|Fans of the genre will love it, others will probably want to shoot themselves in the head.|
We JRPG fans are well known for our patience and mental endurance which is good considering the sheer amount of time one must invest in a game since must JRPGs clock in at about 40-60 hours on average, and thats without doing all the side-quests. Also most JRPGS can be rather difficult and unforgiving; which is exactly what Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei series is infamous for. If you are new to turn based RPGs then I'd recommend that you pick up something like Super Mario RPG, or Chrono Trigger before attempting the absolute monstrosity that is Shin Megami Tensei.
Perhaps the most known of the Shin Megami Tensei games is the Persona series which spans five titles for the PS2 and the PSP with a spin-off fighting game due out in August for the PS3 and Xbox 360. Drawing on elements of both and RPG and life-simulators the Persona series provides a unique and very fun experience for fans of JRPGS. However be warned, despite being one of the "easier" games bearing the Shin Megami Tensei Logo; Persona 3 is still very brutal, challenging, and controller-smashing frustrating. The infamous thing about this game though is that despite having a very controversial method of casting spells in this game (shooting one's self in the head with a gun like object) it flew completely under the radar which is really odd considering this game was out in the Jack Thompson years.
This is how you cast spells in the game...its definitely original.
Going along with the classic RPG gameplay cliche, you play as a silent male protagonist to whom you give your own name. As the game opens your character is moving into a new dormitory to start his life at a new high school in urban Japan; however within the first week things start to take a turn for the terrorizing when the dormitory is attacked at midnight by a legion of frightening monsters known as Shadows. After a confrontation with the monsters the protagonist falls unconcious and is whisked away to the mysterious Velvet Room which takes the form of an eternally ascending elevator and is inhabited by the striking, but gentlemanly Igor and his mysterious assistant Elizabeth. They explain to the protagonist that he possess the power of a Persona, which allows him to use a gun-like object called an Evoker to call forth a powerful creature from within himself to aid in combat with its magical powers. They also explain that they exist to help people with this power and promise to aid him.
After leaving the Velvet Room the protagonist returns to conciousness and recieves an explanation from the other students regarding his harrowing encounter. Every night between 12am and 1am the clock stops for an hour and the world enters a time called The Dark Hour. During this hour the world becomes a nightmarish land with Shadows roaming about. Non-Persona users are unaware of this time though since most regular people are transformed into coffins during The Dark Hour and are safe from harm. However the few that are pulled into The Dark Hour usually end up as unlucky prey for the Shadows whom consume human minds. And finally during this hour, the local high school becomes the giant tower of demise known as Tartarus, in this forbidden structure Shadows grow and thrive before entering the world to feed and wreck havoc.
As it turns out the dormitory is home to a special school sanctioned group known as SEES and consists of a motley crew of students such as the popular and pretty Yukari Takeba, the cold but graceful student body president Mitsuru Kirijo, the captain of the boxing club Akihikko Sanada, and the junior class clown Junpei Iori; all of whom also have the power of Persona and dedicate their nights to battling the Shadows in hopes of eliminating the Dark Hour for good. The protagonist joins their group with several others following him, and each grow closer to one another as they live out their days as students, and their nights prowling the hallways of Tartarus hoping to purge The Dark Hour from the world.
The story is decent, but moves at a snail's pace, is rather padded out, and does not take up a significant portion of the game. But what story you do get though is decently satisfying. Of course there a twists, turns, and betrayals in the plot that may or may not shock you. The characters are a rather mixed bag as most of them are very annoying stereotypes with one or two really contributing nothing to the story at all. Junpei is a prime example of a character archetype that I despise in JRPGS of course being the immature pervert who whines and complains at every opportunity, and yet claims to be tough. To avoid spoilers I won't go into further detail on the others, but I can almost guarantee you will only like two or three of these characters.
The game has your typical PS2 anime graphics, the character models look decent, the animation is fluid, and locations are interesting to explore. One of the most interesting aspects of the art design is the radical shift in tone the backgrounds undergo, during the day the city looks bright and colorful with a hint of grittiness, but during the Dark Hour, the background twists and contorts into a blue and green surreal wasteland. Tartarus appears as a giant MC Escher style tower with its many floors taking on different colors and appearances. However by the time the game in finished, you will be sick of the colors blue and green due to them being the primary color of EVERY area during the Dark Hour.
|Hope you don't get enoough of this place...cause its the only dungeon in the game.|
The game's cast consists of several A-list voice actors such as Yuri Lowenthal, Michelle Ruff, and Liam O Brien, so naturally the voice acting is great to decent with a few exceptions. For example Mitsuru's VA Tara Platt sounds very bored and uninterested all throughout the game, and when you first hear Junpei speak you'll immediately want to jab a hot poker down his throat (sadly he will be in your party for most of the game due to being one of the best melee fighters).
To be honest, I've never felt so indescive on a video game soundtrack in my life. The best way to describe the music is a combination of J-pop and hip-hop; the tunes are indeed very catchy, but the main flaw is the vocal performances. While the vocalists can sing, their English pronunciation is very weak with Ls sounding like Rs etc. And the worst part, the English songs ARE the original songs, there is no Japanese version. That being said there are several great pieces in the soundtrack such as the recurring Aria of the Soul, and of course the final battle theme, but overall the soundtrack isn't properly translating to English and the main battle theme Mass Destruction can get VERY repetitive.
As stated before, Persona 3 follows the traditional turn-based RPG formula of assembling a team of four characters, and battling monsters while progressing the story, and climbing the tower. In addition you must arm your characters with weapons and armor to enhance their stats, and fight monsters to gain experience to level up, which unlocks new abilities and enhances natural stats. However gameplay is way different than your average JRPG. The game follows a calender which advances one day as you sleep, and draws you closer to the end of the game. In order to get through the game you must take full advantage of every day you are given.
Gameplay is split up into two different segments, Days and Nights. During the day-time you live out the life of an average Japanese high school student, going to classes Mon-Sat, hanging out with friends, shopping for items and weapons, and exploring the city. The day time is when you'll be doing most of the side-quests such as finding things for Elizabeth, and building up your social links (which we'll get into later). You also take this time to improve your Academics, Charm, and Courage, all of which are necessary to access the side-quests and other optional parts of the game such as passing exams and such. The life-simulator mechanics are a little weak in places, but they do provide an interesting distraction from what you'll be doing for 70% of this game.
With night time comes The Dark Hour and the real meat of the game. During the Dark Hour you and your friends go to explore Tartarus and battle the shadows within as you advance its 200+ floors. At the base level you choose three characters to follow and assist you in combat. To engage in battle you simply attack the many Shadows with your weapon, landing a surprise attack on a Shadow can score you a pre-emptive strike, however touching Shadows will result in the enemy getting a surprise attack on you. Oddly enough each floor is randomly generated but still manages to be incredibly monotonous and dull.
Combat is your garden variety RPG menu system, consisting of commands to attack with your weapon, summon your Persona to use a special attack or spell, use an item, switch your Persona, change party tactics, or pass your turn; strangely there is no defend option which means you are wide open to attack if you pass. And now comes the horrifying revelation that you DO NOT control your teammates, and while you can set their behavior to your whim they are still completely out of your control and will occasionally make potentially fatal mistakes (like Mitsuru constantly trying to charm an enemy instead of healing), fortunately if they do something like cast the wrong spell they will learn from this mistake and never do it again with that particular enemy. After the battle there is a good chance for a bonus game which allows you to either gain money, extra experience, a weapon, or even a new Persona. The menu system outside of combat though has a few major flaws, such as not providing attack/spell descriptions, and not being able to check your party's status on one menu instead having to talk to each individual one to equip them and check their status.
Magic plays a big role in combat with each enemy and party member having particular elemental strengths and weaknesses. Hitting an enemy with a spell they are weak against will result in you gaining an extra attack and the enemy being knocked down thus losing their turn, however spells that hit more than one enemy will not earn you an extra attack. The same holds true for you and your party as each different member has a particular element they are weak against. In fact I would go as far as to call the gameplay a more advanced take on Pokemon with its emphasis on elemental weakness. The protagonist's weakness however is determined by the Persona he has equipped, which leads into my next explanation.
The protagonist is gifted with the special wild card ability, allowing him to use multiple Personas as opposed to other characters who can only use one. After battles you have a chance to gain a new Persona in the bonus game, initially you can only hold a few extra Personas, but your capacity increases as you level up. You can also gain new more powerful Personas through fusion in the Velvet Room. Fusion also allows you to power up certain Personas with spells they wouldn't normally learn by inheriting the skills of the two or three Personas used in the fusion, so its very important to pay attention to what combination you use as many combinations result in the same Persona. And finally; social links play a big role in the creation of Personas, each Persona is represented by one of the Major Arcana from Tarot, and there is also a corresponding character to each Arcana whom you can befriend, by raising your relationship with that character during the day you can gain bonus experience for your Personas upon creation which often results in it gaining several levels without having to grind thus saving a LOT of time (seriously, Personas take FOREVER to level up in this game).
As a Shin Megami Tensei game it is natural to expect a large amount of difficulty. Despite the fact this game has some pretty difficult bosses, it is the normal encounters in this game that will have you pulling your hair out. In the Persona series it is game over if the main protagonist falls, no resurrection spells, no second chances. Enemies have a nasty habit of catching you in knockdown loops, and most of your enemies can cast the Mudo and Hama spells which cause instant death and they have their scopes set on you. Difficulty in this game is inconsistent and can leap ahead in very cheap and unfair ways, this is what will really break the deal for newer players.
As stated earlier the best way to describe this game is a far more difficult and traditional approach to Pokemon. The story is decent and the battle system can be addictive when you are not getting pummeled, but the unfair difficulty and grindy nature of the game can be a bit of a put off. I'd really only recommend this game for seasoned JRPG fans as they'll have a blast with it. From what I've heard the PSP port of this game is way easier, and you can control your teammates in it, but I've yet to play the version and maybe will in the future.
JRPG lovers only. For fans of the genre though its a really fun, and challenging (a bit too much at times) addition to the library.