Yes, Persona 3 requires you to shoot yourself in the head, over and over and over again. It's an unusual and certainly controversial gameplay mechanic, but if you can get past that you'll find that there's a lot more to the game than a group of high school students repeatedly committing simulated suicide. We spent some time playing the recently released Japanese version of the game to see how it plays once you get past the bizarreness of it all.
As made obvious by the title, Persona 3 is a sequel to Persona 2, which was released in two installments in Japan: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. Of the two, only Eternal Punishment made it to North America. For all the history that the series has, Persona 3 is a stand-alone game. It shares the same style and similar themes as its predecessors, but the stories are not directly connected.
Persona 3 focuses on the story of a young male protagonist who is a high school student by day and a member of a demon-slaying syndicate by night. In the beginning of the game you assign a name to your character, and then you find and enter a seemingly average dormitory. Upon entering the dormitory you meet a young boy who presents you with a contract to sign. After you sign the contract, the boy mysteriously disappears and you're left on your own in the lobby of the dorm building. A girl shows up with a gun, obviously quite agitated at your presence. Before anything happens, another woman shows up to diffuse the situation. After some dialogue, the first girl shows you to your room, where you go to sleep and then wake up the next morning to head off to school.
Once you get to school, you meet some people and then find your classroom. The first hour of the game is made up almost entirely of dialogue, as well as some animated cutscenes to set the stage. The dialogue sequences can be quite lengthy, and although most of the conversations are predominantly one-sided, you're often given choices to make. For example, you'll be asked questions by your teacher during class, and you're given several different responses to choose from. Your stats will increase based on your response. Your character has stats for parameters such as "academic" and "charm." If you answer questions from teachers incorrectly, or choose to sleep through your classes, your different stats will be affected accordingly.
Between classes, sleeping, and story sequences, you'll see time progress. The day and night are divided into early morning, morning, lunch hour, afternoon, after school, night hour, late at night, and darkness periods. Oftentimes, you'll skip several periods, only pausing if there's an event occurring. There's also a calendar that shows days as well as lunar cycles, which are indicated by icons depicting the moon at different stages of fullness.
The first few days of the game are fairly uneventful. The young girl you first meet introduces you to several characters and you're monitored as you sleep by the members of the S.E.E.S team, which is a group of demon hunters headquartered in your dormitory. You're eventually recruited as a member due to your apparent persona-summoning abilities. Along with the girl, you team up with a baseball-cap-wearing guy from school, who is also able to summon personas.
While your days are spent at school, your nights are often spent in a dark tower known as Tartaros, where you fight your way from one randomly generated floor to the next. Every few floors you'll come across a transport pad that will take you down to the lobby of Tartaros, where you can save your game, make adjustments to your party, or head back to your dorm. When you're in the dungeon you can choose to explore as a party, or you can split up and explore each floor on your own. Doing so means that you'll be on your own if you happen to get into a fight, but you'll also get all of the items that your friends come across. Each floor of Tartaros is full of enemies and treasure chests, as you might expect. You'll see enemies onscreen as you walk around each floor, and making contact with an enemy will draw you into a battle. You can press a button to swipe at an enemy with your sword, which, if you time it correctly, will result in a preemptive attack when the battle begins.
The battle system in Persona 3 is fairly straightforward, but it puts some unique twists on the standard turn-based combat found in most Japanese role-playing games. Once in battle you can attack, use items, defend, flee, or summon personas. You don't have direct control over any characters other than the main protagonist, but you can issue general commands to your allies. Although it seems strange to not be in full control of your party, we found the artificial intelligence to be plenty capable in battle. If a character is about to die, he or she will run away, but not before asking your permission.
Of course, the hitch of the battle system comes in the form of the personas. The personas are beings that can be summoned to fight for you, much like the summons in a Final Fantasy game. In order to call forth the personas, you have to force them out of your head, which is done by taking a pistol, pointing it to your head, and pulling the trigger. These are presumably special pistols, though, because you don't have to worry about seeing the side of your head erupt in a stream of skull fragments and brain matter. Instead, you get to see a slick animation as one of the huge and very bizarre-looking personas pops out of your head, does its attack, and then retreats back to the confines of your mind.
There are several different types of personas in the game--some will heal your party and others will attack your enemies. Some personas require you to sacrifice some hit points in order to summon, and others require magic points. You can earn new personas and attacks by collecting cards, which can be found in chests or won in battle. The different attacks and abilities of your personas have unique properties, and some personas work better on certain enemies than they do on others. Each type of enemy has a specific weakness to one type of attack. For instance, we found a flying creature that was vulnerable to the arrows fired by the female character in our party. When you hit an enemy with an attack that it's vulnerable to, the enemy will fall down. When all of the enemies in the battle are on the ground, you can initiate a group attack where all of the party members rush the weakened enemies, inflicting major damage.
The battle animations are all very slick and stylized, but the ones we saw weren't so drawn out that they dragged down the pace of the game. The dark look of the game carries beyond the battles to the characters and environments as well. The high school looks normal enough, but the dark, blood-soaked hallways of Tartaros give you a distinct feeling that something is very wrong. The enemies and personas are all very bizarre and elaborately designed. There are dancing hands, flying demons, strange ethereal puddles of ooze, and more. There are also some high-quality anime cutscenes that match the style and look of the game very well.
Based on our time spent with Persona 3, it looks like it will offer a distinct role-playing experience that fits well with the Persona universe but also brings its own higher level of weirdness to the series. But even beyond the bizarre and highly stylized look and feel of the game, the mechanics seem solid. The game is currently scheduled to be released in North America sometime in 2007, so be sure to check back with GameSpot for more story details as Atlus works on the translation. Also, be sure to take a look at the newly posted videos and screenshots from the import version of the game.