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


10 Responses to PERSONA 3

  1. I like the review. It’s like what I would say, but a lot more restrained, since I love the game way too much.

    I personally find the game’s treatment of the hero (and well, everything else, but this is enough) to be extremely fascinating. First, just the element of him becoming the school’s smartest, coolest and most badass student, along with the most popular person in town, as the review notes. But also there’s a weird element of what he’s really like. Is he a self-serving jerk (and serial womanizer) who tells people what they want to hear just so they’ll like him? Or is he really the greatest, most sympathetic person on earth? The question goes well beyond the dialogue choices the game gives you into what you’re really thinking when you pick one. I’m trying to think of a good example but they kind of spoil the wonderful little storylines associated with each character.

    Although, the text messages you get if you max a social link with a girl after arranging a date with them on Sunday but before going on that date are pretty serious bullstuff. There’s a reason they work that way (so you can move on) but it’s so &^#$#ed and contrary that I really have to think they could’ve done better. I totally love everything else though.

  2. the soundtrack is actually pretty damn good, too. a little jpoppy, a little bit of uematsu’s flavor, but in a good way.

    The social links are not as cumbersome as you make them sound, either. Even though I graduated High School nearly ten years ago, I love this game. That, and seeing attractive young adults shooting themselves in the head never really gets old.

  3. Persona 3 is the game that made me love bullstuff Jappy McJap RPGs (aka “adventure games”) again. It’s a shame that I mostly like it because I get to ace fake videogame school exams and date every single girl in the school, mostly by insulting them repeatedly.

  4. I am annoyed by how long this is taking to emerge in the UK.

  5. guy: What are you talking about? The soundtrack is terrible. “Jpoppy” isn’t a good thing, and it’s hardly Uematsu, not in any way.

    As for the review, I really don’t think this game is deserving of three stars. It pales very much in comparison with the previous Persona games, and it seems more like an attempt by Atlus to appeal to a wider audience by making their games as cliché as they can. I couldn’t stomach the game, and don’t know why the hell people are claiming it to be Game of the Year, among other things.

  6. User: except for the whole “wannabe rap” thing (seriously, wtf), I actually like the soundtrack.

    yes, damnit, that motherhecking rap-jpop bit did nearly ruin the whole thing. but, take the “velvet room aria” or whatever-the-hell it’s called.

    i…i like it. it’s no FFIV, but I doubt it’ll get old anytime soon.

    god, I hate rap.

    and yes, Persona is no GOTY. but it is definitely worth 50 bucks. just for the New Game+, and the fight with Elizabeth. old school tough, that chick is.

    I’m curious to see what actionbutton has to say about Bioshock. Sure, it is way too easy, but I think everybody should give it a playthrough.

    i’m into interactive storytelling, and Bioshock spins one hell of a yarn.

  7. Let this review be a lesson to anyone that thinks “New Games Journalism” (and I know you loathe to be thrown into that category) cannot also act in the more traditional mode as a buying guide. Before, I might have considered buying Persona 3; now that I know that it involves a high school dating sim on such a joyful, ebullient, intimate level, I will not.

  8. Please review Persona 4 because it is by far a better game in every way possible and that is a fabulous thing.

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