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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 - Retrospective Review
The twilight years of the PS2 were host to some incredible bouts of innovation. Okami, Shadow of the Colossus and God Hand were all great games that didn't come out until the PS3 was chomping at its predecessor's heels. Meanwhile, Japanese RPGs had been suffering from something of a crisis, Final Fantasy XII was released to critical acclaim from most parts but left fans feeling a little confused; with its MMO style combat system being a big departure from previous games in the series. The stale J-RPG foundations were about to be shaken however, with the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3.
As the title suggests, this wasn't the first in the series. Persona had already had a minor following on the original PlayStation, which were home to the series' first two games. It wasn't until the arrival of Persona 3 however, that the spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei games threatened to outdo the core series.
Persona 3's set-up is a work of genius: you're a high school student who's just moved to a new town, but strange things are afoot. First off, every day at midnight the moon turns green, blood comes out of the walls and evil monsters start to roam the streets. Welcome to the Dark Hour, a strange alternate-reality that occurs every night and leaves most people locked in ominous black coffins, with only those that possess the "potential" able to remain conscious during the Dark Hour.
It's a creepy, horror-tinged approach to an RPG and it's made even more unsettling by the fact that characters have to shoot themselves in the head in order to summon Personas: manifestations of their subconscious that fight on their behalf. After a few hours of playing, you've met up with other kids with the same power and you're off hunting monsters at night in an attempt to save your school and the surrounding town.
What's makes the game click however, is that the high school student story isn't just a bit of window dressing, it's built in to the core of the game. While nighttime allows for plenty of shadow hunting action, during the day it's the same old, same old at school. Your character can be a slacker or a straight-A genius. He can join the swimming team or the Kendo club. It doesn't take long before the game hands you the reins completely and you're simply allowed to do as you please.
Rather than act as simple mini-games, all of this socialising improves your Personas' performance when it comes to fighting. Make friends with some kindly old folks who run a book store and you can be toting a tooled-up monstrosity that looks like Cthulhu by nightfall. It's odd for a game to be both moody and also charming, sometimes at the same time.
While the ordinary day/monster-filled night contrast allows for some great pacing, it's the quality writing that really brings it all together. As far as Japanese titles go, this is one of the best localization jobs in years; being written well for a Western audience but without erasing the references to Japanese culture. The dialogue is spot-on, capturing the sense of care-free teenagers without feeling like it's trying to be too cool, or making the characters annoying and snarky. Persona 3 has a pretty dark and disturbing story to tell, but it never loses sight of its characters.
Combat meanwhile, is the usual SMT-fare, albeit with a few minor changes. The emphasis is still on exploiting weaknesses as much as possible - a general strategy in most RPGs - but in Persona 3 it's almost mandatory. Fail to swap out a Persona that's weak to ice and you're potentially one ice spell away from the game over screen, as both the player and enemy gain additional turns from super-effective attacks. It's not so much that Persona 3 is hard, but more that it's far more willing than most games to punish your mistakes, encouraging players to pay attention and adapt their play style.
The Pokémon-style demon collecting system also makes a return, with the protagonist capable of altering his Persona at will. It adds yet another strategic dimension to an already deep role-playing game, with players capable of "fusing" various Personas together in order to gain more powerful ones with different move sets.
Persona 3 FES & Persona 3 Portable
After being released in 2006, a special addition titled Persona 3 FES (the "FES" actually was short for Festival), was unveiled only a year later. Working kind of like a Game of the Year addition, this version also brought along a series of expanded scenes, as well as a few tweaks to how certain things in the game worked, much like a Director's Cut would. It was the 20+ hour bonus segment however, that really got tongues wagging, adding a hefty chunk of gameplay to an already deep game, not to mention helping flesh out one of the game's side characters.
This was followed up later on by a PSP version, which, by necessity, had to strip out some of the game's more demanding moments, such as the animated cut-scenes, in order to fit on the disc. It's a shame too because otherwise, the PSP was a natural home for a game like Persona 3. The day-by-day progression in particular leant itself to the console's portable nature, oddly enough giving the PSP the closest it's ever had to a Pokémon game.
So what remains the definitive addition? It's still difficult to say. The PSP version allowed you control of your fellow party members, whilst the PS2 version relegated those to the AI's control, which wasn't always up to scratch and remained one of the game's most noticeable flaws. But for the sheer volume of stuff to do and the best way to experience it, it's still Persona 3 FES that makes the cut.
Even eight years on from release, it's still remarkably fascinating game and one that managed to breathe life into an increasingly aging and stale video game genre. With Persona 5 on the horizon, there's no better time to check it (and the sequel), out.
Persona 3 was released in 2006 for the PS2 and in 2009 for the PSP.
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