Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
You might be thinking "Oh, Japanese RPGs are two a penny these days, not another one". However, Persona 3 brings something a little different to the gaming table. The two most striking features of this game are 1. in addition to the standard dungeon-crawling monster-killing activities it also has a high school life / dating simulator, which actually affects your battle abilities, and 2. the main gameplay mechanic involves your characters shooting themselves in the head to summon "Persona" demons to help them in battle. Of course, they don't really shoot themselves in the head; the guns aren't real guns, they're "Evokers", and the stuff you see flying out of the side of their heads after they fire isn't brain matter (I guess it's ectoplasm or something, but the game never touches on that point).
These points make for a game that is both entertaining and disturbing. If you're an anime fan, there are quite a few anime cliches to be spotted (yes, there is a beach trip segment, complete with fanservice). Although the characters start out somewhat one-dimensional, they become more well defined, and are interesting and varied - later on in the game you even gain a robot girl and a dog on your team!
The story revolves around the Dark Hour, an extra hour of time which has somehow been inserted at midnight each day. During the Dark Hour, people without the potential to use Persona abilities are transmogrified into coffins (they change back again afterwards and are none the wiser) and the school transforms into a huge sprawling tower called Tartarus, which is where most of the combat side of the game takes place. Enemies are visible on the field and on the radar, so there are no random battles. You can go up to the next floor via a set of stairs (but there is no corresponding set of down stairs) and most floors have an access point which you can use to teleport back to the entrance (where you are healed and can change the members of your party). The majority of the access points are one-way, but on floors with bosses there are two-way access points. The boss floors are mandatory as you have to defeat the boss in order to get to the stairs and climb to higher floors.
You may be wondering "well, what about Persona 1 and 2, do I not need to have played those first"? Reassuringly, while there are a few in-jokes and nods towards the previous entries in the series, you don't need to have played them to get full enjoyment out of Persona 3 as it's an entirely separate story. Another thing that stands out is the fact that there are several reports on various gaming forums that girls actually enjoy this game too (despite the fact that it's firmly male-oriented, with a male protagonist, and female dates and fanservice). A number of gamers have gotten their girlfriends to try it and then not been able to prise them away with a crowbar later on.
The net result is, if you're in the US or Canada and have a PlayStation 2 or PlayStation 3, pick this game up. There's something for everybody in it, and being an Atlus title it's sure to be hard to find before long, so even if you think you won't like it it's worth picking up just as an investment (you can always ebay it later). If you're in Europe, don't worry, because KOEI are going to be bringing this game to UK shores before the end of the year. Or you could just import it if you have the hardware to play import games.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is out now for the PlayStation 2 in the United States and Canada from Atlus USA, and is coming soon in the United Kingdom from KOEI.
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