Atlus's Persona series has been scaring gamers for over ten years now with its creepy atmosphere, original storyline, and frightening difficulty. While Final Fantasy games were sending players on quests to save the world with swords and magic, Persona gamers faced psychotic murderers and inner demons. The latest in the series, Persona 3, aims to keep this rich, if under appreciated, tradition alive.
"It's a delicate choice between sweet dreams and screaming, living, tortured nightmares."
The story places gamers in the shoes of an unnamed, silent protagonist who just happens to be a new transfer student who can also harness the power of the eponymous Personae, but more on that in a bit. As the new kid on the block, you start out with very few friends and a pretty low social standing, which is where the first half of Persona 3's gameplay fits in. By attending classes and studying hard, players increase the hero's stats, while opting to go out and party strengthens his "Social Links." These links open up new options when creating Personae, which comes after you've started exploring the school.
The first half of the weekday is spent in class, being a generic high-schooler while asking girls out and napping during lectures. There are a number of after-school activities to sign up for and attend, each of which helps boost different stats. Once school lets out for the day, the player can go to one of the after-school clubs, study, go sing karaoke, or go out on a date. The game looks to have a distinct dating-sim flavor to it, which makes up for the lack of in-battle conversations the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei series is known for. Once you get tired of being a socialite, you can get a good night's sleep, or you can wait until midnight for time to stop and a giant demon tower called Tartarus to replace your school. It's a delicate choice between sweet dreams and screaming, living, tortured nightmares.
At midnight, when time stops and the tower appears, all normal students remain frozen in time. The protagonist and the rest of the Special Extracurricular Execute Sector (SEES) group can move about normally and go about investigating Tartarus, as they believe it's going to bring about the end of the world. The members of SEES all have the same power as the protagonist, namely the ability to summon Personae to unleash magical attacks. A Persona is something like an "other-self," or an inner psyche that everyone has but few can harness. Players equip the main character with a Persona to alter his stats and open up new abilities. Summoning a Persona in battle requires the use of something called an "Evoker," a gun-like item that the characters fire off at their heads to force the Persona out. Slightly graphic, but that's what the Persona games are known for.
Each floor of Tartarus is randomly generated and full of enemies and items. In an effort to soften the difficulty of the last three Persona games, Persona 3 has shrugged off the random battles of its predecessors and shows all the enemies on the screen and mini-map. Along with it comes the classic "attack the enemy first to get the advantage, get attacked from behind and the enemy gets a free turn" mechanic that's becoming fairly common in RPGs today. Points that allow players to quickly return to the first floor or skip forward to certain benchmark floors are more abundant than in the traditional dungeon crawler.
Once in a battle, players command the hero through normal RPG warfare. All the allies are computer controlled, following the AI guidelines that you set up for them. The battles run on something called the Once More system, which is similar to the Shin Megami Tensei's Press Turn system. By exploiting enemies weaknesses and scoring critical attacks, players knock down the enemy and get an extra turn. If players manage to get all the enemies knocked down, then the party can bum-rush them in a Tom and Jerry-esque cloud of smoke. After battle, characters are awarded experience, items, and may get a chance to choose a bonus card. These cards contain new weapons, money, or new Personae that can be equipped or fused together to create more Personae.
The art and musical style are very modern compared to the series dark tones. Menus are full of pretty curves and soft blues, which is the last thing you expect to see while roaming a demonic tower with waterfalls of blood. The soundtrack has fewer sweeping orchestral tracks and a stronger pop/hip hop feel to it. This may act as an immediate turn off to some people, but the tracks are solid and it seems to work well in practice.
Although the Japanese are blessed with the a bonus version of the game with almost 30 hours of additional gameplay, there's no reason to pass this title up once it hits shelves. English-speaking gamers will get to fight their way to the truth of Tartarus in July of 2007.