Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
Article by Tomm Hulett | October 5, 2009
The island nation of Japan, like publisher Atlus, makes a lot of RPGs. Every JRPG ever made, in fact, which isn't surprising when you stop to consider that the J means "Japanese." And much like Atlus, not many of Japanís role-playing games break out from the crowd and stand on their own as an embodiment of what the genre can be. For most people, the short list reads: Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Chrono Trigger (the latter having been crafted by a combination of the talent responsible for both of the former).
Yet Atlus, like Japan, sometimes gets it right. After decades of trying with their darkly iconic Megami Tensei? series, the company finally managed to create an RPG that was far more than merely competentóthey have a catalog full of those -- but stood up and shouted ďIím a classic, dammit!Ē More importantly, this proclamation was heard, both at home and abroad in the west. Persona 3 shines as the best RPG of the last decade, and itís easy to see why.
RPGs operate from a very narrow set of rules, expectations, and mechanics. Some 99.9% of all JRPGs follow the Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy templates to the letter, which is the same reason they vanish behind those juggernauts. Persona 3 is different. Instead of picking out a number of pre-existing mechanics and simply placing them verbatim into the MegaTen demon-summoning moldóbecause, after all, they worked before, so why do something new? -- Persona 3 rewrites the rules entirely, re-imagining the genre. Not just how it works, but why it works that way.
In Persona 3, experience levels are not an indicator of advancement. You donít have to grind any longer than you personally want to. Hell, you donít really have to buy or equip weapons and armor for your support characters. Persona 3, while very much a JRPG -- or like The Bardís Tale, if you want to get to the core of itódoesnít function anything like weíve been trained to expect from one. Atlus carefully considered the needs of the game, and their vision of it, before defining its mechanics. What results is a pastiche of the genreís ďgreatest hits,Ē extending back to AI-controlled party members, something even Dragon Quest wonít force on you anymore. Yet it's all presented within a fresh context, and each component is fully interconnected with the rest so that everything feels completely new.
This total integration is the key to Persona 3's success -- not just integration into the overall structure, but with the other features as well. Hanging out with a Social Link doesnít just enhance the story, it enhances the hero's fusion options as well, along with the Personas youíll want to recruit, the Quests you can potentially undertake, whether or not youíll dungeon-hop that night, and so on. There is no wasting time in Persona 3, and that means I can do whatever I want in a play session and still feel like Iím enhancing, improving, and marching closer to victory at the endósomething a genre largely designed around wasting real-world time in order to make slow in-game gains could learn a lot from.
If the RPG industry were the first Matrix film -- and Iím not saying itís not -- then at the end, Persona 3 makes a phone call to Square Enix. And Persona 3 knows that Square Enix is afraid, because once it hangs up the phone, itís going to show gamers a world without Square Enix. A world of choice. A world where anything is possible. Then Persona 3 will fly into the sky, directly toward the camera before a quick cut to the credits. Persona 3 leaves the choice to you, and thankfully weíve lived long enough to know that at least the first sequel to Persona 3 wonít completely abandon everything we loved about it. Where you see the perfect combination of RPG mechanics, randomly tied together to create something fresh and new, I see providence. Letís hope other developers climb out of the Square Enix dance orgy long enough to take notice.