OK, new frontrunner for the Sollosi's Obsession of the Year award. Dragon Age: Origins was the clear victor in 2011; not even a contest. Back in '10 it was a tougher call, with Dragon Quest IX, Dissidia Final Fantasy, and Monster Hunter Freedom Unite all hitting obsession-level numbers. I'm inclined to give it to Dragon Quest IX since I probably logged in the most hours into that one and Unite's real obsession peak was in 2009, where Unite's biggest competition was probably Torchlight.
But enough of the past. I was dead to the world for much of June 2012, and there is exactly one culprit: Persona 3. Another target game crossed off my list, and I hope to God my other planned runs don't take up so much time. Sweet Moses I hope I can keep this post under 2000 words.
First, a brief rundown of my history with the Megami Tensei franchise, and I suppose my Atlus bias. Right around 2000 or 2001, when all I had were Nintendo handhelds, a SNES, and a PS1, I tried out Revelations: Persona and bought a cheap copy of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. I thought Persona 1 was bad. Ugly 1st-person interface, unfun combat, awfully high enemy encounter rate. The characters seemed okay and the storyline was kinda intriguing at first, but the game's weaknesses far outweighed its strengths and I was not having fun. Glad it was only a rental. Persona 2: EP was much more interesting, even though I was extremely confused for the entire exposition (makes sense, since EP is a direct sequel to Persona 2: Innocent Sin). The tarot card stuff was easier to deal with and the game's visuals and combat were noticeably better compared to the first one. That said, I only gave 2 or 3 hours to Persona 2 before returning to playing better PS1 RPGs and ogling new PS2 stuff.
Also, it's probably worth note that I've never been a huge Atlus fan. I wasn't impressed with Persona 1 or 2, I thought Trauma Center was too unforgiving, and I was seriously let down by Etrian Odyssey 1 and 2 (I thought they'd be up my alley, but no). The only Atlus games I really liked were Disgaea: Hour of Darkness and Riviera: The Promised Land, which of course were only Atlus-published and not Atlus-developed. Then late 2011 happened. I got a kick out of Radiant Historia, liked what little I played of Odin Sphere and 3D Dot Game Heroes, and now there's this Persona 3 thing in 2012. Well, I played the &%*$ out of it and now I'm on the fan side of the Atlus line.
Technically, the version of Persona 3 I played was Persona 3 FES (the FES stands for Festival, without much of an explanation). FES is on the PS2 and PS3 and is an enhanced port of the PS2 original that has some extra content and a special post-game story sequel that I haven't touched; I won't get into the extra content in detail, but I know that they add a few random "things to do" during the daytime and evening and a few personae. Persona 3 also has a PSP version that makes several changes - I wish I was far less tempted to buy that than I actually am.
OK, now let's actually talk about the game. That sound arright? Good. Persona 3's plot (avoiding details) takes place in a coastal city in Japan referred to in-game as the Bay Area. The player-character, a silent protagonist with a name provided by the player, has recently moved to the Bay Area and is a new transfer student at Gekkokuan High School. The Bay Area has some weird shit happening, with twisted creatures called Shadows rampaging around town every night at midnight, unnoticed by most of the population. A small group of high school students have powers that can detect and fight the Shadows, and very early in the game the player-character joins the group. For the most part, Persona 3 is about going to school, studying, and hanging out by day and battling Shadows by night.
Visually, Persona 3 is very anime-inspired with graphics that toe the line between nice polygons and okay cel shading. At the best of times, it looks like a mid-2000s Tales Of game, which is to say colorful and not unappealing. Monsters and Persona designs are much more interesting, with a wacky, twisted take on traditional mythologies. Persona 3's audio is quirky as fuck. Japanese pop, rap, and jazz bits with weird syncopation and instrumentation. It definitely strives to be unique and succeeds in that regard, but certain tracks that you'll hear over and over get annoying maybe a little faster than they ought to.
The real meat of Persona 3 is in its two gameplay halves - I'll meditate on the disparate and unattached nature of the two halves later, but for now I'll just describe them. When you're battling Shadows in the Dark Hour (the hidden hour between midnight and 12:01 that only special people experience), you equip entities called personae that govern your character's combat statistics and available skills. Personae take the form of various mythological gods and monsters that run the gamut from Biblical angels to Norse gods to Japanese folktale heroes to pre-Hindu Balinese spirits to whatever else. Defeated Shadows drop new Personae occasionally, but the bulk of your Persona-upgrading ability comes from fusing Personae that you already own and then buying ones you've owned in the past from a Persona Compendium. As you cannot use a Persona whose base level exceeds your own, grinding Shadows and leveling up also allows you to fuse stronger Persona. At the end of the game, the personae I used the most were Odin, Seth, Chi You, Satan, and Lucifer. Yes, Satan and Lucifer are different; there are at least five different versions of the Christian Devil in Persona 3.
Sticking the tarot cards theme of its Persona predecessors, Persona 3 has twenty-two "families" of persona named by the Major Arcana of a tarot card deck. Each Arcana of Persona has a general theme to which its personae follow (i.e. Emperor personae have thunder magic, Chariot personae are heavy-hitting physical attacks), but the Arcana of a persona is more important to what fusions it can produce rather than what it can do - there are exceptions to must of the fusion rules.
The ability to equip and switch between multiple personae is an ability unique to the protagonist. The other characters are startled by this. Each of your supporting cast members (of which you have eight) stick to only one persona (which evolves into a stronger one in the game's second half). With that said, party design is fairly important, as each of your characters (who rely on AI strategies and not direct controls) are valuable support and each plays a different role, even if the main character is way more powerful than any of them.
So you have persona governing skillsets and eight party members to team up with your protagonist. So how about that combat? Well, about 95% of the Shadows you fight will be in Tartarus, a mostly-randomly-generated dungeon of over 250 floors. New sections of Tartarus are unlocked every month after you complete story missions (most of which are the 5% of combat that's not in Tartarus) and the final boss will be waiting for you at the top when the story reaches its climax. You hit those story battles on full moons, roughly once every in-game month.
Tartarus would be extremely, INCREDIBLY annoying and frustrating if combat wasn't so surprisingly fast-paced. Battles are turn-based, with the protagonist taking the first turn every time and his allies and enemies following in order of speed. If you hit an enemy with its weakness (there are three physical attack types and six magic attack types) or land a critical hit, the enemy stumbles and is "down" until its next turn and the user of that attack gets a free turn. If all enemies onscreen are downed, then your party can unleash a powerful All-Out Attack that ignores defenses. On top of this, there are a bunch of RPG standbys like status effects, typical heals, buffs, and debuffs, and a wide variety of skills. The only other unusual part is that physical skills (other than a normal attack) cost HP to cast instead of SP.
Now that sounds... kinda normal and boring, right? Well, not really. Since your main always acts first and new turns aren't that difficult to pull off, it's extremely easy to have the main character wipe the floor with enemies on the first turn with knockdowns followed by an All-Out Attack. Grinding is fast, easy, and makes your characters feel powerful indeed. If you're fighting something really tough then battles can get a little drawn-out, but the wealthy of skills available and the feeling of character efficacy make battles seem huge and important rather than unfair. And this probably goes without saying, but since manipulating enemy weaknesses is one of the key aspects of Persona 3, the most important part of building your team is diversity. You want to cover as many of those enemy weaknesses as possible.
Combat can be tricky at times, but supporting multiple attack types and keeping levels up to par will solve most of the problems presented to you. I definitely struggled with certain bosses, but overall I'd say that Persona 3 is very rarely "unfair" in its enemies' tactics and that it has moderate difficulty. Part of why it isn't super-challenging is that your main character can get so powerful.
So that's half of the game. You challenge the tower of Tartarus in fun turn-based battles, and you collect and fuse persona to give your characters powerful skills. The game's other half is just being a high school kid. During the day you go to class, hang out with friends by going to restaurants or arcades or whatnot, you study in the library, or even visit a shrine to pray for good fortune in life and love if you're into that. That's what you'll be doing every day. Your player character has three "social stats" - Courage, Charm, and Academics - that increase when you do certain activities. Some examples: studying raises Academics, standing out in class raises Charm, and singing karaoke after class raises Courage. Some characters won't want to talk to you unless one of those stats is high enough. Three girls in particular are only dateable if those three stats aren't maxed (one applies to each girl).
So that's interesting, and if you think it sounds like a Japanese dating-sim game of questionable taste, then you're absolutely right. But why bother with it? Well, there are twenty-two entities in the game (four are party members, three are groups based on plot events, and fifteen are NPCs) that correspond to the twenty-two Arcana that you can use to form personae. If you spend time with an Arcana's corresponding person or group, then your main character's soul is enriched and he can level up the Social Link for that particular Arcana. Whenever you make a new Persona of a particular Arcana, it will receive an experience boost corresponding to its Social Link level. Also, in order to create a particular Arcana's Ultimate Persona, its Social Link must be maxed. So make friends, talk to people, and unlock better, stronger personae when you venture into Tartarus.
Since so much of Persona 3's dialog is in these optional Social Links, it ends up being the biggest part of Persona 3's narrative. Sure, there's a storyline that drives the plot along, and that storyline has twists and turns and good characters, but it's still secondary to just being an everyday student in a new town trying to make friends. Persona 3's cast of characters is interesting and vibrant, with a few caricatures (ice queen Mitsuru), a few teenagers just dealing with baggage (Junpei, Yukari), and even cases of art imitating life (namely Koromaru, who is clearly based on the famous Hachi the Shiba Inu story). Saying the right things in dialog (a task of analyzing the character's personality more than anything else) make Social Links advance much more quickly. Hanging out with a Social Link character on a weekend (especially going on a date with one of the five dateable girls) can really advance the relationship along.
Basically, interacting with this cast takes a front seat to Persona's plot machinations for a good 90% of the game; luckily, Persona 3 has an entertaining cast that I felt made all that dialog well worth it. I liked nearly all of the story's major characters, but two party members (Ken and Shinji) seemed more like plot devices than real characters, and a few of the Social Link NPCs (mostly Kenji) annoyed the hell out of me to the point where I was playing more for persona stats than storyline. With those two exceptions and maybe a few others I'm forgetting, I felt that Persona 3 had an exceptionally strong cast. I could definitely see myself replaying this game down the line, prioritizing different social links.
But there's another major weakness to Persona 3's basic framework: these two gameplay halves are basically two separate games. In one half you're fusing personae and grinding in Tartarus. In the other half you're going to high school and making new friends. These two halves are tied together by the Social Link levels, which are about as superficial as it gets. Different types of players might (A) deal with Tartarus and personae only to get to the next dialog segments or (B) race through dialog as fast as possible, only really using Social Links to be more effective in Tartarus. These are two separate games working in parallel, with a grinding RPG half and a story-heavy dating-sim half. If you're the type of gamer who prefers a game's storytelling tied in more gracefully to gameplay, then you'd be disappointed in Persona 3.
But honestly, there are several ways people could find Persona 3 disappointing. So let me put forth a brief questionnaire: how many of the following apply to you?
1. Do you enjoy Japanese anime shows about high school students with superpowers?
2. Do you enjoy or at least have a tolerance for Japanese RPGs with mandatory level griding?
3. Do you have a preference for games that emphasize dialog and turn-based combat?
4. Do you seek out or at least have the patience for games that last 80-plus hours before the credits roll?
5. Are you comfortable playing something that shares many similarities to a dating-sim?
That's a lot of caveats, but the center of that weird Venn diagram is surprisingly solid, because Persona 3 has a ton of fans. I'd say if you gave affirmative answers to four of those questions, then you ought to give Persona 3 a shot. If you are grimacing out of distaste, then you should play a different game. I liked Persona 3 a lot, because it spoke to my preferences (RPG team building) AND my nostalgia (turn-based RPG combat) in a package with several entertaining characters and scenarios. It's taking a moderate amount of my willpower NOT to immediately start playing Persona 4.
Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
Well fuck me sideways, that was a trip all right (and that was a comma splice). I'm still not sure if Persona 3 or Red Dead Redemption is my personal favorite backlogged game of the year, but I sure know which one demanded more out of me. Anyhow, next up are a bunch of random handheld games, including (but not limited to, oy) Dissidia 012, Hexyz Force, and SMT Devil Survivor. When I feel like going back to that PS2, it's time for another glaring omission from my gaming resume. Final Fantasy XII, you're on deck.