When you sit down with something that falls into the genre of role-playing games, how much of a role are you willing to play? Are you simply sitting down to walk around, explore a bit, talk to some folks, get an idea of where to walk to next, and fight some monsters on the way to getting there? This has been the template for the role-playing game since, oh, about the time Dragon Warrior hit the NES. Countless role-playing games have toyed with the formula in various ways, but for the most part, that’s what you’re getting.
Still, the very name assigned to the genre of role-playing titles suggests that such games could encompass so much more. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, originally released midway through last year, explores one of the ways in which role-playing can go beyond battling monsters and engaging in inane dialogue with characters that’ll be dead in a plot point or two anyway. Namely, Persona 3 forces you to play the part of a high schooler, with all of the stress, angst, and complex social balancing that such a role would imply.
Think about this dichotomy:
On one hand, there is a 25th hour in every day, during which the majority of the general population transmogrifies into a coffin, while the very, very few who don’t are left to fend for themselves against evil little (and, sometimes, not so little) beasts called shadows. Your protagonist is one of those very few, summoned to a school at which a few more of these same special types happen to reside. As one of this chosen few, it also so happens that you are able to summon “personas” at will; basically, these are pieces of your soul that can be unleashed on unsuspecting “shadows” (the baddies, of course) or used to heal yourself and your friends. Oh, and you basically shoot yourself in the head with a big ol’ gun to evoke these personas. In order to ultimately vanquish the shadows, you must uncover the secret of Tartarus, a tremendous, twisty, ever-changing tower that crops up in place of the local high school during that 25th hour. It’s a very dark, but absorbing world you inhabit, and it’s easy to want to learn more about what the hell is going on.
During the day, your protagonist is a student in that same local high school. You can join student council, sign up for a sports team, hang out with your buddies, ask girls out on dates, get quizzed by teachers, get stressed out by exams, and so on. While the way in which you “play” this particular side of the game does have some effect on how you do in the exploration/fighting portion of the game, the truth is that in playing it, you actually start to feel stressed out — like, high school stressed out, where you’re simultaneously worrying about friends, cliques, extracurricular activities (student council, sports teams), exams, being put on the spot by overzealous teachers, and so on.
Admit it, you’re wondering what dating Elizabeth is like…
The point is that while our blue-haired hero is essentially a blank slate (and a slightly disaffected-looking one at that, what with his constant hands-in-pockets stance and his seeming indifference to the events happening around him), you actually feel something like sympathy for him, and, by proxy, for any high schooler with too much to do.
Of course, the difference here is that you can turn off the game, which allows it to stay exhilarating rather than to become numb the way adolescents’ lives can get when overstimulated in these ways. It’s a play dynamic that you’re almost forced to put Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 down, because it quite literally stresses you out…and then, after leaving it for a while, you feel compelled to come back, because you actually start to miss that stress, the push to succeed in all of your exploits.
It is actually that very stress, however, that is very much missing from “The Answer”, the pseudo-sequel to the original Persona 3 that comes as a bonus on Persona 3: FES (on which the original adventure is titled “The Question”, naturally). “The Answer” is a JRPG version of Groundhog Day, in which the cast that’s left from the original Persona 3 (without wanting to give too much away of the game’s surprising and tragic plot) is caught in a “time skip”, and they can’t get past March 31, 2010. Of course, surprising new characters pop up, epic battles are fought, and a new “dungeon” (this one called “The Abyss of Time”, naturally, given the problem that seems to have cropped up) must be traversed in order to get to the bottom of the mystery of the time skip. Got all that?
The problem presents itself when one of the primary plot points becomes the fact that one of the byproducts of the time skip is that the members of the team cannot leave their dorm — you are quite literally trapped in one building. This means no exploring, no socializing, no interaction with people beyond those directly connected to the plot. It’s a dungeon crawler with a hub, rather than the full-on role playing experience of the original game, and as such, it can’t help but be something of a disappointment.
Big enemies vs. bigger personas = EPIC.
Despite this, it’s difficult to fault Persona 3: FES for this since “The Answer” is, essentially, bonus content. And a lot of it, too — it’ll take you longer than most full games just to slog through the extra material. How you feel about that probably depends an awful lot on how you feel about dungeon crawlers; some people can’t stand the idea of randomized maps, treasures, and enemy placement, while others live for that kind of stuff. I could go either way, generally, but the fairly fast-paced Persona combat system combined with an engaging and interesting story (in a completely off-the-wall anime sort of way) tips the scales in favor of “The Answer”. Really, who doesn’t want to know what the answer to life is?
Anyone who has ever had even the slightest interest in role-playing video games and has not already made Persona 3 a part of their collection (surely an alarming number) should be running out and buying Persona 3: FES. At the very least, in its full, Director’s Cut form, you’re getting one of the very best RPGs to hit the console scene since the turn of the century. If you happen to enjoy it, there are a huge number of hours of enjoyment to be culled from it. On the other hand, if you’re already familiar with the Persona 3 universe, your feelings on the new stuff added for the sake of the Persona 3: FES release might be mixed. Clearly, it’s hard to not want to support those who made such an incredible game; unfortunately, “The Answer” is not nearly the experience that the original Persona 3‘s “The Question” is. It just might leave experienced, longtime players of the original feeling a bit bittersweet.