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SummaryRepeat... repeat... repeat...
The GoodPersona 3 is part of the large Megaten franchise, namely of its sub-series that has always been somewhat of a "compromise" between the religiously themed, fairly abstract Shin Megami Tensei and the melodramatically-minded mainstream Japanese RPGs. Like its predecessors, Persona 3 is set in modern-day Japan, and is a combination of realistic setting and all kinds of supernatural, demonic events going on behind the curtains.
There are quite a few interesting ideas here. The leveling up of personae through social links is one of them. As in other Persona games, you can "equip" power mythological creatures, modifying your attributes and gaining access to different spells. The additional touch is that the personae you fuse will be more powerful if you develop the "social links" of a correspondent persona type. Hang around with a friend a lot - the next persona of a certain type you fuse will be more powerful. Cool idea, and the execution is okay as well. Developing social links is probably more exciting than anything else in the game.
Since there are many links to develop, there is quite a lot of dialogue in the game, and many NPCs with whom you can talk and who actually say something interesting. There are also plenty of choices to make, which is important for an RPG and which Japanese RPGs have rarely paid attention to. Of course, those choices have nothing to do with the story, but it's good at least to be able to make basic decisions: should I study or go to a karaoke bar? Should I go on a date with a girl or just stay in the gym? There is one major decision point in the story, which ends it prematurely, leading to a "bad" ending. That's a tough decision to make, and I liked it that the choice was available to me.
There are no random battles in Persona 3. You can have advantage in battle by striking an enemy first. I'd take visible enemies over random ones any time of the day. You can also split your party and order your party members to explore other parts of the dungeon, which is a neat idea, even though it doesn't matter much.
The story starts really well. The intro is absolutely cool and I got interested in the plot from the get-go. Even though the story has its problems, it was actually quite interesting all the way through - I would have enjoyed it infinitely more if it wasn't stretched over endless hours of uninteresting gameplay. It's a bit of a mixture between the traditional Megaten style and the more emotional common Japanese approach, although I must say that the latter prevails.
The dialogues and the voice acting are surprisingly good. I've noticed that Japanese RPGs have been getting decent translations lately. It's finally possible to digest those dialogues without cringing. Sure, the combination of Japanese reality and American slang is a bit weird, but I don't think there was another way.
The BadWith all its neat ideas, Persona 3 is just way too repetitive to be fun.
I'm talking repetitiveness of gigantic proportions here. The first ten or so hours of Persona 3 are just fine. You get involved in a cool, mysterious story. You discover the social links. You fuse your first persona, childishly proud of your efforts. You walk through the random dungeon, hitting enemies where it hurts most. You try to realize how Yukari was not expelled from the school due to unacceptably short skirt. You feel happy.
Then slowly, but surely, the game reaches its icy hand and grabs your throat. You realize with horror that it has set you on a path and won't let you stray from it. You'll have to crawl through the game no matter what. It has a real schedule, so you'll have to go through every day of the year. And what will you be doing all the time? Investigating the mystery day by day, putting pieces of the puzzle together? No. You'll be busy talking to unimportant people, strengthening your social links, taking part in yawn-inducing high-school activities, and walking through a huge random dungeon.
Maybe it's just me, but I like exploration. I like it when locations change and when you don't know where you go next and how that new location will look like. But in this game, there is no such thing. You'll be stuck in the same location, and the only place you can explore is the huge dungeon, Tartarus. Which, for me, was absolutely pointless to explore: it's just a randomly generated monstrosity, a bunch of pointless corridors with a totally abstract theme, just a meaningless 3D exercise that can't even be called a real location.
What kills the game is not just the unbearably slow pace, not just those endless days spent preparing for exams and eating noodles with stupid classmates, until finally, finally, something happens - it's the knowledge that nothing will ever change. The entire game is a school year. You know for sure you won't move from your place. You know for sure that the only dungeon in the game is the faceless, abstract, cold, boring, random tower of Tartarus. You know for sure that you'll spend your entire time doing boring stuff in your school and fighting equally boring battles.
The graphics are really bad. Seriously, Persona 3 is one of the worst-looking games PS2 games I've seen. The graphics are just drab, the backgrounds lifeless and primitive, 3D character design is non-existent (they had to use anime portraits, same way they did ten years ago). And we are not talking about a game with a large world - the entire Persona 3 is confined to a tiny set of locations, with a randomly generated dungeon on top. Each area loads separately, there is no continuous world of any kind, and the repetitiveness of all those floors is just nauseating. For me, this is just design laziness, nothing else.
The battles you have in the pitiful excuse for a dungeon seem somewhat fun at first, but the inability to control your party members very quickly gets on your nerves. Worse even, your companions develop completely on their own. Japanese RPGs should be all about party and its customization. When you are able to customize only one character, it quickly gets boring. So many times I wanted to elegantly spread my newly fused personae among my party members to create an efficient team, but all I could do was carry them all by myself and switch them at every turn. Besides, I think I've had enough Japanese-style turn-based combat for this life. After the reform conducted by this game there is really no reason to get back to that simplistic style of gameplay.
The game also noticeably lacks the strange and somewhat disturbing atmosphere of its predecessors. The combination of the mystical backstory and the upbeat high-school life would be cool only if the mystical stuff gradually appeared and then took over. But when the high-school simulation occupies nearly half of the game time, and the other half is just dungeon crawling without any story whatsoever, the remaining one or so percent dedicated to the story suddenly seems out of place. It is just strange to leisurely attend high school, develop social links, clean up the cozy random dungeon, and spend days over days without anything happening. I think the game would have been better if it were just cut in half, if all this terrible high school routine were just thrown out, and the story developed at a normal pace.
The constant need to lead a normal high school life is also a real atmosphere-killer. Persona 3 tries to tell a serious, "mature" story, but it is dissolved into the merry-go-round idiocy of the high school. Accompanied by annoying upbeat pop music, most of the game is just plain vanilla. But that's not because the idea was bad. There is nothing wrong with setting a game in a high school. Look at Bully: there is a game with more modest ambitions, it was just trying to be an over-the-top parody, but turned out to be a more realistic (not to mention a way more exciting!) high school "simulation" than Persona 3. Studying for exams, "socializing", really harmless dating - is that all? Where are the malicious pranks, the complex psychological troubles, the unstoppable hormones? Not in Persona 3...
The Bottom LineI wanted to like this game. I kept saying to myself: "have some patience, you can do it". I gave it more and more chances. But at some point, I asked myself: "Why am I doing this? Why am I still playing this game? Don't I have anything better to do"? And then I gave up.
For me the key word for every game is fun, and the fun stopped somewhere in the middle of the monotonous high school routine and the unexciting random dungeon exploration. Once I realized that my own high school life was more interesting than Persona 3, I understood that I'd better go and play something else.