Review – Persona 3 FES

Fighting evil by moonlight. Winning love by daylight. It’s Persona 3 FES.

Persona 3 FES is a bit of an odd game on first look. The characters bring forth supernatural entities by shooting themselves in the heads, and use them to fight equally supernatural enemies that only appear in a span of time hidden between days.  Most of this happens in a massive labyrinth that only appears during the Dark Hour, and is parallel to a normal school life spent developing bonds with classmates and others, all while working towards good grades on tests and getting a harem.

While Persona 3 was originally released all the way back in 2006, and its updated version, Persona 3 FES, a year later, the game still remains relevant for many reasons, even receiving an anime film adaptation after all this time.

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Story

Persona 3’s story consists of two parts. The first is “The Journey,” the main story of the game that takes place from April through March – this is also the only part of the original release of Persona 3. “The Answer,” a substantial epilogue, is unique to the FES version of the game.

The Journey follows the main character as he transfers to a new school on Tatsumi Port Island. During a full moon a few days later, he is faced by dangerous Shadows, beings that emerge during the Dark Hour hidden between one day and the next. Forced to protect himself, he summons a Persona, a supernatural entity capable of combating Shadows. As the story progresses, the protagonist and the rest of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) work towards finding the origins of the Shadows, the Dark Hour, and the tower of Tartarus.

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While the story seems a bit formulaic at first – taking on full moon bosses once a month – there are plenty of plot twists and added info that impact the direction of the story, all while ultimately building to the conclusion. And fortunately, while there is certainly foreshadowing, all of the twists are not easily predictable. In addition, rather than the main story frequently involving extraneous events, it remains consistent in its progression. As you continue through the game, you will be introduced to new characters, learn about their stories and stakes, and gain a better understanding of everyone’s mindset and reasoning behind joining SEES and fighting the Shadows, all while the story unfolds around you.

At some points, it seems as if the events related to the main story are all centered on the full moon battles, but this is not always the case, especially once the entire party has come together. Along with this, being able to take on the challenge of ascending Tartarus at your own pace helps to keep things spread evenly – outside of some established events, advancing in Tartarus is not a part of the main story, but a way to strengthen your party and prepare for the important battles.

The Answer follows Aigis and the rest of SEES as they seek to unravel the questions surrounding the conclusion of The Journey and the reason they are unable to leave the dormitory. Unfortunately, whereas The Journey strikes a great balance between story, battling, and social life, The Answer is about 90% grinding and 10% story. This makes it very difficult to play in long doses, and has a very low reward for the effort until you begin to approach the end.

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One of the most interesting things about The Answer is how it brings up several concepts concerning Personas that were further utilized in Persona 4 – oddly, The Answer did a better job with most of them.

Characters

The main characters of the story are all members of SEES, working together to fight Shadows and protect the city. Each has their own reason for joining the team, and their character development is tied directly into the main story.

The best part of the main characters is how they are all very realistic with their actions. Since most of them are simply normal high school students, they tend to react in ways that are very understandable and seem completely natural. Especially Junpei. Everyone knows somebody like him.

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Outside of the members of SEES, the characters the player will most frequently interact with are the Social Links, who are members of different school clubs or other people who live around the city. While much of the interaction is merely hanging out with these people, the protagonist will eventually help them with personal issues, or, for some of the females, become involved romantically. While some of the issues fall under “first world problems,” several of the characters have unique stories and interactions, and learning more about them fosters a growing interest in wanting to know them better.

Gameplay

The gameplay of FES is split between two main parts. First, is the exploration of Tartarus and the full moon battles. For the most part, the ascension of Tartarus can be taken at the player’s own pace; however, the full moon events require preparation for the boss battles, so working towards leveling your characters and bolstering your arsenal of Personas is essential to succeeding.

At its core, the battle system is fairly simple. As with most RPGs, you have the option of a basic attack, skill, item, etc. What sets this apart is the Personas – these can be changed within a battle, and affect many things. If you’re familiar with Pokemon, it’s sort of along the same lines – each Persona has specific strengths, weaknesses, and movesets, you can switch them during battles, and they level up to learn specific skills. However, there is no consistency within arcana in the same way that Pokemon have consistency within a typing – while an Ice Pokemon will always have the same resistances and weaknesses, Personas and enemy Shadows of the Tower arcana do not have any consistency in that regard. Also, the character always has a basic weapon attack to use, which functions the same way regardless of the Persona.

Along with the Personas is the “one more” system. If you land a critical hit or exploit an enemy’s weakness., you gain another turn. The enemy will be knocked down, and their next turn will be spent getting up unless they are attacked beforehand, in which case they will not lose the turn. On the other hand, the enemy can do the same thing to you. If you’re familiar with Persona 4 or Persona 3 Portable, the system is mostly the same, but also more punishing. Exploiting enemy weaknesses with an attack that hits more than one enemy will knock them down, but will not give you an extra turn (in P4/P3P, you do get another turn for this). This forces the player to keep an eye on their health and skill points, and weigh whether attacking an enemy that has been knocked down or healing/buffing/debuffing is a better option.

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One of the main problems with the battle system is a lack of full control of all party members. While you can set them to a specific tactic, such as “full assault,” “act freely,” or “conserve skill points,” they will commonly pick actions that don’t seem to make sense, and it quickly becomes apparent that the triggers for healing are not in your favor. While this was merely an annoyance throughout the majority of the game – mostly because of Mitsuru’s insistence on using Marin Karin and Ice Break – it only becomes a substantial problem during the final boss battle, when Yukari will not heal the entire team unless two characters are below 50% health. When fighting an enemy that attacks twice in one turn, this quickly becomes a huge problem.

The other half of gameplay is the social links and daily school life. Social Links require that you spend time hanging out with specific people. This results in a strengthening of your relationship with them and also improves fusions of a specific Persona arcana. As one example, new to FES is the Aeon social link, with Aigis. By advancing her Social Link, any fusions that result in a Persona of the Aeon arcana will automatically gain an experience bonus based on the level of your link.

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Best Social Link in the game

For many people, the most important aspect of the Social Links is amassing a harem. However, whereas Persona 4 changed things to make this effortless, FES leaves things a bit more demanding. If you try to two-time a girl or simply don’t hang out with her enough, the social link will “reverse,” meaning that it will be put in a limbo that can only be corrected by spending time with them for a while until they forgive you. It seems painfully realistic, doesn’t it?

One of the shortcomings for the Social Links is that there aren’t any for the male members of SEES – outside of the main story, you can’t learn more about Akihiko, Junpei, Ken, or Shinji (or Koromaru for that matter), but you can spend time with and develop relationships with Yukari, Mitsuru, Aigis, and Fuuka. While this is not a major issue, it does seem a bit imbalanced.

Sound

This game has one of the greatest soundtracks of anything ever, and that is not an exaggeration. Containing an eclectic mix of everything from hip hop to rock/metal, the soundtrack not only does a perfect job of supporting every instance of the game, but brings with it a memorable and distinct sound that sets it apart from anything else. From the final boss battle theme  to the dormitory theme to the appropriately titled Heartful Cry, the situational use is always ideal.

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Unfortunately, the voice-acting is a bit hit-or-miss – at the very least, most of the characters’ voices are appropriate. While the game lacks phenomenal performances, there are a few that detract from it. One of the most cited issues is Aigis’s voice actress, who sounds like she’s trying to be a bit too robotic at times, and the result is simply irregular for most of the game. Fortunately, as you proceed further into the story, her voice begins to sound more natural and less annoying. Fuuka is another weak link, as her voice actress is not very good at conveying emotion of any kind. Shinji has a similar problem, as his “yelling” mostly consists of talking louder.

In The Answer, the voice acting is a bit better all around, which is very thankful with Aigis being the main character. Also, there was a strange point where Akihiko’s line was spoken by Mitsuru’s voice actress, so that was plenty awkward.

Visuals

While the anime cutscenes don’t look very good from an animation standpoint, they do a great job of conveying exactly what’s happening and reinforcing the tone of the game. Similarly, the character models actually moving around do a great job of showing character reactions and physical movement rather than plainly narrating it.

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Visually, the Dark Hour’s style, especially throughout the city, plays a massive role in setting the mysterious and uncomfortable mood of the game. The green tint, puddles of blood, and dark vibe all work in conjunction with the music to create the perfect atmosphere for the game.

So basically, Persona 3 FES is a wonderful game, and you should play it.

+ This music is hypnotically sextastic
+ Challenging, even on the standard difficulty
+ Hours of story and gameplay
+ A strong cast of realistic characters
+ Visual style
+ Character development for main cast is built into the story, with their respective Social Links focusing on the results of these changes
+ Social Links add plenty of interesting secondary characters to discuss various topics of life with
+ The Answer adds a lot of play time, provides more story and background, and explains the ending of The Journey in detail
+ Aigis is the MC of The Answer

~ Spending a lot of time in Tartarus can be mentally draining
~ At some points, it feels as if the main story is limited to the full moon events
~ No social links for male members of SEES
~ Voice acting is average as a whole

– No manual control of teammates
– The Answer is very grind-heavy
– The Answer pushes past character development to the side for a temporarily strange and seemingly unnecessary plot direction

Play time – ~100 hours first run (only The Journey), ~110 for the second (The Journey/The Answer – 80/30)

Rating – 9/10
Recommendation
 – Buy it

The Journey is fantastic in every way – characters are realistic and believable, gameplay is challenging and dynamic, the story is interesting, and the visuals and audio fit perfectly. The Answer has some issues, in particular how much grinding it requires, how it doesn’t have the social side of things to balance everything out, and how the character development seems to be limited to Aigis. In both, the lack of complete character control can become very irritating, but it is not always an issue.

For PS2, brand new physical copies are still easy to come by at decent prices (just make sure you get the FES version). For PS3, you can just download the game straight from the PSN. If neither of these are an option but you have a PSP or Vita, you can always go with Persona 3 Portable – however, much of what I mentioned here doesn’t apply to that version, and I would definitely recommend FES instead.

Altogether, buy the game. It’s definitely worth your time and money.

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All screenshots have come from either SuperJeenius or a playthrough I sort-of did via emulator. The images from the emulator are clearer, but have minor graphical issues at times.

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