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The Shin Megami Tensei series found its way into my heart only in the past few years. Unlike other big RPG franchises such as Final Fantasy, Shin Megami Tensei was alien to myself and my friends. Picking up Digital Devil Saga (despite the rear of the case casting doubt on my purchase with its peculiar art style and ridiculous promise of canibalism) quite possibly was one of my luckiest game decisions for it sparked an exponential interest in the Shin Megami Tensei series. Sampling Digital Devil Saga 2 left me with hunger for more increasingly fantastic additions to the SMT (Shin Megami Tensei) series. Persona 3 FES, my 3rd taste of SMT games, went down even better. It has left a superb after taste that entices me to try out the next iteration of the Persona games which will inevitably devour more of my spare hours.
Persona 3 instantly comes across as dark (much like the Digital Devil Saga series) through the idea of taking a gun to the silent protagonist's head and pulling the trigger to unleash demons known as Persona. It is dark game at the roots, but the humour and cast of characters blossoms into a tale of melancholy contradicted by the uplifting power of friendship. For those easily moved, Persona 3 is likely to shed both tears of sorrow and joy. Its full of emotion which directly affects the player, something that a story should produce to keep the player playing.
The player takes the role of a high school transfer student whom has the potential to summon Persona during what is known as the Dark Hour. Only a select group of people experience this hour between one day and the next - those who have awakened to their own Persona. Shadows which dominate this hour, feast on human lives which call upon Persona users to vanquish these beasts. Through the bonds of friendship, the main goal is to explore the mysterious and gigantic shifting tower known as Tartarus which is the source of these malevolent creatures.
Persona 3 is as much a dating simulator as it is a an RPG. The player can befriend a host of characters such as class mates, a drunken monk and even a player on an online game. Whilst time spent with females can develop into a loving relationship that the main has to be sure not to neglect. Each relationship bears a interesting story which develops the more you interact with those characters and how you respond to questions they may ask. Each character sustains a unique personality which will develop through highs and lows as they gradually open up to uncover a problem in their lives that you can assist with. The main character must attend school, study and generally hang out with companions whilst making time for training in Tartarus. Days need to be paced well to be effective, the character can get ill if he has had a lack of sleep or too much training, which directly affects combat performance. Exams, festivals, turning down friend invites to the cinema; Persona 3 has you juggling 2 lives at once in parallel! Persona 3 FES took me 2 months short of a full year to complete which if you paced yourself well enough, you could probably go through the dates on the same days as in real life which really says something about the depth of what you can do in a day.
The main set of characters undergo some dramatic changes in personality that really contribute to the emotional story as they try to find their own reasons for fighting. Several themes of growing up that a teenager can relate to are also implemented throughout the game. Some of the awkward situations the character's get themselves into are hilarious and had me laughing out loud. If I recorded my face whilst playing Persona 3, I could probably make out roughly what scene I was watching just by playing back the recording. The characters are what makes the story and with a fairly decent English voice acting set ( bar 1 or 2 ) it is also enjoyable to listen to during scenes.
Despite being strictly a Japanese Role Playing Game that was not particularly designed with a Western audience in mind, it makes for more interesting events in my eyes. It gives a little insight into some Japanese culture, such as the festivals, schools or even in history lessons. The game opens with some Japanese pop mixed in with some English rap, an odd kind of jazzy theme but it works out well. The alternative opening however is a bit superior for me which is again in Japanese and really sets the mood for the game.
Venturing into Tartarus sets you up for eliminating Shadows with your selected party. The battle system is heavily dependent on weaknesses and strengths of enemies. Hitting a weakness causes the enemy to knock down, granting an extra turn to the player and likewise for the enemy thus making it essential. An extremely difficult battle can become a piece of cake if these weaknesses are exploited. Unfortunately this is where the battle system becomes so unforgiving. Simple enemies could exploit your weaknesses and totally decimate your party with nothing at all you can do. Its such a double edged sword that is both the key to success and to failure if the lead character dies. In fact, just because you are of a high level doesn't ensure safety. Enemies typically hit about 1/3 of your max HP each turn, which is massive compared to some RPGs out there. To top it all off, if a character becomes charmed, they have the potential to fully heal enemy bosses! The turn based battle system is solid though despite these annoyances. Status ailments actually work for bosses a lot of the time too which is a great plus.
Tartarus is a randomly generated dungeon split into well over 200 floors that you must progress through whilst defeating a larger boss every so often. Teleporters create checkpoints throughout the tower that allows the player to return to a safe zone to save. Black shadows of all shapes and sizes (tables, books, lions) roam Tartarus, coming into contact with one initiates a battle. The random dungeons make the dungeon crawl all that more tedious. The scenery is copy and paste everywhere which does not particularly aid the visuals. It's possibly safe to say that I prefer my time out of Tartarus with the exception of boss battles and story related areas. That isn't to say that the fighting is mundane, it can be pretty exciting, just in moderation and not in large blocks. That is why the social link side of Persona creates an appealing combination to the game. You go to Tartarus to escape school life, whilst you go to school to escape saving the world. Why can Persona read your mind? I'm almost certain it can. I always seem to die on the enemy that I had no option but to fight, just before the teleporter! Agh, so much time will be lost by dying on Persona. If you can stomach it, then well done, but there is more in store where that came from.
The FES part of Persona adds an expansion to the original game. A huge extra dungeon is added on after the events of Persona 3. The difficulty of battles has been upped ridiculously to provide a dungeon only suitable for the determined. Last night I finally overcame such a dungeon and I must say, never, ever again. Its really there for the hardcore players who want a challenge, to die. Its been stripped of the social aspects, everything is battle battle battle. An extra 35 hours on its own is in fact how much some typical RPGs last throughout the whole game! Of course there is a piece of story every time you overcome a milestone, which kept me going to the very end. I'd say the story is a very fitting end to Persona and should definitely be enjoyed. Yet, if you don't want to battle for hours and hours, then finding the scenes on youtube would be just as good.
Overall, Persona 3 FES is definitely a game that deserves a go. Whether you enjoy the game or not is down to you, but for me? Well, to be fair I think I'll need some extra time to think if someone were to ask me for my top 10 games, for Persona 3 FES definitely slots itself in there. I gave about 150 hours to Persona 3 FES. You would think its value for money enough with that, but a New Game +, 100 side-quests and a hard mode ( like you need one ) could keep you busy for a long, long time.
As far back as 1996, it was clear that Persona was a franchise harbouring a significant amount of potential. The PSOne original faired best in its native Japan, though its seemingly endless stream of random battles and a slow, complex battle system meant it was strictly for the hardcore RPG contingent. And yet, a number of elements made it stand out; the ability to combine and create a large number of 'Personas' (demons used in battle) was appealing, whilst its contemporary urban setting based around high-school students made for a refreshing change from the pointy-hats and wizards of more regular role-playing fare. If only the game had focused more on plot development and the strengthened its character interaction, it could have been something special...
...and though it took them eleven years, Atlus unlocked the formula for greatness in their series reboot Persona 3. It has chasms of depth, a markedly more complete storyline and a decent though significantly less-daunting combat system. For the record, Persona 3 FES, released in 2008, is essentially the ultimate console version of the aforementioned game. It contains the already-colossal Persona 3 adventure labelled as 'The Journey', which has been bolstered by the odd new feature and a gaggle of side-quests, whilst of greater interest to prior fans is the all-new quest 'The Answer'; a less-extensive though still hefty follow-on that takes place after the main game.
It's not a game for everyone, but it's certainly a game everyone should try. You assume the role of a student who has just moved high-schools, and through this figures relative anonymity you are able to build and shape your own projection in the game world, developing differently depending on who you choose to hang around with, how much you study, how you treat others and so on over the course a school year. Living in a dorm with a handful of other Persona-users, the plot is structured so that every full moon (28 days, give or take) leads to an encounter with a major 'shadow' monster, as bit by bit you try to uncover the mystery of why an increasing number of townsfolk are falling ill with the zombifying Apathy Syndrome. In the meantime, you must balance school time, activities and socialising with training your characters in Tartarus, a giant dungeon-generating tower that inevitably challenges you to kill the various shadow monsters that populate it in order to strengthen your party.
How frequently you train is your decision, but the mixture of combat and the simple but thoroughly absorbing social side makes Persona 3 FES among the most addictive games of its era. Planning your days in advance is something of a novelty in RPG's, yet there's such a breadth of ways to whittle away your time in P3FES that it becomes a necessity. Each day is different from the last; the gossip in school may change; a different festival, holiday or event may occur, whilst after school you can meet with friends; go to clubs; stock up on items and weaponry; or study to improve your exam prospects. No matter how long you play for, it always feels like there's a ton of choices at your disposal - you'll literally never reach the stage where you feel there's nothing you need to be doing.
The combat itself is a simple, effective turn-based setup, where you control the actions of your character with up to three teammates supporting you and making their own decisions, though there are a range of tactical choices available that can alter how they battle. Everything centres around the knock-down feature - exploiting a weakness (such as using ice magic on a fire-user, to give a very basic example) grants the player another turn, meaning you can string combos together to remain on top in a fight. Knocking down all enemies paves the way for a big attack that causes mega-damage, usually putting an end to the fight. The battles are very pleasing, which is just as well as there are a lot of them to play through. Luckily (and somewhat surprisingly) your A.I. comrades are pretty intelligent, seemingly aware of specific situations and not just repeating the same moves endlessly. They heal when health is low, exploit weaknesses where they can and remember not to use moves found to be ineffective on particular shadows - like the player, they learn as you progress, even if a certain character (who will remain nameless) insists on using status-changing magic repeatedly on bosses that never, ever works.
Admittedly, the grind mentality of the earlier Persona games hasn't exactly been cast aside, and putting in the hours at Tartarus to ensure you are competitive enough for the full moon showdowns may prove a little off-putting for some. But the rewards are ultimately worthwhile. Among the games biggest successes is the depth and quality of the supporting cast. You have Junpei, the class clown who longs to be a hero so as to win the attentions of the girls; Mitsuru, a high-flying student whose presence in school masks a difficult past with responsibility weighing heavily on her shoulders and perhaps most notably, Aigis, an android whose awkward grasp of human sociology develops during 'The Journey', before she becomes an unlikely but excellent lead in 'The Answer'. Though it's true that some of the characters do adhere to something of a stereotype initially, the relationships between them aren't so hackneyed. There is a genuine attempt to tackle issues of growing up, the pressures of expectation and the loss of loved ones, as each figure matures in their own time. Cleverly, the player is encouraged to become actively involved in this development process as in your dealings with the many characters, you gain a glimpse into their uncertainties and troubles, with your links to them intensifying only if you say the right things and help them deal with their problems. P3FES carries off this process with a meticulous detail missing in most other role-players.
There is the odd bit here and there that will frustrate, as the few faults it does have seem at odds with how tight the gameplay design generally is. The worst offenders are the 'kill-switch' moves - Hama and Mudo - which have a chance of killing characters in one turn, regardless of health statistics. This would be just a minor irritation, except the game immediately ends if the lead character is knocked unconscious, regardless of his teammates ability to use revival magics/items. It dumps you straight back to the title screen. On many occasions, most frequently in 'The Answer', I had been dungeon crawling for up to an hour, before being killed completely out of the blue and thus losing all the experience points I'd been fighting for.
A smaller gripe concerns the clumsy equipment setting. Whilst buying weapons is easy enough, for some reason the shops only compare statistical changes to the main characters current equipment, and not the characters you may be buying stuff for. Strangely, the inventory menu only allows you to assign equipment to yourself, which means all other characters must instead be approached individually, which is a bit fiddly.
Graphically it's good enough, though it would be a stretch to say it looked pretty. The school, mall and holiday locations are bright and the battles reveal quite a decent range of Personas, even if the actual spells and animation aren't anything to write home about. Little things like the changing of the seasons and the characters clothing to match are pleasing, with the odd anime cut-scene proving the icing on the cake. Just don't expect Final Fantasy production values, is all.
With J-Pop, rap, rock and piano-lead tunes, the soundtrack makes for eclectic listening, and though there's a few ditties that will have you reaching for the mute button after awhile, it's a pretty solid track listing. The story is aided by some very good English-dubbing, with just a few pantomime efforts from a small minority of lesser characters letting it down a little.
There's no doubt that it represents incredible value for money, with the two adventures taking me a whopping 110 hours to complete in total. But the question is, does 'The Answer' justify a purchase for those who've already completed Persona 3? Perhaps, but it's marginal. You'll get around 30 hours gameplay a significantly sterner challenge than the main game, with super-tough enemies and no automatic healing prior to boss fights. The downside of 'The Answer' is the conspicuous absence of any interactive/social elements that helped balance 'The Journey' so well, as thought the story remains of great interest, you'll find yourself spending 90% of the time struggling through fights and it can become quite jading. Purely from a narrative perspective, fans will find the slog a necessary evil as it brings closure to the Persona 3 narrative, with the end phases proving as surprising as they are gripping.
When all's said and done, Persona 3 FES is a brilliant game. Not since the likes of Grandia and Final Fantasy VII has an RPG so gleefully eaten away the hours and days, with a set of locations and a cast of characters that you can't help but become involved with, in part thanks to the freedom you are given to get to know the gaming world in which you reside. The depth is incredible, and with the new features tagged-on, P3FES is a game no role-playing fan should be without.
Persona 3 FES is a standalone edition to this award-winning series and does not require the original Persona 3 to play. However, save games from the original Persona 3 will work with this new enhanced version while the new story is accessible right from the start and does not require playing through the original adventure beforehand.