a review of Persona 3
a videogame developed by atlus
and published by atlus USA
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation portable
text by David Cabrera

3 stars

Bottom line: Persona 3 is “like going to high school in the sense that Daytona USA is like driving a car.”

I spent my high school life in a basement obsessively playing Japanese RPGs. Realizing that my education was soon coming to an end, and suddenly nostalgic for miserable old times, I spent the last week of my last summer vacation from college obsessively playing a high school simulator which happens to contain a Japanese RPG as a minigame.

Playing Persona 3 is like going to high school in the sense that playing Daytona USA is like driving a car: the reality of the situation has been eradicated, and in its place stands a wonderful dream reality, familiar yet wholly alien, in which everything feels just right. Such is the charmed life of Cross Docking (this is what I named him: it is who he is), leading man of Gekkoukan High’s Class 2-F. The hardest thing in his life is how he can warp from his classroom to Naganaki Shrine, but, when he is done making his daily brain-enhancing offering to the gods, he has to take the train back.

Everything the protagonist gets to do in this game is either extremely special or painlessly simple: sometimes both. The game’s fast and breezy flow skips the mundane and puts you through all the parts of high school that make you look cool. Even the teen angst is glamorous: in this game, you summon your Personas– spirit beings that act like summoned monsters in a typical RPG or, more accurately, like Stands in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure— to attack by shooting yourself in the head. This is, after all, a Japanese RPG. But let’s get back to high school!

Cross Docking is, by default, the most extraordinary and superior human being in existence: this is regularly confirmed in dialogue by everybody around you. Join a sports team: you’ll take it over at the second practice. Girls fall all over you: one girl thinks it’s a medical condition, and even the robot girl was apparently programmed with the hots for you. You get the idea. The school day is played in fast-forward, slowing down only for highlights like answering a question for your buddy. After school, you have free reign to run around town doing whatever you like, ranging from no-committment extracurricular activities to eating food to raise your stats. How videogamey! How charming! You’ve got to manage your free time, though, because you will be tested: midterms, finals, and of course, a monthly boss fight. And of course there’s a dungeon to explore!

That part comes in by night: you see, your high school was built on an ancient Indian burial ground– it’s okay that I revealed this plot detail because it is false– and it happens to transform into a randomly-generated dungeon of obscene height and questionable foundations. Up in Tartarus, you run up stairs and kill things and pick things up until you get tired and have to go to sleep. Exploring Tartarus is ostensibly the game’s long-term goal, and the game explains outright that even your social interactions are in service of strengthening your summoned Personas for use in battle. However, in terms of actual player experience, the dungeon RPG is in service of the high school sim: whether you like it or not, you will spend far more time with the latter than the former. As such, I will not recommend this game if you simply want to run up stairs, (you can’t even run down stairs because when you run up stairs, they cease to exist) kill things, and pick things up. The way the system works, you can’t ignore high school in favor of the dungeon, nor can you ignore the dungeon in favor of high school. There are plenty of dungeon RPGs on the market, and none of them are secondary to an emo-haired Tokimeki Memorial. Of course, if you’re like me, an emo-haired Tokimeki Memorial is exactly the hecking videogame you want to play.

Yes, Tokimeki Memorial. I mentioned briefly that the player’s summoned Personas are strengthened by his level of social interaction. All of your important acquaintances correspond to a Tarot card, and the Tarot cards all correspond to Personas. If you hang out with a classmate (or date, in the girls’ cases), Personas of that type will become far stronger than they would have through simple leveling. Needless to say, your social life becomes extremely important. You can only hang out with certain people at certain times, and since everybody wants to hang out with Cross Docking, you’ve got to let people down easy sometimes too. Other people won’t hang out with you if you’re not smart enough or cool enough or ballsy enough, so you’ve got to steadily work on improving yourself when you’re not hanging out with somebody. Not to mention keeping your Sundays free for home shopping and MMORPGs: your plate is overflowing with meaty, delicious gameplay chunks, and you have to juggle them all into your mouth.

Your social life becomes a goal and a motivation unto itself: if you play your cards right you can be best friends with everybody in the world and serial-date every chick in school. The dungeon RPG is quite a complete and well-made game in and of itself– this is Megami Tensei, after all– but it always feels like a hell of a lot more is going on outside of it. It helps, of course, that the school-sim formula is a lot fresher than the dungeon RPG formula.

The game feels lopsided at first, especially the long, linear exposition section at the beginning, but the flow soon establishes itself, and both the game and the player quickly settle into a groove. Once you’re in that groove, the game’s really got you: I haven’t been hooked on any game lately, short of Picross on the subway, the way I’ve been hooked on this game. God help me, I’m playing a game that advertises itself as 70+ hours long and I am loving it: not only am I loving it, I want Atlus to translate the currently Japan-only expansion pack. I want more of this. I only play arcade games anymore, man. This is a feat.

–David Cabrera


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