The First and Last Five Hours of Persona 3
TomChick - News - 08/01/07 - Link

Well, Iím far enough into Persona 3 to realize that Iím not interested in playing it. And it only took about five hours. There isnít necessarily anything wrong with it. Itís probably a really cool addition to the Shin Megami Tensei series. Instead, my objection is more with the genre. My diet over the last few months has consisted of free-form-to-a-fault gaming like Lord of the Rings Online and Civilization IV. So Iíve been getting restless sitting through all of Persona 3ís loading screens, spiriting me from one scripted sequence to the next. Thereís far too much of that, and not enough dungeon crawling. And the dungeon crawling I have seen isnít enough to make me want to stick around.

Persona 3ís schoolboy-by-day/vanquisher-of-evil-by-night has a promising Buffy the Vampire Slayer irony to it, but it dissolves too quickly into the typical teens-saving-the-world anime convention. The school life feels like busywork with rewards based on choices you make that might as well be random.

For instance, I joined the swim team instead of the kendo club or track team. So that means I can make friends with the captain of the swim team if I keep up with going to swim practice. Once Iíve done this enough, ditching student council and the poor loser geek who wants to hang out, the swim team captain asks if I want to hang out on Sunday.

So we do. All of this takes about five or six loading screens too many, by the way. And when we get to the actual hanging out, it consists of him telling me he likes to wear his workout clothes all the time. At which point I get to choose from a menu of three responses: 1) Thatís crazy. 2) Whatever. Or 3) Arenít you hot in that?

I have no idea which Iím supposed to choose. None of those is a strong choice, or even a particularly informative choice. They donít indicate any sort of character or personality. Bioware, for instance, would split the answers between the obvious good, neutral, and puppy-kicking replies. But in Persona 3, I canít see the pattern. Itís either deliberately vague or something has been lost in translation. This is almost always the case when I get to make a choice. I canít see how any given choice differs from any other.

So I pick ďThatís crazyĒ. Iím told it improves our friendship. And thatís my Sunday, accomplished over the course of several loading screens and a single bit of interaction. So now I have an xp bonus when I fuse ďChariotĒ style personas together. I have no idea what ďChariotĒ style personas do, since I havenít found any. I figure Iíll eventually get one either by dungeon crawling or randomly fusing other personas. The end result would be some new special attack, which I can match against some creatureís vulnerability.

Which brings me to the combat system. Itís entirely typical of a JRPG. I match attack types against vulnerability types to do extra damage. How long I last in a dungeon is mainly a function of how quickly characters get tired (i.e. a contrived time limit that will drag out the dungeon crawling over the course of the game), and partly a function of how many spell points I use on healing and how many healing potions Iíve brought along. Lord, Iíve had my fill of healing potions.

Whatís more, the dungeon crawling has far too few save points or exits. This certainly adds to the tension between quitting as soon as you find an exit or pushing on at the risk of losing all progress since you last saved (i.e. before you even entered the dungeon). But Iíd have preferred some other death penalty than having to replay everything. If thereís one thing Iíve had my fill of more than healing potions, itís a ďGame OverĒ screen that sends me back to my last save.

My reaction to the whole thing went from intrigued, to frustrated, to really not caring enough to actually play. If there were more of Bully or Sims style free-roaming during the school days, I might have stuck with it. But Persona 3 is far too typical a JRPG to hold my interest. Which I grant says more about me than Persona 3.

Oh, and I did learn something about Japan: kids over there not only have to go to school in the summer, but they even have to be there on Saturdays. Ouch.

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