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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PlayStation 2)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168715)
Written on  :  Jun 27, 2008
Rating  :  3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars

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Repeat... repeat... repeat...

The Good

"Persona 3" is part of Megaten universe, namely of its Persona sub-series, which has always been somewhat of a "compromise" between the religiously themed, fairly abstract Shin Megami Tensei and the melodramatically-minded Japanese RPG genre. 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 scene.

When you disregard all the bad stuff for a moment and focus on the game's innovations, you can find a lot to like in "Persona 3". There are plenty of interesting things to note here. The leveling up of personas through social links is one of them. As in other Persona games, you can "equip" power mythological creatures, changing your stats and gaining access to different spells. In "Persona 3", you acquire personas without conversations with regular enemies, unlike most Megaten games. You just get some cards and then fuse them to produce more powerful personas. Personally, I didn't mind that - I've had enough of those conversations. The additional touch is that the personas 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 pretty good. Developing social links is maybe 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 line, 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 a 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 story from the get-go. Even though the story has its problems, it was actually quite interesting all the way through - I would 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 mainstream Japanese approach, although I must say that the later prevails.

The dialogues and the voice acting are surprisingly good! I've noticed that Japanese RPGs are finally 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 Bad

Being somewhat of a representative of a Megaten fanboy club on this site, I really hate to say that, but I will say it nevertheless: "Persona 3", with all its new ideas, 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 great. 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 because of unacceptable skirt size. You feel happy.

Then slowly, but surely, the game reaches its icy hand and grabs your throat. You can't breathe any more. You realize with horror that the game 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.

I understand they wanted to go for something more mainstream here, something less weird and philosophical than most Megaten games - hell, even less weird than its own predecessors. But there is a limit for compromises. The combination of the mystical back-story and the upbeat high-school life would be cool only if the mystical stuff gradually appeared and then took over. Like for example in the first Persona, where the kids first play a game and don't even understand what is really going on until much later. Sure, there are also plot twists in "Persona 3", and the story is okay as it is, 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 truly happening. I think the game would have been much 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.

There are annoying Japanese elements in the story, which are more noticeable here than in any other Megaten game I've played. It was all still acceptable when I just had the high-school kids in my party. But then, colorful creatures straight from Final Fantasy started joining, and I began to feel tired. Why android? It is so out of place in the stylish combination of everyday high-school life and mysterious mythological beings. And frankly, I didn't care much for the other characters.

The constant need to lead a normal high-school life is also a real atmosphere-killer. The three previous Persona games were quite scary and sometimes even disturbing. "Persona 3" is neither. It 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, it could've been cool even without all that supernatural mumbo-jumbo. I mean, just look at Bully. That's a game with much more modest ambitions, it was just trying to be an over-the-top parody, but it 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 graphics are really bad. Seriously, "Persona 3" is one of the worst-looking games I've played on PS2, and it's simply hard to believe that it came out during the console's late years, at the same time as the gorgeous God of War II. And no, it's not the polygon count or any other technical stuff - the graphics are just drab, the backgrounds are 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. I can't stand random dungeons. At least not in a story-driven RPG. For me, it's just laziness, nothing else. Even the worst dungeon designer would come with a better product than a random generator. You can immediately tell that those floors are random even if you didn't know that. There is no soul in this dungeon, it's just cold, mathematical, nauseatingly repetitive corridors, which are not worth exploring.

The battles you have in this pitiful excuse for a dungeon are fun at first, but the inability to control your party members slowly gets on your nerves. People, it's just plain turn-based combat. It's not real-time shooting like in Mass Effect - in which, by the way, you can control your characters. So why can't I do such a simple thing here? Japanese RPGs are all about party and 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 personas 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. Either they make it more tactical and deep, or just switch to the fun Bioware-style battles, like Final Fantasy XII did. Most RPGs prefer action-based combat today, and there is a reason for that. As graphical realism develops, real-time combat can get more and more sophisticated and realistic. But turn-based combat doesn't really have a future. "Persona 3" would have been a better game if it discarded it the same way it did with random battles.

The Bottom Line

I wanted to love 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. Sure, I could just say: "but it's still Megaten". But recently the series has been blessed with some really cool games. So I let "Persona 3" go. Maybe someone else will find it great. As for me, when I realized that my own high-school life was more interesting than "Persona 3", I knew that I'd better go and play something else.