Much as I’d like to, I can’t spend all my time playing GTA IV (16 hours over the long weekend was quite enough), and with the rest of the development world going into hiding until everyone gets bored, I’ve had to turn over a few rocks for something else to play.
So I came to this: the expanded edition of last year’s well-received Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. This is where I put a rant about how it’ll never come out here, but I only just found out that the original game did, in fact, come out in the UK. Still, that doesn’t improve our chances of getting a remix of a game that probably didn’t make it out of four figures in sales. Import is the only way to go if you want FES (pronounced ‘fess’, as it’s short for ‘festival’).
Right, here comes the synopsis. I’ve played some weird games in my time, but this one takes the biscuit. The premise is that there’s a 25th hour to every day called the Dark Hour. Most people are completely unaware of it, as they transmogrify into coffins (seriously) for the duration and return to normal at 12:01 as if nothing has happened. But a select few are able to retain their form and must spend their nights fighting ‘shadows’, demons that emerge from a mysterious labyrinth called Tartarus, which only appears during the Dark Hour. Someone dies or inexplicably becomes catatonic during the night? That’s the shadows getting up to no good with them.
Naturally, your protagonist and some of his school friends are among those with the ability to roam the Dark Hour. They also have the handy ability to control personas – personal demons called forth from their psyche by shooting themselves in the head. Yes, really. Strengthen your personality by day by making friends, having relationships and joining clubs, and it makes your personas and their spells stronger for when you roam the randomly generated 200+ floors of Tartarus, grinding and fighting occasional bosses to build yourself up for monthly story events that occur during the full moon.
Really, I shouldn’t like it. I normally wouldn’t touch dating sims, dungeon crawls or (*shudder*) randomly generated RPGs, but I do like this. It’s gleefully Japanese about everything, not trying to transplant itself to an American high school like some Japanese games have done, and even going as far as keeping various honorifics from the original Japanese in the English dub (not too bad, actually, and it’s possible to patch in the Japanese voices). Aside from those monthly events, you’re more or less completely free to spend your time as you wish. Do you explore Tartarus as often as possible, building your combat experience and climbing through the levels? Are you better off studying to raise your academic skills at the expense of going out and cultivating relationships? Do you spend your money shopping for items or on activities like karaoke, which raises your charisma? Or would an early night do you some good? As long as you’re strong enough to topple those monthly bosses, it doesn’t matter.
The characters aren’t literally shooting themselves in the head – they’re using ‘Evokers’ to cause sufficient emotional stress to call forth their persona – but it’s clear that that is what’s being implied, and some of the anime cut-scenes are quite harrowing when they show characters working up the courage to pull the trigger. With its occult themes, implied teen suicide and firearms in schools (again, they’re not literally), I’m surprised that this one didn’t get more flak than it did. No money in going after Atlus when Rockstar is in town, I suppose.
I’ve put in ten hours or so, enough to get a handle on what you’re supposed to be doing and make some progress in all fields. Played on my PS3, upscaled to 1080i, it actually looks really nice – colourful, with inventive characters and art design that plays to the strengths of the PS2 – so anyone frustrated with the lack of really good next-gen RPGs (you have played Lost Odyssey, right?) should give this one a go. With Persona 4 announced as a PS2 release for later this year, there’s still life in Sony’s workhorse.