Sunday, March 16, 2008

Persona 3 - Tokimeki Memorial meets Final Fantasy


Japanese RPG's are a strange breed. Some require great skill and infinite patience to navigate the myriads of menus and sub-screens to keep your party balanced and ready for the next round of battle (Disgaea, I'm looking at you) while others require little in the way of stat building, character skill management and interaction where your character is essentially 'on-rails' (Final Fantasy X), but very few strike a great balance between the two.

Persona 3 accomplishes this so effortlessly that other RPG's end up feeling clumsy, over-thought and tedious by comparison. The menu system is easy to navigate and all of the character functions are simpole to understand and fun to modify. For example, your main character has three stats you build during the day, called Academics, Courage and Charm. Doing certain activities increase their rank as well as allow you to talk to and possibly date other characters in the game. There is a certain risk/reward element at work here as you swing back and forth between increasing stats to meet new characters and do well on exams come midterms and finals.

But maybe I'm getting too far ahead of myself. First off, the game is set in the modern day, which is a welcome change for me from the fantasy-themed role players I usually engage in. It essentially consists of two seperate parts: The during the day, high school activities and the late night dungeon crawler epic. Pretty much any review you will read about this game goes into detail about these two parts, so check out or other similar sites for more detail.

What blew me away about Persona 3 is how much I enjoyed the daily high school activities, friendship building and after school activities. Most of the time, I like to be fully emersed in the dungeon, level building to my hearts content. If RPG level grinding was like running, I'd be an ultramarathoner (Dean Karnazes anyone). In this case I started off that way, quickly building levels in the dungeon, called Tartarus, which is actually a tower. Surprisingly, I found that when I was in Tararus, I wanted to finish off my level building and get back to the day time, school stuff.

The daily activities keep the story rolling along and the plotlines, character interaction and tasks are all exceptional and fun. For instance, you have the choice fairly early on in the game to join one of a number of after school clubs and I chose the Kendo team out of four or five options. While on the Kendo team, I met and became freinds with Kazushi, one of the top members of the team and at one point, our relationship soured due to me not working the conversation trees sucessfully. I said, forget it, who cares and left it at that.

For about a minute.

Then, I realized, I actually felt for the character. I had developed some sort of bond with Kaz and I actually wanted to be friends with him. This kind of creeped me out, but to tell the truth, as laughable as I found it, I also was extremely impressed by it. I worked to repair the relationship it is now as strong as that of two brothers, however electronically controlled they are.

There are plenty of winding road and paths your character travels down during the game and plenty of sub-plots, new characters and new places to keep the game feeling fresh and fun. The soundtrack is fantastic and engaging, borrowing hevily from acid jazz and hip-hop in equal measure. The animation for the FMV's is truely anime quality and is actually a real treat when you get one. It doesn't push the boundries of computer animation like Final Fantasy's over-wrought and lengthy scenes with every strand of hair flowing in a constant light breeze. But it is a great feature of the game, adding a component of familiarity and comfort for fans of anime.

The game takes its title from the creatures you summon often in battle, your Personas. They are like the traditional Final Fantasy summons, characters who deal out damage, spells and skills more powerfully than your character (for the most part) and allow you to exploit weaknesses in each enemy you fight. They do not, however, only get called on in special circumstances. You end up using them about 85-90% of the time and you have plenty of skills and attacks to keep you busy in battle. Unlike Final Fantasy, your summons do not have FMV's of epic length before they deal their special kind of damage. Rather, their strikes only take between 1-3 seconds to finish so you never feel like you should go make a sandwich (or, in the case of the Kinghts of the Round summons from FF VII, make a slow-cooked pot roast, eat it and then wash the dishes before having to pick up the controller again).

I've just crested the 30 hour mark and that puts me somewhere between 1/4th and 1/3rd of the way through the game. I'm as driven to play it as ever and I even moved a small TV into my bedroom to play more often, so I don't feel like I'm hogging the TV away from my roommate George.

In game, I've become friends with a number of students like Kaz, as well as started to date the Kendo team manager and also one of the student council members, joined the Art Club, made friends with the Bookworm bookstore owners and met and befriended the Gourmet King. I'm definately looking froward to meeting more new characters and seeing how some of the more intimate relationships play out. Which sounds really nerdy and kind of creepy, but to enjoy this game, you need to get past the stigma of actually caring about your characters being bad. There is not one bald, space marine in the game (not that I have seen anyway) and very few macho s**thead moments. Most of the time, your characters act like regular teenagers. They each have certain failings and aren't always the coolest guys or girls in school, they don't get along with every clique and they most certainly don't act uber-tough all of the time. They get nervous, stressed-out or overly excited and have trouble crossing adolescent boundries familiar to most of us who attended high school.

And this is what makes the game a real, exceptional standout from the myriad of other RPG's. Their cares quickly become your cares and you work to keep them out of danger or help them succeed in each quest as best you can. It is as opposite of Final Fantasy I's stripped down, empty characters as can be. These are characters full of life and even if they exist in an electronic world you can be damn sure that once you get involved with their lives, you'll want to see the story out to the end.

Atlus has announced an expansion pack for the game, labeled Persona 3 FES, which will be available for sale in a few months. The game will contain a new adventure with a story that picks up shortly after the original plotline. It will also house the original game for those who missed purchasing it the first time out and don't want to pay the $80-100 it is selling for on the net.

I'm eager to see what lies next in the game and you can be sure that I will be picking up FES as soon as it hits store shelves. This one has fully captured my attention, even to the point where I have stopped playing most other games entirely, which is strange for me. I usually have at least two or three games going at once, but they all seem to pale in comparison to this awesome and unique offering from Atlus.

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