As we wait for Fallout 3 and a slew of role-playing games to hit later this year, we decided to hunker down with Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3: FES, a game that’s gotten good reviews from our peers and some pretty strong scoring from other outlets. Turns out, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3: FES is an “enhanced” version, much like a Metal Gear Solid Subsistence version but with more content, more events and a new quest — and for only $29.99, no less.
Heading into a role-playing series blind can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, you could luck out and avoid the bad or so-so games, or you could get stuck with a bad one and this be soured to the rest of the series. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3: FES is pretty much unlike any RPG you’ve played in North America, a mash up that includes the familiar party-based, turn-based RPG we have all grown up with, but one that also incorporates the relationship/dating genre (popular in Japan).
You begin the game as a student who leads a secret life, one in which you have the ability to use and collect Persona, a creature that’s equivalent to magic. These creatures have awkwardly named spells/attacks, but they function much like Summons in Final Fantasy, with a nod toward Dragon Quest’s sense of humor.
During the day, you live the student’s life and must navigate through class and exams, all the while developing and building relationships within the various locales on the map. Building these relationships increases your Social Link, which enables you to create stronger versions of Personas when combining them. For instance, if you could already create a new Persona by combining two others, the right Social Link might let you get a bonus that raised the Persona a couple of levels.
Every night at midnight, though, is the shadow’s realm, and it’s from here that you’ll grind out your levels by tackling various enemies and bosses. In a nice touch, enemies aren’t random, and in fact they’re completely visible, so you can attack them unawares for an instant advantage in battle. There is one random element, however: a random dungeon generator that goes through a series of “floors” rather than levels.
The structure of the game is based around the typical day, week and year. During the day you attend school, and at certain times during class you’re called upon to answer questions based on what you already clicked through in the game. Success results in raising your charm level, which is one of few you can raise during this cycle. After school, you’re given the option to spend time with someone, participate in the various clubs at school or venture onto the map and explore different part of the neighborhood.
Evening brings you back to the dorm, where you have the option of venturing to town to create weapons, sell items and raise the stats of you or your Persona. You also have the option to go to Tartalus, at which point you exit the relationship sim and enter the world of third-person views and classic RPG dungeon crawling. Combat is essentially rock paper scissors, and hitting enemies at their weak points results in them being knocked off balance. If all the enemies are like that, you have the choice to unleash a group attack. Since this is a turn-based game, you can’t control the members in your party directly, but you can give them a bit of direction, and for the most part it’s fine.
The plot in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3: FES is basic, but the story behind it, well, it sure is “different.” However, it’s compelling enough and deep enough that we can’t stop playing. At this point we’ve played more than 60 hours and haven’t finished the game, and when we do, there’s another 30-plus-hour quest to move on to.
One thing that keeps catching us up, though, and also is the most disturbing part of the game is also the reason the game’s rated M: when anyone calls up a Persona, they literally and graphically shoot themselves in the head. And yes, there are different animations for different characters. Kudos to Atlus for retaining this, but for those of us late to the game, the shock factor was something along the lines of “People are griping about GTA IV? They sure haven’t seen this!”
Because this is an Atlus game, and for several other reasons as well, this game has flown under the radar of the average gamer, but honestly, it’s not aimed at them. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3: FES is a hardcore title with hardcore appeal, and it’s not intended to a blockbuster. Nor is the game intended for everyone out there with a PS2 or backwards-compatible PS3, but if you’re hunting for a unique RPG with decent length, above-average difficulty and a cheap price, you really can’t go wrong with Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3: FES.
- Score: 7.9
— Phillip Vollmer