On October 26, 2000, the Sony PlayStation 2 was launched, delivering not only one of the single best software libraries to the world, but also cementing a slew of features as commonplace items in every system hence: backwards compatibility, online gaming, multimedia functionality. That none of these was originated by Sony itself is a testament to the console’s legacy.
To commemorate the occasion, TotalPlayStation has gathered some of the best and most influential journalists, from either in-house or outside publications, to discuss one of their most cherished games from the PS2’s long lifecycle.
Ten authors and ten years in ten days. Let the celebration begin.
Author: Andy Curtiss [TotalPlayStation Staff Writer]
Game: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
Release date: August 14, 2007
I love a game that makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger. If the writers have done a good job, then there’s usually that moment (in my kind of game, at least) where you survey your troops… or your kingdom… or your allies… and realize the grand scope of what you’ve accomplished. I love that feeling, and this is probably why I’m such a fan of RPGs; there’s just something about that chance to fit into the role of someone else who can become more epic then I could ever aspire to be. And the RPG that made a bigger impact on me than any other is Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3.
When it was released in 2007, Persona 3 was a surprise for many reasons. While the series was successful in Japan, the first two games didn’t do quite so well here in the USA, making the release of the third installment Stateside a surprise in and of itself. An even bigger surprise was when the game turned out to be good – and not just “good,” but “holy shit – this is amazing!” Developer Atlus had given the series a total makeover, and it worked superbly: the art was amazing, with bright, believable, and animated sprites that were accompanied by detailed character portraits. The soundtrack was simply amazing. No boring instrumental music that faded into the background here; instead, each song was well-placed and evocative, and the vocals were expertly mixed in. (It was so good that I, who never splurge for special editions, made it a point to buy a copy of the game that came bundled with the soundtrack.)
But there is one element that shines through more brightly than all the others: the games’ ongoing concept of what a “Persona” is. All of the main characters in the (sub) series have the ability to summon a Persona, which appears to be a ghost or spirit of some kind – an ethereal being that possesses great power. It is explained several times throughout the games that these Personas are other aspects of the characters, channeled from deep within themselves. They are the different masks we as individuals wear, reflecting the different roles we play in day-to-day life. And we’re not just talking random spirits here; for some characters, their Personas take on the form of actual historical or mythological figures, such as gods and legends from Indian, Greek, Norse, and Japanese lore, among many others.
The Personas are the only tie that binds the series together – in total honesty, there really isn’t anything similar from the first game to the third beyond this one concept – but they aren’t the only component to take center stage in Persona 3: the Dark Hour is introduced here, and it plays a major role in the story. At midnight, when one day ends and the next begins, the Dark Hour cometh, a period of time in between time. Most humans sense absolutely nothing; the clock ticks from 12:00 to 12:01, like it always does. But for a select few, the world becomes dark, everything stops moving, and the shadows come out to hunt. And these aren’t just shadows – they’re personified darkness, manifested absence. They come to feed on the unlucky souls who, for some mysterious reason, do not freeze like every other normal person during the Dark Hour. And while many of these individuals can summon a Persona from the “sea of their soul” to defend themselves, there are those who cannot. They are completely helpless and are targeted by the shadows and, when the Dark Hour ends and the next day begins, they are left comatose and delirious – mere husks of their former selves.
This is where Gekkoukan High School comes in. During the day, it is a normal school, replete with two floors, a gym, music and art rooms, etc. During the Dark Hour, however, the building contorts and grows, metastasizing into a dark, foreboding tower called Tartarus – the place where, it seems, the shadows are coming from. Noticing this, a group of students band together to research the Dark Hour and fight the shadows. They call themselves SEES (the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad), and they plumb the depths of Tartarus each and every night. They soon discover that, for some reason, the shadows become stronger and much more agitated every full moon, including one particularly large and nasty shadow.
The story may be convoluted, but it grabs your attention and really hooks you in. And as if all the night-time theatrics weren’t enough, you still play the part of a high school junior during the day. You attend classes, where you decide to sharpen your skills or sleep through the lesson. When those are over, you decide what to do and where to go next, but you only have so much time. Should you go check out that bookstore in town? The elderly couple who runs it is quite friendly. Or should you go join the kendo team? Perhaps you could go home and play that new, hot MMO, Innocent Sin? Regardless of what you do, each action forges Social Links. You see, each Persona corresponds with a category called Arcana, and each Arcana corresponds with a particular Social Link. If you become better friends with a Social Link, it increases the power of his coupled Arcana. For example, the elderly couple at the bookstore is linked with the Hierophant Arcana; by befriending and visiting them, all of your Hierophant Personas will become stronger. As one of the characters in the game explains, your power lies within your ability to form these friendships.
And let me assure you: if the story hasn’t sufficiently drawn you in up ‘til now, it will once you start developing your Social Links. You don’t simply visit Bunkinchi and Mitsuko, the infamous elderly couple. It may start like that, yes, but you eventually become friends with them, learning that they’ve recently endured the death of their son, who taught at Gekkoukan High. You find yourself with the opportunity to affect these kind people in a benign way, should you continue to spend your days with them. And so this goes with all the Social Links; you form bonds stronger than mere friendship. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that, at the end of the game, you find yourself reaping the benefits of these relationships with several tear-inducing moments.
As the game plays out, you discover (of course) more secrets as to why the Dark Hour exists and where everything is heading. Then you inevitably discover (of course) that you have the unique position to prevent a disaster of apocalyptic proportions. The excitement and pressure are well-built as the game goes on, coming to a fever pitch on New Year’s Eve. By this time, you and your friend have been through the emotional wringer – betrayed, consoled, loved, and hated; Persona 3 really takes you on an epic rollercoaster ride. And at the end, you have that moment where you look back and see what you’ve accomplished – the good things you’ve done, the people you’ve helped. And somehow… even though the ending usually makes most players angry, I feel it’s the only thing that fits.
I love Persona 3 because it’s a game that grips you and pulls you in. You find yourself pushing it. “Just one more day, then I’ll save and quit.” Or, “Just one more floor in Tartarus, then I’m done.” And during the whole last 10 minutes of the game, I found myself short of breath. It was one of those corny moments where I’d been holding my breath and not aware of it – that’s the kind of effect that Persona 3 has on you.
If you just want to go beat shit up or kill stuff, you can have your Mortal Kombats and your Halos. When you decide you want the whole immersive experience, come try Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3.