Most role-playing games focus on such character-building actions as upgrading equipment, raising fighting skills and maintaining job or class balance in a group. “Persona 3” has all of that, but the unique aspect of role-playing comes from developing strong social links with different people and groups. Through interaction with classmates at school or at the mall, different power bonuses are granted to certain types of Personas, powerful beings that can be summoned during battles. Because of limited time each day, and only one (in-game) year to solve the game, players won’t be able to develop every relationship fully, and will have to choose what they want to focus on and who they spend time with.
With all the socializing, the game is far less about battles than most RPGs. Some RPGs let players guide their characters’ development with either a “nice-guy” response or a “mean-guy” response, but “Persona 3” has more nuanced replies, often without any hint of what response will produce what outcome. Although such social simulators are far more available in Japan, it’s hard to find games in the U.S. that give the same experience.
That’s not to say battles are left out of the equation. At midnight each day is the Dark Hour, a time normal people sleep through even if still awake, while those few who are aware of this extra hour face monstrous Shadow creatures that dwell in this strange realm. As one of the handful of people that can summon Personas, the player’s character (whom players name themselves) can explore the Dark Hour in a twisted version of their school called Tartarus, a tower with progressively stronger enemies on each floor. Although what days to go into battle and how often are largely up to the player, there is the limit of one year to keep things progressing. Battles are turn-based but energetic, and they involve a good amount of strategy.
It should be mentioned that in order to summon a Persona, characters must shoot themselves in the head with an Evoker gun, forcing the being from their psyches. Needless to say, some people may find the image disturbing.
Although it is “Persona 3,” the game works perfectly well as a stand-alone title. The game also comes with a hardbound book of character art and a soundtrack CD for extra value. Since it’s not a mainstream game, it may take some searching to find locally, but it’s well worth the effort.