Persona 3: FES
Atlus achieves what Square hasn't been able to do in decades
Classifying an RPG typically isn't a difficult task; after all, how many different genres can you successfully incorporate into an RPG? Atlus' answer? The sky's the limit. A true cult series, the Persona games have never enjoyed the popularity that the other JRPGs have come to command. Even if you've never played any of the previous games from this Shin Megami Tensei spin-off, Persona 3 is the best place to start. It is truly one of those rare games that defy convention and go beyond simply bending a genre. Even better is the fact that it doesn't fail miserably attempting such a feat, but instead provides a one-of-a-kind experience that is sorely missed in today's modern RPG scene.|
You play the role of a rather emo-looking student, transferring to spend your junior year at your new school, Gekkoukan High. The story begins with an FMV detailing your seemingly mundane trip to the new dorm. Everything is peachy keen until the clock strikes midnight, when things get a little weird. You manage to make your way to the dormitory unharmed only to be greeted by a strange boy who implores you to agree on a contract. After signing on the dotted line, everything returns to normal and you are greeted by the dorm residents. You meet Mitsuru Kirijo, the daughter of a powerful family and the dorm's mistress; as well as Yukari Takeba, an attractive albeit visibly rattled junior. Despite the odd hour and all of the peculiar occurrences, the two act like nothing is out of the ordinary. Are they hiding something or are you having a psychotic episode? Your mind is too tired to make any sense out of it.
The pretense continues for a few days until one night when the truth comes busting out. The dorm is attacked by strange creatures at midnight and you are forced to fight back. The trauma caused by the conflict awakens your Persona, a hidden power that is your only weapon against the creatures of the night. The dorm narrowly avoids disaster and your dorm mates finally come clean. The Dark Hour is a phenomenon that occurs between midnight and the following day. When the Dark Hour takes effect, the whole city is transformed into a ghastly apparition of itself and at the center is Tartarus, a tower that stretches endlessly into the sky and believed to be the source of the Shadows and the Dark Hour. "Normal" people are blissfully unaware of the activities that transpire during this period, while Persona users remain mostly unaffected. Unfortunately, Persona users aren't the only ones that prowl during the Dark Hour, as Shadows roam about and specifically target those who are active during this time. Unless a Persona user can summon his or her Persona, they have little to no defense against a Shadow.
This is where the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad or SEES for short, comes in. Comprised by the members of the dorm, SEES is a group of Persona users dedicated to eradicating the threat posed by the Shadows, by actively exploring Tartarus with the hope of ending the Dark Hour for good. In addition to fighting the Shadows, they also seek out possible Persona users and at the very least train them to use their powers effectively, if they decide not to join the cause. They even possess a special device in the guise of a pistol that can be used to summon Personas at will; appropriately named the Evoker, feinting a self inflicted gunshot wound can apparently cause enough trauma to call out a Persona. Realizing the gravity of the situation, you join SEES and aid them in their struggle against the Shadows.
It's no big secret that this game is dripping with darkness and the supernatural. One of the things that make the story unique is its exploration of mystical and occult themes. The Personas themselves are styled after supreme beings from a wide variety of cultural pantheons, from Asian deities all the way to Marvel Comics. No, you don't need to be an expert on the paranormal to get the most out of the story. The game cleverly gets the player up to speed with the subject matter via short lectures while your character sits in class. At the center of the story is the Tarot and its 22 Major Arcana. Every Persona's abilities and origins are loosely based on the interpretations of the 22 different Tarot cards. Each NPC in the game also corresponds to the Arcana that most closely reflects their personality and state of mind. As you progress through the school year, you will be able to form relationships or Social Links with these NPCs. This is not just a novelty or a way to pass time, however, as strengthening these bonds will not only unlock more powerful Personas, but will also bestow experience bonuses to newly created Personas. One of the major themes of the story is the significance that others play in an individual's life and the writers have done an outstanding job weaving these themes into every aspect of the game.
Of course, beefing up your Personas won't be the only reason to make new friends; after all, there's nothing wrong a little character development in an RPG and Persona 3 has it in spades. Every Social Link has 10 different levels and each will reveal a little more about each character's world. You'll get to know their inner desires and inhibitions, with your friendship eventually blossoming into a resolution to a problem in their life; a sort of mini-journey of self discovery. The only character that is seemingly ignored is your own; perhaps it's because the developers intended for him to really be an extension of yourself. Though you can't really control his overall appearance, the rest of his identity is entirely up to you. If you want him to be a wuss, you can always pick the most gutless response every time someone asks you to do something difficult. If you want him to be a hardass, then have him be as rude and offensive as possible with his friends. If you want him to be a pimp, then have him go out with several girls at once and only do damage control when necessary. This increased the game's immersion factor by quite a bit for me in particular because I was able to craft my hero to mimic my personality to the tee. In many occasions, I actually felt like he and I were one and the same person; as creepy as that sounds, it really is true. That's thanks in no small part to the excellent writing, the possible responses you can choose from cover every possible type of sentiment, but you'll often find yourself tempted to pick the most lowbrow replies just to see how the other characters will react!
In addition to your nocturnal activities, you must also balance a healthy academic and social life as you progress through your junior year in high school. To make the experience as authentic as possible, Atlus takes a seemingly backward step by introducing a linear, day to day progression as opposed to a more free-form approach, a la The Sims or Harvest Moon. Each day is split into four major parts: the morning, after school, evening, and late evening. For those blissfully unaware of the Japanese educational system, they have six school days per week; with Sunday being their only day off. On those six days, you will have school taking up the morning, leaving you to spend the rest of the day however you see fit. You can make new friends, burn time at the arcade, pray at a shrine, study, etc, the list goes on really. On your weekends, you can play an MMORPG for the whole day or hang out with people only available during non-school days. During evenings you can also choose to train at Tartarus instead of your usual wholesome activities and power level your way to supremacy. As you can see, even though you don't have by-the-minute control over your time, there's little to no hint of linearity. No two days can really be spent the same way unless you say so and the sheer variety of daily activities break up any possible monotony. That being said, this approach has its disadvantages as well. You may be truly free to spend your time however you like, but much like in real life, slacking off has no real rewards. If you decide to ignore your training in Tartarus, you may be in for a rude awakening. Scripted boss battles will come up with no particular pattern early in the game and if your party is not up to snuff, victory may not be possible. If you think you can get all of your grinding done in one day, think again. Once you characters' degrade to a Tired condition, which will happen quickly early on in the game, their effectiveness in battle drops significantly and the only way to improve their condition is to pass a day and let them rest. Only through several trips to Tartarus can their cardiovascular conditioning increase and allow you to spend more time in the dungeon before getting tired. My advice? Don't slack off on your grinding, do a level a day and be done with it; it's tough, but someone's gotta do it.
Grinding in Tartarus may be necessary, but it's easily the game's weakest point. Tartarus is pretty interesting for the first few hours, but once you discover it's just a generic dungeon with a ton of floors that exists for the sole purpose of providing a way to level up, it's a little disappointing. Even though the floor layouts randomize each time you enter, it doesn't take a genius to realize that floor 252, aside from the different "skin", looks exactly like floor 12. We all know that grinding is a unavoidable in most Japanese RPGs, but a little diversity in the venue really would have helped. Honestly, if it wasn't for the variety of other activities you could do to break the tedium of exploring Tartarus, the game would have fallen flat on its face right here.
Basic gameplay mechanics are standard RPG fare, with random encounters ditched in favor of selective encounters. This has two advantages; one is being able to consistently ambush your enemy giving your party one free turn and the other obviously is the ability to avoid combat altogether. Every monster and Persona in the game is governed by elemental and physical attributes. Most monsters have weaknesses and if they are exploited, you will score a knockdown which requires a turn to recover from or if you manage to knock down all of the targets, you can perform an All Out Attack, which is exactly as it sounds. Since your Personas are essentially extensions of your physical being, you will also share their strengths and weaknesses, which means that Shadows can and often will exploit your weaknesses. Karma's a pain, ain't it? Most weaknesses are fairly obvious; a Shadow spamming ice attacks will probably be weak against fire attacks, but this isn't always the case. Most bosses and stronger Shadows will not have any weaknesses at all, even if they appear to be of a particular element; so don't always rely on what you can see.
Battles are turn based, but you only have direct control over the main character; all of your party members are managed by the computer AI. Your only influence is in the form of Tactics, where you can instruct your cohorts to follow certain strategies, like focusing on healing the party or restricting them to physical attacks only. It may sound like a recipe for disaster, but the party AI is surprisingly adept. If an enemy's weakness is exposed either randomly or through scanning the enemy, the party AI will exploit that weakness to knock the enemy down in order to set up an All Out Attack. They also seem to realize that the death of your character will result in the gaming ending, so naturally they will tend to your wounds first before anything else; unless you tell them otherwise, of course! As impressive as the party AI is, it's still far from perfect. Party members will repeatedly use skills that are particularly useless instead of doing damage or choose to fully heal one character, when it's obvious that the entire party is at the cusp of death. All faults aside, I actually enjoyed seeing some intelligent activity rather than having to manipulate every action during a battle; it makes the characters seem more lifelike and spontaneous, not to mention make everything feel smoother.
While the visuals are dated according to today's high definition standards, this is game is still very appealing to the eyes. As expected, everything is in full 3D and the character models are faithfully rendered according to their concept art. The anime and manga inspired presentation is really what stands out and catches your eye. The art is provided by Shigenori Soejima, whose work you may recognize from an even lesser known PS2 game, Stella Deus. The character art is simply stunning and the varied expressions displayed during dialogue makes them that much more pleasing. The Persona and Shadow designs are particularly intriguing, with styles ranging from dignified to downright terrifying. The anime cutscenes were a nice touch as well, but as always, it could have used more! It's not just all about the art, however, as the presentation is equally as important. From the opening anime FMV to the roll of the credits, the game so closely resembles a well crafted anime series that I found it hard to believe it wasn't based off of one to begin with. Make no mistake, Persona 3 isn't the first game to offer anime cutscenes or anime-style character art, but nothing has come this close to capturing the look and feel of Japan's other wildly popular export.
A feast for the eyes for sure, but what about the ears? The soundtrack is composed by Shoji Meguro, with lyrics provided by Yumi Kawamura and Lotus Juice and is simply put, out of this world. Nowhere else will you find such an unusual selection of tracks in an RPG. It's a mix of electronica/techno infused with slick rhymes with some hip hop thrown in for good measure. It's undoubtedly going to hit or miss for some people, but the soundtrack's catchy beats and off the wall style will certainly never fail to get you snapping your fingers or stomping your feet. Though the aforementioned genres of music are normally associated with the loud, party and dance atmosphere, the composer has managed to give it plenty of life and emotion. As the seasons and the mood change in the game, so does the tone of the music as it becomes more somber and melancholy as the game winds down to the climax. As a fan of electronica and rap, the soundtrack proved to be a huge hit and at the very least was a refreshing change of pace from the typical orchestral arrangements we've all become accustomed to. It may be assault on the ears for some RPG fans, but give it a change and it will grow on you.
As for the voice acting, it's definitely in the upper echelons of quality. Most of the voice talent mesh well with their characters with the exception of a few; Fuuka for some reason sounds too much like an older lady as opposed to a high schooler and little Ken is slightly on the inconsistent side. It's never easy voicing a really young person like Ken, but he doesn't have very many lines so most people will probably never really notice the shifts in his voice. Everyone else though is just so pleasing to the ears; even the main character! He never actually speaks in the game, but his battle noises are very appropriate for a person his age. Extra praise has to go to Karen Strassman, who did a wonderful job voicing the self aware killing machine, Aigis. Early in the game, Aigis has little to no emotions and her voice reflects her stoic disposition. After she develops her emotions by interacting with her human companions, her voice slowly begins to sound less robotic and beautifully comes together at the very end of the game. I have to say, Aigis' catharsis at the end had me choked up and ready to burst into tears. As anyone who knows me personally will attest, that is a damn near impossible thing to do and for that I really must say bravo; I almost felt like I awakened some of my own emotions at that moment.
If you felt the ending left too much to the imagination, then the FES version should fill those voids in your soul. FES is essentially the complete version of the original game released in 2007. It adds a few bonuses to the original game; like new Personas, Social Links, and a host of core gameplay tweaks. The biggest addition is the epilogue episode, appropriately named "The Answer". This new episode takes place directly after the events of the original game (The Journey) and serves as its name suggests, an answer to all of the questions left after finishing The Journey. As the former members of SEES say their final farewells to the dorm, they experience an anomaly that prevents time from moving forward. This time, Aigis plays the lead and SEES is once again reformed to find out more about their current situation. You'll also meet Metis, another cybernetic killing machine who claims to be Aigis' sibling and serves to be your guide in The Abyss of Time after some initial hostility against the party. The members later realize that they must come to terms with the regrets of the past if they wish to ever leave the dorm and move their lives forward.
The Answer is pretty much a stripped down, condensed version of the original game. Your old data does not transfer over and all of your characters begin at level 25, though their Personas retain their "final" form. Grinding plays a much bigger role in the new episode, in fact, it's the only thing you can do since Social Links as well as all of the other day to day activities have been done away with. The Abyss of Time is basically the new Tartarus; grind through a few floors, face a boss and then get another piece of the story. Players who had a hard time with Tartarus will find no solace in the fact that The Abyss of Time is much more difficult than its predecessor. You'll still find Shadows with weaknesses, but they're often paired with other Shadows with a different weakness or no weakness at all, preventing you from wiping them out in one turn. The boss battles are exceedingly tough as well; the AI is much more ruthless and will not hesitate to take you to the cleaners if you're unprepared. The good news is that your characters will no longer tire even after hours of grinding and fusing the higher level Personas can now be achieved with just a Triangle Spread; yes, even the ones that need Elizabeth's Request Items! It's not easy to get through the first few hours, but the new revelations contained within The Abyss of Time are well worth the tedium and experiencing the complete ending to an already excellent game is nothing short of fulfilling.
For a game to come together so well like this, it really brings me back. It brings me back to a time when RPGs could take over your life and the best part was they didn't have to be massively multiplayer to do it. They did it with an unwavering dedication to a vision of another world that's so well done that it effortlessly draws you into it. Such feelings were thought to be lost long ago, but playing Persona 3 made those fond memories come flooding back and made me start thinking more positively. The genre is still moving forward, there is still hope for surpassing the achievements of the past, and that popularity is not something you can command, it's something you earn. It's my hope that other developers take notice at what Atlus has been able to do with this game on a platform that should have been dead several years ago and that they too will be inspired to elevate our favorite form of entertainment. Honestly, if it weren't for Fallout 3, this is easily the best RPG of 2008.
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