High schoolers assigned the task of saving the world with special powers operating on a Pokémon gimmick which only become stronger through building social interactions with people, sounds like the description of a cliché disjointed Japanese RPG. That description belongs to the critically acclaimed Shin Megami Tensei game titled Persona 3 FES.
The fictional city in Japan called Iwatodai was built and created by the Kirijo Corporation and was the site of many experiments in 1999. These experiments created a rift between days called the dark hour that occurs every night at midnight. During the dark hour most humans transform into coffins unware of the rift and of what evil occurs. The high school in the city, Gekkoukan High School, also changes form during the dark hour becoming a tower filled with shadows called Tartarus. The shadows that live in Tartarus invade the city and destroy the minds of citizens turning them into mindless zombies.
Some people remain conscious during the dark hour and even fewer have the ability to summon parts of their souls called personas. The people with the ability to summon and control their persona were recruited to be a member of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) who fight the shadows during the dark hour.
The protagonist of the game that is controlled by the gamer is a young high school junior who returned to Iwatodai in 2009 after leaving as a child ten years earlier (I named this protagonist Roger Goodell, the infamous commissioner of the NFL). Roger learned that he has the ability to summon personas and joined the SEES. Roger is the only member of SEES that can summon different persona’s making him the leader of the secret group. He learns how to summon new personas through bonding and interacting with people in Iwatodai. The bonds and friendships formed with these people are called social links (linked to tarot cards) and level up becoming stronger the more Roger hangs out with that person.
Roger lives the life of a normal teenager, going to school (taking exams, studying, joining clubs and sports teams) and socializing around town (shopping at the mall, visiting book stores, eating at restaurants, playing at the arcade, singing karaoke, going to the movie theater). Then at night he fights shadows with the SEES team protecting the city.
The game advances day by day breaking it up into small fragments (the game takes place over 10 months). The gamer has the freedom to choose how Roger spends his time but is encouraged to live a balanced life. Time management between spending time with friends building social links and studying for school is crucial. Roger has three main character traits, Intelligence, Charm, and Courage which level up over time and open up new possibilities to form new social links. The structure of the game, playing day by day, makes it easy to pick up and play and advance the story a little bit at a time. It is also an addictive structure as the thought “I will play just one more day” can turn into a 12 hour playing session very easily.
The battle system is also very structured. During the dark hour, the SEES team travels to Tartarus which is a 252 story building filled with shadows to fight and items to collect (with a few boss fights mixed in). The floors are procedurally generated and designed to allow the player to choose between running through quickly or to methodically grind for experience. The enemies that are encountered have various strengths and weaknesses requiring the player to change personas that have corresponding strengths and weaknesses.
These personas operate just like Pokémon, taking the shape of creatures having move sets that can be changed and learned as they become stronger. The personas are summoned during battle via the team members shooting themselves in the head with a gun called an Evoker. This creates a strange but morbidly entertaining image every time a persona is used as the team members shoot themselves in the head (this unsurprisingly is the main reason this game is rated M).
Persona 3 is the most rewarding experience I have had with an RPG in a long time. The version I played is Persona 3 FES on the PlayStation 2 which is an enhanced version of the original game (bug fixes and some game balancing changes) with an additional epilogue campaign called The Answer. I didn’t play The Answer on the recommendation of my friend and the internet claiming it is awful and is widely ignored in the Persona cannon even by the game developers.
It took me over 98 hours to complete the game and I didn’t even find or max out all of the social links. I maxed out 6 social links leading into the final portion of the game. This game is a mental hell for OCD completionists as it is nearly impossible to max out all of the social links without playing each day perfectly. To avoid spoilers I just played through the game without a day by day guide enjoying it without worrying about a complete play through. There is a new game plus feature allowing a second play through to catch the social links missed the first time.
The balance between social simulation and battle is this games greatest attribute. The rare combination of likeable characters and satisfying battles is what makes Persona 3 a highly popular and historic game. I genuinely felt close to some friendships that I grew throughout the story and those real emotions motivated me to fight shadows to protect my friends. Some social links have better story lines than others but the game allows you to choose who you want to be friends with making it easy to avoid the annoying people in Iwatodai.
The music of Persona 3 is strong, there just isn’t enough of it. After just a few hours of playing I found myself singing the lyrics of the few songs in the game and eventually muted the game except for the voice acted cut scenes.
I was motivated to play Persona 3 as my close friend has raved about the series and a podcast I follow (Super Best Friendcast) constantly praises the game. The talk of Persona has been everywhere in recent months as Persona 5 was finally released in April of this year.
I intend on playing the other installments in the Persona series but will probably play a short mindless game before visiting the other 7 plus games in the Persona universe.