Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 PlayStation 2
Published by: Koei
Developed by: Atlus
Release Date: Out Now
Just when it looks as if the PlayStation 2 is going to grow old gracefully, and fade away, up pops another top quality game. We have reviewed several Shin Megami Tensei games, most of which have been top draw RPGs, but Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 has to be the finest one we've played so far. Once again you have a great turn-based battle system that manages to feel fresh and exciting but the battle system is only a very small part of the reason why Persona 3 feels so unique. It's one of those games that just seems to offer more and more surprises as you get deeper into the experience. First things first of course and if you're like me you're probably wondering as to why this is called Persona 3 when there has been no sign of earlier titles in the series. There have indeed been previous titles but they were released in Japan only. On the evidence of Persona 3 you have to wonder why they didn't bring the earlier games to Europe.
Set in Japan, you play a young male student (you get to choose his name but for the purpose of this review we'll call him Koichi) who has just moved to Gekkoukan High School. Almost immediately weird things begin to happen. It's late at night, around midnight, by the time Koichi arrives at his dorm. As midnight arrives, all of the people who are out and about suddenly turn into coffins. If that's not freaky enough you enter the dorm to find a young female student apparently wanting to end it all by pointing a gun to her own head. This all seems insane but an explanation for these crazy events is soon given. Apparently there is a hidden hour called the 'Dark Hour' that most people are unaware of. This Dark Hour begins at midnight and most people turn into coffins with only a select few remaining unaffected. Of those who do not transmogrify, only a few have what is known as the 'potential'. The 'potential' is the ability to use personas (a kind of being that is supposed to be the embodiment of one's inner power) to combat the shadows that roam during the dark hour. For the most part these shadows are confined to Tartarus (Gekkoukan High School transmogrifies into Tartarus during the Dark Hour) but on a full moon the shadows attack other areas of the city and these full moon attacks are essentially the boss fights in the game.
Those who have the potential have formed an organisation known as S.E.E.S. (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad). Koichi soon discovers that he has the potential and it's obvious that his abilities are very powerful. He joins up with SEES and helps them in their exploration of Tartarus during the Dark Hour. From the description we've given so far it might not seem as if Persona 3 is anything too different from any other RPG you've played before. There are several aspects of the game that make this a unique RPG experience however. The game isn't just about what you do in a battle. As a student of Gekkoukan High School, you'll have to navigate your way through a whole school year. You'll attend lessons, study for and sit exams, join after-school clubs, and maintain a healthy social life. On face value, this might all seem a little unnecessary but all of your actions have a bearing on how the game plays out. There is a Social Link system in the game and each persona is associated with a particular Social Link. Your standing with a particular Social Link is improved (or degraded) according to the actions you take whilst you're not exploring Tartarus. For instance, if you're friendly with Chihiro (a shy young woman who's the treasurer for the Student Council) you'll connect with the Justice Social Link. Improving your relationship with her will increase your rank with the Justice Social Link. It pays to increase your rank because it gives bonuses to a persona who belongs to that Social Link (in this case an Angel persona). The real beauty of the system is that in an effort to form and improve the Social Links that you want, you are shaping a good deal of the game's story through your actions. To see every storyline thread the game has to offer, you're going to have to play through the game at least a few times. It also helps that virtually all of the characters in the game are actually very interesting. There's a good dose of humour here (mainly thanks to the rather comical Junpei Iori) but there are other, more serious characters and on the whole there's a good balance of personalities here.
Your social life isn't just about forming relationships and improving your Social Link rankings. Koichi has three main attributes: Academics, Charm and Courage with each of these having six levels. Levelling-up these attributes is something you should do and it takes a fair bit of effort. For instance, during an exam there are several questions that you don't get to answer (don't worry you only have to answer one question for each exam and the answer is given in the lessons you have prior to the exam) and the quality of the answer given is dependent on the level of your Academics attribute. You can improve your Academics attribute by having Koichi study before he goes to bed (which runs the risk of leaving him fatigued for the day after), studying at the Library after school, not letting him fall asleep during a lesson and making a cash offering at the local shrine. The Charm attribute can be increased by answering questions correctly during a lesson and drinking a special kind of coffee in a coffee shop in the local mall. If you feel like improving the Courage attribute you can always hang out at the Karaoke bar in the local mall. It's worth noting that you won't be able to take advantage of certain events in the game if one of these attributes hasn't been improved to an appropriate level.
The game initially offers two difficulty levels. Easy gives you easier fights and ten Plumes of Dusk, which revives all of your party upon death. Normal is actually quite difficult and you'll need to level-up your characters as much as you can by visiting Tartarus as often as possible in order to avoid running into difficulty later in the game. You don't have to visit Tartarus every night if you don't want to; in fact there are times when it's not possible to go there. When playing on the Normal difficulty level though, you'll soon run into real difficulty when you encounter the full moon boss fights. Should Koichi be eliminated during a battle it's game over (unless you're playing on Easy difficulty level and have a Plume of Dusk in your inventory that is), so it pays to keep him and other party members as strong as possible.
Persona 3 uses a turn-based battle system that feels familiar enough but it does have a few twists that help it feel sufficiently different from other RPGs. Thankfully, the game doesn't use a random battle system and you'll always see a nearby enemy and have the opportunity to get in a surprise attack (which has the benefit of shocking the enemy allowing you to get in a couple of attacks before they know what's hit them). You can take up to four characters in to battle (three others plus the main character that is) but you only have direct control over your main character. This might upset some gamers who like to have full control over the entire party. You do have a limited control over their actions in that you can tell them to act as a healer or target a specific enemy, which is some consolation. For the most part, the AI does a decent job and it's not much of problem not having full control over your party. Enemies can be analysed (it can take a while however) and this will allow you to exploit their weaknesses. If an enemy is knocked down or a critical strike performed, you'll get to attack again. In this way it's possible to knock down all of the enemy characters within a single turn. If all of the enemy characters are knocked down, your party will have the opportunity to perform an all-out attack which can deal plenty of damage to the enemy. One complaint I do have with the AI handling of your other party members is that if an enemy is knocked down, they don't always take advantage of the situation (usually choosing not to knock down all of the enemies to trigger an opportunity for an all-out attack) choosing instead to take a more cautious course of action. Occasionally after a battle you'll get to draw a reward card (or two). These reward cards can give you some nice bonuses such as new weapons or extra experience. Occasionally they can give you an unpleasant surprise too. Thankfully this doesn't occur that often.
As we mentioned earlier, Koichi's abilities are both unusual and powerful. Whereas other characters have one persona, Koichi has the ability to have many personas and you can swap between them during the course of a battle. Personas all have their own elemental alignments and special attacks. Of course this also applies to the enemies you'll face and to succeed in the game you'll need to have an assortment of powerful personas to call on. The method of calling upon the personas during a battle is perhaps a little controversial. Each member of your party uses what is known as an Evoker. The Evoker looks just like a gun however, and the characters point the Evoker at their head to unleash the persona. Needless to say when you first see this it's a little disturbing and in truth it was perhaps unnecessary to put such imagery in the game. New personas are acquired from the reward cards that occasionally appear after a battle. You can even fuse personas (combining two or more personas) to create a new one in what's known as the Velvet Room which is run by the beak-nosed Igor and his assistant Elizabeth. Special quests can later be acquired by visiting the Velvet Room and talking to Elizabeth.
The PlayStation 2 may be a staggering eight-years old now but the presentation of Persona 3 is still quite impressive. That said however, there a few issues for deaf gamers which are rather unfortunate. The game has some fabulous anime cutscenes that look great. Unfortunately these are not subtitled meaning you'll miss out on a fair bit of dialogue, particularly at the beginning of the game. As a result of this it's actually a blessing that there aren't many of these cutscenes during the course of the game. The in-game graphics also look about as good you could hope for. The characters do have a pleasing anime look to them which is perfectly suited to the game as a whole. The bulk of the conversations in the game (in fact everything except those anime cutscenes and most of the comments made during a battle) are subtitled. The dialogue has both the character's name and a large portrait placed alongside the text so you'll always know who is saying what. If the possibility of an all-out attack occurs during a battle, you'll see subtitled comments from a character (usually Akihiko, Junpei or Yukari) offering the chance to perform an all-out attack. All quests are given in text and can be recalled at any time. In fact, had those anime cutscenes and battle comments been subtitled, there would have been no problems at all for deaf gamers. It's a blessing that at least no crucial dialogue is in those cutscenes and the game is still absolutely fine for deaf gamers as it stands.
The PlayStation 2 has been host to plenty of quality RPG titles and Persona 3 is one of its finest. The game isn't just about dungeon crawling and there's plenty to do in the game without even engaging in combat. Importantly though, everything you do outside of battle has a bearing on how you'll perform in battle because of the Social Link system and how it affects your personas. There's plenty of replay value here too and there's no way you'll see everything the game has to offer in a single play through. It's a shame that the anime style cutscenes aren't subtitled and it's also a shame that the game has taken so long to arrive here in Europe. As most gamers will probably be aware, the US is only a few weeks away from Persona 3 FES, an enhanced version that features another playable character and around 40 additional hours of play as well as other new content. Those Europeans desirous of one of the finest RPGs on the PlayStation 2 however (it's also PlayStation 3 compatible if you own the 60GB model), should definitely get their hands on Persona 3.