A quick note to begin with. This blog documents my impressions of Persona 3 FES, as opposed to Persona 3. The two are not entirely the same game; Persona 3 FES contains extra content not available in the original Persona 3. However, for the sake of my aching fingers, I'm going to just call it Persona 3 or even P3.
Yes, the name of the game really is Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 FES. What a mouth full! With a name like that, you just have to guess that it's a Japanese role playing game, and you'd be very correct. This is no Final Fantasy though, and that's a good thing.
I love the Final Fantasy series, don't get me wrong. But sometimes I need a break from that style of play, and Persona 3 has given it to me. This is not a game of physical exploration, wandering from place to place in a vast fantasy/sci-if environment, meeting strange creatures and killing them.
No, this is a game that takes place largely within a few specific locations in one small town. The physical exploration takes place within a vast secret tower in the town, while the bulk of the exploration is more social - exploring relationships between your protagonist and the various friends you make in and out of school during the course of a full calendar year.
You do your explorations in the role of the Main Character, or MC as he's often referred to online. In the game, he's referred to by whatever name you choose to give him.
MC is a fairly typical high school student, or at least he seems to be at first. His life can take any number of turns depending on how you play the game. Is he going to be a straight-A student with incomparable academics? A social butterfly that can charm the socks off the ladies? Maybe someone very brave in the face of danger and dating? Manage your time well and you can make him any or all of these, or not, as you prefer.
It all depends on how you want to play him, and the game as a whole. Your socialization with other characters and groups that you meet will have a strong effect on your combat performance in the dungeon parts of the game, thanks to an interesting experience system based on the concept of "Social Links" that power the various personas you control. The stronger your social ties, the more experience a related persona gains when you create it.
Social links are only one method of improvement, however. The charm, academics and courage stats that I alluded to earlier are another form of social advance; your progress on those three stats determines how strong your relationships can get with three particular characters that are of critical importance to your game, and may have other effects as well. I'm not quite at the halfway point in the game yet, so I can't really say authoritatively what those possible other effects would be.
Like most RPGs, your main character has hitpoints and spirit (magic) points, but lacks most other common stat types; strength, endurance, magical potency and the other "vital" stats are not associated with MC himself. Instead, they are associated with the various personas MC can make use of. This means switching personas in the middle of a battle has a much greater impact that just changing your selection of special abilities; the fundamental traits of your character change as well. You might switch from an exceptionally high strength with one persona to one that's very physically weak, and find yourself doing far less melee damage as a result. The tradeoff may be that your magic potential is hugely boosted. This is a pretty fascinating system that makes the choice of personas all the more strategically important.
Not having finished the game yet, this isn't a full review, but just an impression. I'll leave off at this before I get into anything too spoilerish, but I'll invite anyone who's interested to comment or write to me with questions. If I can answer them, I certainly will.
My impression so far: This is a beautiful gem of a game, not to be missed if you can handle going back to the last generation of console games and picking up something for the PS2 ninstead of the shiny and new PS3.