Uniquely fusing turn-based combat with dating-sim to revamp genre's aging conventions,its the new benchmark of the genre
A decade later cut to Persona 3 and the JRPG world is still the same for better or worse. P3 was destined to be something that would be loved by its niche fanbase. Other JRPG aficionados would just ignore it. But something had changed –P3 embraced the word "accessibility" in ways I could never have imagined it could. For all Square Enix's attempts in making JRPGs more "Western" to increase its appeal, it is highly ironic that a JRPG that is as rooted in Japanese tradition as Persona 3 becomes the next big thing in the genre.
It achieves it in different ways but no change helps it in its goal towards greater accessibility than the fusion of traditional turn-based combat with dating-sim structure. If that combination sounds unique, unexpected and puzzling then those were exactly my thoughts the first time Persona 3 presented me with such features. What I didn't expect was how Persona 3 used those features to completely enhance and in a way revamp how JRPG conventions were looked upon.
Persona 3 follows the suit of all the Megami Tensei games by putting you in the shoes of a silent protagonist whom you get to name. He's a student who's just got transferred to Gekkoukan High School. However fresh off the transit he stumbles across something strange and unsettling. It's after midnight yet time has frozen. The moon has got a greenish hue to it, people who were walking on the street become stationary and coffins replace where they originally stood and all sorts of strange things happening all around him –welcome to the Dark Hour.
Persona 3 brings back these very familiar Megami Tensei elements of horror and mystery into its story and stylishly so. In the day you live the life of a normal high-schooler but by the night you investigate the mystery behind the Dark Hour along with a group of similarly gifted high-school friends who aren't affected by the Dark Hour's transmogrifying effect.
Day-time is when P3 brings its dating sim elements into play. You go to school, attend classes, occasionally answer trivia questions teachers may ask you, and then hang out with friends once the school's over. However the latter part of hanging out with friends once the school's out is where P3 switches into open-world mode. It gives you the rare degree of freedom you can rarely find outside Megami Tensei games. To support this newly refined structure, P3 introduces a key element– Social Links. Social Links represent the bond you share with different people. There are total 23 social links-one exclusive to FES that you create, develop and strengthen with people.
Social Links are a sort of a metaphor that signifies the strength of relationship between you and the other person. The more you spend time with them and the more you interact the stronger your Social Link gets. Each of these 23 people have their separate stories. These stories are delightful in different ways no matter which you choose to develop. The more you interact with them and the stronger you build a relationship with them the further their story progresses and more of their character is revealed. It is a fantastic innovation that lies at the very heart of Persona 3 that in a way redefines character development and story progression and totally unconventional ways.The Social Links however serve a very important purpose – they act as a link between the two sides of Persona 3-- combat and the dating sim.
Like other dating sims there are also three characteristics that define the growth of your character –Courage,Academics and Charm. All of these three can be increased by performing a variety of activities.Like watching a scary movie increases the courage or by studying every night increases Academics and so on. This particular aspect does not have as much use in the game as I'd have hoped being limited to only how you perform in exams or what social links get unlocked for you. So if you are looking to talk up with the smartest girl in the school, she'd expect your Academics skill to be pretty high too.
Combat is still the traditional Persona which can be aptly described as a hybrid of turn-based battles of Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest with Pokemon. You battle in a party of four-your main character and the other three characters of your choice. Your other party members have power over only a single Persona whereas you can switch between a variety of them at any time during the combat. To perform an ability you need to summon a Persona. Each Persona has a variety of abilities that can be used at the cost of Spirit Points(SP) or Hit Points(HP). So the characters basically play the role of the base summoner who direct or command the summoned Personas who actually carry out the bevy of attacks in the combat.
Then there is the dungeon-crawling aspect of Persona. Apparently it was this dungeon-crawling aspect that made older Persona games so unappealing for your average gamer but they've been largely retained here. Combat takes place almost entirely in the 263-floor tall dungeon of Tartarus which consists of randomly-generated maps on each floor. There are checkpoints on certain floors on activating which you gain faster access the next time you enter Tartarus. There are bosses and guardians of course at certain points in the dungeon which give an additional challenge to the player. Battles are NOT random. You can see your enemies on screen and can choose to attack them beforehand to gain an advantage or ignore them. P3 also provides some neat features like giving your party commands while exploring that make dungeon exploration a lot more fun and easier.
Combat focuses on the importance of discovering the weakness of the enemy and using it quickly. It introduces a rare degree of urgency into the combat works in the favour of the game. Every ability can fall into any of the 9 elements –ranging from fire,electricity,water to death,light and physical ones like strike and pierce. If you perform an ability that is a weakness of your enemy, the enemy loses balance and falls down on the ground meaning you gain one more move to perform. The combat avoids logical pitfalls –so performing the same move on the fallen enemy will nullify their fallen effect and will not give you another chance.
However it gives you an advantage when all of the enemies on-screen are downed by performing their respective weakness attacks, you are given the option by a team-mate to perform an All-Out Attack. This All-Out Attack is basically a comic-book $tyle attack which sees your entire party perform a collective physical attack on the enemies delivering a pretty high damage to them.
Persona 3 however goes one step ahead to iron out its combat's weaknesses by making sure that when you summon a Persona you inherit the basic skills-Strength,Magic,Agility,Luck but you also inherit its weakness and strengths. This is complemented by the fact that unlike in Pokemon , Megami Tensei have strengths and weaknesses as mutually exclusive. Fire's weakness is ice. Ice's weakness is fire. So if you plan on attacking a fire-strong enemy with ice attack you always know that there's a risk that the enemy might attack you with your own weakness too. Momentum can shift almost instantaneously in a P3 battle and which is why its battles never get old, repetitive or a chore. You may be attacking an enemy with the weakness but a slight mistake and things can quickly shift in the favour of the enemies. I can't honestly remember how many JRPGs have earned the same compliment from me when it comes to battles.
Persona 3 however gives you control of only the main character. The other team-mates are controlled by the AI. However as you build stronger relationships with the dorm-mates/allies you'll gain a wider range of tactical control over them. Their roles, their strategies and their moves can easily be manipulated to give you a greater tactical control over the entire combat. While this may annoy some who like complete control over everyone in the party, I think Persona 3 handles the element of customizable party AI very neatly.
The player-controlled MC(main character) has access to a large number of Personas all of which can be accessed via the Velvet Room. Old fans of the series will notice a lot of changes with the Velvet Room but its features largely remain the same. Here you can fuse two or more Personas into even more powerful Personas. Different types of fusions get unlocked as you progress further into the story and you're given a very handy compendium which keeps the track of all the Personas you've created, summoned thus far. Each Persona can belong to any one of the 22 Arcanas.
22 Arcanas. 22 Social Links. This is where the social link aspect comes back into the picture. The bonds you create with people during day-time also get carried forward to strengthening the power of Personas of the corresponding Arcana.The stronger your Social Link becomes, the stronger does your power to summon Personas of that Arcana becomes. It's a brilliant synthesis of the two disparate parts of Persona 3 into a unique example of character customization.
Persona fusion is a very important part of the game where you fuse Persona of two or more Arcanas into a stronger Persona of a different Arcana. The game explains the basic rules of Fusion but leaves you to discover the laws and rules of combinations on your own. It is a very enjoyable aspect of the game trying to discover all the intricacies and abnormalities of the Fusion process.
This brings me eventually to the story of Persona 3. All its unusual structure of character development and plot progression aside, Persona 3 tells a highly impressive story. The story much like the game gets off to a decent start but keeps getting better and better with numerous twists – some of them shocking and unexpected that keep you glued and entertained throughout. A common problem with JRPGs was keeping gamer entertained during the slow patches of the story. Persona 3 never faces that problem due to its unconventional narrative structure. Everyday holds something unique and if not then there's always Social Links and the little character-oriented stories they have you can progress. Persona 3 never takes the satisfaction of progression away from the gamer.
Characters deserve a special mention here. Unlike most of the JRPGs outside the Megami Tensei series, Persona 3's characters are highly believable and most importantly grounded. They reminded me many times of some of the friends I had in high-school. Realistic and believable are two central aspects of Persona 3's characterization. They are teenagers and they occasionally act rebelliously but they also bear the maturity of people who are on the verge of turning adults. I can't recall a single character from the main cast I didn't like and frankly there aren't many JRPGs out there I can say the same thing for.
Persona 3 is a very stylish yet highly philosophical game without ever being pretentious. It has a lot of stylish anime cutscenes that are combined with the stellar rap and J-pop soundtrack makes P3 a delight. However the true strength of P3 is that it can change its forms almost like a chameleon. It can almost seamlessly change from the trendy high-schooler dating sim into a sudden reflection on the meaning of life and death. These characters being in their late teens grapple with these very philosophical questions that almost every teenagers do. This strength of switching from an unconventional narrative structure to a more conventional one is the primary reason what makes P3's story so utterly memorable. The story is utterly memorable and emotional but without it ever appearing forced. These emotions are not of the sappy nature either but one that represent a more sensible and mature tone of the game and its gamers.
However Persona 3 comes with its own share of flaws. The dungeon-crawling aspect is thankfully not a chore due to the various exploration options at your hand but part of its design still seems stuck in the past. Occasional backtracking through the same floor occurs. There is an annoying fatigue system where you and your allies can get "fatigued" if you do too much dungeon-crawling for one night. It is a silly mechanic that serves to only restrict exploration and results in the few occasions of backtracking in the game. Add to that the design of Tartarus, the prime and the only dungeon in the game doesn't change by a great deal over the course of 263-floors. Repetitive syndrome strikes players as floor after floor, block after block appears almost same.
Persona 3 despite a lot of innovations has strangely stuck with the "no auto leveling" mechanic that has become almost outdated in recent RPGs. It means that those allies that are not in your party will not level or gain experience. This means you can focus on building a strong team of MC and three allies but often story's twists and turns might leave you without one or more of your ally which is frankly a cheap way to put the player at disadvantage. I also found the game awfully easy to be honest. During my entire 80+ hour walkthrough I didn't come across a single Game Over screen and P3 lacks the famous Megami Tensei's killer difficulty.
Long-time fans of Megami Tensei and Persona may also not be happy to see the rather "fruity" and "cheery" style adopted by Persona 3. The cheesy J-pop tunes with rap make P3 sound almost like an anti-thesis to what the previous SMT/Persona games stood for. However as the game proceeds familiar themes of the series like occult, horror, apocalyptic cults and shock factor all come into the picture. Possibly the most popular shock element of the game is the method of summoning Personas – you and your allies shoot yourselves with a gun-like object in your head.
Persona 3 is a game that starts off well but it keeps getting better and better. Introducing newer mechanics, newer tactics all the while as it reveals more and more depth of its story. During the late stages, the game transitions smoothly into a typical SMT title –one that is filled with apocalyptic cults and a tone that is so depressive that it at times ends up depressing the gamer who is so invested in the world and its characters as well. The music by series veteran Shoji Meguro seems to be highly reliant on peppy J-pop and stylish electro-rap music yet it slowly changes its musical landscape to the more somber orchestral and ambient as the game speeds towards its highly memorable finale.
The FES version provides an additional chapter that takes place after the ending of the original game. Contrary to my fears the story doesn't end up spoiling the PERFECT ending of P3 but instead even enhances the philosophical depth of it. However it is a pity that the 20 odd hours of FES are littered with boring dungeon-crawling with no Social Links or interaction at all.
Few JRPGs pull off such an epic adventure so well as Persona 3 does doing numerous innovations and revamping the narrative structure, character development and plot progression with the help of Social Links. What's more is that P3 also manages to combine these disparate elements wonderfully into the combat which is still a very good turn-based battle system despite few shortcomings. But eventually Persona 3 is all about making your own destiny. The game was destined to be "another SMT/Persona" title that would be largely ignored by the masses but instead it ended up being the most popular title of the franchise. In many ways, Persona 3 is the Final Fantasy VII of its franchise. Both the games marked the commercial breakout of their series. They had elements that made traditional series mechanics a lot more accessible to the masses. The difference? One marks the heights of JRPG excesses of its most popular franchise, the other marks the confident yet understated depth and innovation that is still possible within the genre. Like the memorable Aigis, an increasingly human-like robot tells in the end, destiny is yours to make as long as you believe you can make it, P3 might have just made its own destiny.
Combining the traditional elements that long-time fans will cherish while revamping some of genre's decade-old conventions to bring one of the freshest most unique and more importantly highly accessible role-playing experiences from Japan in a long time.