Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 – “Time and Time again”
Atlus’ acclaimed “Megami Tensei” (Rebirth of the Goddess) series remains, in the vast panorama of JRPG’s, as an aesthetic UFO. There’s as much personality and uniqueness in the series as there is a sense of despise face the genre’s conventions, as if its creators deliberately take pleasure in renouncing everything that lies at the very core of the genre. Individuality is usually a praiseworthy feat, especially in a genre so convoluted with clones and sequels, but the “Megami Tensei” series’ unique identity isn’t always a synonym of an intellectually superior work – most of the times it seems as hollow as the mainstream JRPG currents it so longs to distance itself from. The “Persona” sub-series have been the most accessible out of the vast library of the franchise. In a sense, they are Atlus’ attempt at a wider, more mainstream audience, in opposition to the traditional hardcore niche market the series usually pursues; this fact is made apparent in all of its features, starting with its scenario. Whereas in “Nocturne” and “Digital Devil Saga” the settings were of a post-apocalyptic nature, riddled with hard to interpret, abstract, mystic and arcane symbolism as well as philosophic themes, “Persona 3” (like its prequels) chooses a normal day Japanese high school. This change in setting eases the transition from our everyday world to the dark land of the series. Of course, it isn’t a mere high school; it’s a school that lies at the center of a long battle between humans and demons (here named Shadows). The creepy atmosphere and dark mysticism that pervades the series creeps up gently as the game unfolds, and a twisted horror themed background is revealed.
You play a student in high school, not just any student of course, one that, for some reason, is aware of the strange shadow-demons that emerge every day after midnight. During this “dark hour”, normal humans are imprisoned in eerie coffins, unaware of what’s happening, and the shadows attack. People who’re aware of the “Dark Hour” (like the main character) are able to summon personas, shadows that fight at their masters beckoning. What follows is pure JRPG canon: he meets a troupe of high school teens who share the Persona ability, and together they vow to fight the shadows, while at the same time try and discover their origins. The twist is that during the day, you must attend classes and after school activities just like any other student. The game thus splits into two different styles: during the day, mimicking Japanese adventure games (with a dating sim twist), you attend lectures, meet friends, engage in a wide selection of activities with them, and prepare for battle; during the night, in classic JRPG style, you’ll plow and plunder through a series of random generated dungeons, grinding levels, carrying out quests and occasionally acquiring information about the dark secrets that the plot holds. Besides that, in “Megami Tensei” style, you’ll have to manage your personas, by leveling them, acquiring new ones through fights, and fusing the ones you catch in hope of attaining further new forms – all very Pokemon, except with monsters and mythic creatures in the place of lovable animals. The connection between the two worlds of day and night, lies in the game’s social system. During daytime you’re encouraged to be with your friends and acquaintances and as you pass further time with them, you increase your “Social Link”. Each link is governed by a tarot card, and each type of persona as well; by increasing each “Social Link”, you empower the level of the personas you create (through fusion) that share the correspondent tarot card category. This connection ctreates an ingenious way of relating both play styles, fitting perfectly with the narrative and aptly serving the game’s setting.
Do not be frightened by the apparent emptiness of the game’s concept – “Persona” is no “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for JRPG teens. It provides a lighter toned, less enigmatic and less pretentious narrative than most “Megami Tensei” titles, but it constantly avoids the high school cheesiness of TV teen shows. The daytime narrative is composed out of simple, short episodes that narrate the slow development of your relationships, as you’re invited to listen to your friend’s desires, hopes and ambitions, but also their fears and problems. Each of these characters is carefully characterized, providing individual traits that make them either endearing or repulsive and, most importantly, each symbolizing a particular philosophical lesson, and as common in Japanese art, some sort of life morale for you to uncover. The overall plot, which lies in the uncovering of the Shadows’ nature, also carries the same principle: at skin deep level it behaves as a mere horror-driven tale with high school kids, but at its deepest, provides a powerful subtext concerning Life and Time.
Time is, in fact, the main theme of the game, and that impregnates all of the gameplay. Managing your relationships, attending to school and studying for exams, confronting monsters during the night to gain levels – all of these take time, which is severely limited. Choosing on how to address these activities is a big part of the “Persona” experience: managing your busy schedule, making sure you devote enough time to your friends, study and character leveling. Sadly, “Time” is also the greatest downfall of “Persona 3”. As in the other titles of the franchise, the game takes combat elements really seriously, in a very orthodox kind of way; meaning, you’re required to grind constantly to match the levels required for each main-quest mission. Grinding is one of the great afflictions of RPG’s, as their inherently repetitive nature (a consequence from turn based battle systems) makes itself too notorious during experience acquisition downtime. Thankfully, the designers offer a lot of incentives for the grindfests, including story sequences every two or three hours for the narrative driven player. Even so, the game moves sluggishly, and the fact that the it seems absurdly long by today’s standards (70+ hours) doesn’t help one bit.
At least, battling in “Persona” is as enjoyable, tactical and challenging as you’ve come to expect from the series, even if it stubbornly clings to a traditional turn based system (don’t mind me, I love turn based battle, but we can all agree it’s getting old… fast). As in “Nocturne”, attacking with the right element is the key to success, as it determines the harnessing of “extra turns” for your party… of course, the reverse is also possible. That means you can destroy your enemy in little more than one turn, just by attacking with the element it’s weak to, harnessing extra turns and repeating the cycle over and over again, without giving the opposing side any chance for a response. Naturally, this comes at the cost of the enemy being able to do the same, wiping out your party in one stroke without a chance for you to fight back. The unrelenting difficulty is worsened by the lack of save points (especially during the main-quest) and the absence of a continue option. Though this strikes me as backwards thinking, I must admit that the hardcore philosophy is a living part of the thrill that comes out of the combat system, and for the most part it pays up, by transforming combat in an edgy experience, as you’re forced to consider extra carefully which Personas to use, taking into account their strengths and weaknesses, and planning ahead each battle turn by turn, nervously hoping to avoid the ever looming death sequence.
The virtuosity that the series exudes has always been most apparent in its aesthetic elements. Here as well, the series takes a less obscure path, by fusing the dark aesthetic the series is known for (Kazuma Kaneko) with some flashy pop art elements (Shinegori Soejima). This is not to say the game is any less stylized than previous iterations, as the game continues to be a visually arresting work of art: realistic depictions of modern day japan, with lush lighting schemes and some impressionist details, minimalist menus and hand drawn animations, with strong geometric patterns composed out of vibrant colors [see image above], and a cast of characters brimming with personality help make up the visuals. There’s also space for some devious aesthetic details in demon and scenario design, of which “Tartarus”, an Escher meets H.R. Giger demon tower is an extraordinary example.
The soundtrack (Shoji Meguro) also deviates from series canon, leaving the snazzy prog-rock ensemble of previous games for a modern J-pop feel, with a wide arrange of tracks covering all the latest trends. From urban themed hip-hop, featuring low-toned voices and repetitive drum beats (courtesy of MC Lotus Juice), to other trendy elements, as jazz saxophones, synthesizer beats and funk guitars, that provide appropriate melodic background, every contemporary pop avenue is represented. In the forefront, the sweet, flirty voice of Yumi Kawamura sings the simple, yet catchy, harmonic patterns that could drive any radio hit, with sugar candied lyrics completing this delicious pop miscellany. In the midst of this pop fusion madness, there’s also space for a more traditional track, a wonderful piano ballad with operatic nuances, accompanied by the eerie and melancholic voice of Tomoko Komiya. As pleasing as the soundtrack is, it falls on the repetitive side – we must remember that repetition is, in fact, one of the key basics of any good pop melody, and as charming as they may sound in a car-radio once in a while, they tend to wear out pretty rapidly when you’re forced to listen to each song time and time again. Other aesthetic annoyances come from the constant rehashing of monster design and sound effects from previous “Shin Megami Tensei” games that severely break up the aesthetic consistency of the work.
“Persona 3” is a successful rpg/adventure hybrid that tries and open up a niche series to a whole new audience. The lighter toned aesthetic and narrative are sure to help ease in the entrance to mainstream players, but the heavy focus on combat and grinding still keep the narrative oriented JRPG players (such as myself) at bay. It’s a beautiful, charming RPG, unique in its means, but it still somehow manages to fail in both its ambitions, for it’s neither as deep or virtuous as its predecessors, nor as enjoyable as modern JRPG’s, since it’s too long and time-consuming for the age of frantic time management. But Time is it’s main theme, so maybe it’s part of the irony of the game that you, as the player, must also manage your time in real life in order to properly enjoy this game. If only one could stop time…