he main character of Persona 3 is, in many ways, just a regular high school student. He goes to class, hangs out at the mall after school, and does stuff with friends on the weekends. Oh, he also spends his nights hunting otherworldly abominations in the hidden hour between 12:00 and 12:01 – the Dark Hour. You know, he’s just your average kid.
Even with its overt fantasy elements, the Persona series has always distinguished itself by maintaining ties to a modern reality, and Persona 3 pulls this off better than ever before. The non-combat play is divided into discrete periods that revolve around a regimented school schedule, making players carefully choose how they spend their time. This simulation element is surprisingly deep; if you go to swim team practice, you’ll gain different bonuses than if you had gone to the café with a friend. How you build your attributes like academics and courage, as well as the people you spend time with, affects the kinds of Personas (creatures born from characters’ psyches) you can create.
Once the school day is over, the Personas take center stage. Late at night players can fight the evil of the Dark Hour by calling upon these creatures in battle. This happens in a tower called Tartarus, which serves as the game’s primary dungeon. It gets a little old exploring the same location repeatedly, but since the floor layouts change and enemies get stronger as you go higher, it isn’t too bad. It helps that the combat is so much fun, making use of team commands (you only control the main character directly) and stressing the importance of enemy weak points.
With its focus divided between school and Tartarus, Persona strikes an intriguing balance between the feelings of “I’m a student” and “I’ve got important world-saving to do.” It actually reminds me of Harry Potter in some ways, except instead of yelling “stupefy” the students put Persona-summoning handguns (called Evokers) to their heads and pull the triggers. Basically, every time you use your Persona, it looks like suicide.
This kind of pervasive disturbing imagery could be too much for some, but fits perfectly with the Persona 3’s dark tone. I should note that the game seems to assume you have some familiarity with the conventions of the Shin Megami Tensei series; if you don’t know anything about fusing Personas, or simply that “bufu” means “ice attack,” you have some catching up to do. It’s worth it, though. Persona 3 holds its themes together with solid gameplay and cool characters, and thoroughly rewards you for the time you invest.