I've got to confess - even with Grand Theft Auto IV sitting pretty on my Xbox 360's disc tray, yours truly wasn't able to keep his hands off Persona 3. Now that Persona 3: FES is available for public consumption, I figured I'd be a good Atlus Faithful and finish P3 before immediately taking on the sequel. What you're reading, my compatriots, is my humble review of Atlus' apocalyptic opus released back in 2007. Do spare me some points in punctuality, because I just want RPG fans out there to take a shot at the overlooked title that took me near 120 hours to finish. Without being a perfectionist, mind you.
In the light men're crossing over lone shadows
Wearing veiled slight hopes for intimacy
Talking how they've become the blue saints
Above cold ground wondering if light flows down
The game kicks off when you, the typical emo kid with hair covering his face and hands in his pocket, enter a mysterious dormitory right after passing by an equally enigmatic city. If you're a fan of dark JRPGs, you'd want to see the rest for yourself. Suffice to say, the life of the character you get to name will instantly enter the unexplained territory as he joins the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad aka SEES. Not like he was easy to read in the first place.
During the day, players are required to go to school where they can forge relationships, become smarter, earn pogi points, and trick friends into wrong answers when asked by the teacher. After school it's time to hit the movies, pray in the shrine (to get smarter, again), test your courage by eating intimidating ramen, or drink pheromone coffee. You only get to indulge in one activity per afternoon, but you have almost an entire year to get acquainted with every nook and cranny of the city.
At night, the real fun starts. Your hero and his dorm mates are actually Persona users - folks who shoot themselves in the head with the "evoker" to summon their inner selves. When the clock hits 12, the Dark Hour takes place and a tower called Tartarus emerges. Unlucky souls join "the Lost" during that period, which consequently put them in a coma-like state dubbed the Apathy Syndrome. As you would've guessed, it's your crew's duty to uncover the secrets behind this phenomenon.
It's in Tartarus where you battle demons, train your inner beings, and create new ones. Come to think of it, it's amazing how I was able to conjure a stable of over a hundred personae by starting with one then fusing it with only a handful I caught in battle during the first few hours. Anyway, P3's combat is true to the turn-based MegaTen core. There are different attack types and elemental attributes to exploit, and when you're able to knock all opposing critters down by picking on their weaknesses, it's possible to execute a powerful all-out attack.
If there's one thing that can hinder the dungeon-crawling fun, it's the repetitive nature of Tartarus. The tower stands over 250 floors tall where you'd be spending time getting across one randomly generated area after another. However, Atlus didn't just slack off and make the game a borefest. Characters get tired after several battles depending on their levels, and the downtime is nothing short of entertaining. After all, when you're outside Tartarus, you'll be interacting with everyone in town.
One major element in Persona 3 is the Social Link System, which players utilize to gain better results during fusion. As you go with your everyday life, different NPCs with unique personalities can become friends. Each of them represent an arcana, meaning working on a Social Link boosts your ability to create the corresponding set of personae. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne offered humor off conversations with demons, while P3 does the same using schoolmates and other acquaintances. To give you a fairly good idea, the game is complete with the MMO junky and runaway girl available for some friendly chatting.
It may seem you have a lot of options, but I must note that the plot's unveiling is fairly linear. Moon phases from MegaTen games are intact, and major events periodically happen when the moon is full. Before the calendar hits that sweet spot, you have the time to talk to everyone in the city, learn more about the Apathy Syndrome, and occasionally train in Tartarus. Each month can be considered an episode or a chapter, since summer isn't exactly the same as Christmas. The story revolves around the coma-inducing plague, but you still join field trips, take exams, and go on dates. Personally, I don't think it ever grows old.
Still not intrigued? Let's just say Persona 3 is an entire package loaded with addictive grinding, amusing social interactions, robust fusing system, fast-paced combat, challenging bosses - you know, usual MegaTen stuff. For me, it doesn't rank up to SMT: Nocturne due to archetypal characters and less cutthroat progression (a positive for the not-so-hardcore), but 120 hours of playtime say it's pretty darn close.