I was always interested in playing Persona 3 due to its modern school setting, but a part of me always suspected that Persona 3 was mostly praised for being different rather than for its gameplay. After playing through Persona 3's massive story (it took me 94 hours to beat and I'd estimate that only 10 of those hours were spent doing excess grinding), my suspicions have proven to be incorrect. Although it is overflowing with style and freshness, beneath its flashy exterior, Persona 3 is an excellent RPG. With its quick, fun battle system that has its fair share of depth, its slow-paced but suspenseful story featuring endearing and well-developed characters, and its many interesting things to do, Persona 3 transcends its unique setting and visual style. It can seem daunting at first, but any RPG fan that appreciates a quest that the player can get deeply immersed in owes it to themselves to give this game a try.
Persona 3 has a lot of interesting twists and turns and can get rather involved, but the basic gist of the story is very simple. You're a Japanese transfer student who gets assigned to a dorm that houses the SEES, the Special Extracirricular Execution Squad, lead by school Chairman Shuji Ikutsuki and the tough, older-than-her-years Mitsuri Kirijo, who is heir to the infamous Kirijo group, an organization that funded and built the Japanese city where your new school is located. You soon learn that you were assigned to the SEES dorm because you hold a special power, the power of "Persona", which basically means that you can summon powerful creatures that will aid you with their powers in battle. The SEES have recruited you because they need Persona users to help them battle Shadows. Shadows are creatures that wreak havoc during a special hour of the night somewhere around midnight called The Dark Hour. During The Dark Hour, only Persona users can function while everyone else is trapped inside these very strange-looking coffins. Also during The Dark Hour, the shadows go around infecting certain people with "Apathy Sydrome," which basically puts them in a catatonic state. Soon, Apathy Sydrome becomes a full blown crisis and it is up to SEES to stop this epidemic. However, another part of the puzzle is a giant tower called Tartarus which is the home of the Shadows. Every night, the SEES explore Taratarus hoping to find answers to help them defeat the Shadows.
I know this sounds like a very simple story, but it is much more complex than that simple description would attest to and there are a great number of surprising and interesting events. However, the plot itself is not the strongest part of the story. It is the characters that take center stage. They are very intimately drawn, more so that one might be used to in an RPG. They let you in on more of their personal struggles than is common in JRPGs and they'll often talk about things that are not directly related to the story, making fellow SEES feel more like friends than party members. By the end, you'll feel like you and your fellow SEES members are part of an insular, tightly-knit family. I won't describe the characters because it is best that you meet them and get to know them on your own, but you will probably come to love, or at least like, most of them and you will be deeply interested in their struggles and their motivations. As interesting as the main plot is, I'd go as far as to say the character story arcs are far more intriguing, which is not a knock against the main story, but rather an expression of just how engaging Persona 3's character story arcs can be.
Before I go any further, it is important to explain how the flow of the game works. Basically, you are on a calender system, so you will play the game for an in-game year, which will total more than seventy hours when all is said and done. Most days, you will have to go to school with the exception of breaks and holidays. At the beginning of the school day, you'll arrive at the front gate where you can speak to characters or hear the latest gossip. After that, the game will skip forward in time and you might enter a class scene where you'll have to answer a question (which raises your charm if you answer correctly, but I'll get to that) or choose between staying awake for the lecture or dozing off to restore energy. Then the game will skip forward either to lunchtime---a time when characters approach you and ask you to hang out later---or after school, a time when you have free reign of the city (which admittedly isn't too big) and you can do what you want. Once you do one thing in the city, you'll return to the dorm where you can choose to go to the giant dungeon called Tartarus or go to sleep, which starts the next day.
Most of what you'll be doing after school is leveling up social links. Social links are relationships that are established during your time at school, in extracirricular clubs, around town, etc. You'll have to successfully develop these relationships if you want them to reach higher levels. This is done by hanging out after school. While you hang out, you'll have to navigate your way through conversations in a way that makes your friends happy (it is not easy to mess up relationships, but it can definitely happen, so you'll have to be somewhat careful with them). As your friends come to trust you more, they will open up, revealing a side plot. These side plots are immensely interesting stories in their own right and contain a considerable amount of character development. Whether it's a little girl dealing with the divorce of her parents or an awkward student council treasurer dealing with her fear of talking to boys, there is always an interesting conflict to engage you as you work to level up social links and you'll really feel like you're making a difference in these people's lives. In addition, you can go to various shops, restaurants, and locales of interest (like the movie theater or karaoke bar for instance) to either raise academics, charm, and courage (which will help you unlock new social links) or purchase items and what not. You can also raise your academics by studying when you get back to the dorm.
So what's the point of social links? Other than being extremely engaging, social links help you become stronger in combat. The combat section of the game, of course, is contained within Tartarus. At night, you will have the option of staying awake during The Dark Hour and going to Tartarus to fight and explore. Basically, Tartarus is a huge tower with hundreds of randomly generated floors. Each "block" has a distinct visual theme, but the floors themselves, which are somewhat maze-like, can get very repetitive. Once you've seen one floor, you've literally seen them all. But you'll still have have to soldier your way through the floors, battling Shadows, which all look like black blobs outside of battle (if you strike them before they detect you, you can get a preemptive strike), but have extremely elaborate, varied, and stylish designs during battle. The artist for the game deserves an immense amount of credit for the sheer amount of creativity on display. But anyway, you'll have to dungeon crawl your way through several floors, picking up treasure along the way, until you get to a checkpoint and boss fight. After defeating a boss, you'll ascend several more floors until you get to another boss and checkpoint. Usually, after a certain amount of boss fights, you'll reach a blockade and you won't be allowed to go further until after the full moon. What's significant about the full moon is that the story will undergo a major progression on these nights and usually these events will happen outside of Tartarus, which makes for a nice change. Of course story events can happen any day during the month, but the most major events usually happen on full moons. It is during full moons that you'll have to fight one of the Big Daddy Shadows. Contrary to what one might think, the full moon bosses are very easy. It is the ones in Tartarus that will give you the most trouble and with a few exceptions, you'll be able to beat most of them without breaking too much of a sweat. The Shin Megami Tensei series, of which Persona 3 is a member, is known for being very difficult, but this game is no more challenging than any other RPG. In fact, it's a bit on the easy side.
Tartarus may seem extremely daunting at first, but it really isn't. The floors are really easy to clear and if you're even slightly responsible, you'll find yourself completing the current block or section of Tartarus well before the month is over. Only a completely irresponsible player will mismanage his or her time so badly that he or she won't be leveled up enough to face the full moon boss of any given month. To prevent players from going as far as they can in Tartarus on any given night, your characters will get tired if you fight too long. If they get tired, you'll need to rest for a few days, so everyone can recuperate. Otherwise, it will be easy for the enemies to own you.
To help you get through Tartarus, you'll need to utilize the powers of Personas that you develop through a Persona fusion system or win from battle. Each Persona is tied to an Arcana such as "Emperor" or "Chariot" or "Magician", etc. Social links are also tied to an Arcana. So, the more you level up a social link, the more a Persona of the corresponding Arcana will benefit. A higher social link generally means a stronger Persona. In addition to this, you'll get excess experience when you fuse a Persona based on the level of the corresponding social link. This means that a Persona might go up a few levels on the spot, giving them more skills to use in battle. Though it seems like a lot of work, I thought it was brilliant how your relationships outside of battle enhance your Personas. Basically, Personas and Arcanas are the glue that hold together the games' two distinct gameplay styles. That being said, I didn't always go for the social links that would help me most in battle. Since the side plots tied to the social links were so interesting and emotionally involving, I sought out the ones I was most interested in. And because I got through the game rather easily, I can assure you that simply developing the social links that you are interested in will not penalize you. The game wants you to have fun with the social links. They are not meant to be a chore and they certainly don't feel like one.
Unlike other RPGs, Persona 3 makes no bones about the fact that is has a very routine structure. You'll be following the calender during the whole game, and while this might sound repetitive, it really isn't. The social links are very dynamic and story events will unpredictably pop up during the month, ensuring that you don't ever get bored going from day to day. Once the game has gotten past the initial hours in which the story is being set up, you can easily get addicted to the game in a "just one more day" kind of way. You'll want to know what's around the corner. You'll want to level up that social link to see what fate has in store for your friend. You'll want to get to the next full moon to see what happens next in the overarching story. More than most games, Persona 3 makes you care about what's happening in it.
Because I've spent so much time explaining social links and what not, you might think the combat is secondary to everything else, but it isn't. Persona 3 has an extremely fun battle system that is deep, but quick and without unnecessary frills. You'll level up and fiddle about with weapons, armor and accessories like any other RPG, but the core of the battle system are your Personas. Personas are what give you the abilities to use special attacks, elemental magic, debuffs, buffs, status ailments attacks, healing/antidote spells, etc. In battle, you'll have the option of switching Personas in and out (you can only switch a Persona once per turn), using a Persona-based attack, attacking with your weapon, giving your AI-controlled teammates (who control one Persona while you can control up to twelve) tactical commands such as heal or stand by or full assault, using an item, waiting a turn, escaping, etc. However, the most important part of winning battles is exploiting the enemy's weakness. Most enemies have elements or abilities that they are weak against. It is up to you to figure out the weakness (most of the time your control room support character can help you with this) and exploit it with the right attack from the right Persona. If an attack an enemy is weak against connects, they will fall to the ground, allowing you to attack again (enemies are rather quick however, so you'll miss more than you'd like). You can either use your additional turn to further damage the fallen enemy or attack another enemy. You'll want to attack one of the other enemies with the element that they are weak against (you'll also want to keep a balanced set of Personas so that you can exploit most or all weaknesses) to get yet another turn. Once all the enemies on the field are knocked to the ground, you'll be able to do a team attack, which is a devastating ACME-style beat em up attack that will kill most enemies outright with the exception of bosses and very strong enemies. The strategy in this game is in exploiting the right weaknesses and in the right order to insure that the enemies fall as quickly as possible. This might sound easy, and much of the time it is, but there are a fair number of fights where it will be harder to figure out the enemies weakness or the enemies will have an attack pattern or ability that makes it difficult to take them down. Not to mention that the enemies can also exploit your weaknesses and knock you to the ground, giving themselves an extra turn. All in all, it's a very interesting system that requires the player to think about the actions he or she is taking.
At the end of battles, you'll be presented with a hand of cards. One of them might show a Persona, another might show a weapon, another show a coin (symbolizing money), while another might have a green leaf on it that multiplies your experience. The cards will turn over and shuffle themselves. You'll have to draw one and you'll obtain whatever is on the card you pick. Fortunately, if you keep your eye on the cards, you can almost always get what you want. I found that this system was fun and engaging and allowed you pick your own rewards, which was rather awesome.
Although most of the systems in Persona 3 worked wonderfully, I do have a few complaints, one major and one minor. The major complaint is that the Persona fusion system is wonky as all hell. I've been told that there is some kind of logic to what Personas combine to make what, but you're not going to figure it out on your own. Since there is no apparent rhyme and reason to fusing Personas, you'll have to experiment and many times, you'll pass on cool-looking Personas because they don't inherit the skills that you want while using dumber-looking Personas because their skills seem more useful. That is not to say that you won't often have cool Personas with useful skills. I just wish the system wasn't so unpredictable and seemingly random. Fusing Personas should be fun and with a system so convoluted and generally annoying, it really isn't. You'll still want to use it however. You can level up your Personas to increase their power, but it'll take an extremely long time. The easiest, most drastic jumps in power will come from fusing two or more Personas.
The minor complaint is that once your character is dead, the game ends. The other characters in your party cannot revive you. Most of the time this won't be a problem, but it is highly annoying when you lose thirty minutes or an hour of progress because some enemy one-shotted you and none of your teammates could revive you. If the developers insisted on your teammates not being able to revive you, they should have put more checkpoints within Tartarus.
Another thing that might bother most players is the lack of the ability to directly control teammates. You can set a general strategy for them to abide by, but you can't actually choose their commands. They will be controlled by the game's AI, which is generally smart, but can be kind of dumb in certain situations. I didn't mind this because it made the battles really fast, but it could be a potential annoyance to players who want complete control.
One of the things that Persona 3 is most known for is its unique visual presentation. The game's overall atmosphere is Japanese as hell and to put it simply, it is absolutely overflowing with style. The anime-style portraits are extremely well-done, displaying a wide array of emotions, and the floors of Tartarus have imaginative themes even if the lack of variety between floors means the imagination is basically limited to what kind of wallpaper your current block of Tartarus in lined with. Still, the developers must have had a ton of fun designing this game's art because there is so much visual energy here. The enemies are elaborately designed and bursting with visual imagination as are the Personas. Part of the fun of the game is looking at all the cool designs. Even the menus are sharp and stylish and the game has some very attractive and well-directed anime cutscenes for some of the major story events. The graphics in the town and dorm will not wow you like the enemy/character designs, but they are very sharp and clean and generally pleasing to the eyes. Overall, Persona 3 is just as fun to look at as it is to play.
The sound is just as stylish as the presentation. As you might expect from an extremely Japanese-styled game set in a high school, there is a lot of J-pop on the soundtrack, but surprisingly it is quite good. This is much more sonically inventive and mature-sounding J-pop than the stuff that you're probably used to hearing. In fact, there's something slightly jazzy about the songs here, which compliments the game's funky, fresh atmosphere quite well. The voice acting is also top notch. With the exception of a couple characters, the voice actors deliver their lines with tons of emotion and panache.
If you're tempted to write off Persona 3 as yet another gimmicky game that relies more on style than substance, resist that temptation. Yes, this is an extremely stylish game, but underneath its loud exterior is a deep role-playing experience that will keep you constantly engaged with a suspenseful story, deeply-developed and highly endearing characters that you will get to interact with on an intimate level, strategic combat, and a variety of well-executed twists on the JRPG formula. Persona 3 is unmistakably a JRPG, but the way it goes about its business is so fresh and off the beaten path that in some ways it feels like it could be a genre onto itself.