While the Persona series may have been around for quite a while, one game that definitely made an impact when it was first released was the third game in the series. Persona 3 brought about a lot of radical changes in the tried and tested Shin Megami Tensei formula which helped Persona 3 carve out it’s own unique identity in the ever crowded JRPG market.
Originally released for the PlayStation 2, Persona 3 received a director’s cut rerelease entitled Persona 3: FES a year after which came with a few gameplay updates and more importantly a playable epilogue campaign called The Answer which helps give the game some much needed closure. Because it is recognized as the more complete and definitive version of the game, Persona 3: FES will be the focus of this review.
When compared with the previous games in the series, Persona 3 stands out so significantly that it’s hard to consider them to belong in the same series. The most apparent difference is that for the first time, the game is now rendered in full 3D. This helps bring out a lot of aesthetic flavor that the series designer Shigenori Soejima has put in game. The game is graphically appealing with it’s rich, dark, urban atmosphere. Enemy designs are both unique yet have a sense of uniformity in appearance. The aesthetic themes present in the party’s Personas have a very stylistic look which carry an otherworldly, almost mechanical feel while at the same time looking very Greco-Roman as a homage to the myths they are based off. The stylistic vibe of the game also carries over to the interface, the menus look sharp while remaining easy to navigate.
The game tackles the double life the protagonists go through every day. Making friends and generally enjoying teenage high school life by day, battling physically manifested shadows by night. The bright and vibrant colors during the social segments contrast with the dark and gloomy palette that is present in the game’s more serious moments. These contrasts help emphasize the dual life that the protagonists lead. That said, the nature of death is a very heavy theme of the story and this is definitely visible with the game’s dark and edgy motif. To add to this theme, the game’s protagonists summon their Personas with tools called envokers which look just like guns. The image of teenagers shooting themselves in the head may seem quite controversial, but somehow it just works for the game’s theme and even manages to look cool while avoiding looking too overly edgy.
In contrast with Persona 2‘s dominant red color palette, Persona 3’s dominant color palette is blue. This helps set the game’s dark yet contemplative mood. Overall, Persona 3’s graphics have a very stylistic feel to them that certainly give the game plenty of personality. The only thing that holds the game back in terms of graphics are the uninspired dungeon designs that seem copy pasted and go on for floors upon floors. Players will quickly tire of seeing these designs since they will spend a lot of time ascending the tower of Tartarus, the dungeon most of the game takes place in.
Accompanying the game’s aesthetics are the game’s excellent score, once again composed by Shoji Meguro. The game now sports a more pop-inspired soundtrack which helps emphasize how modern the setting is while still retaining it’s dark feel. The game’s score can range from upbeat synth pop for cheerful light hearted scenarios to somber piano pieces to help drive home the more emotional scenes. This is one trait of the Persona series that it manages to keep consistent throughout all the games. Unlike the previous two games, Persona 3 now features full voice acting for cutscenes. The English cast do an excellent job bringing life to their characters with only a few exceptions. The game’s soundtrack is certainly one of it’s strong points and after playing, you will find it hard not to catch yourself singing along to a few tunes in your head.
Most of the game’s gameplay has been overhauled which helps make combat feel less of a chore. Gone are the dreaded, ever-so-frequent random encounters of the previous games. Enemies now appear in the dungeon as moving blobs of shadows. The player now has the opportunity to make an opening strike against the enemies in the overworld which results in them attacking first. Players can even opt to avoid fighting the shadows altogether although if the enemies catch up, battle will initiate with the players being at a disadvantage. This gives players more control over whether they actually want to get into a fight or not, something those who played the previous Persona games might find relieving.
At it’s heart, Persona 3 is still a turn based RPG, but this time the combat has been made more streamlined. Players still attack with weapons and summon their Personas to cast physical and elemental spells. Abusing elemental weaknesses is now a more pronounced combat mechanic since attacking an enemy with their weaknesses causes them to get knocked down for a turn. Smart players may want to abuse this system by knocking down every enemy in one turn in order to initiate an all out attack for massive damage. The system of elemental weaknesses can also work against the player since they are also vulnerable to being knocked down by elemental attacks they are weak against. Thus even experienced players can find themselves in a tight spot when they find their party thoroughly beaten by elements they are weak against.
Unlike the previous games, the player is not in full control of their party. Besides the main protagonist, all of your other party members are completely AI controlled. This helps make combat feel like a whole new experience since it actually feels like you’re fighting alongside fellow individuals instead of just choreographic all the combat yourself. Interesting as it is, it can potentially spell trouble as the AI sometimes doesn’t make the smartest of decisions such as casting a useless debuff when what the party really needs is a heal. Such blunders can often spell doom for the rest of the party. Fortunately, the player can assign tactics to his party members so he can at least direct what kind of role each member of the party can actively play.
Gone are the previous games’ demon negotiation system. This makes sense as the players aren’t fighting sentient demons anymore, but mindless shadows. At the end of combat, there is a random chance for special “Shuffle time” segments to occur where the player can pick one out of several shuffled cards which result in either random benefits, ending up empty handed, or gaining a new persona. Just like in previous Persona games, Persona fusion in the velvet room makes a comeback. Unlike the arduous chore of collecting cards to summon new personas, fusion in Persona 3 is a more straightforward affair. Two Personas are combined which result in a new persona being created. The resulting Persona inherits skills from the Personas used in fusing it and options to use more than two Personas for fusion are unlocked later in the game. Personas in the game level up slowly, thus enforcing constant fusion in order to stay strong in the game. Players can also switch Personas in the heat of combat. Smart players would put this to good use by bringing Personas of multiple elemental resistances so that they have their bases covered when facing different enemy types. This gives the game a Pokemon-like level of strategy in terms of what Personas they fuse and bring to battle.
There’s more to the gameplay than just combat though. When not fighting shadows in Tartarus’ many, many floors, the players can spend peaceful school days living out the main protagonist’s high school life. First making it’s debut in the game is the dating-sim-like Social Link system. Players can form bonds of friendship with certain NPCs ranging from party members, to classmates, to even chain smoking Buddhist monks who hang out at nightclubs. Every social link represents a different arcana of the tarot, and just like how each tarot tells a different story, every social link is a unique experience. The more time you spend improving your social links with other characters, the more you learn about them and help them overcome their personal crises.
The game rewards you for improving a social link by granting an experience bonus to Personas you fuse if they have the same arcana as your social link. Stronger links yield greater experience gain. The ultimate reward to increasing a social link is the ability to fuse the ultimate Persona of that arcana. The social link system also allows the players to pursue a romance with the many available women in the game. There is nothing stopping the player for living out their fantasies of having a high school harem, though romancing multiple girls at the same time instead of maxing their relationships one at a time may cause them to get jealous.
This duality between your two routines help keep the game feeling fresh, the game even enforces this in certain ways. Players are discouraged from spending too much time grinding in Tartarus by the game’s fatigue system. Spend too much time in Tartarus and your party members start feeling tired and their performance drops. Spend too much time socializing and the game’s calendar progresses, forcing you to face storyline bosses while under levelled. Some people this a nice change of pace refreshing, others find this forced juggling of responsibilities a hassle.
The game puts you in the shoes of a new transfer student who just recently moved into Tatsumi port island. Here, a strange phenomenon known as the dark hour occurs where normal people are transmogrified into coffins and shadows roam freely. The Protagonist is shortly inducted into the Special Extracurricular Execution Squad, or SEES for short. The SEES are composed of special individuals like the Protagonist who don’t turn into coffins during the dark hour. In order to combat the shadows that roam the dark hour, the members of SEES can use evokers to summon their Personas to do battle with. Armed with their personas, the members of SEES investigate the tower Tartarus which seems to hold the key behind the true nature of the dark hour.
The game’s plot seems simple at first, but the deeper you get into the game, the more complex the story becomes with each new revelation. Death and mortality are central themes in the games story and everyone in SEES had lost something important to them one way or another. Persona 3 is a very character driven story which explores how every member of the party copes with the increasingly grave stakes raised against them. The game shows us how each character overcomes that loss and it even translates in game with their Persona evolving as a sign of their newly discovered resolve. The characters are all very likeable, each with their own distinct personality and motivations for why they fight. They have their flaws but it also helps highlight how human they are and make sympathizing with them easier. At the end of the story, the cast have all become a lot more mature from the lessons they learned throughout their journey.
After finishing the game the first time, there is still much replay value to be squeezed out of a new game plus. Players can opt to pursue social links they missed out the first time around. For completionists out there, there is also the challenge of reaching a 100% completion rate for the Persona compendium (think pokedex but for Personas). New game plus lets the player keep their levels, equipment, money, and compendium progress. This may make most of the dungeon crawling laughably easy, but new game plus also opens up a bonus dungeon with brutally difficult enemies to test the truly hardcore.
If you’re hungry for even more action, Persona 3: FES features a playable epilogue campaign known as The Answer where you get to play as Aigis, one of your party members. The Answer seeks to bring some much needed closure for the game’s plot. Due to the unique setting of the epilogue, all the social interaction segments are removed thus leaving most of the game being nothing but grinding. While an understandable decision, what does proceed to baffle me is the removal of the compendium. What this means is that persona fusion is now more unnecessarily difficult. Then again, looking at it from another perspective, the inclusion of The Answer definitely does help extend the game’s replay value and providing an additional challenge for people who have bled the game dry and are hungry for more.
To sum it all up, Persona 3 brings to the table many new features that definitely establish it’s identity as a unique RPG with a great soundtrack, compelling storyline, very memorable characters, well integrated dating sim elements, and smooth, dynamic gameplay. While the game still has it’s share of flaws such as repetitively uninspired dungeon design that goes on for more than two hundred floors and borderline unreliable party member AI, those flaws seem minor compared to the overall experience the game has to offer. Whether you’re a seasoned JRPG veteran or someone completely new to the genre, Persona 3 is definitely worth adding to your collection. It’s stylish, edgy, engaging, and definitely a major time sink.
This may be the third game in the series, but it’s also the first to become a big hit overseas. Persona 3 is a unique blend of urban fantasy, heavy philosophical themes, and high school slice of life that’ll leave you wanting more. Stay tuned for more as our next review tackles the PSP port ofPersona 3 which definitely does more than just make it portable. While you’re at it, feel free to check our reviews on the previous games in the series, Persona 2 and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.