Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Remembering Persona 3 / FES

Persona 3 and the special edition Persona 3 FES take on the trappings of a traditional console role playing game and introduce new elements which make it greater than the sum of its parts.

It is in many ways a very different RPG than a lot of its peers.

Combining traditional dungeon crawling with elements of a dating sim, which at first seems like an odd combination, but the two elements work well together, and aside from helping tell a great story, the dating/relationship system called Social Links also has in game benefits (which I will discuss later).

For instance, instead of being either a vaguely medieval/fantasy setting or a futuristic world, the game takes place in a modern Japanese urban setting between 2009 and 2010. This decision also means that instead of having the characters in the game travel around great distances, there is a single large dungeon which is accessible at a single time of the day called the Dark Hour. The Dark Hour is a secret time after midnight that the majority of humanity can't experience, but a few individuals can see and experience. Of course, the Dark Hour is also a time when demons called Shadows stalk the streets and attack those who can exist during that eldritch time.

This is related to another one of the odd things about the game: events are tied more to dates rather than places. As you progress through the game, you become aware of the fact that you are going to have major encounters on particular days, so you aren't surprised by a boss battle... you generally have a heads up about those kinds of things.

Now, I have to mention the fact that it is a very dark game, one which was almost tailor made for controversy. You see, the way the characters access their Personas is provocative. They each have something which looks like a pistol called an Evoker, which they put up to their head and pull the trigger. It is not suicide, but it is very much an emulation of it. The fact that the characters are all teenagers and there is a belief that games are just for kids means that yes, this is indeed pushing some boundaries. Penny Arcade even made light of that aspect of the game. Oddly enough, evoking is very similar to summoning in the Final Fantasy games, so aside from the methods, it is quite traditional in that one respect.

Then again, it isn't the first time that the Shin Megami Tensei series has pushed some buttons. They've had storylines which have included a cult trying to resurrect Hitler, a group of kids killing their principal (who was totally evil, but still), and had a game where the heroes didn't just kill "God", but killed the Judeo-Christian God.

So to say they aren't cute or happy games is an understatement. It is on more than one level depressing. I would not let little kids and young teens play this game (granted, they most likely wouldn't want to play it anyway), and it is a title which I agree with the M rating on, despite it being far less violent than other games out there for the system.

The story follows a group of Japanese high school students who discover that they can exist in the Dark Hour, and take it upon themselves to try to protect the world from the evils which that state is breeding (there is an in game disorder called Apathy Syndrome which is causing increasing numbers of people to become almost comatose). You play as a male tranfer student to Gekkoukan High School, silent protagonist, who discovers that like his fellow dorm mates, he has the ability to evoke a Persona during the Dark Hour (though unlike his classmates, he can access multiple Personas during a battle). You battle Shadows in a grand towering and ever changing dungeon called Tartarus which arises on the site of the High School.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a role playing game based on travel, rather it is rooted in a single town which has a single large dungeon, and a few other places to visit. But instead of being a limitation, this economy of setting means that a better and more organic story can develop. Remember I mentioned that Persona 3 incorporated elements of dating sims into the game. Well, this means that you are encouraged to develop friendships and romantic relationships with classmates and people around town, and in doing so, over time and through repeated interactions, you learn that character's story, and often times, you help them come to a realization about themselves or see them through a great hardship. I mentioned that aside from being emotionally evocative, this also has an in game benefit.

Each of your friends is aligned with a particular arcana of the Tarot, and the protagonists personas each have a Tarot alignment as well. In addition to being able to wield multiple personas in battle, the main character can also fuse 2 or more personas together to create stronger personas which retain some of the skills of its constituent parts, and this is another area of the game which will suck your time away, because you can truly create some awesome things to help you out in battle this way. Making the best ones is both an art and a science.

In terms of gameplay mechanics, the fighting system boils down to you controlling the main character in battle while your other party members think and fight for themselves along your tactical guidelines (in the PS2 versions... the upcoming PSP version will allow you to control all your party members). However, there were some interesting elements which also bear discussion. For instance, in most other RPGs, if an enemy or a party member has a weakness, it usually means that an attack just hurts them more. In Persona 3, it goes beyond that... it will knock the entity receiving that attack down as well and whoever made the attack will get another turn. It is this seemingly small change to the combat dynamic that makes the whole affair take on a much more strategic feel. I was also pleased by the fact that unlike a lot of other games in the genre, you can have access to almost every attack/spell your enemies can throw at you and it works the same way... it isn't a watered down version. And the fact that status attacks, buffs/debuffs and instant death spells work throughout the game is also a refreshing change from systems that other games have that make them all but useless.

But at the heart of the game is a great, well-developed story, characters you care about and a sense of purpose unifying the whole experience. Gladly, it doesn't suffer from any of the narrative problems I found when discussing another Japanese role-playing game. I also have no complaints about production values, as it is clear that Atlus spent money on this game and it shows. The localization is well-done as well, though I have heard complaints about particular characters, but I didn't have a problem with the way they came across, so I think they are being a little nit picky.

Something which I appreciated was the fact that Atlus seems to have moved in a different direction than Square Enix when it comes to androgynous male characters. If you've played a Final Fantasy game, you know exactly what I mean. The characters also look like they are Asian, which is something that I notice is missing from other games in the genre as well.

It is a very very long game as well. The main storyline took me over 110 hours to complete and with the additional chapter provided in the FES edition clocking in at over 30 hours at least, you certainly get good value for your money. However, be warned that it is also a relatively hard game and some grinding may be required, and if you know me, you know I hate grinding. And yet, it is still such a compelling game that I still recommend it highly. In fact, if I was to redo my list of the Top 25 Playstation 2 games, it would land solidly in my top 10.

And with a new version coming out for the PSP, this game will be more widely available than ever. Hopefully the success that Atlus has had as of late with Demons Souls with translate into a wider release for this version of the game, as more people should have the opportunity to play it. (Atlus is notorious for having relatively small print runs for their games... it was so bad that to get a copy of P3FES, I had to order a copy from the States and have it delivered to a fellow blogger's house before having it shipped to myself).

But aside from those minor quibbles, it was an excellent experience all around.


Semaj said...

I never got around to playing this one, me being a RPG player, but I wanted to. I'll probably catch up on some "Let's Play" Youtube.

Did you get any of the Front Mission games yet?

MC said...

I have Front Mission 4 in my backlog.

These SMT games seem to be from a completely different tradition than the Square Enix games, and it is sort of refreshing.