When the world is in peril, unlikely heroes will sometimes come forth in order to combat the threats that have emerged. Typically, these heroes venture far from their homes, leaving behind their ordinary lives when they take on the persona of a hero. This is not the case in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. Having recently transferred into Gekkoukan High School from some distant region, you, the hero, will need to do your best in order to balance saving the world with academics, social lives, and other day-to-day activities.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the player will face in Persona 3 is the clock. Time is limited, and there is an awful lot to balance in the time allotted. There are many scripted events and constraints, but for the most part, the player will have an above average level of freedom to set their own priorities and plan their schedules to their liking. In addition to fighting beings known as shadows and exploring the random dungeon, Tartarus, the player can also spend their time on activities such as, making friends, going out on dates, and studying in order to do well in school. Because of this flexibility, if the player gets bored of dungeon crawling, they can spend time progressing in their daily lives. If they’re itching for a fight, they can do the opposite. As mentioned earlier, there are constraints to this, but this freedom typically allows the player to balance the flow of the game to their liking, decreasing the likelihood that a portion of the game will become especially tedious.
Managing academics, daily life, and friendships is certainly important, but it’s an awful lot to balance with saving the world. Luckily, shadows only appear during the dark hour, a special 25th hour that few are able to experience. Though the hero is the only character that can be controlled directly, he is accompanied by several allies that can be indirectly ordered by playing with their AI settings. He also has the power of Persona, but unlike everyone else, he has the ability to switch his equipped Persona between a large stock that he carries with him. With the assistance of the Velvet Room, an odd establishment run by a strange man by the name of Igor, he can fuse Personas together to create new ones.
Battles take place in similar fashion to other Shin Megami Tensei titles. The hero’s party and enemies take turns attacking one another, with critical hits and weak points playing a major role. Not only do these attacks inflict extra damage, they knock their target down and even allowed the attacker to go once more in some cases. If all of the opponents are knocked down, the party can gang up on them for a special all-out attack as well. The rules of battle are simple, but with the flexibility that fusing Personas creates, there are a lot of different strategic options open to the player.
While the game mechanics offer a good deal of balance, the interface is a bit of a mixed bag. Despite the importance of fusing Personas, especially late in the game, passed down skills are random. This forces the player to cancel out and repeat the fusion until they get the moveset they desire. Furthermore, it isn’t possible to look up what Persona abilities do until they are learned, which is especially inconvenient since many have names, such as Bufula, which will take some getting used to for newcomers to the series. On the plus side, a very convenient Persona compendium allows the player to register and recall the Personas they have worked hard to create without the enormous effort of creating them all over again. In battle, it is also possible to check the abilities of a Persona before switching. It takes some time and doesn’t always work, but it’s also possible to analyze enemies in order to find their strengths, weaknesses, and other useful data, without wasting an active party member’s turn. That said, the AI settings are less than ideal. They’re fine most of the time, but they can occasionally result in a member doing something the player doesn’t want, such as lowering enemy defenses instead of healing. Another problem is that it isn’t possible to change these settings unless it’s the hero’s turn, making life difficult if he has a status ailment that prevents him from taking action.
On top of the occasional problem with the AI settings, Persona 3 features a myriad of instant death spells and powerful bosses. Top this off with the fact that it’s a game over if the hero’s HP ever reaches zero, and the challenge goes up even more. Luckily for those that don’t want the possibly of death to always be a few bad moves away, the difficulty can also be set to easy when starting a new game. Just keep in mind that Persona 3‘s idea of easy is a bit harsher than that of most games.
Outside of the dark hour, life goes on as usual. The hero and other characters go on with school and other normal activities. The storyline moves forward along with the calendar, but some weeks are naturally going to be a little slower than others. It isn’t until the later parts of the game that the storyline really starts picking up, but the game does a good job of bringing everything together nicely once it does. Aside from the storyline itself, the player can also make friends with a large cast of characters, getting to know them better and learning their life philosophies or simply helping them out with their own mini-storylines. This can add quite a bit of extra depth to the storyline for those that take the time to make some friends, especially since there’s a lot of variety in potential friends. Another large plus is that the dialog itself is largely well-written with minimal localization errors.
Though time is limited and the player will only have a year or so to cram everything they want to accomplish into, Persona 3 still ends up being a lengthy title. Day-to-day events typically take quite a while to complete on their own, but completing the massive dungeon adds a tremendous amount to the clock. A lot will depend on the chosen difficulty as well, but it’s likely to take most players seventy to a full one hundred hours to complete their quest and reach the end of the school year without failing, be it at their classes or saving the world.
Persona 3‘s soundtrack itself is quite good as a whole and features a number of excellent tracks. Some of the music may seem a bit odd and out of place at first, but this is very effective in creating a sharp contrast when making the jump from the upbeat sounds of daily life to those of the eerie dark hour. On the downside, being a game of such great length, some more variety would have been greatly appreciated in a few places. Each block of the dungeon has only slightly different background music, and the majority of the daily life music doesn’t change at all until the final portion of the game. Despite their generally above average quality, some of these can still come to grate a little, long before they are replaced. One final note is that the voice acting is typically very good throughout the game.
As with the music, there is a sharp contrast between the look of the normal world and that of the dark hour. While the ordinary world has changing seasons which call for rainbows and sakura blossoms, the dark hour is filled with coffins, pools of blood, and corrupted neon moonlight. The graphics themselves aren’t the best, especially in the dungeons, but they’re accompanied by some excellent art, good Persona and boss design, and even a few anime cutscenes.
Freedom and balance are the keys of Persona 3. The flexibility to plan one’s schedule within certain constraints helps prevent any one part of the game from becoming especially tedious since the player will typically have the choice to simply go do something else. This is especially true of the game’s massive and mandatory random dungeons, something that may not sound especially appealing to everyone, but since the player has the freedom to break it up into chunks, it becomes a lot less foreboding. Top this off with an enjoyable battle system and a story that comes together quite nicely, and Persona 3 becomes a great game. It’s certainly worth a look, even for those that didn’t enjoy previous installments of the Persona subseries.