Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 ReviewGreg Knoll
If I could think of only one word to describe Persona 3 that would be it. From the very start of the game, I had no idea what I was in for. The introduction played out like a dark, morbid Japanime film with the score to match.
I was intrigued. Persona 3 has more mystery crammed into the first fifteen minutes than most games do in forty hours.
It starts out with a disturbing cut-scene that bounds between a strange fellow on a train with his MP3 player blaring in his ear and a scared, trembling girl sitting on the floor of her room, holding a gun to her head and pulling the trigger. The game only gets more bizarre and more mysterious after that. After you've picked a name for the character on the train, he comes to his stop--a broken down, old dorm room.
As soon as you step through the doorframe, reality fades away and a bizarre child appears and spouts a few cryptic phrases. She asks you to sign a contract, saying the only rule is that you accept the decisions that you've made and try not to change your fate when your year is up. Once signed, he disappears and you return to reality. You're then almost immediately accosted by that same girl you saw in the cut-scene, only this time she's holding the gun on you instead of herself, and she doesn't seem nearly as insecure.
It's all a misunderstanding, and eventually she eases on you and apologizes. As quickly as it started, the tense, mysterious atmosphere changes, and everyone acts normal. No more shifting into reality to sign strange contracts, no more cryptic cut-scenes or strange dialogue.
At least, for a while...
That's where Persona stands out. Most RPG games push a certain type of mentality, one that has you building your character's levels, gaining strength, more HP and so on. Most RPG games have you do this by grinding dungeons and killing enemies. During the day, Persona 3 actually plays like a simulator. You talk to different people, develop relationships with them and build aspects of your personality like academics, charm and courage. Day in and day out, when the sun is shining, you play the game as an ordinary teenager.
But then night falls...
And again you're thrust into a completely different world. During the night there exists what's known as "The Dark Hour", an hour in which most people are trapped in a suspended animation, sleeping in huge coffins completely unaware of what's going on around them. However, there are a few people that can actually walk around during this strange window in time completely coherent, including your character and everyone else that lives in your dorm. During "The Dark Hour" is when the game plays like an RPG.
It's actually in typical fashion for the most part. It's turn-based, and you can have up to four in your party at any given time. Most of the investigating happens in "The Tower", a huge, mysterious area that takes the place of your normal school when the dark hour strikes. And as with all RPGs, you're going to fight. You battle enemies inside this tower--known as shadows--and you can use any of the normal options: Attack, flee, items, etc.
The main difference in Persona 3 and what makes both the game and the turn-based battles stand out is magic. Your character can't use it per se, but each one has its own different "persona"--a creature that is loyal only to the one who owns it, able to wield powerful magic and devastating attacks. The rest of your team has only one they can call upon, but your character has the ability to call upon dozens.
Each "persona" is unique, and each one has its own alignment based on Tarot Cards. Some are magic personas, some are fool personas, some judgment and some lovers.
You have the power to use any of them, and each one has its own characteristics--but the game becomes interesting because the personas are affected by all other elements of the game.
The first is actually creating the personas. Most are found by grinding levels and defeating enemies. Inside the tower (as well as other places around the city) there's a small door that only you can see. It's known as the velvet room. Inside this room is a strange, hobbled old man named Igor and his cryptic, monotone bright-eyed companion. With their help, you can fuse personas together to make better and more powerful ones. The more you fuse together, the more valuable they are. It's a simple task, really, and it's fairly straightforward, but anytime I came across a new one in the dungeon, or when I developed a new social link, I returned to the velvet room to see what else I could make.
I said earlier that you develop relationships. Those relationships actually affect how strong your personas can become. Your relationship status is gauged by what they call "social links". You develop them with both your classmates and your team members. Once this social link is established, you gain extra experience points when you fuse personas of the same kind. For example, developing a social link with your classmate Kenji will create a link for your magic personas. Anytime you create one, if you developed the corresponding link with it, you will gain extra experience points. The higher the link, the more experience you garner for your persona, helping them level up much quicker and giving your stats a boost as well.
The persona/fusing aspect is what melds the entire game together. It makes the turn-based battles a little easier to stomach with different visuals for each of them, as well as a curiosity that develops in wondering when you'll find a new one, and what you'll be able to make with it. It pushed me to develop those links between other characters in hopes of making my personas as strong as possible.
I'm admit that Persona 3 starts off a bit slow, and there's a fair amount of dialogue to ingest before you get to the action and a lot of tutorials that come across as bland. But it fades. Much like the sunny days disappear into the dark hour, the game's lunkish start becomes all but a memory. The story becomes very dark, very mysterious and very addictive. The cut-scenes are brilliantly shot and great to watch; it's some of the best cinematography I've seen, and some of the most intriguing animation in a game. And once you're finally able to fuse personas, battle and speak freely, the game just envelops you and won't let go. It leaves you wondering what is going to happen next or what the next floor of the tower is going to bring. What will happen when your year is over? Did you make the right decisions or the wrong ones? What lies at the center of "The Dark Hour" and these mysterious characters? It was the story that drew me in, and the amazing aspect of personas that kept me playing, leaving me to use another word to describe the game.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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