Game - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PS2)
Remember your school days? I bet they were full of days out with your friends and just generally surviving exams and tests. That said, I don’t think it will have gotten as eventful as the characters from and near Gekkoukan High school. That’s mainly because there’s more than 24 hours a day, there’s a load of people going "Uhhhhh" and there’s even a few who own gun-shaped weapons that they use to shoot themselves. Welcome to the surreal world of Persona 3.
As you can already tell, the game has a unique twist to the RPG genre. First of all, you’re playing a year in the life of the main protagonist (named by you) as he goes through his first year after being transferred. Every day at midnight, the dark hour starts, during which time, electronic equipment dies and people turn into coffins. Except you, as it appears you have the "potential". This potential eventually shows that you’re able to summon a Persona (or to be precise, more than one), which you do by using an evoker (which looks like a gun) and firing it at your head. Your other friends in your dorm can also summon a single Persona each and together form SEES - a squad dedicated to eliminating Shadows.
Story-wise, that’s all you need to know. From this point, apart from dedicated storylines, the game’s progress is pretty much up to you. Every Monday to Saturday, you go to school to participate in lessons, answer quizzes and even take the dreaded exams from your youth. After school has finished, you’re able to go out with one of your friends or, if you’re a loner, go out and do some activities by yourself, some of which may help you later on. For example, studying in the library can help improve your academics, which means better progress in the exams.
When evening falls, you have the option to go to Tartarus, the mysterious tower that appears during the dark hour. It is here where you hope to answer questions about the shadows and the dark hour itself. This is where the bulk of the fighting takes place. Persona 3 uses a turn-based system, but you only control the main character’s actions. Everyone else is controlled by the AI. Thankfully then, the AI is pretty good in most situations. You can fine tune the tactics of your team members as well, in case you want to do something specific.
For example, you might want your team-mates to attack the opponent’s weaknesses. If they do this, the enemy will be knocked down, which is rewarded with a bonus attack. If all of the enemies are knocked down, you can call an all-out attack, which produces major damage to all foes. As your personas level up, you are able to use more abilities to help you out and target more of their weaknesses. So, how can you pick up these amazing things?
Well, you can pick some up (as well as some bonus weapons, money or experience points) after battles. The personas you pick up in this way tend to be poor or have an obvious weakness. What’s the best way to get round that? That’s where fusion comes in. When you have 2 or more personas, you can fuse them together in the Velvet Room where you can create a new persona. These fused personas gain some of the abilities of their previous forms. Not only that, but there’s a way to make them start out even stronger. That is based on social links, the relationships you have with your friends during the day.
Basically, if you establish a social link that is the same type as the persona you're creating, your new persona will gain bonus experience points. The better the relationship, the more experience you will gain and the more abilities you can pass on. Also, if you gain enough experience points, you can gain a lot of the abilities that you would usually have to wait for by levelling up normally.
The combinations you can make are huge and the risks of creating something poor are minimal. That’s because the result of every fusion you attempt is shown to you so you can tailor the persona to what you want, which means there’s no excuse not to experiment with fusion, which suddenly starts to feel like a challenge. Can you make the best Persona you can with all its weaknesses covered? While you are in the Velvet room, you can take on a number of requests to gain items and money. You can also store your Personas in a compendium as they are, and take them out for a fee, which potentially makes fusion even less of a risk than it already is. You can quite easily get your Persona back if you use it in a fusion but want to keep the Persona you used.
Balance your life
With everything said, you need to balance school life and your trips to Tartarus carefully. You can spend a long time studying, but then you’ll be unprepared for future trips to the tower. Furthermore, every month in the game, you will have a major story incident which will usually involve fighting. You can’t train on the day it happens so if you’re not good enough, you could potentially be stuck completely. Going all out in Tartarus is not a good idea either. The game is lenient enough in the hardest setting to not make you have to grind your way through the story and your studies will suffer as a result of grinding. While this doesn’t completely affect your progress in Tartarus, some social links and the exams require you to study more until you’re smart enough. Also, trips to Tartarus tend to get slightly tedious as well if you train too much.
By balancing school life and Tartarus, you will find that the pace of the game is well set. You can run through a set of days in a few minutes, then follow it up with a trip to Tartarus, which depending on your style, can take about an hour per trip. The game is voice acted during major cut-scenes and in general, well presented. There are anime cut-scenes for major story events but around that, the graphics style looks great and suits the game perfectly. This is matched by a bouncy Japanese pop soundtrack which gives the game an urban feel. The story is also solid enough to keep you going to the end and as the relationships with your friends get better, you get to know them better yourself, which is something I really like about the game. It provides a distraction to the main story and makes you want to delve deeper into their mini stories, with potentially great rewards at the end.
There are some minor issues though. The AI in the game isn’t perfect for one thing. In my completed attempt at the game, the AI would very rarely cure status ailments unless the tactics were just right. Their inventory also seems to consist of a large potion and a load of smaller potions. The start of the game can be a little dull as well with little in the way of serious action until you’re about an hour in. Saving is also fairly sparse as you can only save at your dorm, or on the ground floor of Tartarus.
In the end though, these are just minor drops in what is a very large ocean. The game is huge and can take about 70-80 hours to complete. If you get into fusion and social links, expect the game to last over 100 hours and if you want to find every single persona in the game, you can spend up to 200 hours finding them all. That’s value for money right there. The game requires a huge commitment of time but what time you spend in your life playing this, you get back with interest with quite possibly one of the most engrossing RPGs released on the PS2. You will sometimes wish it would never end. Thankfully it does, otherwise, we might never see you again. Prepare that evoker, and get ready for a journey of school and shadows that you’ll remember for a long time.