Developers – Atlus
Publisher – Atlus USA (NA), Koei (EU)
Platforms – PS2
Persona 3 is one of the big-name JRPGs that I’ve been meaning to play for quite a while, as multiple people have recommended it to me. Despite a good story, production quality and a reasonably innovative and fun combat system, Persona 3 failed to impress me for a number of reasons. Imagine having a giant package delivered containing some of your favourite sweets/desserts/some other transient enjoyment and you may get some idea of how I feel about this game. Sure, it’s great whenever you manage to find one of the things you’re searching for, but you spend more time digging through all of the packing pellets than you do actually enjoying what you find, and once you’re finished all you’re left with are aching arms.
What if there were a Dark Hour, a twenty-fifth hour of the day? What if only a few people were conscious during it, and the rest of us turned into coffins for its duration? What if horrific shadowy creatures preyed upon those unfortunate enough to be conscious during that time? What if you could do something about it? That’s the situation Persona’s protagonist is presented with. The new dormitory he moves into is actually a secret base for SEES, the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, a group determined to hunt down the Shadows plaguing their city. Better yet, during the Dark Hour his new school transforms into Tartarus, a demonic tower marking the hub of Shadow activity. Balancing high school life, scaling the dark tower and learning to use his new-found power of summoning Personas, beings of great power, shouldn’t be too difficult, right?
That’s Persona in a nutshell. Half of the game will be spent during the day’s normal hours, developing relationships with others and upping your social stats, with the other half being spent in Tartarus during the Dark Hour, mindlessly fighting Shadows. I’m going to cover the former topic first because it will make the review a little easier to write. Your daytime exploits consist of developing things called Social Links. Each side character you can spend time with has their own Link and set of events you can experience with them. While the characters themselves aren’t badly done, I found their individual stories to be bland and uninteresting for the most part, with the majority of their scenes just repeating what you already know. For a feature that takes up hours of game time it just wasn’t entertaining and I did it more out of necessity that anything else (more on that later). The other normal-world feature is your stat levels of Charm, Courage and Academics which need to be levelled to specific milestones in order to access some of the Social Links. There’s a time limit associated with them as well, but the game won’t tell you when you need each stat leveled up by, or to what degree.
Each Link has 10 stages and there are 22 Links, with 5 of them representing possible romantic relationships. One of the reasons I wasn’t a fan of the Social Link system was because it meant that once you had hung out with a particular person 10 times (or more than 10 as not every encounter has unique dialogue) there was no more reason to interact with them because they didn’t say anything new. Imagine getting to the point where you’re best friends with someone and then never talking to them again. It’s just weird that the game would try to make you care about someone and then deny you any further access to them. The other thing I disliked was that no matter how far your relationship progressed with the “girlfriend” characters, it didn’t change how they reacted to you outside of their scenarios. I would spend a romantic few hours at the movies with someone, only to have them asking me what I had been up to that afternoon with no acknowledgement that they felt anything but indifferent towards me. There’s one exception to that, but it seems so out of place that it doesn’t do much to help the cause. Awesomecurry has suggested that this is because Japan has strong feelings about public displays of affection, which may well be the case, though I feel that it was more of a lack of effort on the developer’s part. In any other game these issues wouldn’t even matter, but because Persona has chosen to attempt to emulate high school life using relationships with peers the deficits become much more important.
The other half of the game involves scaling the many floors of Tartarus and fighting Shadows with your Personas, which are powerful beings you can summon during the Dark Hour. I have to give the developer’s credit for the variety of Personas available and even their design in general, with each being based on some sort of myth or legend. You get new ones either by picking them up after a battle or by fusing old ones into something better. The fusion system is well done and is nice enough to provide a way for you to buy back Personas you’ve already had in the past, but the number of times you have to repeatedly set up a fusion to get the stats and abilities you want can make putting your team together a little tedious. Though your Personas can level up on their own, you won’t get through the game without fusion. Speaking of levelling up, by increasing the ranks of the Social Links that I mentioned earlier you can net some free level-ups for Personas of that Link’s type, which is probably the only reason I bothered with most of them.
In combat you control only one character of a party of 4, meaning that you have to rely on the AI for three quarters of your actions. Unfortunately the AI is absolutely rubbish and relying on them would be a terrible idea (not that you have a choice). There are tactics that you can set to guide your allies’ actions but when the designated healer decides that she would rather use a 100hp healing item instead of fully healing my entire party that is currently at death’s door, you know something’s wrong. The actual combat is turn-based and mostly consists of trying to determine your enemy’s weakness so you can swap to the appropriate Persona to knock them down and either have another turn or, if all enemies are knocked down, perform a full-party attack for massive damage. It works reasonably well but it means that enemies have to be tough to stay competitive; one missed or resisted attack can spell the end for you when your enemy can also take advantages of weaknesses (and have whole-party-targeting spells). Oh, and if your main character dies you lose, even if every other party member is on full health. Did I mention that a decent number of enemies have insta-kill spells? Have fun with that.
Persona’s levelling system is not well balanced. Experience gains decrease as you level up and have a weird distribution in general, with incredibly easy bosses rewarding you with many times more EXP than other much harder ones. You’ll also find that even if you’ve done some moderate grinding it won’t be enough at times, requiring extended visits to Tartarus that really aren’t fun at all. Due to the whole game-over-when-your-main-character-dies thing that I mentioned earlier it’s very easy to lose hours of grinding progress as well, though I was careful and it only happened a few times in my case. There are 3 main types of bosses in Persona 3, though I’ll start with the two non-human ones before covering the other type later on. The bosses you fight in Tartarus have no story associated with them, though they must be defeated in order to progress. Generally more powerful versions of normal enemies, they work as more of a level-check than any real challenge as the question is more one of “can I actually survive their strongest attack?” than anything actually regarding strategy. The story-related Shadow bosses are fought outside Tartarus and tend to involve longer fights rather than hard ones. The last boss is especially bad, with the fight potentially lasting over an hour and only becoming challenging in the last 10 minutes – meaning that 85% of the fight is completely redundant and if you die you have to sit though nearly an hour of content you have already completed.
Persona’s main concept and story are interesting and well done, giving a classic example of a self-insert protagonist without letting that choice impact negatively on story delivery; the problem lies in how the game is set out. Every time there’s a full moon a new and powerful Shadow appears and you participate in a special scenario that has an accompanying slice of plot. The problem with things being done this way was that it meant you were only experiencing a decent chunk of the main story (read: 30 minutes) every full moon, and thanks to the game’s other filler-like features (Social Links, required grinding) those full moons were multiple hours apart. When you have that kind of gap in between main content it doesn’t matter how good the characters, plot or actual writing are; you just don’t see enough of them to become engaged with the story. The other thing that gets me is the human enemies in the game: a group called Strega. Despite being talked up to be incredibly powerful and a major threat, and you being rewarded with huge amounts of experience after defeating them, they actually prove to be the easiest boss fights of the game. Because of this and despite Persona’s overall serious nature, they come across as more of a bumbling Team Rocket-esque ensemble than anything more threatening.
Interestingly enough, I really enjoyed the ending and epilogue of the game, which lets you run around town like normal, except this time seeing what has become of all the characters you interacted with over the course of the story. The ending itself was a bit of a cliff-hanger, presumably because there’s a second story available after completion of the first, but I would have been happy for everything to end there because the events were open to interpretation (and my interpretation was a hell of a lot better than the canon story). The second part of the game (called The Answer, with the first being called The Journey) was only added in the later-released Persona: FES. From what I saw of the story it looked to be quite interesting, despite shattering my conception of what had happened at the end of the first part. Unfortunately that entire portion of the game is on hard mode by default and choc-full of grinding, without the ability to buy back Personas you’ve used in fusion. Given the difficulty (I died on the second fight) and the amount of time that was going to be required to play it, I decided to drop The Answer because no amount of story was going to make me relive my memories of Tartarus.
Before I finish there is one aspect of Persona 3 that deserves some praise. The game’s soundtrack is phenomenally catchy and pleasant to listen to even though you’ll be hearing the same tunes for hours on end. I think I even started hearing it in my sleep at some point. The music even evolves as you get further in the game, keeping things relatively fresh without doing away with the tracks you’ve come to love. The normal graphical quality is fine for an older game, though some of the anime scenes that show up sporadically look horrific – there was definitely much better animation available when Persona was released. Apart from that, as mentioned earlier, the Persona designs are really quite well done.
Summary – Persona 3 is a lot like one of those huge 200+ episode anime. It goes on forever, and when it gets around to progressing with the story it’s really entertaining, but the content in between those bits can only be described as filler. The characters are good and the combat is reasonably fun but neither of those aspects make up for a lack of anything happening (and endless repetition when it comes to the combat). While the game itself isn’t bad, if I had the opportunity to go back in time and stop myself from playing it I probably would because, of the 90 hours I spent playing, I probably only actually enjoyed 20 or 30 of them.
Overall Score – 5.5/10 – Average
Without Grinding/Filler – 8/10 – Good