Baby baby babaayyyy!!!! Persona 3 FES is best described as a testament to the value of life and friendship in RPG form.
My warning is that the first hour is confusing and weird, and rightly so, as you are in a situation you know nothing of. By you, I mean you are the main character (who is male and cannot be changed, sorry ladies and people who don't like his appearance).
Now that that caveat is over with, the following 100 or so hours of Persona are worth the price of admission. It is a game that takes a very serious look at the meaning of life and how people in every day struggles, like a little girl who's parents are going through a divorce, or a dying young man, or just a friend who has a sports injury that keeps him from fulfilling a promise. These little stories not only are engaging to participate in, as you want to know what happens next, but as you forge these friendships, they increase your powers to make Persona.
While the game deals with very dark tones and serious issues (Spoiler : You save the world from impending doom, hope I didn't ruin that for you), it has some very funny laugh out loud moments. When you get to Yakushima Beach when the main character, Junpei and Akihiko go "pick up chicks", you'll know why.
The way the dormmates interact from Yukari calling Junpei "Stupei" to how they help each other in battle and offer verbal support is very immersive and furthers the whole camaraderie idea. This isn't to say there isn't friction and jealousy, that is present and adds even more believability to the group. People will die, characters will mourn, but with increasing resolve after a tragic event they become more powerful. This game is truly about strengthening relationships in terms of story and gameplay. I could go on and on with this aspect but it is really wasting your time reading beyond "Trust me, it is worth it for the story alone".
But getting back to what I was saying earlier. By engaging in social interactions, or as the game calls it, "Social Links", your character develops power to make new Persona. Think of them as your characters ability to fight and cast spells and stuff. Sort of like summons. By pursuing certain friends (and romantic interests) you can make ultimate Persona who get extra boosts depending on your social link level. Now you don't need to max out every friendship, but it does help in terms of your characters power, and also it's just fun, I couldn't wait for the next day to find out what happened.
When I say next day, I mean you are high school students who go to class, participate in activities during the morning and take quizzes, then you can hang out after school to develop your social links then do more stuff in the evening with social links or study or get more charm and courage (those open up more social links, that's all, they don't affect your combat skills whatsoever), or you can enter Tartarus, the main dungeon of the game.
Remember when I said the start of the game was confusing as hell? The game remains a mystery, and as the days go by and you approach each full moon you fight a boss or engage in a long cutscene explaining things. Your characters who are all persona users who live in the same dorm as members of SEES are there for a reason, and the game does an excellent reason of explaining why and who these people all are outside of being your classmates and senpai (that's seniors to anyone who doesn't speak Japanese, honorifics and diminutives are used quite a bit in this game).
The combat inside of Tartarus is pretty straight forward. You can either attack an enemy without detection, with detection or they hit you first. The first case is you have a free strike, the second is you usually go first (depending on your agility, which is almost always first), the final case is the enemy gets first hit. No unfortunately you can't do an Earthbound or Blue Dragon type instant kill if you are high level.
The combat in battle involves regular attacks, special attacks, items, changing tactics, changing personae and fleeing... or waiting.
Regular attacks are straightforward. Smack the enemy upside the head. Special Attacks are elemental attacks or healing or support style spells. I won't go into much detail, but there are 4 types of reactions. First is you or the enemy is weak to that attack, this will result in knocking them down, and doing more damage AND allowing for a second action. This means you can theoretically hit every enemy in one turn without them getting an attack off. And in this case, if every enemy is on the ground and you have at least one ally in good shape in battle you can rush them all for massive damage. Almost all enemies have at least one elemental weakness, and with the exception of one or two characters, every one of you and your allies has a weakness and strength (the main character can change personae, so his varies). Second is nothing, just you hit someone with that attack and it works. Third is if you are strong, it halves the damage. Fourth is Null, nullfiying the damage. Err... I guess there's a fifth which is Drain, meaning that attack heals you or the enemy.
So learning to use fire on someone weak against Agi skills is a must, and your support member, either Mitsuru or Fuuka can tell you their weakness. It will become second nature soon.
If you have two or more of the corresponding personae, you can perform powerful fusion spells that do massive damage or other neat effects.
Items are self explanatory, as is changing persona, although you can only change once per turn, so make your switch count. Waiting is well... waiting and doing nothing. Tactics well... read below.
Another important feature (and my biggest criticism) is you ONLY control the main character directly. Sure, you can issue orders like attack monster X, or cast support spells or try and knock the enemy down only, but sometimes your allies are just stupid and will merely wait even though they have some sort of option that could at least be remotely beneficial. I'm telling you I'd never lose if I had control of all 4 characters at once instead of this AI stuff. That being said, it is competent enough, but you will see some glaring flaws that where you know the character could have acted but didn't.
And also related to this fact is that since you only control the main character, if he dies, it's game over, period. This is exceptionally annoying when the skills Hama and Mudo (light and dark instant death attacks) come into play. Trying to make your way up to the next teleporter in Tartarus just to get sniped by the last enemy using Mudo after 45 minutes of climbing is REALLY annoying. Thankfully, you can get some items that allow for you to overcome these instant death attacks a little while later but that exposes one of the main flaws of this game. Second, if an enemy just straight up hits you hard enough and kills you or with a critical attack you will lose as if Hama or Mudo hit you.
Getting back to the Persona part of the game, you can create custom persona using the power from your social links, but not only that, you can use each of their powers like a random skill generator... think of it like breeding Pokemon. By reshuffling your two persona you are going to "fuse" you might get a better skill that one of them has passed on to the fused persona. I didn't figure that out until 50 or so hours into the game, but boy did it help later on.
That leads me to another point. One of the side quests issued by a woman named Elizabeth involves many types of missions which include standard fetch missions, dating, defeating enemies, etc... or fusing a persona with a certain type of skill.
I mention you have a calendar and school day to follow, if you don't study, you will do bad on exams or if you fight too late in Tartarus, you will get tired for the next day or two. So balancing your time is vital. This is especially critical when you have a career week. Even if you aren't careful, you will be ok, but I do suggest going to Tartarus as much as you can and are willing to. That isn't to say, ignore the various activities at night. However it plays out, just listen to the dorm mates, they will give you hints as to when to go to Tartarus if you've been slacking (think of it as an in game strategy guide).
I believe that covers most of the game's play, and overall it is a presentable package in terms of combat, but only using one character leads to a lot of problems that aren't game breaking, just annoying. The social links and otherwise solid combat system make the gameplay solid.
Graphically, Persona 3 has its own unique visual flair. Most of the game is set in either your dorm, the school, various malls, a shrine, or inside Tartarus. There are a few side excursions to other locations like Kyoto and to Yakushima, as well as other special events, so it's not completely the same each time. One of the things I enjoyed most though was that although you are in the same place like school or the mall each day, the seasons change. The game indicates this by changing your clothes to season appropriate attire (for all characters mind you), and leaves bloom and blossoms burst and then the leaves fall in the winter. Even during Christmas, a Christmas tree is put up and lights are hung in the mall.
So while it is the same the seasons and days change making the game not the same visually throughout. In fact, weapons change appearance and special armor (particularly with the ladies in maid costumes and bikinis) can change appearances. It's sad that games like Eternal Sonata in a next generation machine don't do this but a PS2 game can.
The enemies known as Shadows come in all shapes and sizes, but often are generally pallet swaps depending on your progression into Tartarus. The bosses are very unique, as are the characters individual appearances and personalities. The game doesn't have particularly great textures, but somehow that is actually alright with me, especially with the whole anime feel. In fact many cutscenes are done in an FMV anime, and the game itself looks like a 3D anime, not 2D cel shading, but something else. Anyways, Persona 3 does NOT look bad whatsoever.
Sonically this is one of the best games I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. From the flabbergasted Yukari calling Junpei "Stupei" and then huffing off in a fit, to Fuuka yelling in concern about Koro-Chan taking a hard hit and needing help healing, this game has some of the greatest voice acting and intercharacter dynamics. It feels like you're living in a dorm with these guys (Heh, watch the camera recordings to see people at their most intimate). Especially during poignant scenes, the voice actors perform their parts as admirably as any other. Oh, and a great amount of the game is voiced (although there could have been some more, but this is only on a DVD here).
But that's not all, aside from the sound effects and more, the music is on par or surpasses work by Nobuo Uematsu or Sam Hulick and Jack Wall. I find myself singing along to the funky pop/rap of Mass Destruction. "Ooooohhh yeaaa, da da da da daaaooooowwwww baby baby, dun da dun da". It's infectiously catchy. The Living With Determination track is a haunting piano and string composition that expresses deep melancholy and pensiveness, perfect for when you visit they dying young man Akinari, or it could be amped up in a Nirvana reminiscent rock track (Master of Tartarus) when fighting a boss in Tartarus. The game has an eclectic mix of funk, rap, jazz, rock and J-Pop unlike anything I've ever heard. The final Boss battle "Burn my Bread" is one of the most intense combat tracks ever, it just makes you want to kick the final bosses ass (which if you made it that far you can't die).
I have been listening to the soundtrack of this game since I started playing it over 2 months ago and I am not sick of it yet. It is one of the best and most diverse soundtracks I've ever heard and you will be singing along too, I guarantee it.
In terms of value, what more can I say when I've laughed, cried, been shocked, and just had a blast playing this game for over 100 hours for 29.99$?
I completed the Journey (the original Persona 3) in exactly 97 hours 36 minutes (not including a few Mudo/Hama related deaths I mentioned earlier). I am 13 hours into the Answer, and if like me, you will love the Journey, but the way it ends, you will feel slighted by the ending and will hop right into the Answer (which features everyones robotic to human transitional character, Aigis as the main character).
Best 29.99 I've spent on a game in a long time.
I don't know how much more I can repeat myself when I say the cast of characters are presented in an engaging and such believable way that you need to know what happens next, you need to see how that social link turns out, not because you want more power (that's nice), but because you want to see what happens to the characters.
The graphics are nothing to sneeze at, even as a Playstation 2, and this game is nothing short of a sonic masterpiece. Aside from some annoying features like the single character control scheme, Persona 3 should be experienced by everyone.
Gameplay : 7 out of 10
Graphics : 9 out of 10
Sound : 10 out of 10 (can I give an 11?)
Value : 10 out of 10 (can I also give an 11?)
Tilt : 10 out of 10 (can I also give an 11 here too?)
Overall: 9 out of 10
+ Some of the most believable casts of characters that I bet you could relate to having been in high school. From their dynamics and inter character relationships, everything in this game is well presented in a well scripted and immersive manner.
+ You will be singing along to the songs, even if you can't understand the lyrics. Your iPod will thank you for it.
+ Yakushima Beach... simply the most laugh out loud section of a game I have ever played.
+ Social Links - Reaffirms life and friendship. Also helps with gameplay, Metal Gear could learn from this.
- Controlling only the main character really is annoying, especially with Mudo and Hama or a critical hit wiping you out in a long battle.
- For those who are cutscene aversive (which I am not), this might be too heavy for you.
- Sometimes the AI is dumb.
- If you really neglect training and exploring in Tartarus... then you haven't been paying attention to the dorm mates. Basically if you can't balance your life in real life, you might have a hard time with this game.