Thursday, May 15, 2008

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 review

It may have taken me roughly 2 1/2 months, but I finally completed Persona 3. Rejoice. Now I can remove the masking tape from the PS2's door. Truth be told, it took me quite some time to get used to the mechanics and I was too busy with other stuff to have put much effort into grinding, hence the late endorsement. This franchise has never seen mainstream success, and anyone interested in this will likely already own it anyway. Still if you consider yourself a JRPG fan and have yet to pick this classic title, you owe it to yourself to buy it and play it now.

Much like previous Persona games, the fourth title in Atlus's flagship Shin Megami Tensei: Persona sub-series involves you playing a self-named Japanese high school student over a school calendar year. The unnamed character comes of a generic RPG cliché hero, with floppy hair, and headphones to boot. This emo-looking kid is first attacked by 'Shadows' when he transferred to his new high school. He soon learns about his Persona, a summon, as well as others like him at the school. Unlike his allies however he is capable of using multiple Personas.

The basic gameplay of Persona 3 is divided into two sections. The first involves you participating in various mundane activities on or off-campus, which is an important gameplay element aimed at augmenting your stats. It isn't too far removed from games like The Sims and Harvest Moon where repeated none-combat tasks (such as eating ramen, studying or playing MMOs!) as well as dating improves key attributes. Basically the cycle of the game involves you going to school for the day, do some stuff like dating, eating, watch a movie, do sports, sleep, study etc. Developing your Social Link (S.Link) is crucial to the game as it also affects the strength of your Personas/summons.

The other half of the game is your run on the mill RPG where your participate in none-sanctioned extra curricular night time activities. During this hidden dark hour period the school transforms into an organic shape shifting tower called Tartarus, which is seemingly infested with these Shadows. Joining your character are members of S.E.E.S. (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad), many of whom have significant back story integral to the plot of Persona 3. There are around 200 levels in Tartarus, making dungeon crawling a very repeatable chore, though the randomness of each levels does alleviate the problem a little. While climbing to the top is your priority, each new level introduces increased difficulty. Significant powered Shadows also appear every full moon.

Exploration is similar to Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment, in that it features a top-down third person viewpoint. Enemies do not appear randomly, rather they visibly roam the dungeons in real time. Similar to Valkyrie Profile, slashing them first will give your team the upper hand. In any case battles takes place separately from the field map. The battle system is turn-based and and your party attacks with various melee and ranged weapons as well as magical attacks, including the ability to inflict status effects. Similar to Nocturne (Lucifer's Call) and Digital Devil Saga series, Persona 3 features a similar Press Turn combat system called One More, where the you are rewarded with extra turns for exploiting an enemy's elemental weakness (beware, the enemies can do the same).

During combat the player can summon their Personas using an Evoker, a revolver like object, by firing at their own skull. These head shots does not mean anything bar providing the player with visually provoking scenes (no blood or skull fragments are visible - sorry to disappoint you Daily Mail readers). Personas can be gained through out the game, including through the use of fusion. Fusion is very similar the old Persona games dating back to Revelations and is done in the same Velvet Room with Igor, its creepy veteran keeper. As mentioned earlier, socialising is an important gameplay aspect and is a requirement to boost your Persona's stats, in addition to the experience points.

Perhaps significantly, the player can only control the main character where as the other party members are controlled via the A.I., though the player can govern their overall strategy beforehand. The lack of direct control of each A.I. can be a pain as they sometimes tend to make shoddy game altering decisions. It is imperative that one should always analysis (scan) the enemy as it allows your allies to understand the foe, as well as giving your the required knowledge to exploits its weaknesses. Allies can fall sick during battles especially if they work beyond their capabilities. During such events you should avoid bringing them on missions and have them rest for a day or two. Tiredness can also affect the main character, in which case you should avoid Tartarus altogether and get plenty of rest, like sleeping in class.

As far as graphical fidelity goes Persona 3 does not particularly impress. While it does not compare well to late generation PS2 games like Final Fantasy XII, it does not distract from the gameplay as well. On a technical side, it at least improves on the last Megaten game I played, Devil Summoner - which had a fixed perspective engine and a very washed out one at that. Camera viewpoint is top-down and easily allows you to see all active party members on the field map, as well as surrounding enemies. Other than that, the game uses low polygonal character models and simple geometry throughout. While it does not look particularly pretty, it does create a 'Persona 2-ish' vibe to it - which is only a good thing as I love that game.

The lack of graphical punch is offset by the stylistic and brilliant character designs and art direction. Shocking as it may be, these were not handled by veteran series artist Kazuma Kaneko. I was initially disappointed by this, but have since grew to love the new art direction, by one Shigenori Soejima (who is also responsible for the new Trauma Center DS game). The two style differs mainly in the character's fashion sense, not to mention the lack of Kaneko's trademark ghostly character design. Soejima's design is also noted to be more anime inspired. Character sprites, used during conversations, are extremely detailed with their expressions conveyed well. Unfortunately while the new characters are stylish they are still peppered with generic RPG clichés. For example Akihiko is only a mere senior and yet is treated as a deep wise man despite being only an upperclassman. His hair is even painted grey! And let's not forget the orphans...

Thankfully Atlus did not appear to make the same mistake with cultural localisation as they did with Revelations: Persona. Names remains in Japanese and both modern and traditional Japanese cultural reference are abundant. The soundtrack on the other hand is a mix and match of acquired taste. Anyone familiar with the Megaten series may find themselves disappointed due to the lack of soaring guitars (a couple exists, but they are exceptions). The soundtrack mainly consists of urban and 'hip' J-pop not to dissimilar from The World Ends With You and Jet Set Radio, as well as the odd orchestra, jazz and piano pieces. Despite some people voicing concern about the dubbed voice acting, it is superb. Sadly this version does not come bundled with the soundtrack and you can mark that as another 'PAL region sucks' middle finger by a clueless publisher underestimating the market yet again.

Persona 3 contains a New Game+ for after you beat the game. With roughly 70 hours of main content in it (of which 10-20% are likely to be devoted to grinding), I doubt any casual gamer would want to use the option, but it is there for completists, and is ideal for people wanting to further their S.Links as well as wrapping up lose ends. It allows you to start the game over with the same Social Links, stats and equipments, and hopefully is compatible with any future European release of FES (see below). The content, compelling storyline and plot is significantly more entertaining than the majority of games out there and despite the less than satisfying dungeons, the quality is on par with the main Megaten series. Social Link mechanism is a spin of riveting freshness that complements a now archaic (but still playable) gameplay.

My only regret is having to play through the none-FES version, but my anger is mainly directed at the shoddy strategy provided by Atlus and Koei for ignoring the biggest video gaming market in the world (Persona 4 will be out in Japan next month!). On a flip side, perhaps it is time for me to mod our PS2 so I can play FES. Persona 3 is the most refreshing and in-depth RPG title, nay - any genre, in modern times on any consoles - and thus deserves to be played yet again.

What is FES?

Persona 3: FES is an expansion pack/director's cut and was released in Japan a year ago and recently in the US. It contains additional plots in the form of a new chapter, as well as gameplay tweaks. Quite why Koei/Atlus did not skip the vanilla version of Persona 3 and went straight to FES for PAL release is beyond even my comprehension, but I wouldn't put it past them for being utterly lazy and/or ignorant of the market here.

Persona 3 is out now in Europe. NTSC PS2 owners should instead get the FES version here.

Update: The PAL version of FES is out now.


Anonymous said...

I was half way through P3 when I bought FES. You have to start from the beginning. S.links, items, compendium and some other stuff can be carried over.

Shame that Europe gets shafted again. That is the beauty import PS2s.

Jon said...

Sounds great. Maybe I will get an import PS3 with back compact for my NTSC PS2 needs.