Friday 20 May 2016

Review: Persona 3 (FES edition, The Journey - PS2 Classic)

Before the hugely popular PS Vita game Persona 4 Golden stole my heart and my gameplay time, there was it’s predecessor, the standout PS2 JRPG Persona 3. Persona 4 set the tone to my journey into the world of Persona games with it’s glaring yellows and talking bears, but this impression of the series shifted when I began Persona 3. Persona 3 may be another high school dungeon crawler, but the glaring yellows are replaced by dark blues hues alongside a darker story when compared to it’s successor, giving it a unique feel of it's own. The two games share a similar structure, but Persona 3 being the older game has a few drawbacks, such as an inconsistent AI which makes the experience feel a little less refined than Persona 4. However with it's complex battle system and an interesting story premise, Persona 3 highlights the Persona series strength of interesting stories and fun dungeon crawling it's own darker way.

The dark tone is set for Persona 3 is set pretty quickly in it's opening sequence with the protagonist entering the town of Iwatodai at night surrounded by coffins. He enters the town during the Dark Hour, an extra hour of the day that occurs every day at midnight. While this extra hour may sound convenient, this extra hour isn't just free time. For starters, most people during the dark hour become unconscious and transform into coffins until the hour is over. Those who remain conscious are preyed upon by monsters called Shadows. It's a pretty chaotic hour, but luckily the people conscious during this time tend to have the potential to fight these monsters using Personas. The protagonist quickly discovers he's a Persona user and quickly joins the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad known as SEES. This group is made up of a group of students from Gekkoukan High School whose job is to protect citizens from these shadows by fighting strong shadows that appear whenever there's a Full Moon and also to explore Tartarus, the mysterious tower meets dungeon that their school turns into during the Dark Hour.
Tartarus is where Persona 3’s dungeon crawling gameplay takes place to prepare for the monthly Full Moon boss and story arc. For those who have also played Persona 4 Golden, learning how to play these dungeons is pretty simple as dungeon mechanics are very similar to those in Persona 4. Battles are turn-based and are fought with the usual JRPG tool kit of magic, elemental and physical attacks. What made me love the battle system in Persona 3 (and Persona in general) is the way it puts it's own spin on regular JRPG mechanics by adding fun, extra mechanics. There's the all important Persona system of course, but an example that was new to me in Persona 3 was the way physical attacks were divided into subcategories like piercing, striking and slashing and correspond with different weapon types and enemy weaknesses. It's a small difference to Persona 4, but I liked having to think about which weapon I was using before using a regular attack, making sure I was always on my feet in battle rather than just hitting 'attack' all the time.

The main thing that sets Persona 3’s battle system apart from other JRPGs is the game’s namesake: Personas. Personas are described as the character’s face used in the face of danger, so fittingly they accompany each party member into battle and provide them with the ability to fight shadow. Persona 3’s protagonist’s ability is extra special because while the other characters are limited to one Persona, he can wield multiple and switch between them during battle. This ability introduces a fun monster collecting element to game, heightened by the ability to fuse Personas together to create new ones and completing Social Links to gain some of the strongest ones. This was another system that was familiar to me because of Persona 4 and I was glad to see that Persona 3’s system was as good as it was similar to Persona 4’s system, so I was able to navigate it with ease.

While Personas are a solid element of Persona 3, the Tactics aspect and AI stood out to me a little too much as it was too varying in success in Persona 3. The protagonist is the only party member able to be fully controlled during battle, leaving the other three party members to think for themselves with mixed results. The Tactics option allows characters to be given general commands, such as ‘Heal/Support’, ‘Conserve SP’ or the seemingly simple option ‘Act Freely’. Through some parts of the game, the AI was relatively smart - my characters were healed when they needed to be, they didn’t use any counterproductive elemental attacks and things were fairly smooth. However as I progressed through Persona 3, I felt like as my party leveled up and learnt more skills, the sillier they got with how they used them. For example, they would neglect using items to use spells and then just not heal once they were out of SP or ‘Wait’ instead of doing a regular attack because they felt they couldn’t use a skill. It wasn’t constantly bad as I definitely got through Persona 3 probably 60% with a decent AI, but the crucial moments when I needed my party to be their best such as the all important final boss I felt like I was fighting to keep the AI working in my favour more than I was fighting the actual boss.
Persona 3 was the first of the Persona games to introduce Social Links to the game, a fact that was huge surprise to me considering how crucial they are in the series now. Social Links allow players to get to know the characters while gaining access to more powerful by giving EXP bonuses for Persona fusing and unlocking extra powerful Personas. There are plenty of people to Social Link with, from the main cast of female characters to various classmates from Gekkoukan High and people around town. Each Social Link has a similar structure during it’s 10 stages - getting to know the character, finding their personal struggle and watching them overcome it, all while forming an unbreakable bond with each other. This structure could be described as predictable, but each character’s story is so different and emotive that it doesn't feel that way in action. I really enjoyed how Persona 3’s Social Link character’s stories were all equally interesting, regardless of if they were side characters or the main cast. On top of that, there was enough variety in story content that I found multiple characters I either related to or felt compelled to keep spending time with, making Social Links feel like much more than just a way to get better Personas.

While I really enjoyed the social links, I got the feeling I couldn't get as close to the main party as I'd like to, considering only the female half of them are able to be social linked with in the FES edition I played and also the original PS2 version of the game. I had a good time getting to know female characters like Mitsuru and Yukari, but since the Social Links with the main party seem to take a somewhat ‘dating sim’ style approach, for some reason I wasn’t able to spend time with characters such as Junpei and Akihiko, who I thought seemed just as interesting. The main male characters receive plenty of cutscenes during the main story, but it felt a little strange that I couldn’t get to know them deeply the same way as the female cast. I know I have the option to play through Persona 3 Portable if I really wanted to get to know the male cast, but it definitely feels like something I should’ve been able to do in the first place rather than have to play potentially another hundred hours of another version of Persona 3 to do.

The Social Link aspect of the game serves as a nice booster for the story, but also a good break between dungeons, which is much needed because between the story and dungeons there tends to be a bit of a gap, making the story feel broken up at times. There were many times I would spend 5+ hours in a dungeon and not see a piece of story for a really long time, causing me to feel significantly less immersed in the story. Likewise, after finally getting to a good chunk of story after so long, going back into the dungeon again I felt a little bummed because I knew it would be awhile before whatever conflict had arisen in the story would be resolved. On the other hand, with Social Links I felt like I could keep up with better because I could work towards them in each game day, but since they’re only supplements to the main story this didn't help the pacing feel less spaced out.
At the time of its initial release, I can see why Persona 3 was such a strong game and a great edition to the JRPG genre. The Social Link system gives a great new element to monster collection and enhances the story well as a fantastic way to get to know the characters, which was appreciated considering the spread out nature of the main story. There’s a lot of good ideas in the battle system like different types of weapons and physical attacks and battle tactics, but these are unfortunately let down by an inconsistent AI that was more harm than good in important moments. Because of the AI and the pacing issues I had with Persona 3, although I still enjoyed it, it mostly made me appreciate the fact that Atlus noticed these problems and fixed them in Persona 4 because I didn't notice them at all when I played Persona 4 Golden. For hardcore fans of Persona 4 or those looking for a darker story, Persona 3 may be not be as polished of an experience by today’s standards, but if you can handle it’s flaws, Persona 3’s darker story gave an interestingly different take on what I understood Persona to be may be and is a valuable experience for those who want to understand the series more.

Score: 7.4/10
An interesting story premise and fun dungeon crawler with great Social Link aspects, unfortunately paired with an occasionally silly AI and some pacing issues.

If you enjoyed this review, check out my Persona 3 vs Persona 4 Comparison for the Persona 4 Golden Fan!

Have you played Persona 3? Which is your favourite Persona game?
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Note: I dont have any game capture equipment for PS3, so all of the gameplay pictures in this post are taken from Google Images and I take no credit for them!

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