Monday, October 1, 2007

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: Aug. 14, 2007
Systems: PlayStation 2
ESRB Rating: M
Official Web Site

Today's Game for Lucnh comes from guestblogger Tom Kim of the Gamasutra Podcast.

In a nutshell: A modern/near future console J-RPG. Unapologetically artsy and idiosyncratic, right down to its high school setting.

I crack open the case. Atlus is known for nice pack-ins, but I stop to note the enclosed art book is hardcover, and the package includes the CD soundtrack. The art book, CD and the game case are enclosed in a sturdy, glossy printed slipcover. Impressive. I'll probably only flip through the art book once or twice, and I'll never listen to the CD... Still, nice Atlus-style fan service.

0:03 I watch title sequence. True to the series, the visual style and graphic treatment don't disappoint. I am especially surprised by a bit that shows a character shooting himself in the head, complete with stylized blood splatter. Wonder how that'll sit with Jack Thompson...

0:05 I start up the game proper. I note some slick interface details like separate layers of 2D art with transparency and animation effects. And this is just for the start menu.

I am given the option to select the difficultly level: "Normal" or "Easy." This isn't common, especially in console JRPGs. I choose "Normal" and get admonished: "This setting is intended for experienced gamers. You will be able to enjoy the full challenge of battle, which requires a certain degree of strategy. Once you have begun, this setting cannot be changed without restarting the game. Continue?" Heck yeah. What does that imply for "Easy," I wonder. And why no "Hard" mode?

0:06 A suitably ominous text crawl notes that you will be given one year to save the world from the Shadows. I wonder what that bodes for total length of the play experience in "game time," and how that might correlate to real time.

0:08 The opening anime cinema is uncharacteristically long. I skip out around the five minute mark.

0:13 The character name options are satisfyingly robust. I can enter separate last and first names of 8 characters apiece, complete with caps and lowercase as well as special characters. I like this, especially for an RPG. For me, the ability to choose a good name seems to help me identify with my in-game avatar.

I spend a couple minutes thinking of names and enter "Emo Manbaby." It seems appropriate enough for a game set in high school. Other contenders include: Karōshi Boy, Shameful Seiyū , Pre-Sala ryMan, Cutter Cryer, Ecchi Otaku, and McLovin.

0:15 The first characters I encounter are two gun-toting security monitor gals with sexy thigh holsters and plaid miniskirts. This isn't how I remember high school... I almost get shot by the twitchy brunette. The voice talent for one of the girls sounds like a 35-year-old chain smoking waitress. Hawt!

0:16 I note that the game interface has a date and time stamp in the upper right corner... It displays the month, date, weekday and phase of the moon. I guess the game will actually hold me to that one-year-to-save-the-world thing. Anyone with any familiarity with the previous two Persona games will grasp the significance of moon phase.

0:17 Typical of the series, this one is heavy with branching dialog. I get to ask them scintillating questions like, "Why do you have a gun?" Answer: "Um, well, it's sorta like a hobby..." Her buddy chimes in, "You know how it is these days... It's for self-defense." No-pan Kissa patrons, beware!

0:18 Almost 20 minutes in and I realize that the only real interaction I've been allowed is to enter my name and to ask why I'm staying in the girls' dormitory.

0:22 For the first time, I'm allowed to directly control my character. The game has fully 3D character models and environments presented in the stylized flat color look of the Persona games. It's not a technical tour de force, but it still has some very attractively art direction. Camera control on right stick or shoulder buttons, movement on left. Circle-button auto-centers the camera. X-button is the all-purpose interaction trigger. No game pause or any other button options yet.

0:23 It's Emo Manbaby's first day at Gekkoukan High. The first room I enter is the men's restroom. Sound cues indicate that I flush and wash my hands. Very sanitary for a high schooler. My health condition improves to "Great," though I have no idea whether this is the result of an empty bladder or good hygiene.

0:25 I'm is sitting in a folding chair in the gymnasium listening to the principal prattle through a prepared speech. Lots of opening day preamble and not a lot of productivity. Thankfully, the game spares me the contents of the day, itself. The time line jumps to After School on the in game clock. So far, no big intro to game play systems. Just a lot of wandering around and asking questions. Maybe this fits my memories of high school more accurately than I thought...

0:27 I'm starting to notice interface cues: simple but attractive icons float over students' heads. The interface icons have some nice motion, too: the emoticons and the "next" arrow in the dialog boxes bounce and spin. Little animated sprites and text also appear in the game environment to accentuate areas of interest or to punctuate sound effects, like the katakana SFX in manga, but as colorful pictographs.

The conversation dialog interface features large, nicely detailed character art. The sprites aren't static, either. They display simple animations -- characters blink, there are "face fault" closeup sequences -- it's all really cleanly rendered. I like the cutscene transition: the screen closes from top and bottom and re-opens like a blinking eye. There's a lot of subtle polish and detail here.

0:28 I notice that so far, every conversation features full voice over work, all of which you can skip with the touch of a button.

0:30 The game clock advances to Evening and I'm back in the girls' dorm. I am given the option to sign the ledger at the front desk. This brings up: "Game Save," "Go back to my room," or "Do nothing." There is no "Quit to title" option... The Interface niceties continue even in the save screen with stylized animated typography.

Normally, this is where I hit the "pause" button and look up the game's interface settings (faster text scrolling, volume control, screen brightness, controller mapping, etc.) Interestingly, the game won't let me access my setup. There are no interface or design choices which will allow me to break the fiction of the game. The game actually forces you to turn the PS2 off to end your play session.

0:31 I opt to wander around the dorm after saving my game. My avatar is nattily dressed in a pinstriped suit jacket and indigo canvas high tops. He actually runs around with his hands in his pockets. His idle animations are "strike a pose" cool in a self-conscious high school-y way.

There's a men's room in the woman's dorm. The hand washing audio cue is now missing. I guess Emo's impeccable personal hygiene is limited to the school grounds. The game notes, "You feel great!" after using the facilities. I guess it was the empty bladder after all.

The redhead who greeted me at gunpoint the previous evening, Mitsuru is sitting on the couch in the lobby. To talk to her, I have to walk behind the couch. Odd.

Upstairs, there's a vending machine with "Cielo Mist, SoBay, and Mad Bull." 120 yen each. The purchased beverage (Mad Bull) goes into my inventory.

I find a couple unoccupied rooms. The third has a name plate, "Akihiko" and an occupant: another dude in the girls' dorm...

0:35 After I choose to retire to my room for the evening, I'm treated to a short in-engine cinema sequence. Akihiko emerges from his room to talk to Mitsuru. Unlike Emo Manbaby, he can talk to her in front of the couch like a normal person without having to look down her shirt. Also, he's a senior and he's much better dressed than me. I instantly hate him.

Akihiko leaves the dorm to investigate mysterious cases of "Apathy Syndrome" Mitsuru notes, "Be careful out there. This isn't a game."

0:37 The game clock advances by a day as I sleep. This is graphically displayed in an in-game time line cut scene noting the advance of the month and day. You really can't avoid the feeling of a ticking time bomb. My next day at school: the game clock auto-magically advances to the Afternoon.

There's a nice little bit where a teacher lectures some apparently throwaway dialog, then I'm asked to recall what she was talking about. Of course, I get the question wrong.

0:40 The game clock advances to Evening, and I'm back in the girls' dorm. I am treated to a couple new in-game engine cinematic sequences. I find out that the two girls and the school's Chairman are spying on me with hidden cameras. I hope ol' Emo isn't doing what comes naturally to high school boys alone in their bedrooms...

At the stroke of midnight, the game enters "Dark Hour," another time section in the game clock. During a dream-like sequence, I am given a key to access the "Velvet Room" by a dude with a long nose and a creepy little girl. She has yellow eyes like the neighborhood bully in A Christmas Story: "Scut Farkus! What a rotten name! There he stood, between us and the alley. Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes. He had yellow eyes! So help me, God! Yellow eyes!"

0:45 I'm three quarters into my first hour and still no access to any real game systems, save movement and conversation dialogs. So far this feels like an old-school graphic adventure. No RPG standards such as character inventory, stat adjustment or combat systems... nada.

0:50 Next day in school, I am given a choice to listen to a lecture or doze off. I choose to be a good boy. My Academics stat increases.

0:55 Back to the dorm, at Dark Hour. Maybe something interesting will finally happen... like some real interaction with game play systems? Anyone?

0:57 Akihiko returns to the dorm with a demon -- a "Shadow" -- in tow. I'm roused by Yukari, the trigger-happy brunette, and given a short sword. In order to activate my special abilities, I have to pick up Yukari's gun and shoot myself in the head.

Disappointingly, I'm not allowed to access any combat game play. Just a flashy anime henshin sequence of my "persona" cutting the enemy Shadows to shreds.

1:00 Right at the one hour mark, I get to enter a battle for real. There's a stylish command wheel with seven choices: Skill, Attack, Wait, Escape, Persona, Tactics, and Item. It's true turn-based combat. No real-time active combat stuff. However, unlike the previous Persona games, there are no conversation options for the combat, yet. Damn! I was hoping to talk them to death, literally.

I really hope this isn't the standard combat music I'll be treated to during every fight. It's a little too club fusion-lite.

Here how Emo's first fight goes:

Turn One: I choose "Attack" on the first of two "Cowardly Maya" which resemble a pile of shadowy arms holding blades and a white mask. I whack him (her? it?) with my short sword for minor damage. I get slashed by both Maya for my trouble.

Turn Two: Choose "Skill->Bash" on Maya #2. I kill it with a flashy-slashy attack. Maya #1 slaps me around a little.

Turn Three: It's back to "Attack" on Maya #1. This time, FTW.

I am treated to a cleanly designed "Result" screen that shows an appropriately emo looking full-screen character portrait of my Manbaby. He's very bishonen -- quite the anime-style pretty boy. I get 20 whopping EXP. On the follow-up screen, I note that my other stats are:

ACADEMICS (current level: "Slacker")
CHARM (current level: "Plain")
COURAGE (current level: "Timid")

I "feel a surge of energy inside" as I level up. My Hit Points and Spirit Points increase, and I am now able to create Personas up to level 2. My Persona levels up as well. My new and improved Level 2 Orpheus has the designation of "Fool." He learns the ability, "Agi." I note that he has his own separate set of stats:


Emo bravely passes out after his first combat. I end up back in the Velvet Room, I learn that my Personas gain abilities in line with my social stats. Also, I can now access the Velvet Room at my own discretion using the key.

So ends my first hour of game play. If "play" is applied loosely to mean, "watching a whole lotta' Emo Manbaby stuff."

Some quick follow-up observations:
The kids attend school on Saturday. How very Japanese.
The third time I get to a teaching scene, I pay attention. On feeding my slacker classmate the correct answer, my Academics stat increases. The other students note that I appear "smart," and my Charm increases as well. If only the benefits of learning were so transparent in the real world...

Would I play this game for more than an hour? Yes.
Why?Although the first hour of Persona 3 is pretty non-interactive, I am digging the polished style and amusing characterizations. Also, some of the bits I've been exposed to hint at some interesting game play to come. Any RPG where I have to level up my Academics, Charm and Courage are good by me. Plus I get to vicariously re-live high school, except this time in a j-pop setting with demonic minions to do my bidding. What can I say: I am Emo Manbaby.


Anonymous said...

You cannot access the menu (including status, items, system options, etc.) before a certain point in the game. Incidentally, that point seems to be just over the 1-hour mark. Swell!

So apparently, it might prove hard to rely on Games for Lunch-style reviews when it comes to games that are heavy on story immersion, as is the case here.

Good write-up regardless, high five!

Nounet said...

Now that was a verbose review !! Good work ;-)

PsyGuy said...

good review...

you stuck with emo manbaby? i almost wish you had chosen McLovin... xD

Tom Kim said...

Yeah, it's hard to comment on narrative driven games after only one hour of play.

And McLovin was a strong contender, but I felt a little silly stealing another character's name. I have too much respect for Apatow's SuperBad. :)