Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Review
The PS2 has had its fair share of great RPGs over the past six years, and they haven't slowed down now that the system has entered its twilight time. One of the most recent is Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, which is an intriguing blend of the Shin Megami Tensei (Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga, etc.) and Persona franchises. It's easily one of the most unique RPGs to date, too, which means role-playing fans in search of something a little different should definitely consider a purchase. It also helps a great deal that you get a sweet little hardcover art book for free - you pay the standard $50 for the whole package - and there are at least 60 hours of gameplay here. Yep, it's well worth the dollar amount, but bear in mind there are a few significant drawbacks that may adversely affect your buying decision. It's original, it's a lot of fun, but it's not flawless.
The graphics are vintage Atlus and the palette is most reminiscent of...well, both the series that are combined in this game. But there is a relatively heavy mature slant to the anime cut-scenes, which follows more in line with the SMT franchise. Despite some interesting character and enemy design, there isn't much to praise in the backdrops and environments, as a lot of it is stark and unappealing. This is the visual tone they've adopted, though, and it does fit the atmosphere. Therefore, you won't find a lot of bright color or intricate detail in the backdrops, but if you're a fan of the Japanese anime style, it won't bother you one bit. It's unfortunate there's not a heck of a lot of variety (we'll outline why when we talk about the gameplay), but for what it is, Persona 3's graphical presentation works quite well. The town areas aren't too bad, and at least the visuals aren't constantly bogged down by jaggies, clipping, or other highly visible errors. If you're familiar with previous Atlus RPGs, you likely know what to expect.
Some decent voice acting and a soundtrack that fits the mood bolsters the sound category, even though there's a lot of repetition going on during exploration and battle. Those rock tracks start off engaging and fun but end up being tiresome and even annoying; however, because you're continually going back and forth between areas, the soundtrack doesn't grate too badly. The sound effects are generally a major positive throughout your adventure, and with such a solid voice cast, the player will appreciate the effort Atlus put into creating a good sound repertoire. Again, we do have a problem with the overall variety, but that's just something you'll have to accept. The lack of diversity pops up most in battle while wandering around Tartarus, and the repetition kicks in big time when running around school and town during the day. On the other hand, this doesn't take away from the assembled quality, and the voice acting makes up for a less-than-impressive soundtrack. You just have to withstand the negatives.
On the surface, Persona 3 appears to be a relatively straightforward turn-based RPG when examining the battles. However, there's a great deal more to this game than meets the eye, and you'll realize that within the first hour. The game actually revolves around several facets of the gameplay, and that includes forming Social Links, gathering and fusing Personas, and participating in a number of school and town events that will contribute directly to your success in battle. There's just a whole lot going on, and you'll soon love the idea of juggling school and Tartarus, keeping an eye on the calendar, and planning days, even weeks ahead. Atlus often creates RPGs that are all about micromanagement, but essentially, this one is more about micromanagement: you are required to manage just about every aspect of your day, but it's not anywhere near as challenging or as deep as you might think. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either.
You play as a teenager who has a mysterious ability: the ability to use Personas. To summon these friends of the dark, the character actually...well, it appears as if they're shooting themselves in the head with a handgun. But, it's not really a handgun and they're not really injuring themselves. It's a complicated situation, and one we'll let you discover as you progress, but you can't deny its interesting appeal. It's part of a very good storyline that may unravel a little slowly at first, but with more than a few well designed characters, you'll never be left hanging. The first thing you'll have to understand is that every action you do advances the course of a day. In this way, everything moves along at a pretty quick pace, but that also means you have to keep an eye on the proceedings. With Tartarus only open at night, school during the day (most days), and parts of the town open at various times, you really need to hammer out a schedule from week to week.
Now that we've mentioned Tartarus, we can explain: it's the tower that appears at midnight every night during the Dark Hour (midnight), where nasty Shadows roam and your worthy party will invade and conquer. Every time you go there, the floors change, but you can always find your way with a handy map and way points every five floors that let you leap directly to every fifth level. The only problem is, most all of these floors are pretty similar looking, and wandering through never-ending mazes on each level can get pretty boring. It's just not as involving as we expect the action portions of the game to be, which definitely takes away from the game's appeal. On top of this, when you can only control the main character in battle, the strategy and player involvement drops even further. Sure, you can issue different commands to your allies (in and out of battle), but you never actually choose what they do on each turn; they choose for themselves based on the standing command. They typically do a fine job on their own, but that's not the point, here.
At the core of the battle lies the Personas, and only the main character can handle multiple Personas at once. These Personas are the equivalent of summons in other RPGs; they arrive briefly to level a special attack at the enemy. These come in hundreds of shapes and sizes, and each one is different from the other: they all have a variety of different skills and abilities. Some will be super-effective against certain enemies, others will be entirely ineffective. You will have to find the enemy's weak point, and if you do, you can often complete the battle without giving your foes even a single turn. We saw this format in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, where you are rewarded for exploiting an enemy's weakness; your team gets another turn when that happens. However, the reverse proves true as well: if the enemy hits you with a critical attack, they will get another move. It's the type of thing that adds a great amount of depth to a traditional turn-based battle format, that's for sure.
Fusing Personas is also quite the process. You can combine two or three Personas, and you will see the result before you attempt the blend. The new Persona will inherit certain traits and abilities of his/her "parents," but you can only perform the fusion if you're of the appropriate level. In other words, if you've got two Personas that will combine to form a much more powerful Persona, and that new one requires a level of 11; well, you see where we're going with this. Oh, but it doesn't end there. These Personas are divided into classes, and they will benefit from your Social Links. Social Links are formed during the day, in school, after school, or around the town, and they will strengthen certain Persona classes. For example, if you join the Kendo team and become friends with one of your teammates, you will enhance the power of Chariot Personas. By befriending other people, you will add to the power of other Personas, and you'll want to create as many Social Links as possible. This is simply because you never know which class your most effective Persona will fall into...
As you can see, the game is very unique and pretty darn involved; it's obvious this is an Atlus creation. Our only problem lies with Tartarus - couldn't we at least have had different towers or magically different worlds within the tower, or something? - and the fact the battles don't really take advantage of the very deep Persona system. Basically, once you've discovered the weakness of any given enemy, you can easily run the table and stick around for quite a while before your characters become fatigued. Fatigue is something we haven't outlined just yet, but it doesn't require much explanation. The longer you explore and fight in Tartarus, the more your characters will tire, and when tired, they become much less effective in battle. They will miss more frequently, and they won't move as fast. Therefore, each foray into Tartarus is like a race against time; you want to get through at least five levels - those way points are lifesavers - before you have to return for the night.
You can also work on little quests for additional rewards, play a MMO in your room, answer questions correctly in class to up your Academics (or catch some Zs to restore health), and switch your focus between friends to get a well-rounded Persona resume. So there's plenty to do and plenty to like about Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. But the story really does take too long to unfold, the battle environment is far too repetitive and often boring, you don't have as much control as you would like (only controlling one character isn't much fun), the soundtrack gets ridiculously repetitive at times, and there's no actual world map you can physically explore. Again, some of this contributes positively to the style and atmosphere, but they also detract from the overall quality. For RPG fans, we would certainly recommend Atlus' latest, but if you're more of a role-playing novice or you prefer a more traditional format, we would advise you look elsewhere. Wild ARMs 5, while not being quite as deep or accomplished, might be a good option.
10/4/2007 Ben Dutka