I never understood the reputation FFVII fanboys have. As one myself, I saw a lot more obsessive behavior in other fanbases, including Persona. These Persona fans… whew… Nonetheless, the concept was appealing enough for me to go in. Surprisingly, I did something people don’t seem to do often enough. I went in thinking they were probably right to be so enthusiastic. And they were. I expected to like it, but I didn’t expect to love it. I may have not agreed 10 years ago, but who cares? This is now and now is good.
For those unaware, Persona is part of the Shin Megami Tensei series which I’m vastly unfamiliar with, though Persona has increased my level of curiosity in it, to say the least. The game plays out as a narrative focused dungeon crawler monster-raising turn-based RPG visual novel. While this looks like the kind of recipe even my cats don’t want to eat, it actually works quite well. The key in the balance of genres is the overseeing time management mechanic. Each day is divided into periods. Depending on the “type” of days, you can have 2 to 5 periods. Daytime periods are reserved for events, daily routine and social interactions while nighttime only serves for the dungeon exploration or boss events.
The first benefit of this mechanic is the overall “superhero” feeling it gives. Let’s be honest, fighting evil at night is a fantasy for mostly everyone. Secondly, it prevents the genres from overlapping, allowing for a change of pace (since visual novels move way faster than dungeon exploration) and ensures a logical enough transition to avoid breaking the overall flow. The game becomes a routine, but, since you know you have a limited calendar (whose end is unknown until late in your first playthrough), every decision feels important. You’ll find yourself creating multiple saves and reloading often to optimize your “date” at the local cafe.
The general gameplay revolves around that time mechanic and the eventual restriction it imposes. As the leader of the pack, your role is to explore a giant evil tower, Tartarus, while exterminating any rogue “shadows”, the mysterious enemies, roaming outside of the said tower. This tower of stacked procedurally generated floors can only be explored at night, during the Dark Hour, a time only a select few consciously experience each day at midnight. During the day, you will, mostly, be a normal high school student either going to school or roaming in the city on days off. Based on your charisma, academics and courage, you will develop friendships, participate in extracurricular activities, study for exams, answer questions in class or make some romantic conquests. Another time period available will be the Evening. Within this time period, access to only limited areas of town is available. Some friendships will only be possible in these late hours. Furthermore, this will be the time to decide if you go exploring Tartarus or not. During both these periods, you will also shop for equipment and items for your nightly adventures against the shadows.
To defeat these shadows, you need to release your inner strength in the form of a Persona. These mind pocket monsters will grant your party members with stats and skills. As for yourself, Personas are interchangeable, but your mind can only hold a limited number at once. You will be able to collect these personal summons for your main character, but also fuse them to unlock new ones. Summoning a Persona is as easy as pointing a gun, known as an Evoker, to your head and pulling the trigger. Of course, no bullet comes out. Some people deemed this a result of Emo culture, but I see it as shooting the spirit out of your mind from the gun.
Each Persona skills can be customized by leveling up or using cards as well as strength and weaknesses that act a as a pivotal point in combat. When a character is hit with an attack that hits his/her Persona’s weakness, that character will fall down and might be unable to act. If hit again by the same type of attack, dizziness will force you to lose a turn. Furthermore, hitting a weakness will allow an extra turn to the enemy. Take note that a critical hit has the same effect. Of course, enemies are bound by the same rules. Not only does taking them down with a weakness or a critical hit allow for an extra turn, but if all the enemies in front of you are down, your party can initiate an All-Out Attack generating heavy damage on every enemy. You’ll soon realize that this is the most effective technique in wiping out enemies and will be the main reason for switching Personas in the middle of a battle. The rest of the fighting mechanics are pretty typical of most jRPGs including magic, skills, status effects and turn-based combat.
Since your Personas have a steeper experience curve than most characters, the fastest way to become stronger is to fuse them into stronger species. There’s also a way to generate extra EXP points with a fusion. Each Persona has a specific type, or Arcana, and, depending on your social interactions, you can earn levels in each of these Arcanas. Remember the visual novel part I discussed earlier? Well, its main goal is to allow social links with specific people that will, in turn, power up your Personas via bonus EXP and, when you reach maximum level for your relationship, unlock ultimate Personas. What this means is that instead of shooing off the foreign exchange student who wants to be your friend, you’ll spend 10 magnificent sewing sessions in the Home Economics room just so you can kick more ass in your nocturne brawls.
Most of the people you will encounter through these interactions will be secondary characters. Surprisingly enough, a lot of them will seem like horrible human beings at first, though most will evolve as characters until you can understand their challenges, ambitions and flaws. You’ll end up with compassion for a teen who wants to date a teacher (and actually does) and a smoking, drinking old monk. This is where, in my opinion, Persona 3 excels at: Writing flawed characters. You’ll meet plenty of them along the way, in fact, most characters are. The authors even managed to pass the main protagonist’s apparent perfection as a flaw, creating jealousy among other characters. While all characters end up being some kind of archetype of the high school teenage story, bringing those well known personalities into a video game and mixing it with darker theme and more mature subjects is a stroke of genius. The school itself is fairly identifiable with its typical archetype of teachers as well as the fair share of gossiping and bullying. As for the antagonists, that are not shadows, their flaw is pure and utter descent into madness. Strangely enough, I did not feel any fear when I confronted them, but pity, which is exactly what the game wanted me to feel. The only thing I wish was added is a bit of sexual orientation diversity. I mean, most high school flicks have these kinds of story arcs at some point, why not this game?
The storytelling in this game comes off as another strong point. Considering the desire by the creators to project yourself in the main protagonist’s shoes, they did an excellent job at pacing the story and gradually revealing key elements. Though the beginning of the game seems a bit slow due to the lack of control you have on the main character, it does make you appreciate the surrounding world and engage with it. This attachment will only give more meaning to the numerous plot twists you’ll encounter. I can’t remember the last time plot twists surprised me in video games. There are a lot of things I did not see coming. Furthermore, Persona 3 Portable remains one of the two games that genuinely made me cry. Most games have the same tragedy potential, but fail to give the player time to grief over these tragedies. The distress and profound sadness you feel from the characters that you have learned to love are enough to make you burst. Similarly to the other game that managed to jerk tears from my eyes, Crisis Core : Final Fantasy VII, what got to me is how undeserving these human beings were of these tragedies. They didn’t deserve the fate that fell upon them and, yet, couldn’t do anything to avoid it. Finally, without spoiling too much, the last few minutes before the ending were honestly painful. The characters forgetting everything about their adventures, challenges, friendships and what made them special… I couldn’t bear the thought of them having lost all these memories and, when I started to imagine what my life would be like if you ripped memories out of my head like that.. I couldn’t bear the thought for long.
Since I finished the game, I’ve been pondering the absence of cinematics, wondering if it would’ve benefited from them. I don’t have the answer. I do know that, although I’m not a fan of the music, I did enjoy some tracks, especially the emotional ones. While exploring the dungeon, I felt the track was getting slightly repetitive, even if it evolves every few floors. Fortunately, by that time, I realized I could change it to a choice of 4 other tracks. Presentation wise, most of the daytime maps are point and click and dialogues are 2D portraits. I guess you could say it stays on the safe side, most characters are fairly well drawn. I mean, it’s one of the reason the fanbase is so obsessed with them.
The Tartarus tower does exactly what you’re expect an ephemeral evil dungeon to do: Creep you out. The floor designs change from dark bloody “corpses-for-walls” to golden palace without forgetting the Star Road block. While a lot of enemies will be palette swapped, there’s still some variety. Some of these monsters are effectively nightmare inducing in both presentation and sound, especially the bosses. In contrast to these eerie enemies, some protagonists’ animations are almost satirical. Take the All-Out-Attack for example. When executing it, the screen will flash into the character’s portraits, like a Marvel vs Capcom ultra attack. This faux-superhero feeling will continue with fighting noises appearing in bold words on screen and the attack ending with a cloud of damage taking the shape of a giant skull. While strange in appearance, this odd technique reminded me of Daniel Lamplugh’s first piece on 1 More Castle, Kineticism and Violence in games. With all this movement, action and speed, I didn’t even mind grinding levels for hours on end.
Finally, while waiting to write this review, I continued playing the game using the New Game + feature. As some of you know, this is a remake of the PS2 version. However, this remake also adds a female protagonist to give a new viewpoint to the story. The New Game + option allows to change the gender of the character while retaining levels, stats and some key items. So far, I have seen several new dialogs, various new characters and a completely reworked social link tree. I can confidently say that the replay value of this game is high, especially since it also contains a boss rush mode and an optional dungeon.
In the end, I played a game that reminded me of a lot of other games. I was collecting Personas and basing my fighting only on weaknesses like in Pokémon. I was exploring a dungeon Dark Cloud 2 style. During daytime, I lived through a season of Degrassi with a hint of FF8 in visual novel form . All of this while exploring dark themes that are present in many games before it, but executed flawlessly. Is there anything really new and innovative here? Not really. But, as with Kingdom Hearts, the seemingly chaotic clash of ideas just… works.