VINE VOICEon 10 January 2009
A tall claim perhaps, but no less a true one, as Persona 3 has what very few JRPGs since the PS1 glory days have displayed: Heart. Real, genuine, emotional heart to it.
Playing as a silent protagonist who you name yourself at the start, you transfer to a new city and new school in Japan where you quickly find that your dorm mates are all members of a mysterious organistion called SEES that is dedicated to the eradication of 'shadows', demonic creatures borne of 'The Dark Hour', a 'missing' hour of the day that occurs after midnight that only a few select people are aware of the existence of. All you know about the Dark Hour at the start is that when it occurs, your new high school temporarily transforms into a huge, menacing structure known as 'Tartarus', a tower that you will have to gradually explore as time goes on to find clues about what's going on, while simultaneously dealing with the increasingly powerful shadows as they attack the city every month during the full moon. All this, and you must also juggle your private life with your 'night life', as you control the relationships you form with others and the direction those relation ships can take.
It might all sound a bit heavy, but Persona 3 is an absolute joy to play from beginning to end as you control your character over the course of most of a year, deciding on your own what to do with your time each day as a huge amount of choice is thrust upon you. Do you join an after school club? Work on your studies or your charm? Try to make friends with any one of a huge cast of characters? Or live the dream and try to get off with any of a number of pretty girls who you'll have to win the trust of and romance as best you can? It's an RPG like no other as the gameplay is very heavily driven toward making you form relationships with others(It does serve a purpose to the main story, as well as offering bonuses to the 'combat' centric parts of the game.) and nurturing these relationships as best you can. The number of characters with their own unique personal stories for you to invlove yourself in is astounding, as each one plays out like it's own mini-soap opera where you control how conversations go through things like how you talk to your friend/girlfriend, what gifts you give them, whether you spend time with them on holiday days, etc. It's an immensely deep experience and does a wonderful job of making each character someone you can actually care about, with impressively written dialogue and some really good voice acting(Though the voice acting is mostly reserved for the main story parts). The heavy focus on character development as opposed to OTT world ending plots and convoluted plot twists and mincing villains(Though it has elelments of these things in more minor forms it must be said, even if they never dominate the game in any way) is a stroke of genius, as is giving you the freedom to determine how you spend each day.
The dungeon crawling Tartarus sequences are where the game's 'other half' comes into play. Taking the form of a traditional JRPG, you explore randomly generated floors of Tartarus, fighting shadows as you find them(No random battles either, you decide how you initiate battles as shadows walk around in the dungeons like you do) and collecting items, fighting bosses... it follows a fairly repetitive pattern to be honest, but that's sort of the point of it in a way.
The battles themselves are normal turn based affairs where you control only the main character as the other members of SEES are AI controlled(Though their AI is very impressive, and you can set how they approach each battle, whether that be cautiously conserving HP and SP or hitting the enemy with all they have.), where you use magic offered by 'Personas'(Creatures you can collect through battle as the game goes on, Pokemon style) to use various abilities to defeat shadows. The combat is easy to manage, but can get quite difficult quite quickly if you aren't careful and don't take the time to level up as much as possible(In fact, I'd recommend playing the game on 'beginner' setting firast thing, as it is quite unforgiving in places even on normal).
Graphically the game is somewhat less than spectacular. The visuals are nice, with a good sense of style about them, but they simply aren't in the same league as the likes of FFXII or Knigdom Hearts 2 or the like.
The soundtrack though... THAT is awesome, with fantastic tunes throughout(Often fully vocal songs are used for background music too, which creates a really nice atmosphere) that fit the game perfectly.
I can't see the game appealing to everyone of course. It does have a very 'anime'-esque style to it, with many classic anime cliches, character types and storylines aped in some fashion or other throughout the game(And yes, it isn't shy with the fan service either fellow otakus :)) and it requires an enormous time investment(I finished it in 80 or so hours, and that's not taking the time to do everything OR playing the 30-40 hour bonus 'Epilogue' game 'The Answer' offered on this FES edition of the game), but in all honesty, this is simply the best JRPG I have played since the likes of Xenogears and Final Fantasy IX were eating up my time into the early morning hours. It is a genuinely gripping emotional rollercoaster that consistently finds ways to surprise and engage on a number of levels. It is a true JRPG classic.
You NEED to buy this game, especially at a price under 20 quid new. Your only regret will be the amount of sleep you will lose playing it. It's THAT good.