There are plenty of Japanese RPGs that never reach our shores for a number of different reasons. Perhaps the publisher felt the game would be lost in translation, maybe the game didn't do so well in other regions, or maybe somebody just couldn't be bothered converting it for what is, let's face it, a much smaller market. Luckily however, some of these games do make it over here to the land of Oz, and recently the PS2 has seen a number of new games that have been received quite well despite the fact that most eyes are now cast on the future of its younger PlayStation 3 brother. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is the latest import that's now available in stores for us Aussie-folk, and brings an interesting and unique combination of relationship-simulator and turn-based RPG fighting. Despite being available on an older platform, Persona 3 is one of the most enthralling RPGs that we've had the joy of playing through, even though it's one of the stranger gaming concepts we've encountered.
With such an interesting premise, it's sure to garner a lot of interest within the RPG community, and for the 'hardcore' RPG fans out there, they are probably very much aware of the Persona series already. For those not in the know - and there's probably quite a few of you considering the original PlayStation Persona games were never released over here. Persona has already had three games in its series thus far (the original Persona, and Persona 2 which was actually split into two more different games) that have all been well received critically and have a sort of cult following. While each game isn't properly connected to each other, the basic premise of the game remains the same: you play as a character who has access to multiple 'personas' which they can equip and use to fight with.
In Persona 3, you'll play as a high school student, and you'll quickly discover that not everything is as it seems. You'll stay in a dorm and attend classes as per normal, until eventually joining the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES for short), who are a bunch of people, mostly students, who moonlight as fighters of evil - or so to speak. See, at midnight of every night, something called 'The Dark Hour' occurs, which is when shadows roam freely and take part in all sorts of evil. Only a few humans are aware of The Dark Hour, as when it hits, most of the population is safely housed inside their coffins which appear to keep them safe from those that come out in the darkness. SEES members on the other hand have special abilities including their Personas which allow them to fight the shadows, and are unaffected by The Dark Hour, meaning they can move about freely when it takes place unlike everybody else who is left in a comatose state.
This is where the majority of players will feel right at home, fighting through the randomly-generated dungeons filled with shadows and other enemies in a turn-based combat system. You'll have your basic weapon attacks as well as access to your special skills including your Personas to take down your foes. The combat system should be instantly familiar to anybody who has played a turn-based RPG before. When you spot an enemy in the dungeon, if you're the first to initiate an attack, you'll have the upper hand as the battle begins; just like if the enemy manages to attack you first, they'll get the first shot in on you. Once in battle, you'll only have control over your main character despite having a party of 3-4 people. While some people may initially be turned off by this 'lack of control', it makes sense as the game becomes more complicated and you have a lot more to manage at the one time. The AI of your team-mates is also quite good, and they quite rarely make a decision that you could classify as stupid.
There are also other elements of the combat that you'll learn along the way. While it's obvious that certain enemies will have weaknesses such as fire or water etc, the game actually gives you the option to really exploit them, and not just for a damage bonus. If you use a fire skill on an enemy who is particularly weak against fire for example, you'll be rewarded for this action by being given an extra opportunity to attack, or use a stronger team attack. The system is simple but means that you'll want to analyze what the enemies weaknesses are for each battle so you can best take advantage. Also, as well as the basic dungeon-crawling elements of fighting baddies and opening chests, you can actually split up your party to search for exits or other important items to save time. By doing this though, you're putting your party members at risk, as they're more vulnerable against enemies by themselves of course, so you'll have to keep an eye on their health bar to make sure they aren't getting slaughtered without the rest of the party as back-up.
After battles, as well as the standard 'this is how much experience you've earned' stuff that we're used to by now, you'll sometimes get the option of playing a cards mini-game, depending on which monsters you defeat. A number of cards will be revealed to you on screen, and will then be shuffled around, leaving you with the option of choosing the one you had your eye on to begin with. Each card holds something different, whether it be items, money, experience or even better, entirely new Personas that you can use in battle. While the mini-game is simple, it makes the game even more exciting because the possibility of more goodies at your disposal is quite frankly always enjoyable. If you're feeling lucky, you can even gamble the cards that you choose to try and get something even better, though you'll also have the chance of getting something nasty that will stay with you for the entire dungeon you're exploring.
As well as the RPG sections of Persona 3 during The Dark Hour, you'll actually have a lot of other things to keep you occupied. Each day passes in segments, from Morning to Afternoon to Evening and so on, and you'll often be given the opportunity to live the life of a high school student amongst all the hectic goings-on of midnight. Listening well in class could give you a point in your Academics, or even increase your popularity if other students see you as an intelligent person. There are plenty of things you can do in school and around town that effect what kind of person you are, and these attributes cross over into the fighting aspect of gameplay to make your character stronger. We actually spent a rather long time doing these activities, just exploring the school and town, meeting people, having conversations, increasing your skills and effectively making in-game friends with the NPC's. The social links you establish with others are important, as they will give you access to specific Personas that would otherwise be unavailable to you, so being popular with certain people can directly effect just how powerful you are during The Dark Hour.
Persona 3 can easily be described as visually impressive, especially considering it's a PlayStation 2 title. The environments and characters look great, and some of the animations are especially cool and creepy. The game has raised some controversy, because to access your Personas in battle, your character will literally take a gun-like thing called an Evoker pistol, and promptly shoot themselves in the temple. That's right, it effectively means that these high-school students have to commit an act which looks a lot like suicide just to access these crucial aspects of battle. The contrast between the chirpy days at school and the sinister Dark Hour sections are also a treat, and the soundtrack matches these feelings very well too. The voice-overs are also decent and nowhere near as annoying as some other translations we've heard over the years, so we're very thankful for that.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a game that will last you a very long time. Packed with things to do, whether it's becoming the best social butterfly you can be or spending countless hours fighting shadows and accessing new Personas, you'll always be able to find something to keep you occupied. Of course, Persona 3 is not without its flaws; the dungeon-crawling can get a little repetitive, not everyone is going to like the 'relationship-building' aspect of the game as much as the battling, and with so many Personas and abilities, things can get confusing. Nevertheless, Persona 3 has a lot going for it and is one of the most refined and certainly unique RPG experiences available today, with a strong narrative and innovative gameplay to boot. You may have missed the others, but don't worry: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is still a great place to start.