Default Prime

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The Backlog: Persona

The Backlog Persona feature

The Shin Megami Tensei series puts out games faster than people can play them.  Between the core series and the various spin offs, all of which take about 100 hours to play, I don’t see how anyone can stay up to date on the franchise.  They all have something to do with stylish Japanese teenagers fighting demons… or making friends with demons… or something. It has a hard-core following who just love doing whatever it is they do in these games, but I never got into the franchise, and each new installment just makes me feel more daunted about dipping my toe into the series.  A few years ago I heard that Persona 3 FES was the height of the franchise and I grabbed a copy, but never actually bothered playing it.  The game was turned into a downloadable title for the Playstation Network last week, so I figured the time had arrived for me to finally put that primitive old disk into my PS2.

I haven’t played any of the Shin Megami Tensei games because I’m frightened and confused.  This franchise has been around for twenty five years, stretching back to 1987 when it was just Megami Tensei.  It eventually spawned Shin, then Persona and yet other spin offs like Devil Summoner, and Devil Saga.  But you don’t need to play Final Fantasy one through twelve to enjoy Final Fantasy thirteen, and such is the case with the Megami Tensei games.

Some of them are direct sequels to each other, including the first two Persona games, but Persona 3 was an entirely separate story with new characters, and it was the first Persona to hit the Playstation 2 (Even though it was late in that console’s lifespan in 2007).  While there was a good 100 hours of content in the original version, an updated edition subtitled FES came along in 2008 adding an extra 30 hours of epilogue to the package.

Clear your schedule before starting this thing; this is not a game for gamers with short attention spans, or itchy trigger fingers.  Most of the time is spent watching cutscenes or progressing through conversations with limited interactivity (And save points 30 minutes apart).  Well over an hour into Persona 3, I had fought exactly one battle, and still felt like I was in the tutorial when I was two hours along.

Eventually the tutorial ended and I was allowed to go outside and play.  Literally.  The main character is a high school student who lives in a dorm, and was not allowed to explore the town until he’d been thoroughly taught the ways of demon hunting, and likewise the Player is stuck on a very linear path for the first couple of hours of the game.

It is a complex game where I had to survive high school by day and fight monsters by night, so the long tutorial was useful.  By day I spent time in school where I had the chance to build my character’s stats by making friends with other students, and could even increase my “Academics” score by paying attention in class.  I was quizzed by teachers on real world academic issues like Japanese history and literature, and was rewarded with bonuses for my character if I actually learned anything.

The same importance was placed on making friends or other pursuits during the day.  Any particular conversation or activity gave me a chance at building up one of my basic scores which made me more powerful when night fell and The Dark Hour began.

The Dark Hour is the crux of the story.  The nameless protagonist is one of a handful of students who have the power to remain alert during this secret hour that follows midnight.  In that hour, most people remain asleep (Transformed into coffins), and monsters called “Shadows” prowl around doing evil.  The protagonist and his friends have the power to summon creatures called Personas who can fight the Shadows, but the protagonist, of course, is special.  I learned that my character could store up to 170 different personas in his noggin while everybody could only have one persona.

A very cool feature of the game is the way that these personas are summoned; the characters use guns called “Evokers”.  To bring forth the personas, they shoot themselves in the head!

Even though the game is about going to high school, this should be a good indication of the edgy, mature themes it addresses.

Disclaimer:  Default Prime does not condone shooting yourself in the head to see if magical people come out to fight your enemies.

The combat plays a little like the standard JRPG fare, but it is much more tactical.  The different types of Shadows are highly vulnerable to different kinds of attack, but those weakness would only revealed by having a particular NPC scan the target first.  Even then, the weaknesses could only exploited if I had the right persona, and these personas have to be unlocked and collected over the course of the game.  Furthermore the personas can be “Fused” together to create more powerful ones with new abilities, possibly losing useful ones in the process.

The franchise is nowhere near as inaccessible to new players as I had feared, but it’s also something that will require a lot of patience. For those who can free up their schedules enough to sink a few hundred hours into the franchise, Persona is worth it, and Persona 3 is a great entry point.  The story is quite entertaining, with a cast of likeable characters, plus an interesting mystery to unravel. Its gameplay is still engaging, and while the graphics are dated, much of the story is told through anime cutscenes that have held up very well (And these games are to be played for their story and character-building anyway, rather than fancy graphics).

If Japanese RPG’s are to your tastes, how about shooting some Nazis in the face? The WWII stealth shooter Sniper Elite is getting a next-gen makeover soon.  Next week on The Backlog I take a look at the original Sniper Elite to see if it really needs a remake.

Charles is a proud contributor to Default Prime, as well as the Xbox/ PC Department Lead at Player Affinity, a reviewer for The Indie Game Magazine, and a Special Agent at the U.S. Department of Electronic Entertainment.

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