When Persona 3 came out, it was pretty universally acclaimed. I was skeptical — as I usually am when it comes to dubiously high praises of RPGs — but I was pleasantly surprised.
While definitely a budget title, Persona 3 eschews tired genre staples while successfully mixing dating sim elements with those of a dungeon crawler.
The rest of the notable bits:
— Persona 3 is pretty evenly split between its combat and exploration, and its heavily scripted social elements. During the day, the protagonist attends school, hangs out with his peers, goes shopping, participates in various extra-curricular activities, and generally goes through the motions of a typical student’s life.
By night, however, he hunts dangerous demons and explores creepy dungeons. The two parts are separated conceptually, but tend to bleed into each other: roommates join the protagonist in battle, items purchased during the day are mostly used at night, and the emotional bonds formed with peers enhance combat abilities.
Igor, a mainstay of the Persona series, in his creepy, blue-velvet room.
— The game takes the player through a standard school year, with each day containing at least one unique scripted event. These range anywhere from overhearing a short bit of gossip to attending a lengthy student assembly. Regardless of the events’ scope, the quantity of these sequences is impressive, and they guarnatee that the player will encounter something new every day.
— While in school, the player is occasionally forced to sit through somewhat brief lectures. These usually result with the player being asked to answer a question based on the topic that was discussed. Sometimes it’s just a matter of relaying what was already stated, but at other times the game actually requires the player — not the player character — to be familiar with the subject matter.
One of the class lectures.
It’s an interesting twist, and answering incorrectly never punishes the player (it simply results in a missed opportunity to upgrade a social statistic).
— A typical school day is divided into various types of events that are mixed around in order to avoid a clear and repetitive pattern. For example, one day the player will sit through a lecture, while the next the lecture will be skipped and various characters will approach the protagonist with offers to hang out after school.
Social invitations also tend to reappear if initially turned down, preventing the player from fearing that rejecting an offer will result in permanently missing out on something.
— The actual progress of time is entirely player controlled, although each day only allows a small number of actions to be performed. Once the day is over, the player has the option to journey into Tartarus, the single dungeon (or rather tower) that encompasses most of the game’s more traditional RPG elements. How much time is spent in Tartarus is also up to the player, although the game will punish lengthy excursions with temporary stat decreases.
This proved somewhat controversial with fans (as did most time-handicapping systems in MMOs), but it does encourage variety in gameplay.
An optional scene viewed by accessing the dorm's security system.
— Establishing social links with peers, including romantic ones, is nicely slotted into the day-by-day progression. It’s a gradual process that builds over time, and, despite the characters’ relative simplicity, is actually used to great effect for both character progression and development.
— Although the player is only allowed to fully pursue one romantic interest at a time (there’s never any room for non-monogamy, is there?), it never becomes a permanent facet of the game. Once 10 dates go well, the chase is over and the player has “won.” The favoured girl can still be visited from time to time, but no new events are ever introduced, and the player is free — even encouraged — to start dating someone else.
Considering the amount of effort put into these social links, it seems like a bit of a missed chance that the relationships are not extended a step further.
A storyline event from one of the full-moon sequences.
— Persona 3 contains a plethora of minor but continuous changes that enhance the perceived passage of time. Bystanders are shuffled around in the shopping areas, new stores open up, roommates come and go in the dorm, various holidays are celebrated, etc. A large portion of these tweaks simply involve placing characters in different spots and giving them one or two unique pieces of dialogue, but the combined effect creates a varied and well-paced experience.
— Every 28 days during a full moon, the player must engage in a uniquely structured action sequence complete with a boss battle and linear story progression. Since the player can simply skip fighting in Tartarus, these sequences tend to quickly level-up the party if it’s inadequately prepared for the upcoming encounters.
— Tartarus itself consists of 200+ floors, each one a small, randomly generated map. The tower is also divided into visually distinct zones that are unlocked as the full-moon bosses are defeated.
A neat little touch is that the player can see a preview of the next area before defeating its corresponding boss.
— Sporadic checkpoints allow the player to return to a handful of previously visited floors, and each floor also contains a warp point that can whisk the party back to the base of Tartarus. The uneven placement of checkpoints has the added effect of imbuing the game with a certain sense of risk, i.e., do I return to the base while I still can, or do I keep pressing on so as not to replay the same levels?
— There are no random encounters as all enemies are visible in the exploration portions of the game. The enemies also behave differently based on (mostly) their strength relative to the player’s party — weaker enemies run away, while stronger ones home in on the characters.
Bosses are visible as well, but they don’t move. Instead, they appear on special floors that are devoid of other enemies and contain a checkpoint, and the bosses always block the path to the next floor.
A summoned Persona casting a spell.
— The player has the ability to split up his group and send out each character to individually explore the map. The goal of the exploration can be manually skewed towards defeating enemies or collecting treasure.
Each character’s HP/MP is always visible in the HUD, so whenever he or she enters combat, his or her display icon changes to signify the event (along with some non game-pausing audio and visual cues). The character and enemy continue to be present on the map as well, so the player has the option to join the fight if deemed necessary. Likewise, if an enemy attacks the player within the vicinity of other solitary characters, they automatically join the melee. Of course if the player doesn’t split up his party, all characters participate in every encounter.
If a separated character finds a treasure, the event is also indicated with an audio/visual cue. The treasures are only collected once the player exits the current floor, though.
Finally, any exploring character will pause the game if they stumble upon an exit point (either a set of stairs leading to the next area, or a warp point). These mechanics all combine to ease the pain of traversing previously explored locations and help to quicken the overall pace.
— One of the later characters provides a manual option to change the background music in Tartarus.
Scanning enemies reveals their strengths and weaknesses, which is fully utilized by the AI-controlled characters.
— Most enemies — and all the characters, for that matter — have elemental strengths and weaknesses. The first time a character or an enemy gets hit with a potent attack, it becomes stunned and loses a turn while the attacker gains an extra turn. If all the enemies are stunned, the player has the option to unleash a group-attack where all the characters rush in to physically attack the enemies. This wastes the extra turn of the initial attacker, but doesn’t use up the turns of the rest of the party.
— In combat, the player only controls the game’s protagonist (with one small exception mentioned below). Many fans didn’t like this, but the approach definitely made for quicker battles.
The party’s AI is also quite solid, automatically targeting the enemies’ weaknesses while preserving MP and doing a good job of staying alive.
— My personal favourite feature of Persona 3′s battle system is the auto-attack toggle.
The combat menu is circular, surrounding a triangle symbol that corresponds to the button found on the controller. At any time — no matter what’s happening on screen — the player can press this button to toggle a state where all the characters simply use their physical attacks.
The player never needs to wait to queue up this option, nor does he need to scroll through a menu to access it, and the state continues to persist until it’s toggled off. It’s a simple but well executed feature that greatly speeds up the battles, and I found myself using it in virtually every encounter.
An option to perform an all-in attack on the stunned enemies.
— Whenever a battle is finished, there’s a random chance that a card-shuffling minigame will pop-up. The minigame displays a handful of cards face up, with at least 2 to 3 representing some sort of a reward: a new item, a health recharge, an extra money bonus, or one of the titular Personas. When the player presses a button, the cards are turned over and shuffled around, and the player then picks the card that he thinks holds his desired prize.
As the game progresses, so does the complexity of the shuffling and the value of the rewards. Mysterious skulls also start to appear over some cards, along with the occasional opportunity to “double up,” i.e., gain two rewards at the risk of losing both if the wrong card is selected.
— Sticking around for too long on any floor summons the super boss Death. The player usually has more than enough time to explore the whole map, but drawing a skull-card from the shuffle minigame or entering a floor with no enemies (and only treasure chests, which is a nice bonus) reduces the amount of time it takes for Death to show up.
— Each Persona creature has its own attributes and skills, and the ability to level up. Only the protagonist can equip these, though, and only a single Persona at a time. The other characters possess Personas as well, but they’re permanently stuck with their starting selection.
The Personas tend to have strong links to the entities of various mythologies and religions, and are summoned whenever a character uses a special ability. These creatures are also obtained fairly regularly, and they can be combined to create new types of Personas. To take full advantage of this, the player needs to reference a detailed spread-sheet, but the system is still pretty rewarding. Limited previews of new Personas are shown prior to the fusions taking place, and the sheer quantity of the creatures promises something new around every corner.
Jack Frost, something of a mascot Persona that's present in many Shin Megami Tensei titles.
Lots more could be said about Persona 3′s aesthetics — its focus on Japanese culture and the bizarre designs of the Personas themselves — but what really stuck out for me were the streamlined dungeon and combat mechanics, and the constantly changing social landscape. These elements made for a lengthy and unique experience, and did a good job of providing lots of variety despite a relatively small amount of assets.