The Shin Megami Tensei series has more splinters than old particle board, but none more important to me than Persona. After all, it was Persona that was the first to bring the series, long blacklisted for its provocative themes, to American shores. It was my first introduction to the MegaTen universe, as it was for many US gamers, and it was unlike any RPG I had seen before.
Arriving just a year before Final Fantasy VII made RPGs fashionable, Persona showed there was more to the genre than trite fantasy and sci-fi clichés. Just the concept of a role-playing game set in a modern day metropolis seemed like such a breath of fresh air, but it was the way it stepped out of the narrative kiddy pool with some genuinely provocative themes that really grabbed my attention. In 1996, Persona was a lightning rod. Now, more than a decade later, the series has returned to show that it's not out of ideas yet.
Persona 3 is an affirmation that creativity is alive and well in Japanese RPGs. It takes a lot of risks, never falling back on convention as an excuse for weak design.
It amazes me sometimes how this franchise manages to be consistently provocative, tackling difficult philosophical questions, while rarely veering into pretentiousness. In Persona 3 much of that imagery remains just that: imagery, but it's potent enough to leave a lasting impression. No longer do characters simply call out "Persona" to summon their powers, but rather they place a gun to the heads and pull the trigger. It's a controversial image that will not soon be forgotten.
I'm almost hesitant to call Persona 3 a sequel. Not only does it have its own continuity, with a story unconnected to the previous games, but the gameplay has been altered to the point of being unrecognizable. Those concerned that their lack of experience with the series will hamper their enjoyment of its latest installment should breathe easy; this is a whole new beginning.
It's startling just how different it is, really. The new system is broken into two main pats, for day and night. During the day you'll go to class, make friends, build relationships, even do your homework. Rockstar's Bully might spring to mind, but this is a more turn-based affair. The day progresses only by triggering events, and carefully choosing what to spend your precious time on.
But at night you lead a life less ordinary. The mute and unnamed protagonist of this tale is one of a select few people that experience a 25th hour of the day unknown to most. During this time more ordinary folks wait frozen in time, and creatures called "shadows" make them their prey. It's also during this time that Tatarus, a giant grotesque tower hundreds of stories tall, forms at the site of your school.
Indeed this tower is the only proper "dungeon" in the entire game. Quite a bold design decision. On most nights – assuming you're healthy and your companions are available – you'll be able to explore the giant tower. Its floors are simple, randomly generated corridors full of monsters and loot. Each month you'll have a goal to reach within the tower, and a barrier preventing you from progressing too far, too soon. After the early stages of the game, you should be able to complete your Tartarus duties in just a few nights per game-month.
This dungeon crawling is, mercifully, a lot more fun than it has been in past MegaTen games. The random level layouts are no more or less interesting than the straightforward corridors the series is known for, but there are no more random encounters to torture you as you progress. You'll be able to see all enemies before you encounter them, and this makes all the difference in the world.