Do you know about the Dark Hour? The hidden hour that appears after midnight where normal people turn into coffins and shadows feed off the souls of the lost? Where special agents from SEES (the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad) fight the shadows, summoning up personas to help them in battle and save the world. Personas that are summoned by the agents shooting themselves in the head with a gun-like object. You know, that Dark Hour.
In Persona 3 you play as a schoolboy, just transferred to Gekkoukan High School, who is one of only a few people able to see shadows during the Dark Hour. Thus your days soon become divided between building relationships with people at school in the morning and hunting monsters in randomly generated dungeons at night.
While in another game these elements might clash together and annoy, in Persona 3 they’re fundamentally linked. The relationships you build during the day help you fight monsters at night. The better you know people in the game, the stronger and more powerful you become. It’s a system that draws you in to the game and its world, helped by the fact that your relationships are interesting and the script is well written and unashamedly quirky, with characters often coming up with genuinely funny or touching dialogue.
The RPG sections are great too. The fighting system is deep, tactical and rewarding, relying more on the use of weak points and strategy than straight leveling up, so much so that you never really need to grind. The battles are also quick, too. This is due to the fact that you only directly control yourself. You can issue general orders for your comrades, but their individual actions are still down to the excellent AI. The decision to not make analysing the enemy cost a turn is also a master-stroke and means it’s much easier to find an enemies weak point, useful as exploiting a weak point knocks the enemy down and gains you another turn.
Another nicety of Persona is its freedom. While initially the game seems quite restricted, you can only do a few things a day, and you play every day in a year, the game is remarkably fluid in structure. You can forge relations at your own pace, get to know, and indeed date, who ever you want, and you can progress through the Tatarus (the shadow’s nest where you do the majority of the fighting) at your own pace, choosing when and when not to go. It’s a nice system and one that adds another layer of tactics to the game. Do you go and fight, or rest up and fight when you’re in better shape, is the question you constantly have to ask yourself.
It’s not without fault though. There are a few interface failings and towards the end the plot starts to become muddled and overcrowded with characters, but it’s still a unique, beautiful experience, and how many games can you say that about?