LOS ANGELES--The Persona series occupies a warm place in the hearts of most all of those who played any of those games. What other role-playing games lets you play as characters battling occult forces threatening Japan while also having to worry about their high school exams? But there's more to it than that. Persona always featured great tactical combat, surprisingly mature themes, and a great sense of style. The series has been dormant for years, so we were happy to learn of its imminent return, though cautiously optimistic about how it would wind up... After all, it's been more than half a decade since Persona 2. But our fears were alleviated after playing a Japanese-language version of the game at Atlus' booth at E3. Fantastic artwork, a great musical score, and an intriguing combat system are all in there. This is the PlayStation 2 role-playing game to watch.
Persona 3 clearly has a lot to its story, which is delivered using excellent animated anime-style portraits as well as fully 3D character animations. The art style in this game is remarkable--we've never seen a Japanese RPG that seemed to put this much effort into having a slick presentation, as even all the menus have an attractive look to them. The main character is a skinny, sullen high school student, but even though he looks like a loner, he seems to have at least a couple of friends--a baseball-cap-wearing loudmouth and a pretty, polite young lady. The 3D characters running around in the great-looking fully 3D environments match their hand-drawn anime portraits very nicely. We were also amazed by what we heard of the soundtrack, though we literally needed to stick our heads against the television speaker to hear any of it (the E3 showroom floor is quite loud, you see). Driving Japanese pop music with vocals and intense bass riffs make combat sequences that much more intense. It really seems to match the game's hip, modern style.
Combat is turn-based, but interestingly enough, your party members are completely autonomous. You can give them orders, but they'll act on their own--they can even be instructed to explore environments on their own, so rather than run around like a choo-choo train through various dungeons, you can actually split up. During battle, you can attack using weapons like swords and bows, or you can summon your persona--a demonic creature bonded to your character and capable of wrecking fools readily. We were shocked and thrilled by the method of summoning: Your character puts a gun to his head and squeezes the trigger. And bang, out pops the persona. So we've got no plans to show this game to overly concerned citizens who hate video games, but we thought this was a great touch.
It's possible to use special skills (basically magic spells) to weaken enemies. Find an enemy's weakness and it'll be knocked down. Knock down all your enemies and you'll be able to initiate a great-looking team bum-rush maneuver, where the lot of you just go to town on the prone enemies, thrashing them in a huge cloud of chaos until they've all been stomped to death. The combat seems to be fast-paced and strategic--it looks good. And yes, you earn experience and items from winning battles. Sometimes you'll have a random chance to earn a new persona. Personas may also be combined to form stronger or different personas from a special location that seems to exist beyond time...some sort of giant clock tower, filled with strange dimensional portals.
Apparently a day-and-night cycle will have a profound impact on gameplay. By day, things all seem OK, insofar as it must be hard being a high school kid living in modern Japan, trying to survive in a harsh social climate. There's a cool timeline that shows the passage of time--goes from "breakfast" to "after school" and things like that. Then, by night, the freaks come out and the occult overtones kick in. We controlled a trio of characters running through blood-soaked corridors--far different from the rather pleasant springtime high school scenery of the day.
This version of Persona 3 is entirely in Japanese and seems close to complete, or at least, it seems very polished. There's quite a bit of Japanese speech in the game for some of the cutscenes (in one scene, the gang could be heard muttering under their breaths during an all-school meeting), so all that's going to take a while to translate into English. We hope Atlus gives that localization plenty of time, since this seems like it's got what it takes to be a very special game once it finally hits North American shores. Expect more about Persona 3 from GameSpot in the months to come.