THE JOURNEY (Director’s Cut version)
When the protagonist transfers to Gekkoukan High School for his sophomore year, his biggest worries are settling in, studying and making friends. On his very first night, however, he is thrust into the Dark Hour- a time when normal people are transmogrified into coffins and dark monsters known as Shadows emerge. Only those who can call upon the power of their alternate selves- Personas- are able to experience the Dark Hour, and they consider it their duty to fight the Shadows and explore the mysterious tower of Tantalus from which they emerge.
Taking the Persona franchise to the PS2 generation, Persona 3 is a mix of dungeon crawling and regular high school life, taking place over a year of in-game time. The bastard child of a visual novel and an RPG, Persona 3 melds together both elements of its heritage to make for an addictive and memorable experience.
Life in Iwatodai
Your in-game life proceeds from day to day through Morning, Afternoon, After School., Evening and Night, with different options available at each time of day. During school, you can sleep through lectures or try to increase your smarts by staying awake and answering questions, but it is after classes end that the real work begins. Your goal over the year is to forge ties with other characters in the form of Social Links, friendships that grow as you spend time with various different personalities in the game. Social Links can be formed with both your party members and various named NPCs, with the after school phase being a prime time for attending clubs or taking classmates out for a meal.
Unfortunately, by the time evening rolls around, there is a lot less to do- the only place you can visit is the Mall, where you can play in the arcade, sing karaoke, visit the café, or work on just two Social Links (depending on the day of the week). Of course, you can also put your daily life on hold in favour of exploring Tartarus, but more on that in a moment.
In the normal world, your hero is characterised by three attributes- Academics, Charm and Courage- which can be increased by studying, singing karaoke and so forth. It’s important to work on these attributes, as some of your Social Links won’t even give you the time of day until you’ve proven yourself to be a brave, smart and refined personality.
Torment of Tartarus
Enjoyable as the visual novel aspect of the game is, the real meat and potatoes of gameplay lies with Tartarus, a 250+ level dungeon which appears on the site of Gekkoukan High School during the Dark Hour every night. Tartarus is divided into several blocks, which are opened as the game progresses. You and your fellow Persona-users will explore Tartarus during the Dark Hour, in a party of up to four members plus one supporting character.
Each level of Tartarus is randomly generated, with access points every few levels allowing you to go back to the ground floor, and teleports on boss levels allowing two-way travel. The floors are populated with Shadows, enemies who can either be avoided or defeated. You can get the drop on Shadows by attacking them from behind on the field with your equipped weapon, but similarly they can sneak up behind you. As you level up, weaker Shadows will start to run away from you, as will the rarer golden Shadows, who are worth tracking down due their propensity to dropping large amounts of money and valuable items.
Battle is the typical turn-based RPG style, although the only character you command directly is the protagonist- all other party-members are AI-controlled, and can only be given broad tactical orders such as “Act Freely”, “Support” or “Full Attack”. Fortunately, where the AI-controlled characters only have a single Persona and skill-set, the protagonist is the usual ‘Wild Card’, able to switch between up to twelve Personas.
Players of previous Shin Megami Tensei games will quickly get to grips with the unique aspects of Persona 3’s battle system. As always, there are the usual six types of elemental magic- Fire, Ice, Wind, Electricity and the instant-kill Light and Dark skills- but now there are also three types of physical attack as well- Pierce (guns, arrows), Slash (swords) and Strike (gloves, axes). Both enemies and allies have weaknesses to particular types of attack, and if they get struck by their Achilles’ Heel, they will go down and lose a turn getting back up again. Knocking a character down gives the attacker an extra turn, and if the party manages to get the entire enemy force down, you can launch an All-Out Attack, in which all able party members deal out some serious damage to their foes.
When it works, battle provides the right balance of challenge and satisfaction, forcing players to approach them tactically and exploit the enemies’ weaknesses rather than just spamming the attack button. Unfortunately, there are a few caveats that cheapen the whole experience; not only is there no option to guard and defend yourself, but the death of the protagonist means instant game over, even if the rest of the party is alive. Given that many enemies have instant-death attacks, or can deal massive damage just by getting the drop on you, all too often you can be hit with an unexpected game over from a minor encounter. With this in mind, through much of the game you’ll feel a pressure to get through Tartarus as quickly as possible, rather than exploring each level as thoroughly as the creators surely intended.
Since returning to the entrance of Tartarus fully restores your party’s HP and SP, it might be tempting to think you can grind away indefinitely once you get to Tartarus, but of course, such is not the case. If a character dies in battle, they will go back to the dorm if you return to the entrance without reviving them, whilst every party member is subject to increasing fatigue as they fight more battles. In the end, you will have to go home and rest- and similarly, if the protagonist gets ill from too much fighting or too many late nights studying, you won’t be able to visit Tartarus at all.
If battle proceeds smoothly, then at the victory screen you will get the chance to participate in Shuffle Time, in which several cards are flipped face down and shuffled, before you are allowed to pick one. Shuffle Time is the one way of getting additional Personas for your protagonist, whilst other cards from the minor Arcanas of a tarot deck bestow minor bonuses- Wands give more EXP, Coins give more money, Wands restore HP and Swords give you weapons. Some cards, however, are also cursed, and will draw the Reaper, a powerful optional boss who appears in Tartarus if you hang around to long, closer to you.
Apart the annoyance of not being able control them in battle, trying to check on the status of your party members is also a bit tedious. Instead of simply looking them up in the menu, you have to talk to either Fuuka or the party members to see their status and change their equipment. It may seem like a minor thing, but once you’ve done it fifty times, you will wish for easier menu navigation.
Although, in principle, you could go through most of the game without ever visiting Tartarus, every full moon you will have to fight a powerful boss Shadow. Whilst these battles are, for the most part, easier than the mini-bosses found in Tartarus, it is still worth preparing yourself in order to avoid repeating what can sometimes be quite long and tedious battles. And speaking of tedious, be prepared for the final boss, who has no fewer than fourteen forms to work your way through.
Those familiar with the Persona franchise will know that there is one more element to the game- the Velvet Room. Staffed by the long-nosed Igor and his beautiful assistant Elizabeth, the Velvet Room is where you can register all the Personas you collect in Tartarus and also fuse them together to create newer and more powerful ones. Persona fusion is a straightforward process that hides some quite complex mechanics, in which the fused Persona inherits certain abilities from its ‘parents’, and may even alter some abilities as it levels up.
Each Persona is associated with one of the twenty-two Major Arcana of the tarot deck, which is also connected to one of your Social Links. If you have established a Social Link of the corresponding Major Arcana, the fused Persona will gain bonus EXP. Certain fused Personas will even contain a powerful item within them which will emerge when they reach a certain level. Unfortunately, it is also possible for fusions to fail, resulting in a Persona other than the one you were aiming for.
Whilst Persona fusion is handled by Igor, Elizabeth has her own role to play in doling out requests for you to fulfil- everything from gathering particular items from both the real world and Tartarus to taking her on a date! You can even take her on in an optional boss battle.
With so much to do, don’t be surprised if you can’t manage it all on the first playthrough. Fortunately, you can go back round and attempt it all in New Game+, although your Social Links and level will be reset, so don’t expect it to be a completely easy ride second time around.
Protagonist: As the only character you control directly, the protagonist is of even more importance than ever- especially as it’s game over if he dies. Use his ability to command multiple Personas and equip any type of weapon to your advantage in making him a versatile player who can handle anything the game throws at you.
Junpei Iori: A user of fire and physical attacks, Junpei is the stereotypical sidekick and a solid character to have on your team, but although many find it worth keeping him along for the entire ride, I ended up dropping him in favour of Akihiko and Koromaru (at one point, he was level 19 when the rest of the team was in the late 50s). He becomes more inclined towards physical attacks as the game progresses, with the use of fire magic falling more to Koromaru.
Yukari Takeba: The obligatory female friend, Yukari is, unsurprisingly, the most accomplished healer in the game, with a sideline in wind element attacks. Although she isn’t up to scratch when it comes to physical attacks, she deserves a place on the team nonetheless.
Mitsuru Kirijo: Smart, elegant and sexy, Mitsuru is my favourite character of Persona 3, and she isn’t bad in battle either. She might be a little below average when it comes to physical attacks, but her ice magic can cut through even the mightiest of foes, and she does a good trade in support skills as well. She even has Spirit Drain, which lets her replenish her SP once it starts getting low. I rarely enter Tartarus without her.
Akihiko Sanada: A decent all-rounder, Akihiko uses a combination of physical attacks and electricity magic, with a couple of healing skills thrown in for good measure. A worthy member of my final boss slaying team, and a cool customer too.
Koromaru: Somewhat unusually, Koromaru is a Persona-wielding dog, but his loyalty and ferocity in battle is unquestionable. Although he lacks healing abilities, his mastery of fire and death magic, plus his solid physical attack, makes him a good replacement for Junpei later in the game.
Aigis: An android designed for the express purpose of fighting Shadows, Aigis is an out-and-out physical attacker. If you want some brawn on your party, she’s your go-to girl, but since she lacks versatility I tended to leave her on the bench for the more important encounters.
Shinjiro Aragaki: For plot reasons, Shinji is only available for part of the game, and the main reason to use him is a) the novelty and b) the fact that if he wins a battle, he will often follow up by saying “Adios, assholes”. He’s a decent physical attacker but doesn’t hang around long enough to be memorable. If you use a cheat to bring him back for later battles, Fuuka will accuse you of cheating.
Ken Amada: The only Persona-user still to be in elementary school, Ken is one of those characters who seems incredibly awesome and useful when you first get him, but who quickly falls behind. He has a mix of light, healing and physical skills, but doesn’t really excel in any area.
Fuuka Yamagishi (support): Replacing Mitsuru as support character partway through the game, Fuuka doesn’t actually participate in battle- her role is to analyse enemy weaknesses from afar and provide various other skills, including stating the obvious in battle. Anyone who has been repeatedly told “just one enemy left” when facing off against a single enemy will know how annoying she can be.
As with all Shin Megami Tensei games, Persona 3 is a tale of an overly eloquent final boss whose philosophical ramblings basically amount to wanting to return the world to nothingness. Along the way, however, there is emotional turmoil aplenty, with everyone possessing some kind of tragic past or deeply rooted angst that must be worked through in the course of the game. Fortunately, the characters are likeable enough that you genuinely feel for them rather than getting annoyed at yet another tale of misery and depression.
Persona 3 uses its mix of 3D for actual gameplay and 2D visual-novel style close up for cutscenes to good effect, creating a world that is clean, sharp and aesthetically pleasing. The game’s music is composed by the accomplished Shoji Meguro, who once again comes up with the goods in a soundtrack that encompasses everything from the operatic airs of the Velvet Room to more upbeat rap and techno-style tracks. Overall, it’s a very polished and attractive package.
Also included on the Persona 3 FES disc is a separate chapter entitled ‘The Answer’, which ties up some loose ends from Persona 3 within an additional 20-30 hours of gameplay. Following the events of Persona 3, the dorm is to be closed as our heroes go their separate ways. When they all decide to spend one last night together, however, they find themselves trapped within the confines of the dorm, repeating the same day over and over. Their only clue is the arrival of an android named Metis from the Abyss of Time, a new dungeon that has opened up beneath the dorm itself. Having inherited the power of the Wild Card from the protagonist, Aigis leads the party as they explore the Abyss of Time and try to find a way out.
A stripped-down version of Persona 3, FES’ The Answer chapter features more dungeons, more bosses and a new character to replace the departed protagonist in the form of Metis, an android physical attacker who basically takes Aigis’ role now that Aigis has stepped up to become the main character. Social Links and the passage of time have been put aside- this section of the game is all about dungeon-crawling, peppered with a few cutscenes detailing how each of the characters originally awoke to their Persona ability.
Also missing from The Answer is the ever-useful Persona Compendium, which, in the original P3, allowed the player to summon back any Persona they had fused or dismissed. This lack is something of a setback, although to make up for it, Personas that were only obtainable through fusion in the original game can now be obtained via Shuffle Time.
As a stand-alone title, FES wouldn’t be a great step forward from the earlier Persona games, but as add-on to Persona 3, it comes as a welcome shot of extra content that helps to stave off withdrawal symptoms for that little bit longer.
Although it suffers from a few flaws in execution that are corrected in both Persona 4 and the PSP remake, Persona 3 is a highly addictive game that successfully melds two genres into a single enjoyable experience. For sheer attitude and atmosphere, it remains my favourite Persona game.