Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 - Staff Review  

Knocking on Heaven's Door
by Billy "madhtr" Young

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Easy to Moderate
70 to 110 Hours
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    When Persona 3 was originally announced in Japan, the game was looking very interesting and seemed to have a terrific style to it. When the game was announced for North America, it was expected that Atlus would add the Shin Megami Tensei supertitle, though the sound of the game's difficulty left a bad feeling. It didn't take long to warm up to the game's atmosphere and before long the game was spinning in the PlayStation 2. Of course, being a dungeon crawler, expectations started off a little lower than normally they would be.

    When the game opens, the main character is heading to a new city, and what he hopes will be a new and, most of all, happy life. What he finds however, is a world of trouble with a time known as the Dark Hour playing a central role throughout the game's story. The player finds out very quickly that he has what is known as the "potential," which basically means he is capable of summoning personas. After the first time he uses his persona, however, he is so exhausted that he is out of it for a week. When he comes to, he finds out not only is there a new person joining him and his classmate Yukari, but that they will shortly be traveling to a very tall dungeon known as Tartarus.

   Tartarus is a multi-floored dungeon that only materializes during the Dark Hour, the time between days that most people can't see. During this time, everyone who is not a persona user is encased in a coffin, leaving them to sleep peacefully until the end of the Dark Hour, assuming they don't hear the call of the Shadows. If they heed this call, they shall succumb to the darkness and will be cursed with what is known as apathy syndrome. The bad news for them is that they are basically shells of their original selves. It is up to the player to try to figure out how to fight these shadows and abolish this hour that plagues the world.

   On top of fighting through Tartarus, there are also smaller side-dungeons players will find themselves being faced with throughout the game, as well as many secrets that players must discover. After passing out the first time, players find themselves in a place called the Velvet Room, which is where players will be doing most of their persona business. Greeted by Igor and his assistant Elizabeth, players will find that to start off all they can do is fuse personas together. In the future players will find a complete listing of all of the persona you create or receive, as well as a large list of quests players can partake in Tartarus to earn some special gifts.

   Though dungeon crawling is all that has been talked about so far, there is an entirely different side of gameplay and that is the main character's life outside of the Dark Hour. Players will need to head off to school when they're scheduled, answer questions, take exams, talk to schoolmates, try to stay awake during class, use the bathroom, and even date some of the girls. The community factor in Persona 3 is a huge part of the gameplay in that when players are not fighting through dungeons, they will be trying to fit in as much stuff as possible during the day to improve their skills for the next time they head into Tartarus.
Would the real Messiah please stand up. Would the real Messiah please stand up.

   Social Links, better known as S. Links or commus, are how players improve their persona fusion abilities. Each of these commus are linked to a particular arcana, and when players choose to fuse a persona of that arcana, the level of the commu gives a certain amount of experience to the new fusion. This comes in quite handy as it starts the personas off stronger than they normally would be. These commu levels also affect how much experience the personas will receive from each battle, as it is different than how the characters themselves earn it. The easiest way to describe it is that the higher the level of the commu, the more experience a persona can earn from a battle.

   After school, players have a few places they can visit: the dorm, a mall, a shrine, and two different train stations featuring different tasks. Players will not only find all different types of interesting people, but also all kinds of different everyday tasks to complete such as going to the movies, visiting a bookstore, or just stopping somewhere to eat. The mall is an important place as not only does it include places to buy different types of equipment and accessories, but this is also the only place outside of Tartarus that players will find a door to enter the Velvet Room. There is a club, a coffee house, and even a karaoke bar for those people who don't like sitting at home at night.

   During battle, players need to make sure that the main character does not get knocked unconscious or it's game over on normal difficulty. On easy difficulty players have 10 continues, but there are many tough enemies, so overusing them can spell disaster for the later stages of the game. Though most characters only use one specific weapon type, the main character can use a variety of them. Traveling through the dungeon, players need to swing that weapon and attack the enemy first, or risk the enemies receiving the first attack, which could also spell doom for players. Players can give commands to the other characters when it's the main character's turn, but the AI controls what actions they actually take. Generally, they make good decisions, however they will sometimes hurt themselves by not knowing what to do.

   Players have the ability to attack, summon personas, use items, change personas (once per turn), as well as to escape from battle if it becomes too much to handle. There are special times when having two specific personas in the main character's possession will give a special attack called a mix raid. These can be both offensive and defensive, though quite often they just use a lot of the character's SP. Using these sparsely and at the correct times may give players just what they need to defeat a certain enemy. The game definitely pushes players to experiment and to try many different combinations.
Look at my face! Look at my face!

   Characters and personas all level up independently, with the main character being capable of carrying multiple personas. All other characters only use their own personas the entire game, though they will evolve over time for them, unlike for the main character. There is a huge number of persona fusion possibilities, so players should definitely visit the Velvet Room as often as possible, to create newer and better ones. Players will find that monsters have all different kinds of strengths and weaknesses and to exploit this, they will need to create the right persona for the occasion, trying to ensure that they have as little weakness as possible at the same time.

   The game's cutscenes are mostly using the in-game graphics, though there are a few occasions where anime is used to show important scenes. This actually isn't that big of a deal as the in-game graphics are quite pretty with clean models and a soft palette of colors. In dungeons, though, players will find that different blocks of Tartarus look completely different, with blood running down walls and pooling on the floors. This really helps give the game a sense of urgency and pushes players to try to fight as long as possible. This isn't always possible, though, as characters can get tired, making healing tougher by halving their effects.

   The music for this title was composed by Shoji Meguro and it really pumps up the feeling of the entire game. It pushes players through dungeons and rushes them through battle after battle, floor after floor. It's soothing to hear upbeat music when not in battle and darker music when facing some of the game's tougher bosses. The player must continue to push themselves forward and each different block of Tartarus has not only a different feel, but also a different track, though it tends to just be a few different instruments either added or taken away. It also brings a sense of accomplishment when commus are maxed and when characters have epiphanies at points in the game. The game, while not fully voiced, does include some of the best voice-acting that players will find in most roleplaying games nowadays.

   This game is definitely not for everyone, though they will know this within the first few hours of the game as the gameplay never changes from the beginning of the game to the end. It's not an overly hard game if players take the time to properly level up their characters, and if they choose the easy difficulty players shouldn't have much trouble at all. Depending on how much extra content the player is interested in, the game can be longer or shorter than what a normal completion time might be. At the end, players should be happy to find that there is a New Game+ that will allow them to restart the game with the main character retaining his level and weapons, as well as a few other things that can be found during the game.

   To sum up Persona 3: it was a joy to start, a joy to play, and it was a joy to discover its many secrets. Many different types of players will find many different styles of gameplay that will hopefully give them plenty to enjoy. The game does have some downpoints, such as localization errors in text, but overall, the game's positives greatly outweigh the negatives. In the end, this is an easy game to recommend to anyone, and though it might take a while to complete, by the end of the game the player will be sad it's over.

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