Although it has only lately garnered attention in North America, Atlus's Megami Tensei series has been a fixture in the RPG landscape of Japan since the Nintendo Famicom days. Usually set in modern Japan and starring high school students with the ability to summon devils, the venerable and prolific series distinguished itself early on from its D&D-inspired genre peers with its realistic settings and occult themes. For its longevity and originality, it is widely regarded as the number three RPG in Japan, behind Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.
Persona, the first Megami Tensei title to arrive in North America, was an offshoot about teenagers crossing over into a parallel dimension to combat demons that were quietly intruding on and corrupting the city. Instead of summoning devils to help them fight, the characters called upon their individual "Personas," phantasmal manifestations of their own psyches (very much like the "Stands" from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure). Persona spawned its own sub-series of games, most of which have actually made their way across the Pacific. Its breakout hit--indeed, the breakthrough title for the entire Megami Tensei meta-series outside Japan--arrived in 2007 (2006 in Japan) in the form of Persona 3 for the PlayStation 2. A "director's cut" released the following year, Persona 3 FES has been my introduction to both Persona and Megami Tensei, and I'm definitely interested in seeing more.
While not directly connected to any previous entries in the series, Persona 3's story follows the same basic premise as the first game--a shadowy otherworld is encroaching on an unsuspecting Japanese city, and it is up to a select group of high school students to stave off oblivion by evoking the power of Persona. The modern setting offers something refreshingly different from the typical Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Tales game, while the occult elements further add a dark edge rarely encountered in the more mainstream JRPGs. A shocking moment during the opening scenes, when a character fearfully points a gun at her own head, sets the tone right away as something altogether distinct from swords-and-sorcery romanticism. As it turns out, shooting themselves in the head with gun-like "Evokers" is how the characters release their Personas, and that's not the extent of the perverse imagery peculiar to this series.
Where Persona 3 most differs from other JRPGs, including its Megami Tensei predecessors, is in how it is structured. In a typical JRPG, including even most of the best games, the experience essentially consists of a progression along a linear path and a repeating formula, from town to dungeon to boss battle to dramatic non-interactive story sequence. Players get caught up in many fights along the way and perhaps roam about a world map. In the better examples of this JRPG formula, the combat should be interesting enough that we can bear the repetitiveness, but really it is the last step, the story sequences, that alone makes it all worth it. Looking at all the JRPGs I've played, I can think of few where the rest of the experience was anything more than busywork. I find it hard to argue in favor of the formula, yet Japanese developers have mostly stuck with it for the last two decades. I think that the best Final Fantasy games and clones have been excellent in spite of their design, but I can understand perfectly the apathy of many Western gamers toward the genre these days. Persona 3 deserves far better than the sighs and eye-rolling that the term "JRPG" might elicit, however, because it is a Japanese RPG that bucks the trend.
Surprisingly, Persona 3 sets itself apart and revitalizes a genre by, of all things, borrowing elements of the Japanese dating sim, a genre that I've been unfairly dismissive of in the past. I still have no particular interest in delving deeper into that world, but I realize now that my misgivings were due, not so much to the concept, but to my perceptions of the typical motivations and marketing. Implemented into an RPG such as Persona 3, the mechanics show their potential as a means to convey story through non-violent interaction. Instead of just slaying monsters to earn those cut scenes, you spend a lot of time getting to know people, buying them presents, listening to their problems, and offering them advice and encouragement. Not only do the social elements give you a rare sense of a fleshed-out world beyond the central battle, but they make it easier to identify with the mute protagonist, since he is reflected in the company you choose to keep. Cleverly integrating the sim components with the combat, your relationships even appropriately enhance your Persona powers. True, the links you form, not only with romantic interests, but also with friends and other more complex relations, develop in fairly linear fashion, through scripted sequences and extremely limited dialogue choices. But the stories are thoroughly engaging, and choice still comes into play when you realize that you more than likely won't have enough time to pursue all of these relationships within a single playthrough (and of course, you may specifically choose NOT to be friends with some characters).
You see, the most brilliant innovation of Persona 3 is its calendar-based structure. Major events (i.e. boss battles) occur on scheduled dates once a month, but the game progresses one day at a time. There may occasionally be scripted events between the monthly missions, but on most days, you simply attend class in the morning and are then free to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening however you choose. You can work on your relationships, enter the game's one dungeon to train your characters, or take on some of the many optional side quests for rewards. You can even study to raise your "Academics" stat, which improves your performance in class and also boosts your chances at forming relationships with certain characters. You can only accomplish so much in a day, however, and time continually marches forward with little regard for how or how well you spend it. Persona 3 effectively eschews the typical JRPG formula, and standard combat and level-building only made up about half my experience. Yet this structure is about more than just the freedom to explore, which a Western RPG such as Fallout 3 might very well pull off better.
Transpiring over the course of a Japanese school year, it realizes the unfulfilled promise of Final Fantasy VIII, as a video game simulation of adolescent life. The mission gives the characters a reason for banding together, but you could almost do without the supernatural angle otherwise. For me, it was not the dramatic events but the day-to-day that kept me going. As the only ones aware of and able to combat the shadows, the protagonists carry a heavy burden. But like it or not, the enemy only reveals itself once a month on schedule, and as the characters wait, that is when life happens. Indeed the stretches of inaction may be the most stressful part for these teenagers, who still have to worry about school and relationships, their futures, with all the uncertainty that adolescents do. And even the dramatic moments must be met with a level of muted sobriety; when loved ones die, they do not get to skip the grieving or bury it beneath rage. Only time can heal those wounds, and this is one game that has the courage to put its characters through that.
Whereas so many blockbuster games today pattern themselves after movies, Persona 3 is a video game that feels like an accomplished novel, and closer to Jane Austen than J.R.R. Tolkien. That is not to say that it imitates the form of a novel, but its story enjoys a scope that rarely translates to film, and the experience has a weight to it that you carry with you even after the ending that leaves one emotionally exhausted. It's hard to put into words, but this is a game that you live with for 70+ hours (for real, it took me over 100!). At some point, it becomes a part of you.
I was no big fan of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, about a man who loved life so much that he simply refused to die, but I could well understand the melancholy conviction that the fullness of life cannot be contained within a single human lifetime. I think it accurate to say that I read novels and watch television precisely because, through the experiences of fictional characters, I am able to live vicariously beyond the confines of my own transient existence. I will never be a detective, or a surgeon, a sailor, a cowboy, or a wizard, but these stories allow me to share in the lives of those who are. Thus, while I may have only one life, I am able to experience thousands of stories over the course of it. And like a Jane Austen novel or a Harry Potter, the experience of Persona 3 is all the more affecting because of its realistic attention to the passage of time, inviting us to share, not only in the big events that we sometimes mistake life for, but also in everything in between. After all, without the quiet and mundane moments to provide context, just a laundry list of achievements of even the largest life can become utterly abstract and meaningless. Atlus's game is one of the rare works to grasp that, and however accelerated the experience may have been, at the end of it I felt like I had a spent a year with those characters.
That said, I won't say the system is perfect. Although the dating sim stories always arrive at fulfilling conclusions, they do not impact the main quest in any way. No matter how close you get to a female party member, it will never affect their attitude toward you in the main storyline. The opposite is also true and even more disconcerting--your love interests at school will never remark on the mysterious happenings around the city, giving the impression, when things get dire, that they are unusually dimwitted. Worst of all, in most cases, after you "max out" a relationship with a classmate, they will still hang around at school, but there will be nothing for you to do with them, leaving you potentially months of just awkwardly passing them in the halls. Ironically, the moment the link graduates to a lifelong bond is the same moment that any meaningful interaction ceases. In fact, these characters thereafter become even less interesting than regular NPCs, since they will only repeat their maximum-I-love-you lines for the rest of the game.
You'll note that I have yet to get into the combat, except perhaps to imply that the game excels other JRPGs precisely because there is so much more to it besides fighting. That's because it's kind of a drag. It's not particularly worse compared to any other JRPG, but it is very old-school and repetitive. Very typical turn-based stuff, it is the only major disappointment in this game that is so innovative in other areas.
As noted, there is really only one dungeon in the game--a tower of 200+ randomly generated floors, with a non-story boss battle every few floors. The tower is divided into several blocks, and every month the next block will open up, usually not long after that month's scheduled event. It's also not at all connected to most of the story events and battles, so going there is technically kind of (but not really) optional. Frankly, because exploring it felt so pointless, I kind of slacked on it early on. That was the beauty of the open schedule, after all--that I was at leisure to go there only as often and for as long as I felt like it, which I quickly realized was never. As it turns out, the danger of such freedom is that it's hard to tell whether or not your characters' levels are where you will need them to be, until the next scheduled operation commences and you find out the hard way that your characters are woefully unprepared. The tower is essentially the training ground for getting your characters in shape, and if you can take out the highest boss in the current block, then you should be good to go for the next event battle. After I grew more familiar with the game, I started to just reserve two nights out of every game month for scaling the tower. Those would be some long nights, but I think it was still less dungeon-crawling than most JRPGs, and it freed up my schedule for unbroken hours of doing the things I enjoyed.
Combat plays out like a more severe form of Pokemon. Every normal attack and offensive ability falls under an element type, and almost every Persona and enemy is strong to some elements and weak to others. If you target an enemy's weakness, not only will the attack do more damage, not only will it stun the enemy, but you will get a free turn to move again. You could use that turn to stun the next enemy, which then grants you another turn. Repeat the process and you could potentially end up stunning the entire enemy party in a single round. Of course, the same rules can work against your characters, although enemies rarely have the depth of offensive abilities or presence of mind to stun multiple members of your party. But they really only have to stun your character, thereby robbing you of your turn for the round. Thus were there some brutal moments where I just happened to get caught wielding the wrong Persona against the wrong enemy, leading to agonizing minutes of complete non-interactivity, as I could only watch my inept teammates making all the wrong moves while the enemy chain-stunned my protagonist to death.
You see, the game allows you direct control only over the nameless protagonist, while your allies operate under loose directives (e.g. "full assault," "focus on healing," etc.). This reminds me a bit of the arcade NBA Jam, where, unlike in most sports games, you only controlled one player, even if your teammate had the ball. To an extent, it gave you the authentic sense of playing as a member of a team, instead of as the godlike puppet master of all units on a game board. In Persona 3, however, I would like to believe that the characters are not the idiots that they present themselves as when controlled by the AI in battle. Too often would I have to watch Mitsuru waste away her magic on pointless moves instead of just finishing off the enemy, or Yukari healing a single character instead of the party, or everybody failing to remove status effects unless specifically set to focus on healing, which I can't set them to now, because my character is the one berserked, leaving me no control over him or anyone else. And this is a game where a character at full health is maybe three hits away from death, so a berserk, confuse, or charm spell against the protagonist can completely turn even what should have been a routine victory against you. In fact, it happened to me two hours into the final boss fight. Oh, don't be too intimidated by the "two hours" thing--no other battle in the game is nearly that long. Plus, I was actually only a few strikes away from victory when everything went to hell, which, yes, only made it that much more frustrating. No, the game is not all that hard. In fact, it's my understanding that Persona 3 was partially conceived as a mainstream take on the notoriously hardcore Megami Tensei series. There is even an option to select an "easy" mode (which I should have chosen) before starting a new game. But I wouldn't call it a game for casual RPG players.
Having said that, I would still heartily recommend that any true gaming enthusiast give Persona 3 a try. It doesn't escape the grind, but it offers much more than fighting and effectively allows you to rearrange the formula as you see fit. More than any other game, I think it offers a glimpse into the future of RPGs, or even just non-violent narrative-based gaming, but it also happens to be a great story with great characters for right now. What began as a game seemingly full of too many empty periods for inconsequential side quests slowly became a schedule with not enough time to do all the things I had planned. As the days continued to tick by, I grew ever more sorrowful that there had to be an end, that I could not have just one more uneventful day spent sipping coffee or singing karaoke. Unless you absolutely cannot abide turn-based JRPG combat, this is as essential an experience as any other game released within the last four years. I hesitate to call it the greatest RPG of the same period only because I have yet to play Persona 4.