Persona 3 Impressions from Digital Devil Database

Below are my thoughts on Persona 3 after completing about 45 hours of the game. While not a review per se, most of what I would cover within one is handled here. If I feel more should be said once it is completed, expect to see a final review on this site in the future.

 

Chances are if you're coming to Digital Devil Database you know something about Persona 3. It's possible you've been keeping up on it since before the Japanese release, even. As such, I'm not going to bother getting into things such as how the battles work or that the game uses randomized dungeon layouts. If you're still interested in knowing more about that, check out the rest of our Persona 3 section. It's all covered there. I'm not even going to get deeply into the story because I think that's something you should experience yourself.

What I do want to get into is what makes Persona 3 a good game and trying to give some concept of what makes it fun and what about it seems to work so well.

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You play as a student in a Japanese high school with the ability to summon Personae. Becoming a member of an elite group of Persona users known as SEES, you fight against the “Shadows” who have essentially taken over the city in ways others cannot comprehend. Each night, after midnight, a period known as the Dark Hour begins. The Shadows are concentrated within Tartarus, a massive tower that grows out of your school. The entire game, essentially, revolves around school and dorm life, whether in battle or out.

Knowing this is important as Persona 3 is unique in the series in terms of how it deals with these components. School is not ignored or brushed aside. You don’t go on a journey to far off places or leave your life behind. In many ways, your success there (and in turn, with your peers) is tantamount to your success throughout the game. It is not simply a device to tell the story and further character plotlines; it is intrinsic to the life of the character.

To me, a lot of the game's success comes down to two things: balance and choice. They go hand in hand to such a degree that I don't really think one can be discussed without the other. After the opening scenes, the game thrusts the player into a role that is surprisingly non-linear. The game does not force you to level up any more than it forces you to study or make friends, although ignoring either is probably going to screw you over.

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As in real life, doing well in Persona 3 is all about making the choices that are right for you and balancing things out to the best of your ability. This is applicable in three main ways:

  • A player who does nothing other than level up may be powerful in terms of hit points, but his Personae and social skills will be extremely underdeveloped.
  • A player that does nothing but improve his charm, courage and academics might find some new avenues open to him (certain characters won’t even deal with you in any real capacity until your courage is high enough, for example), but will soon find that he might be unprepared for pending fights against the Shadow.
  • A player who does nothing but hang out with friends will have a high Social Rank with his friends, but find that he is unable to interact with certain other characters, access certain places and that his own personal ability will likely be a lot less than desired.

Raising these abilities is not handled in the typical fight lots of monsters manner. Rather, they are done during the daylight when the Shadows are not even a factor. Your day is divided up into sections, some of which is taken up by school (which may include some lessons or questions, although most are quickly skipped through) and some of during which you are free to make your own decisions. Most anything you do that will affect these stats will take up a portion of that day, whether it’s seeing a scary movie to raise your courage or spending time with your friend Kenji to help raise your Social Link to help out your Magician Arcana Persona fusions.

Social Links can be raised to a maximum level of 10, but are not as simple as hanging out with a character ten times. You will have to improve your relationship with these characters in order to do so. The benefit of Social Links, as mentioned before, is their relationship to the Arcana of your Personae. The higher your Social Link is, the more bonus experience you will be given when you fuse a Persona within that Arcana. At its highest levels, we are talking about raising your Persona’s level several times over and likely learning all of its move sets the second it comes into existence.

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Obviously the significance of this cannot be understated as it is the easiest and most efficient way to improve the abilities of your Personae. In addition, it is the only method in which you may control Personae beyond your level as well. Essentially, it’s not in your best interest to simply fight and level up your Personae, which flies in the face of almost every Japanese RPG convention, including the previous games in this series.

As you can imagine, with such a heavy focus on character interaction, Persona 3 would need an interesting cast. Luckily, ATLUS managed to pull through here. While you’re not going to like everyone, you’re simply not supposed to like everyone. Some characters are slightly seedy, others just plain obnoxious and others are completely likable in their own ways. This extends to people you’ll meet in town and school as well as those in SEES alongside you.

While not all of them have their own Social Links, several will be developed over the course of the story. While you will meet many characters with all sorts of situations (related and not), the key points of the story are obviously based upon those within SEES. Through the course of the game thus far, I’ve found each member to be interesting in his or her own way. At times, there is a surprising amount of realism and, I suppose, normalcy to these characters. Their interactions are understandable, whether negative or positive. They tease each other, they look out for each other and they get angry with each other. While these are simple, prime emotions, clearly, I feel that they (among others) are so well realized in this game that it is worth pointing out. It’s very likely that each person is going to walk away from this game with a different character they enjoyed the company of the most.

The flipside to this is, of course, that your character is completely silent. Silent protagonists have become something of a no-no the past several years, with talkative main characters in the forefront. In Persona 3, this angle allows you to more directly believe the character is you and considering all of your direct interactions with those around you, this is a pretty important thing. While most of your responses will be relatively simple (and some may not even have clear intentions), what you say will affect your standing with others and how quickly your relationships with them progress.

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Of course, being an RPG and not a social interaction sim, you’re going to have to fight. Tartarus is where 99% of your battles will take place and a lot of your time will, likely, involve trying to scale it and complete various related quests for items and money. Battles are fast paced and grow rather challenging as time goes on (particularly 30+ hours in), utilizing a system that’s based on giving advantages to those that take advantage of weaknesses (which might sound familiar to you).

Even within the battles, the characters converse with one another and give you useful information. They act of their own accord, although as leader you can give instructions. This extends even within the mazelike dungeons, where you can have your friends run around solo and find items or defeat enemies.

I feel these aspects further push the idea that you are the protagonist, but it also helps balance out something that could have been fairly tedious. Afterall, you’re probably going to be revisting floors many times (although they will be different every time) in your attempts to finish quests and be strong enough to beat guardians that reside on certain floors.

It’s worth pointing out that not all of your battles will take place in Tartarus. The remaining 1% that was mentioned before will take place elsewhere in the city with completely unique Shadows. These story segments are not optional, although it will become clear very early on when they will take place. This again returns us to the whole concept of balancing your choices. You're going to have to be prepared to finish these battles. The game's basic construction is going to lead to you likely wanting to be a well rounded person in the game and in some ways it requires it for any real progress. The difference between requirements here and in most other games is that it never really feels overbearing or constraining.

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Topping all of this off is Persona 3’s excellent presentation. Its art style, even in things as basic as menus, is unique, colorful and interesting. Persona 3 continues the tradition of interesting designs, whether it’s a character, Shadow or Persona. Character art is all high resolution, the animation is largely strong, the graphics are clean, voice acting is largely very well done and the translation (whether the Japanese suffixes bother you or not) is extremely well handled.

What probably sets this one apart the most, however, is the music. Previous Persona games did have more of a Japanese pop flavor to them, but the updates and differences to this title’s composition are pretty significant. There are some obvious electronic and hip-hop influences here. While you’ll get to experience this more for yourself, I do think it may become a love it or hate it affair… Personally, I fall in the former group.

So who would I recommend this to? In some ways it’s hard to say. Some Persona fans will likely be bothered by the changes since the last title (arguably most by the continued ignoring of demon conversations within Megaten overall), but I’d honestly say they are missing out. Persona 3 does things differently, but I would never say any of these differences are bad. They’re just, well, differences. I feel like this game might appeal to those who generally would be turned off by random dungeons or even Japanese RPGs in general. What it attempts to do (and although most of its basic ideas have been done in some fashion before elsewhere in parts, I'm not aware of any game that has really brought this all together at once) it generally does so well and balances and paces so strongly that it’s really hard to find many faults with it. What’s there is addictive in a way that I’ve personally not found a RPG to be in years.

Personally, despite being just a little more than halfway through with it (which is why I’m not really calling this a “review”, although it more or less is), it’s already surpassed my expectations and become one of my favorite games on the system. If nothing else, it should be appreciated for trying some risky things and doing them so well. It’s really worth a shot and I hope everyone gives it a chance.