A hidden gem in JRPG madness. Written early 2008.
The Persona series eluded me a bit for a while. I was far too caught up in the world of Final Fantasy, a tamer Japanese RPG than Persona with its very weird moments and quirks that makes it undoubtedly Japanese in origin. However having played Persona 3, I wished I’d tried Persona before. The series is set in contemporary times with the main protagonists being high school teenagers who just happen to be imbued with magical powers formed from the strange ‘Personae’; parts of the characters’ soul that are hidden away deep within their psyche until this game. It may not make a lot of sense yet but just wait, it’ll start to slowly make a bit more sense in time.Persona 3 starts out extremely slowly in comparison to many other games.
Even for an RPG, it’s still pretty slow progress for it to take well over an hour before any major battles. And so sets the scene for the rest of the game. This really isn’t a game for violence, sure there’s battles but the prime focus within the game is definitely the story and the cutscenes. Luckily the cutscenes are very impressive. Despite the ageing technology of the PS2, Atlus Co. deal with this failing admirably by using anime based cutscenes. It really does seem like an anime movie at times. Even the intro feels like a strange Japanese homage to the Bond film intros!
The story itself revolves around a teenager transferred to a new High School. While there, he is attacked by Shadows, creatures that feed off the minds of their victims. Luckily just as all seems to be futile for our young hero, his persona is awakened by the attack and he frees himself from the creatures. Straight after that, he meets up with some other young heroes who have similar powers, although he is alone in his ability to control multiple different personas. Perhaps strangely the main solution to the problem of these Shadows appearing at night, is to enter a strange tower called Tartarus during the ‘Dark Hour’ in the middle of the night.
It’s all somewhat bizarre and believe me when I say, it gets more and more weird as you progress through the game. But at least it’s a bit of a twist on the usual ’save the world’ plot that is seemingly ever present in RPGs. Of course, no decent story in a game can do well without good gameplay, and Persona 3 certainly has that. In fact, compared to recent RPGs, it is incredibly innovative at times.
The game moves at a set pace of day to day activities. At the High School you attend, there’s many different things you can do throughout each day. It’s a little bit reminiscent of The Sims but not quite as in depth, which is certainly a good thing. Instead it is recommended, rather than compulsory, to do some activities because they boost your attributes. For example, listening in a class builds your academic ability. As well as that, creating ’social links’ by interacting with members of your team outside of battle is extremely useful as it goes towards boosting your performance in battle. There’s even dating sim elements to Persona 3. It really is a bit of an eclectic mix of Japanese gaming elements but it all blends together very well and in an extremely playable package.
Of course, as has already been mentioned, the social scene isn’t the only part of the game. Tartarus plays an equally important role and that’s where the battle system comes into play. Only the main character can be controlled directly with his allies being controlled by the game AI. However, you can influence this somewhat by giving guidelines such as to heal or support others, or to attack continuously. Perhaps the strangest part of battle is when you summon a Persona, it involves shooting yourself in the head. Not overly recommended outside of a video game, it has to be said. However, in Persona 3 it causes you ‘emotional stress’ rather than death and brings forth your powerful Persona to fight for one attack instead. As the game progresses you can gain new Personas through the shuffle card game that appears at regular intervals. It’s basically a simple game of ‘watch the card you want’ and you can gain a number of different forms of equipment as well as new Personas.
On reading this, you might well think that Persona 3 is a mishmash of very Japanese ideas, and you’d be right. But it’s all down to the execution of the ideas and this game has managed to combine some very peculiar elements into a very delicious package. It won’t suit everyone’s taste. It does start out very slowly and Tartarus isn’t overly exciting to look at but it has innovation by the bucket load and anyone who’s been a bit disappointed by the same old RPG formula over and over again, would do well to take a look at this. That goes for any Anime fans too who will appreciate this for its great Anime feeling. Now step away from your Final Fantasy 37s and your Mass Effects, dust off your PS2 and give this a whirl. You might well be very pleased you did.