Persona 3, developed by Atlus is a JRPG. It has a turn-based combat system during the night. During the day you spend your day socialising with other students. It’s a fresh approach compared to other RPGs such as Final Fantasy.
The playable character is a new student at a Japanese High School. Depending on the version you are playing, you can play as male or female. They are placed in a dorm building with only three other students. On the way to the dorm, they experience a weird event called the dark hour. An extra hour after midnight where everyone turns into coffins save a select few. Later on, the other students in the dorm confirm the details and that they too do not turn into coffins.
The main character unlocks the ability to summon their Persona. A spirit warrior that grants them special abilities. Unlike the others, yet, the main character can summon many Personas. The main character becomes the leader of said group.
This is very different to many of the RPGs of that time. Most were either focused on fantasy settings or in the future. None focus on high school students and an alternative world. Relationships play a key part in the story. By improving the relationships, you can create stronger Personas. Granting you stronger stats and more powerful abilities.
The combat system is the traditional turn-based party RPG system. But, it has some quirks. Each enemy has an elemental weakness. If you use an attack, they are weak against they will get knocked down. This grants the character that performed the attack one extra attack. If you manage to knock down all enemies that you are facing you can perform an all-out-attack.
Your party members also have weaknesses, and the enemies can exploit this as well as you. This is where it can get frustrating. If they spam attacks that you are weak to, you can’t attack back. It won’t take them long to kill you off. Another negative aspect of the battle system is that if the enemy kills the main character it’s game over. Even if the rest of the party is fine. But if you manage your Persona’s well you can cover all weaknesses.
While exploring during the dark hour, some monsters can sense your strength. If they deem, you too powerful they will run away from you. This is a great feature since you don’t need to fight every monster you encounter. There are random battles, but they are visible on screen and are represented as shadows. If you avoid them, you miss out on valuable exp.
The level-up system is standard. Party members receive exp for battles they are involved in. When they level up, they increase their stats and may learn abilities. The main character also receives exp that increases their stats. The difference is, the Persona equipped to your main character that is active during the battle, receives exp. They will then have their stats increased and learn new abilities. The main character’s abilities derive from the Persona they have equipped.
Around 50% of your time is spent outside of combat. Some of that time is spent at High School. As with most schools you have exams and questions to answer during the school day. When you have your exams, you cannot spend as much time improving your relationships. You are also limited to being able to go out and fight shadows. This means you need to plan what you want to do daily. Do you go to the local bookstore to improve your relationship with the local bookseller? Or do you stay up and study to improve your academic skill? There is an optimal path to take. But I would recommend on a first playthrough not to bother focusing on being perfect. Just enjoy the story and learn more about the characters.
The relationship system, called social links is quite simple. Each social link corresponds to a particular type of Persona. By improving a relationship with a person or group of people it will improve their social link. The fastest way of doing this is to make sure you have the corresponding type of monster and answer the questions correctly.
It’s beneficial to limit the Personas you have to the social links you have. This is an easy early game, but late game it may be more difficult. Even though it has an impact on the rest of the game, it does feel rather simplistic. There are limited options during conversations. For the most part, you will skip the dialogue if the characters don’t interest you.
The game uses anime-style graphics, which for the hardware available at the time it works well. The game is playable today and has stood the test of time. The characters themselves have avatars that appear during cutscenes that are very interesting. I cannot fault this game’s design choices for the most part. The only fault I have with the game is the escape button is easily pressed during combat. It would have been better if it had a warning appear before your character escaped. I’ve done it a dozen times and is especially frustrating when you find a rare enemy.
The majority of the cutscenes have voice acting. Only the minor characters don’t. The music also matches the tone of the moment. Persona 4 also had a great soundtrack, so it has come to be expected of the series. At the start, it is very upbeat, but during the dark hour, it becomes very creepy almost horror-like. Some of the soundtracks include singing which is very different to other JRPGs. There is one track called The Poem for Everyone’s Soul which was included in the next game, and it sums up the game. It is creepy yet at the same time feels familiar.
I’m still progressing through the story, and I am enjoying it. The battles do become a bit of a slog, but I am looking forward to where the story is going. Will I play it for a second time using the female protagonist? Not soon. This gets a 4/5 but I will revise this when I play as the female protagonist.