In the pantheon of role-playing games (RPGs), the Shin Megami Tensei series occupies a very unique niche. It's not as earth-shakingly popular as stalwart titles like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. It's not set in a medieval Tolkien-inspired world like just about every other RPG out there. Instead, the series has developed a cult following here in the United States based on several different reasons. The games are hard (give a copy of any Mega Ten game to your buddy who says RPGs take no skill to play and watch him toss the controller in frustration during a regular random encounter), they're set in a modern world filled with occult overtones, and the stories are much deeper philosophically speaking than the typical "save the world" motif of your standard game in the genre.
Fans who like this break from the norm and those who've grown tired of the standard RPG formula should be happy to know that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 has finally been released here in America. It's too early to pick the RPG of the year for 2007, but if I had to vote today this game would be my choice…hands down. It's a wild and unique gaming experience that melds disparate subgenres (the dungeon crawler and the high school simulator) into a whole that transcends the sum of the parts. It's not without a few flaws (more on those later), but the good so definitively outweighs the negatives that it's hard to imagine anyone who's a hardcore RPG fan passing this game up.
Players take control of a nameless transfer student enrolled at Gekkoukan High School. Upon arriving, our avatar learns that things in the area aren't normal—it seems that every night between midnight and 12:01am, time stops for 60 minutes. This event is referred to as The Dark Hour. The majority of the population is oblivious to it—they're placed in these weird coffins for an hour then wake up as if nothing happened. During this hour of suspended animation, creatures called shadows roam the city, feeding on the citizenry, who then show symptoms of what is known as "apathy syndrome." Fortunately, some people are immune to the Dark Hour phenomenon—our nameless hero and several of his schoolmates are among the lucky ones—and these folks and their personae (demonic minions who aid them in battle, essentially) can fight the shadow invasion and try to save Japan from total infestation.
The title's gameplay is broken down into two distinct phases. The first phase, which involves a copious amount of dungeon crawling in a giant tower called Tartarus, is pretty standard stuff. Players form a party, navigate floors fighting monsters and finding treasure, and try to complete various objectives before the next full moon (full moon phases invariably involve a boss fight outside of Tartarus and advance the plotline significantly). The second phase is more of a high school/dating sim. During the daytime hours, the main character must attend school, study, participate in extra-curricular activities, and foster a social life. Depending on the day and his level of camaraderie with the people around him (something the game refers to as Social Links—the stronger the social link between the main character and someone else leads to stronger personae that can be created in the game's Velvet Room), various acquaintances will vie for your time. Agreeing to spend time with someone then triggers an event where conversations occur. Choosing the right conversational gambits leads to stronger relationships with that individual and the ability to create ever stronger personae. However, choosing a wrong reply can damage the relationship—requiring the player to spend even more time trying to repair it.
To me, the social link system is easily the most interesting part of the game. There are a ton of people to meet in the area around the school and they all have unique problems to deal with (one friend is in love with a teacher, another has a terrible knee injury he's trying to hide from his Kendo team, etc.). While it is apparently possible to maximize all the social links in a single playthrough, most players won't achieve this feat. The game operates on a rigid time schedule and loves to throw multiple opportunities at you on a regular basis—forcing players to pick and choose who they spend time with. It certainly adds an air of strategy to the non-combat portions of the game.
Complicating matters even further is the fact that there's more to do in the main character's free time than just hang out with friends. It's important to keep improving the character's charm, academics, and courage stats as well. Setting aside time to study regularly will increase academics, drinking tea at a teahouse or answering questions in class can improve charm, and singing some karaoke will help boost courage. Again, though, each of these things eats up a block of time—meaning that doing them will come at the expense of doing something else.
And finally, as one last wild card, doing too much studying or fighting in Tartarus will eventually cause characters to become fatigued. When this happens, resting is the main way to get healthy again, which means not going to fight or not studying before bed—more potentially lost opportunities. These cause more and more concern as it gets later in the year—the game features a deadline for winning and while there's certainly plenty of time to do it, losing a chance to go fight or improve a trait can be nerve-wracking.
So while days are spent in school and improving relationships with people in the community, night is spent primarily fighting in Tartarus. Tartarus is a huge tower with hundreds of randomly generated floors broken down into blocks. Basically, each full moon period opens up one block of the tower. Players can blast through to the next blocked gateway in one session (providing they don't become fatigued) or they can space it out over numerous nights. Grinding levels is also an option, but like previous games in the franchise, grinding levels is not a good way to win fights.
Like all the MegaTen universe games, Persona 3 is difficult. This is the one RPG series where it's entirely possible to die in even the most mundane of random encounters. While this installment isn't as brutal as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, it is more difficult than the two Digital Devil Saga games. The main character's party can have up to four members total—but if he dies, it's an automatic game over. Prepare to see the game over screen numerous times before the end credits. One bad turn can spell complete disaster—even against an enemy the party has manhandled in other encounters. Persona 3 forces players to think strategically during the turn-based battles. Every character aside from the main has one persona that they use throughout the game with an elemental strength and weakness. Choosing the right party members for each boss fight based on this information is often the difference between victory and utter annihilation. The main character, meanwhile, can carry numerous personae and switch on the fly. Of course, again, having the right persona for the job is the way to victory.
Speaking of personae, one key difference between this title and the other Persona games is that the standard for acquiring new personae has been changed. In the earlier titles, players could negotiate with demons instead of fighting. Saying the right things would woo the demon to your cause and thereby make it available for battle. This time out, there's no negotiation. All demons are either forged in the Velvet Room in a Pokémon-esque breeding process or gained after winning a battle and choosing their card from a three-card monte-styled minigame. Truthfully, I missed the conversational gambits. That being said, I can see why they changed it—there's enough conversation in the social link part of the game as it is. Adding another conversation-based system would have been overkill.
The game's combat is turn-based, but not entirely traditional. While the party can have up to four members, players only control the main character. The other three members of his crew are A.I. controlled. This sounds like an absolute nightmare on paper, but it generally works out quite well. As the game progresses, players have more commands they can issue to their allies. This allows for the main character to order someone to be a dedicated healer, another to work on enemy weaknesses (or aim for the vital "knock down" effect, which allows for an unblockable all-out attack), and a third to support when necessary. Controlling all the characters would have been the optimal set-up (because even though the A.I. scripting is good, there are moments where it will drop the ball), but in the game's defense, this system is more in line with the thematic tone of the game (which revolves around the relationships you forge and trusting your friends). Aside from this, the combat is fairly traditional. Enemies are visible onscreen, allowing players to try to get an early jump in each fight by striking them first, knowing and exploiting elemental affinities is key to winning fights, and the bosses are tough with a capital T. Anyone who's played a MegaTen game will be right at home here.
To be honest, Persona 3 is such a deep game that I feel like even now, after 1600 words talking about it, I've barely scratched the surface of what the title has to offer. That being said, it's far better to play a game than read about it—so I'll leave it at that. In a world of generic RPGs with cookie cutter plots and characters, Persona 3 is like a breath of fresh air—a game that marches to a different drummer and is worth playing because of it. It doesn't do everything flawlessly and it may not win RPG of the year, but there's no denying that this is a game anyone who considers themselves a fan of the genre needs to experience.