From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES Will Eat Your Life (But You Won’t Mind)

Tired of stock fantasy RPGs? Are you bored with stalwart heroes and one-dimensional sidekicks? Had enough of stat building as a substitute for character development? Are you gonna scream if you have to rescue one more #$%ing princess? Well, have I got a fantasy game for you.

Persona 3 FES is the latest representative of the venerable Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) video game franchise, a longtime Japanese staple that’s only recently established a stable colony on Western soil. If you’ve enjoyed Squeenix’s Final Fantasy series… Atlus’ SMTs are absolutely nothing like those games. But you’ll still enjoy them anyway, provided you’re amenable to a little paradigm-shifting. OK, a lot of paradigm-shifting.

In what way? Well, I’ll describe Persona 3 as an example.

In this game, set in modern-day Japan, you play the role of a high schooler newly-arrived in a boring small town, where you’ve just transferred into a swanky private school.

Persona 3 Screenshot 7

As the new kid on the block, you’ve got to explore the town hangouts and make new friends. You’ve also got to settle into a mansion-like dorm that you share with several other teenagers, all of whom appear to have some kind of weird secret. And then you have to repeatedly shoot yourself in the head and summon forth your inner demons to fight soul-sucking monsters bent on the destruction of all humankind.

Which, by the way, you can do absolutely nothing to prevent.

See? Persona 3 is a typical SMT game: surreal, quirky, brain-twisting, and dark, dark, dark. Since the Persona series is actually a spinoff of the SMTs, it’s a little lighter than its parent series; a big change from 2005’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, which started with the end of the world and kind of went downhill from there. (Not that Nocturne wasn’t an excellent game; but it was, well, a bit of a downer.) Still, despite the focus on silly high school shenanigans and small town dysfunction, Persona 3‘s overall mood starts angsty and grows more and more grim as time passes.

Persona 3 Screenshot 8

Which fits, because at its core, Persona 3 is a game about teenagers coming of age. All of the elements I mentioned above — making friends, going to school, shooting yourself in the head — play an important role in the gameplay. The magic system, loosely based on psychodynamic theory, is seamlessly melded with dating-simulation tropes. Our nameless male protagonist has to establish personal ties with other characters — called Social Links — by talking to them, completing activities with them, and just generally getting to know them.

Persona 3 Screenshot 6

As he does this, he achieves self-actualization. His psyche strengthens, and with it his inner demons, or Personae. Without strong Social Links, your character’s Personae remain weak and cannot defeat the Freudian-id enemies, the Shadows.

This is where apparent suicide comes in. Personae are magical weapons. They come in many forms and have great powers, yet are all just reflections of the character’s innermost self. In order to force a Persona out of the mind, one must induce some sort of psychic trauma. So the game’s characters all carry around realistic fake guns called “Evokers”, which they use to simulate shooting themselves in the head. In a challenging battle, your characters may pretend to blow their brains out an average of 10 times apiece. (You get used to it, believe it or not.)

But back to the plot. It’s fair to call the Shadows embodiments of the death impulse; they stalk the town during the surreal “Dark Hour” — an extra hour of the night that only special people can perceive, reminiscent of Scott Westerfeld’s YA Midnighters series. When they find an unprotected human, the Shadows devour their souls, leaving only a babbling, apathetic zombie. The game’s protagonist is one of the special people who can function during the Dark Hour. He and a handful of other teenagers in town also have the ability to summon Personae to fight the Shadows. So the kids hunt the Shadows in hopes of ridding the town of “Apathy Syndrome”, as the Shadows’ victims are diagnosed. Later on they realize the Shadows are only pawns in a greater game, and they must enter Tartarus — the architecturally-impossible dungeon that Shadows come from — in order to unveil the game’s central mystery.

Persona 3 Screenshot 5

But that’s only during one hour of each day. In Persona 3, time outside of battle matters too. Each day is divided into chunks of time: Morning, Lunchtime, After School, etc. In each segment, your character is faced with choices both mundane and bizarre. Pay attention during a boring lecture, or nap at your desk? Hang out with the school jock, or your classmate who’s secretly dating a teacher? Shop for battle gear, or take the dog for a walk? Every choice, no matter how silly, has an impact on the rest of the game. And time management matters. Spend too many nights in a row studying and your status changes to Tired, making it tough to fight your way through Tartarus. Don’t study enough and your character will fail his exams, making him the laughingstock of the school and gumming up his Social Links with smarter students.

Persona 3 Screenshot 4

The game has a few other noteworthy features. For one thing, nearly every character in the game is three-dimensional; there are few unimportant Non-Player Characters (NPCs) here. They all have backgrounds, personality quirks, sometimes serious drama in their personal lives. The NPCs are fairly diverse too — nearly all are Japanese, but some are elderly, some overweight, some poor, etc. For another thing, the game is very firmly set in Japan, and Atlus hasn’t Westernized it at all beyond the translation. This makes it kind of Study Abroad in a box: Western players must get used to school six days a week, honorifics, test questions on Japanese history, and sempai/kohai dynamics. They must also take into account Japanese values regarding gender, class, and sexuality. For example, the town rich girl won’t give you the time of day until you’ve achieved maximum stats on Academics. Your character readily dates female NPCs, some of whom will even have sex with him, but he doesn’t turn up his nose at a pretty male exchange student, who’s either gay or just… French.

And the game is long. No, really; looooong. It covers an entire year in the characters’ lives, which for me equaled more than 200 hours of gameplay. You’re definitely going to get your money’s worth out of this one.

So if you’re looking for fresh, unique fantasy, and you’ve got a few months to kill, and you don’t mind learning a few foreign words… Persona 3 is for you.

So if you’re looking for fresh, unique fantasy, and you’ve got a few months to kill, and you don’t mind learning a few foreign words… Persona 3 is for you.

Persona 3 for PlaystationTitle: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Playstation 2
Rating: M(ature)
Buy It @ f.y.e. or Amazon
Rent It @ GameFly
Note: This review is based on the “FES” version of the game, which includes an additional 30+ hours of storyline and some other extra features.
N. K. Jemisin recently defected from the cold gulags of Bostonistan to the gold-lined streets of New Yorkia. She likes travel, cooking, cats, blogging against racism and sexism, designing new worlds, and long walks through city parks. She dislikes genetically modified food, except in horror stories where the food eats people. Then it’s OK.

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