there are enough new critters to keep things interesting. A lot of the Persona designs are repeats, but there are enough new critters to keep things interesting.

   Social Links are, essentially, what the player decides to do with their free time, and who they choose to associate with. If the player decides to join the Art Club, for example, they can unlock the Fortune Arcana, strengthening all of the Personas who share that Arcana. The closer the player becomes to the people in each Social Link, the more power each Persona will receive from that Link, but it isn't as simple as just spending time with them. Everyone has problems after all, whether it's the Kendo Club's star fencer and his frequent trips to the Nurse's Office, or the businessman who hangs out at the train station and his questionable mail-order products. How you treat them has a big impact on how they respond, and therefore on how quickly each Persona will gain strength - you will, in fact, have to take the consequences of your actions in-game. It's a wonderful way of handling the theme of responsibility, of giving it a real impact in the game, as it forces players to own up to the choices they make.

   The wide variety of sub-plots do an admirable job of drawing the player in, but the real meat of the story is in the main character's relationship with the members of his dorm - the Special Extra-curricular Execution Squad, or SEES. SEES is an organization formed to combat the threat posed by mysterious, pitch-black monsters known only as Shadows. These Shadows appear during a bizarre slice of frozen time known as the Dark Hour, an hour-long period that occurs at midnight, every night. Most normal people remember nothing of this time, as they spend it transformed into monolithic coffins, devoid of any senses. Shadows will attack anyone unlucky enough to retain their normal shape during this time, stealing their memories and distorting their minds - a condition known to the public as Apathy Syndrome. But the members of the SEES squad have the ability to summon Personas, powerful hidden aspects of their own personalities that allow them to combat and destroy Shadows. A great deal of the game is taken up with discovering the reasons each character has for fighting the Shadows and examining the choices they have made along the way. Overall, the story is very well written with a solid translation. Character development is definitely a strong point as each member of the cast develops along very interesting and believable lines.

   One of the more interesting parts of the game is, unexpectedly, the way in which it measures time. Each day is split into seven parts, during which the game follows a certain schedule. The player goes to school in the Morning, comes back in the Afternoon, and so forth, with an overall calendar that follows the typical Japanese school year. Although the player may be asked to answer a few simple questions or decide whether or not to fall asleep in class, a fairly large percentage of each school day is actually skipped. The game places far more weight on fostering Social Links than on high school academics. The game takes place over the course of a year or so, and so the story doesn't always progress at speed. There are routinely week-long or longer breaks in the story, leaving places in the game where things begin to drag a bit. Thankfully, it isn't difficult to speed through these dull periods, but they do slow the game down overall.

   The disparate elements of high school life and the twisted world of the Dark Hour produce a unique cross between horror and pop art, the modern world full of clean sidewalks and glass skyscrapers becoming twisted at midnight to a world where the sky tinges everything sickly shades of green, red and black. The character design reflects this shift, to a certain degree. Under normal circumstances, the cast are just normal high school students, school uniform and all. However, when the Dark Hour rolls around, the Personas come out and all of a sudden the captain of the boxing team can summon a mythological immortal with electrodes for hands and heavy protective gear covering its face. The sheer weirdness shown in the designs of the Shadows and Personas contrasts wonderfully with the natural normalcy of the everyday world. This sort of stark contrast could have gone very badly indeed; attempting to create this sort of incongruent design can often lead to a fractured, disconnected visual style, or a style overgrown with basic randomness, where wackiness mixes freely with the more serious aspects of a game, leading to complete nonsense. But Persona 3 pulls it off wonderfully, with the bizarre night and mundane day supporting rather than working against one another. Load times can be a bit of an issue, with frequent scene changes being the worst offender, but it isn't a major problem overall. The game's visuals aren't terribly stunning on a technological level, as the game uses a graphics engine very similar to the other PS2 SMT games, but they work exceptionally well as an overall visual style.

Anime cutscenes are infrequent, but very nice. Anime cutscenes are infrequent, but very nice.

   The game's interface shares a lot of the game's pop art design, but it has a few problems in function. Persona 3 still uses the same method of random generation for the movesets of each Persona the player fuses, meaning that players will still have to re-enter the same fusion multiple times to get a new Persona to inherit useful abilities from their predecessors. But the bigger issue is that neither the fusion nor status screens detail the effect of each move, meaning that players will have to wait until they're actually in combat to find out whether or not Weary Thrust is more or less powerful than Sonic Punch, for example. Ascertaining the overall status of the party at any given moment can be a bit tedious as well, given that the player must specifically ask each character to see their status, rather than having them available from one screen. The menu's one or two second load time isn't onerous by itself, but spread over four separate status screens, it can become bothersome. Movement and basic control is otherwise solid, and overall the game is quite easy to control aside from these hiccups.

    Persona 3's soundtrack represents a rather significant and unexpected shift in the style of series composer Shoji Meguro. Whereas his earlier work has been fairly consistent, with an easily recognizable style, Persona 3 uses some strong modern rock and rap elements. The combination results in a sound that isn't so far away from his normal work that it's unrecognizable, but it does show off Mr. Meguro's flexibility as a composer. Overall, the soundtrack works quite well, fitting the modern setting and rolling with the shifting visual style admirably. Similarly, voice acting fits the setting quite well, with most of the cast turning out very strong, believable performances. The only real problem with the voice acting has to do with the sheer level of chatter in combat. Each character has something to say on their turn for every move they make, and another depending on how successful their attack is, all of this on top of the support character's constant updates on character and enemy status. It's quite common in the later part of the game to have voice tracks interrupting and overlapping each other, making it hard to tell what any one person is actually saying.

   A lot of Persona 3's originality comes from its blending of high school personality conflicts and supernatural conflagration. The game has been described as a cross between a high school sim and a dungeon crawler, but the game plays significantly different than either of those; in fact, it's significantly different from pretty much anything else seen on this side of the Pacific. The game presents such a unique combination of gameplay mechanics that it's hard to categorize outside of the generalized turn-based RPG label.

   Due to the game's extremely broad scope, Persona 3 is an exceptionally long game, eventually clocking in at between 80 and 105 hours of gameplay. With thirteen different Social Links to discover and explore, each with ten ranks representing major events in the progression of that Link, and an enormous randomly generated dungeon with over 250 floors to be explored completely before the end of the year, just the most basic aspects of the game present a daunting amount of content to be explored. However, Persona 3 isn't an overbearingly difficult game, as it presents players with more than fair warning of major events in the mainline plot and opportunities to levelbuild if they should so choose.

   In the end, Persona 3 is a study in decisions and consequences. Almost every action in the game, from which Persona the player takes into battle to who they spend time with after school, has a definite consequence, and an effect on the player character's performance in battle. Coupled with a story that explores human nature in the decisions we make - choosing to ignore things that we don't understand, choosing to run away from the things that we can't face, and choosing to stand and fight when we can't win - Persona 3 represents an intriguing work of art. Though the game has a few flaws, such as an often slow-moving story and excessively chatty allies, the manner in which it ties all of the aspects of its unique game design together to present a definite message is worth a great deal. In the end, Persona 3 is a very well thought-out piece of game design that should appeal not only to series fans, but to anyone looking for a unique experience.

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