If you are neither a hard-core RPG lover, nor otaku, feel free to turn back now. However if you are either of the above, stick around because you’re likely to hear something you’ll like.
Shin Megami Tensei has always been one of the most well regarded RPG series. Despite being utterly blotted out by the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Megaten has succeeded in carving out its own niche here in the states. Part of the reason for this is simply that they are great games. The last title, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, was not only a solid role-playing affair, but was also a tantalizing piece of philosophy. Tackling subjects such as the existence of God and the nature and purpose of human existence...they refuse to pull any punches. Because of these heavy topics, SMT:DDS, was a bit of a surprise when it made it to the United States. However, it wasn’t half the surprise that its successor is. The subjects in the last game are like controversy-child’s-play compared to the stuff that is going on in the newest installment. The new game subtitled Persona 3 (it’s the third game in the Persona series as well as the Shin Megami Tensei series…its complicated don’t try to make too much sense out of it.)
So why is it controversial? It’s controversial because of how the magic system works. No, it’s not like the Catholic Church is going to be up in arms like they were over Harry Potter. The way it works is the characters draw “Personas” from within themselves to help combat enemies. The way that is done is by holding a device called an “Evoker,” that looks quite a bit like a handgun, to their head and pulling the trigger. Now no one dies of course, but regardless…God help us all if the mainstream media gets a hold of this one.
The game’s dark themes continue through much of the eventful sections of the game, which take place during a special hour of the day which can only be experienced by a certain type of person. These are the dungeon crawling sections. Where a normal RPG would try to meld the story telling section and the battle sections, they are very separate here. For this reason, the night sections can be bland for anyone who isn’t extremely interested in RPG battle mechanics. Additionally, while the story is definitely very good for a videogame, the day time sections continue the game’s extremely niche appeal. See, bizarre as it may seem, the other half of the game is more akin to a dating simulator than anything else. You’ll go to school, build relationships, study, go to the movies. This would be unbearable for many RPG fans, but for the unique way in which it is melded with the gameplay. Everything you do in the day time world effects directly how your character evolves in battle during the Dark Hour. For instance, studying before bed will influence your academics, whereas going to see chick flicks late at night will enhance your characters charm.
Aesthetically this is a game that follows in the tradition of most Japanese style role playing games. The graphics during the gameplay segments are passable, especially for a PS2 title, and then there are beautiful cut-scenes rendered not in CG, but full motion anime. The only real downside to the graphics is the sometimes dull level design. This is a dungeon crawling RPG and it definitely looks the part. Long halls in dungeons often look identical to the ones you just walked down, and you will get bored of the colors gray and dark purple very quickly.
The sound is also pretty...solid, but following in the same vein as the graphics, it’s pretty dry in some places. It’s good, but pretty unremarkable, everything you’d expect, complete with catchy J-pop tunes. Maestros who want their ears tantalized with the likes of something from Uematsu or Mitsuda best keep on walking.
With a combat system that holds up the tradition of the superlative previous Persona games with its complexity and ease of use, Persona 3 proves to be a solid entry in the long running series. However, I have to dock it points for being quite simply the most inaccessible game I have ever encountered. For fans of dungeon crawling RPGs and dating simulators you’re going to have the time of your life. But if you’re a fan of one or neither, you’ll be taking a leap of faith getting into this one.