Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
Based on: Your day-to-day high school life, provided it had involved demonic pacts.
Article by Anthony Rogers | November 24, 2008
Letís start this off with a bang: Persona 3 is the PS2ís Chrono Trigger.
No, really. The more obvious assets to the analogy are easy enough to pick out. Things like how both RPGs are late arrivals in their respective systemsí lifespans, how they share memorable soundtracks, how they didnít sell as many copies as they should have -- a subjective comparison, but both should have been huge given their level of quality. But the similarities go much deeper.
For starters, both games have a unique setting that offers a fresh perspective on the genre -- if Chrono Trigger is "that time traveling RPG," then Persona 3 is "that RPG where you go to school every day." Naturally, as a high school student, you canít simply shrug off your daily school activities or social life simply because you want to save the world. Each day youíll walk to class (including catching up on student gossip on everything from recent strange occurrences to cute boys), attend school all day (which may teach you actual, historical facts that show up on tests later), and then choose from a variety of afternoon and evening activities. Interestingly, both games employ the same technique to give their worlds character: repetition of environments. Chrono Trigger repeats and varies its locations across a number of time periods; Persona 3 shows the actual process of change, with a small town that gradually transforms as seasons change, giving citizens something new to say on a daily basis. Both approaches have the same effect, though: endearing the player not to any one character, but to the world itself.
Not to deny the main cast its importance. Chrono Triggerís heroes spring to mind as one of the main reasons the game is so well loved. From Junpei the hilarious loser to Ken the outcast younger student to Koromaru the dog, P3ís stable of main characters is every bit as likable. But thereís more to it than that. Chrono Trigger took the optional cutscenes from the second half of Final Fantasy VI and fleshed them out into full-fledged character-specific side quests, and P3 is essentially an entire game full of such scenes. The day-to-day format of the game means you see each and every one of your teammates struggling not just with their inability to save everybody or grow stronger but also with their grades, their homework, their love lives. The standard RPG approach is to focus the plot on one individual at a time, but in P3 you can visit with everyone every day. You see their reactions to story developments or watch them all pull together when someone needs it. The longer you live with these people, the more they become your friends.
This isnít limited to the main characters, either. The NPC town inhabitants also appear every single day, and itís with them that Persona 3ís localization shines brightest. The central element of repetition can only do so much if the people living in the game world aren't interesting; fortunately, thatís far from the case. Everyone either has an opinion on world events -- typically revolving around anything from major plot points to class trips -- or, like most people, are too concerned with their own small world to care about anything else. But thatís ok, because over time youíll get to know them and come to care for them all. You'll check in on the little boy who adopts a stray cat, and you'll always talk to the girl that has a crush on one of your female party members. And should one of the NPCs become afflicted with the mysterious disease plaguing the town, you will visit them first thing every day and worry when theyíre not there. Because you care.
And while even the little guys are charming, some of the NPCs let you get far more vested in their lives, should you so choose. Those after school and weekend activities are typically spent with specific NPCs, and spending more time with them makes you better friends with them -- increasing a stat commonly known as your "S. Link" for each. The higher your S. Link, the more they start to open up to you, and the more you come to care for them. Though theoretically possible, itís realistically impractical to see all of these scenes in one playthrough. As in life, there simply isnít enough time to be everyoneís friend. Those that you donít spend enough time will make you feel like an awful, neglectful person...which, of course, you are. Youíre not just juggling your stats here; youíre juggling your relationships.
Of course, your stats are also important, and this is perhaps Persona 3ís single greatest strength: the way everything -- the plot, your interaction with characters, and the combat elements -- are all linked together. You love a particular character, you spend time with them. This increases your S. Link, which in turn lets you create more a powerful Persona. The powerful Persona helps you in battle, allowing you to advance the plot.
Oh, right -- the game is called "Persona" for a reason. P3 should be seen as having two distinct halves: the social aspect, and the combat. A key component of the gameís plot is that, at the stroke of midnight every night, almost everyone in town turns into coffins for the duration of the "Dark Hour". During this time, a gigantic tower called Tartarus appears, filled with demons; itís here that the gameís combat takes place. The special few that are awake at this time -- mostly your party -- are able to summon special spirits called "Persona" to fight these demons, all of which come from a variety of mythical backgrounds. Everything from Christian lore like Lucifer to Gaelic superstar Cķ Chulainn are included. And of course, being the main hero, youíre the only one that can summon more than one of these (which, yes, is eventually explained, because, again, every aspect of Persona 3 is connected).
You can swap your Persona at any time, but whichever you have equipped determines you character's stats; this is where it gets interesting. If you are attacked by (or, conversely, attack with) your Personaís current weakness, you will be "knocked down" and spend your turn that round standing back up. If you manage to knock down every enemy on screen, your party can engage in an ďAll-out AttackĒ that will do an incredible amount of damage instantly (and are hilarious to watch). That said, the game stays interesting because it's hard. Some bosses simply donít have a weakness and will knock your party members out in a single hit if youíre not using status effects. This is no Final Fantasy; strategizing to bring the right Persona with the right moves is key to victory. Shockingly, Persona 3 is supposedly easier than some of the other Shin Megami Tensei? games, similar to Chrono Triggerís relatively lower difficulty compared to some of its brothers and sisters. But that's OK; it difficult enough that each fight becomes much more engaging than simply mashing "X" could ever be.
The good news is, getting a new Persona can be a lot of fun, thanks to the fusion system. Essentially, this involves taking two weaker Persona in your possession, smashing them together, and hoping something good comes out as a result. The new Persona will randomly inherit skills from both its parents; so with a little elbow grease, you can get that ice spell on the fire-resistant Persona to make short work of the boss youíre stuck on. Because battle can be brutal and often end abruptly for either party, fusing and using the correct Persona while working together with your teammates to form a cohesive strategy is vital, to the point that boss battles may start to resemble a puzzle. You will die, but hopefully in the process you'll learn what you need to do take the obstacle down. Unlike, say, Earthbound or Dragon Quest? -- wherein you simply grind for a few levels if a boss defeats you -- here you probably already have the tools you need to progress. You just need to put on that thinking cap, mister.
Opening up a new S. Link will let you fuse a new category of Persona, and the higher the S. Link the more extra experience your newly-fused Persona will receive immediately. The fact that your S. Links help you garner better Persona is key to P3ís beauty, because it means you're never wasting time. There are more ways to make yourself stronger than simply leveling up; in fact, the stat bonuses for leveling up arenít worth the effort. Instead, stronger Persona provide better stats, meaning you need to do battle -- to be at a high enough level to fuse them -- but your S. Links are equally valuable in getting to that point. The nice benefit of this setup is that the non-battle side of getting stronger also advances time, which helps keep the plot moving.
Really, thatís the best part about tying all aspects of the game together: itís incredibly considerate of the player. Itís literally impossible to not have enough time to do something productive. Have 20 minutes to kill? Why not spend it advancing a day or two in the week. Have a couple hours? Go to Tartarus and advancer further into the tower. Or do the exact opposite in both situations. Youíre never more than 5 minutes away from a good stopping point. At the risk of drawing a negative comparison, P3's setup has the same appeal as The DaVinci Code's bite-sized chapters: youíre never so pressured by time that wonít feel like playing is a chore. In other RPGs, if you save in the middle of a dungeon, you wonít boot it back up until you know you have time to tackle it. In Persona 3, thereís essentially one giant dungeon that opens up over time, and you can leave the instant you feel like it. Most S. Link scenes are equally spaced out. Do whatever you find fun and you'll be rewarded. No pressure.
Lastly, P3 and Chrono Trigger share the idea of the silent protagonist, and just as Squareís masterpiece puts a twist on it (namely, actually allowing you to, ahem, remove him from your party), so, too, does Atlusí game offer more than the genre standard. In fact, P3 does more to push the idea of "you" as the silent protagonist further than any other Japanese RPG to date. Like everything else in the game -- unsurprisingly -- the disparate aspects of the game gel to make this happen. Obviously, the choices you make as to who to hang out with and which S. Links to work on are all your own. This, again, means certain families of Persona will be stronger than others when you fuse them, affecting your battle. Even more to the point, you only have direct control of your protagonist in battle, but the AI isnít entirely on its own, nor is it simply "preset" to act certain ways. Rather, when you want to get the AI characters to heal or attack more often, your character, the elected team leader, issues commands which the party members interpret as helpful hints. Similarly, you donít choose your partyís equipment outright; your character gives them new weapons or armor as gifts, which your friends thank you for, and may actually give back to you later if they find something better. In a game all about balancing relationships, itís hard to not make it personal after awhile. Itís possible this was merely a side effect of fleshing out the other characters populating the game -- after all, you define who you are by the people you surround yourself with -- but thatís unlikely.
In the end, Persona 3 is really all about choice. You choose who to interact with and how to interact with them, you choose when to battle, what to battle with, and how to battle. The important thing is that the choices matter, no matter which aspect of the game you like best. Even minor decisions, like whether you sleep in class or ignore your exhaustion and hear something that might be on a test, will have an effect in battle; youíre awarded better items if you do well on midterms/final exams. They'll affect your social life as well, in that certain characters wonít like you if you arenít smart enough. Western RPGs typically offer a wide variety of choice, but what P3 has managed to do is something theyíre still struggling to accomplish: give you choice in a world that feels like it has real, breathing characters in it. A world that will make you feel genuinely bad if something bad should ever happen. You only care about not blowing up Megaton in Fallout 3? because youíll lose quests you want to do, but when that one NPC briefly lost his cat in Persona 3? Itís the most helpless any game will ever make you feel, and youíll care. Youíre not making choices based solely on "will this help me?" but rather, "I care because I feel bad." Few games can inspire that kind of loyalty.
And, like Chrono Trigger, thatís something special.