Persona 3 FES, PS2 – Review

Persona 3 FES – £14.95 delivered

Review by Bobby Foster

Routine is important. I get that. Like most people, I learnt young that failing to brush your teeth every morning has disastrous consequences both hygienically and socially. And although I’ve always kinda felt that the alarm clock is the cruellest machine mankind ever made, I’ve come to accept that you have to use one to be successful in the modern world.

Yet it’s still true that the darkest and most powerful depression that ever took hold of any of us stemmed from the realisation that we’re dancing to the beat of someone else’s drum. With worrying ease, routine has the power to take us prisoner, and its capacity to rob us of our freedom and creativity is the reason every blues song you ever heard was about the same thing. We all want control of our own destiny.

As it is in life, so it is in videogames. The most pointless and facile titles are those that one person plays in exactly the same way as the next. A game with a linear plot and one-solution puzzles never lets me feel like I’m playing. I want to experiment, take risks and work out my own way of doing things. In fact, my ability to do that within the safe context of videogames is one of the key reasons I continue to tolerate the humdrumity of the rest of my existence.

So if I say Japanese Role Playing Games aren’t usually for me, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. They mostly seem like an attempt to tell the most long-winded story possible in the most roundabout way imaginable. Despite their elaborate battle systems they’re often pathetically formulaic, and thanks to their needless complexity they end up rewarding conservative play over experimentation. Remembering to equip all my party members with fire-based weapons when I enter a dungeon made of ice won’t ever make me feel creative or resourceful. In fact, I’d probably feel more fulfilled stepping away from the game and flossing between my teeth.

Persona 3 is a roleplaying game that was developed in Japan. Most of the male characters have stupid-looking spiky hair while your female party members are the usual collection of highly sexualised teenagers. It asks you to spend a lot of time comparing stats and collecting items. And the battle system involves everyone taking it in turns to hit each other. It goes without saying that it’s just as boring, creepy and pointless as the rest of its Far-Eastern genre-mates, right?

Wrong. This is among the most inventive, unpredictable, funny, engaging, well written and charmingly constructed games it’s possible to play on the PS2. Really. It’s blown my usual “modern JRPGs are all the same” shtick completely out of the water.

It probably helps that it’s not set in the kind of fantasy-cum-futuristic universe that’s become so over-familiar since Final Fantasy VII first popularised it. Here we’re based in the present (a setting still bizarrely underused in the genre), and the game starts with you arriving at a new school for the start of an academic year. Half of the game is based around the routine of school life: attending lessons, hanging out with your classmates, and deciding what extra-curricular activities you want to take part in. The other half, which follows from the early discovery that you’re no ordinary school boy, is about battling through Cerberus, the demonic tower that appears on the school grounds each day at midnight.

I don’t want to waste too much time on the details of the story, as the game’s anime sequences do a more impressive and stylish job of explaining the supernatural aspects of the plot than I ever could. What’s important is the way the paranormal and mundane elements of the story blend together. To be as powerful as possible when you go out dungeon-crawling, you need to have developed your relationships with your class mates and other people living in town, because as acquaintances become close friends, your ability to channel stronger magic increases. This allows these two very distinct parts of the game to provide variety without ever feeling pointless.

One interesting consequence of this “chat-up to level-up” mechanic is the possibility it raises that your character is a total sociopath. You might for instance ask yourself: am I befriending the boorish fat kid with no mates because I have an interest in him and his well-being, or because I need to get him to like me in order to max out the abilities I want? You’re certainly not likely to waste any time with him once you know he’s unlocked all the power that he has to give, because by far the most effective strategy is to keep moving from one emotionally needy person to the next to increase your powers as quickly as possible.

Happily it’s an issue that’s never fully resolved, giving the game a shade-of-grey moral atmosphere that’s almost unheard of in Japanese RPGs.

Yet more important than the ambiguous motivation of the leading man is the amount of control you have over how to play the game. Although the main story arc is about as linear as they come, you have plenty of freedom to choose which characters you engage with and therefore which powers you develop. It’s down to you who you speak to or ignore, and what order you deal with people. Crucially, there isn’t time to develop all the available friendships to their fullest, which adds weight to your decisions. Regardless of how efficiently your try to play the game, you will be left with loose ends by the time the school year ends, so you’re forced to prioritise.

Of course, none of this would have much significance if the game’s dozens of supporting characters were underdeveloped or uninteresting, but thankfully they’re among the most memorable you’re likely to encounter in a game. Some are charming, others funny, and a couple out-right twisted- and the writers and translators should be congratulated on the job they’ve done in making all of them worth caring about. Admittedly some of the romantic elements can feel pretty hackneyed, and you’re not going to gain any great insight into the nature of human relationships, but you could say the same about a TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’ll still likely come away heavily invested in a well put-together ensemble of characters.

The dungeon-crawling is where there’s probably the biggest cause for complaint. Aside from the turn-based combat (which some will surely find an immediate turn-off) the layout of the tower is randomly generated, with very little variety in the types of rooms and corridors you’re walking through. In what is otherwise a very good-looking game, it’s disappointing that the sections you spend so much time exploring are really very repetitive and unattractively designed.

That said, it’s sufficiently redeemed by the fact you’re never allowed to switch onto autopilot. Almost every battle requires at least a little thought about which attacks you use, and the game demands that you’re willing and able to adjust your set up on the fly. Most fights work out so that if you get it right, and you can wipe out your enemies while scarcely taking a hit, but if you get it a bit wrong, the situation can turn precarious very quickly. It’s the proverbial glass cannon approach, and it’s very effective at keeping the player on their toes and preventing complacency.

What’s less successful is the decision to only give the player direct control over the lead character. Your team-mates can be given vague tactical instructions each turn, but you can’t specify exactly what action they take. In principle it’s an idea that could work, but it relies on having AI companions who are capable of consistently making smart –or at least rational- decisions. Unfortunately here your party members act foolishly a little too frequently, and when that happens in the crucial phase of a boss battle it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been stitched up.

Yet despite these occasional moments of frustration, Persona 3 still stands head and shoulders above other Japanese RPGs. There’s an element of genuine craft involved when fashioning a character that works for you, both through choosing which relationships your pursue, and in the constant evolution of your abilities. You often have to sacrifice powers you’d previously relied on to create the new and more powerful “Persona” that grant you your power, and this keeps the game feeling fresh and interesting from beginning to end. Or at least, I never felt like an idle spectator at a 100-hundred hour long CGI fireworks display, in the way some games might have made me feel in the past.

That’s the irony here. A game that’s based around the rigid timetable of school life, uses a very limited range of locations, and involves returning to the same dungeon again and again is in fact more inventive and varied than hundreds of others that try to create vast worlds for you to explore. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the things Persona 3 has to offer – in particular the 30 hours of epilogue content that comes with FES Edition – but I don’t think I need to. It’s a game best explored for yourself, full of opportunities to develop your own tactics, and packed full of wonderful little surprises. I’m trying to think on an RPG on the PS2 that I’ve enjoyed more, and am coming up empty. Really. Go get it.

Persona 3 FES – £14.95 delivered

4 Comments Leave yours

  1. raia #

    Been playing the sequel… Surprised to find I’m kind of enjoying it. The pacing is very slow, a lot of the characters are archtypes, and some of the writing is just bad, but it’s different, it’s actually kind of fun and interesting.

  2. Parah Salin' #

    Is this also the version that is coming out for the PSP soon, or is that “vanilla” Persona 3? I hope it’s FES, because I prefer playing games on the go, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on the FES additions…

  3. Tom #

    So does FES include the full game? Amazon gave me the impression that it was just an expansion that didn’t need or included the original game? Also has anyone played both Persona 3 and 4? 4 was the first game in the series I played and I really liked it so if 3 is like that then I’ll probably pick it up.

    • This FES edition includes everything that was in the orginal Persona 3, plus extra characters and plot-lines, as well as an entirely new extra chapter. I’ve not got around to playing the sequel yet, although from what I’ve heard the story isn’t quite as good as here.

      As for the forthcoming PSP release? From what I’ve heard it will include everything in the PS2 FES Edition, PLUS even more new content (including the option for the lead character to be female- which I guess would be pretty game-changing).

Leave a Reply