And I swear that I don’t have a gun…
WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Proceed at your own risk
Persona 3, for many, is a game of mixed blessings. On the one hand, it arguably revitalised the Shin Megami Tensei franchise in a way nothing else had. After its release, the level of interest in the series simply exploded, resulting in more games being announced and localised in the space of 12 months than we’d seen in the last few years. Of course, this was not without its drawbacks, according to some. Upon first look at the game’s revamped artstyle, people were quick to react, largely with horror. The designs were being handled by Shigenori Soejima, who did some minor work on Persona 2 and Trauma Centre, rather than series mainstay Kazuma Kaneko. The game would be set primarily around a school, and deal with day to day life to a strict time limit, rather than cheerfully allowing you to set your own pace. And, as people were so very quick to point out, you just know that where there’s a fandom, there’s people ready to write really messed up fanfics where they grab the characters and smoosh them together like dolls, making kissy noises as they do so (you know exactly who you are, don’t try to deny it!). But this article is called “The Best Game Ever” and not “Reasons Why People On Both Sides Of Fandoms Suck”, so we’ll move on for the moment.
Behold the main character, saviour of us all! He has an official name in the canon, but I can’t remember it right now, so for the purposes of this article, his name is Kazuma. Kazuma Tenryu. Kazuma’s transferring to a new school this year, and is moving to the local student boarding house. On his way there, however, things get kinda… weird. Weird as in the sky turning a queasy green colour, all liquid turning to blood and, oh yeah, everyone around him spontaneously transmogrifying into coffins. And as he arrives, he’s immediately confronted by a creepy kid who has him sign a contract of some sort. And then he has a gun pointed at him. It turns out the girl on the other end of the gun, Yukari, is one of his classmates in his new school, and the event is waived off as part of the school club she’s a part of. Of course, that doesn’t entirely explain the massive control room in the upper part of the dorms. Or the fact that they seem to be spying on him as he sleeps. Or the weird visions that he’s having as he sleeps. Or the fact that everyone turns into a goddamn coffin on the stroke of midnight every night!
His suspicions that something is amiss are proved a few days later when the boarding house is attacked by a gelatinous blob monster wielding a mask and too many hands. Yukari drags him out of bed, hands him a sword and tells him to follow her. Unfortunately, they make it as far as the roof before the monster catches up to them. As a last-ditch effort, Yukari pulls out her gun… and turns it on herself? The monster, known as a Shadow, knocks the gun out of her hand, the weapon landing at Kazuma’s feet. Instinctively, he picks it up, puts it to his own head, and pulls the trigger…
“Per… so… na…”
And thus, the game begins.
Persona 3 takes place over the course of a year, and can be neatly split into two parts: day time and night time. During the day, you’ll go to school. This is far more important than you’d believe, since this is where you’ll build up your Social Links. In gameplay terms, Links are required for the enhancement and evolution of your Personas. As its explained in-game, a Persona is a facet of your inner self that can only be released with an Evoker – the gun-like item Yukari tried to use at the start. Everyone has it within themselves to be, at turns, a wise mentor or a cruel bully, a crusader for justice or a vicious destroyer. These take the form of beings of myth and legend, gods and monsters and everything in between. The Social Links themselves all correspond loosely to cards of the tarot, as do the Personas themselves, and the stories that unfold are oddly compelling. There’s the friendly rivalry you encounter with a fellow athlete (The Star), the girl you meet in the online RPG (The Hermit), the shady businessman who offers to take you under his wing (The Devil) the shy treasurer of the student council (Justice)… all of these stories are woven into the bigger picture, and as the Links develop, you find yourself warming to them. You find yourself making time for them, not just because it has a practical effect on the game, but because you actually like these people, and seeing them work out their problems and dilemmas gives you a small sense of pride at having helped them. Your influence, as they point out, has changed them, and your friendship has made them stronger. Of course, as each rank of each Link grants bonus experience to a Persona during fusion, their friendship has an arguably greater effect on you.
The night time part is where the majority of the game takes place. On the stroke of midnight, we enter the Dark Hour, a secret time between 12:00:00 and 12:00:01. During that period, the game’s only dungeon, Tartarus opens up. Tartarus is a 260+ floor randomly-generated dungeon that, chances are, you’ll rapidly grow to hate. You won’t be able to tackle it all at once, thank god, as new areas are only opened after certain events, mostly boss fights. Added to that, is the fact that your characters will suffer from fatigue the longer you stay in the dungeon, potentially rendering them unusable for the next few days. This only really affects you at the beginning of the game, and past the halfway mark, probably won’t even factor in to your decision-making, but it’s at the beginning of the game that you’ll want to spend as much time as you can in there, not only to gain money and experience, but also to get a feel for the combat, and limiting you in such a way is frustrating.
More than that, the dungeon designs are, frankly, poor. The decor only changes when you complete a full block of the dungeon. There are a total of about five or six blocks in the whole game. The game takes place over a year or so. Get used to seeing the same bleeding floors quickly, because they’re not going to be changing any time soon. Of course, when they do change, it’s not always for the better. The progression of the first couple of areas is nice, leading on from one area to the other visually, keeping the same motifs, but towards the end… come on, who thought it was a good idea to have an area that’s best described as ‘blacklight disco party freakout’? And then decided this was a good area to put black enemies in? Don’t be surprised if you spend most of your time watching the radar in the corner of the screen than the game itself, because otherwise, you ain’t seeing shit, buddy. Then the block after that goes even more into whiplash by apparently being made entirely of crystal. It’s like the designers went “Yeah, I know we’ve been trying to have each area thematically consistent with each other, but we’re, what, three weeks away from deadline, let’s just throw in some wacky crap and be done with it!” Smooth move there, guys, doesn’t show at all, really.
Of course, the Tartarus music isn’t that much better. It starts off low-key, subdued, but, as with the level designs, it only changes with each block. And when I say ‘changes’, I mean ‘gains an extra instrument’. It’s horribly repetitive and droning, and it was only with the aid of an mp3 player at my side constantly, that I was able to tolerate it. Of course, that leads in to the main battle theme, Mass Destruction. The Megaten series has a reputation for some of the best boss and battle themes in gaming – Hunting: Comrades from Digital Devil Saga and Battle For Survival from its sequel, the boss theme from Nocturne and so on – and as a piece of music by itself, it’s great. Seriously, can’t fault it, I love it. However, those of you out there reading this, quick question: how quickly did you come to dread the words “Baby baby baby baby”? Like I said, it’s a great song, but they always play the track from the very beginning each and every time. When the intro rapidly acquires the Pavlovian response of your hand hitting the mute button, it’s probably a sign that you should rethink putting lyrics in a battle theme (or not, since Persona 4 did the exact same thing, albeit with a slightly less irritating song intro).
Actually, much of the music in the game suffers from this problem, as anyone who ever felt like da da-da-da-dah can attest. It’s not that its bad, its just that it’s repetitive, and it has to start from the very beginning of the track each and every time you enter a new area. And trust me, you’re going to be doing that a lot. As I’ve said before, lyrical themes are a great idea, but only if they’re used sparingly, otherwise you’re going to be driving a lot of people hopelessly mad on a scale your average Elder God could only dream of.
And then we get to the combat itself. The Press Turn system from Nocturne is reused here, but with a minor difference: any character who scores a critical attack, or exploits a weakness gains an automatic chance to attack again. If they do the same thing again, this time on a different enemy, they get to attack again, and so on until they miss or run out of enemies. If they manage to do this, the enemy (or character, as it can happen to you as well) is knocked down and has to waste a turn getting back up, assuming they’re not hit with a physical attack in the meantime. If all enemies are down, you get the option for an All-Out Attack, where everyone bum-rushes the enemy dealing massive physical damage to everything. Needless to say, exploiting weaknesses is arguably more important in this game than others in the series. Unfortunately, that’s not particularly easy with the AI exhibited here.
If you know anything about the game, it’s probably this: you only directly control the main character throughout the game. You can issue orders to the others, which they will follow, but it’s mostly broad suggestions like ‘support the group’ or ‘hit the enemy with everything you’ve got’, and its up to the game how they choose to interpret that. For example, if you get someone to act in support, they’ll immediately heal any and all damage or status affects. Great in theory, but that means they’ll heal all damage, no matter how insignificant, effectively meaning they’ll never heal otherwise. Tell them to cut loose? Enjoy watching Mitsuru use Mind Charge or Ice Break, thus wasting a turn that could’ve been used just stabbing the damn thing! Of course, if your character is incapacitated for whatever reason – status effect, knocked down, whatever – you’ll be incapable of ordering them at all, further flirting with death. And, in proud Megaten tradition, if you die, it’s all over. Your milate may vary, of course: some have found the system perfectly agreeable, and have never had the computer make stupid mistakes on their behalf. Personally, I prefer direct input as to what happens. Call me a control freak if you will, but I like to know any deaths are the result of my screwups, not anyone else’s.
The only other main flaw comes in the voice actresses for two of the main characters, Fuuka and Ken – Ken starts off bratty, before becoming dull, and I’m sorry, but no high schooler should sound like a 30-year-old housewife. Of course, this is balanced by an otherwise phenomenal cast. You’ll recognise most of the characters from other previous roles (the cast has credits from series such as Fullmetal Alchemist, Bleach, Digimon and Disgaea to their names), but after a while, you’ll be hard pressed to imagine anyone else in their roles, the voices are that perfect. Special mention has to go to Derek Stephen Prince, voice of Takaya, who manages to straddle the line between controlled madness and charismatic evil. In a game filled with a stellar cast, the fact that he’s able to outshine them all tells you all you need to know. The man knows how to play a charming villain on a par with Crispin “I’m Allucard, y’know” Freeman, and that’s a hell of a compliment to both.
The characters are, without a doubt, what makes this game. Most of you will probably find yourself liking Junpei most quickly, because, when you get down to it, he’s the easiest to relate to. He likes games, he’s fairly laid back, in a lot of ways, he’s a lot like us. When he finds out that sealing the Dark Hour means the loss of his Persona, he goes into a slump. In his mind, his powers make him a hero, and if he gives that up, he’s back to being a nobody. In that, it’s hard not to feel even the merest twinge of sympathy for him. He doesn’t want fame or recognition. He just wants to be somebody, something more than he is, and who hasn’t wanted that? Then there’s Akihiko, who initially comes across as brash and imposing. As you start to learn about him, you realise he’s not such a bad guy after all. Then, a close friend, practically a brother, is murdered in front of him. Rather than running off wildly for revenge, however, he uses this to drive himself further onward to try and live up to his friend’s memory. Honestly, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone do that in a game, standard protocol is to charge head on, screaming like a lunatic.
And then… then there’s Ikutsuki, and here, the game plays its cruellest trick. Y’see, in the previous games, there was a character called Philemon, a benevolent (sort of) deity (kinda) who gave the characters their powers, known for wearing a camel-coloured suit and a porcelain mask adorned with a butterfly. You never had much contact with him, but, by and large, Philemon was on the level. Philemon himself isn’t in this game, but here’s Shuji Ikutsuki, head of the team and, by and large, a guy who’s seemingly on the level. He’s dressed in a similar outfit, and while he didn’t expressly give you your powers, armed with this prior knowledge, you’re probably more inclined to trust the guy than someone unfamiliar with the series. And then events unfold, and you realise how much of a fool you were to believe him. The game told you he was okay, but while everyone playing it was fooled, series veterans would’ve been fooled that much harder. You went the extra mile. No one else did. It’s heartless and messes directly with the player. I loved it.
Persona 3, more than anything is a story about stories. Everyone has one, from the main characters, to the social links, to even the people standing around doing nothing. Everyone has a tale to tell that unfolds slowly as the game progresses. And at the tale’s close, when you find out exactly how much you meant to everyone, even the people who didn’t know what you were doing at midnight every night, it’s hard not to sit up that little bit straighter. You’re no longer playing a game. You’re fighting for these people. You’re fighting to ensure the sun rises tomorrow. The effect it has will vary from person to person, but if you’ve made it this far, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the story by now. And with the ending… I can’t spoil that here, not even a little, but if you didn’t find your eyes just a little moist, you have no soul. Even now, writing this, the throat’s tightening just a little, and at the time… let’s just say I lost a little of my manly composure and be done with it, huh? The end is played beautifully – another five minutes and those final moments would’ve been positively heartbreaking. As it is… there’s no way I could see it as sad. It doesn’t end badly. It ends exactly the way it was intended to. The way it had to.
There was an updated re-release, FES, with an extra 30+ hour epilogue that caps the whole saga off. I haven’t played it yet, so I can’t comment on it. In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure I want to. It’s not that the extra content is bad or anything, more that… I liked the way it ended. It was a subdued ending, the likes of which you don’t often see in games these days. A quiet, melancholy finale that lets the game wind down to a natural stop. No. Better to leave Kazuma, sitting on that bench, enjoying the warm Spring morning, as a hand strokes his hair softly. He’s earned his rest.
To Kazuma Tenryu. The young man who fought a god to a standstill. Twice. I can think of no better tribute, than starring in a game such as this.