Your arm has been torn open. It could be worse; at least the wound wasn’t on your wrist. Of course, that doesn’t make the raw meat that was once your bicep feel any better. Somewhere in the lower recesses of your mind, you understand that you’ve gone into shock. You’re vaguely aware of the burning pain pulsing from your ruined limb, and of the blood dripping – no, pouring – out of you. Any second now, the monsters will swoop in and devour you like a flesh-flavored candy bar. As their vacant eyes scorch holes into the fabric of your psyche, their slimy tendrils and shadowy forms slither around the moonlit battleground. With your options quickly diminishing, you take the most direct means of escape:
You take out your revolver and shoot yourself in the head.
But your brains don’t go splattering out onto the pavement. Instead, little fragments of your soul burst out of your skull and form your Persona. You have only a second to behold its gleaming white armor and giant harp before it zooms forth and smashes the nearest enemy into shadowy puddle a la mode. Then it vanishes just as quickly, leaving you the option of smiting the other monsters with your trusty blade, using an item, or the rest of that generic turn-based RPG combat stuff. Chances are, you’ll shoot yourself in the head again (you’ll be desensitized to the suicidal imagery after a few battles) and summon your Persona yet again. Depending on its level, you’ll be given the choice of piercing weapon rushes, health regeneration, or spell-casting. Since each enemy has a specific weakness to certain attacks (which your navigator can explain via virtual walkie-talkie), you’ll have the upper hand in no time.
But if you think Persona 3 is some kind of morbid Pokemon clone, think again. Your Persona is not some cute little monster that you’re supposed to collect; it is an extension of your identity. Without diving too much into Jungian psychology, this basically means that all of your emotions, insecurities, beliefs, and values are all cobbled together to make a spiritual representative/ass-kicking machine. Since your character practically has his MP3 player grafted to his body, it’s little wonder why his alter ego uses a harp as its weapon. But unlike the rest of the characters in this game, this guy can acquire multiple Personae and switch amongst them accordingly. Tired of dishing out musical punishment? Let your little snowman monster, Greek goddess, or pixie-looking avatar of love out for a little action. With dozens of Personae to acquire and develop, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore your fractured mind.
Given the psychological aspects behind such a concept, it’s fairly obvious that fostering inner empire will be an unusual undertaking. Sure, you’ll have to level grind your way through countless random encounters with H.P. Lovecraft-esque freaks, but the strength of the Personae depends more on your character’s personal growth. You’re not a badass mercenary for hire or grotesquely muscled champion, but a shy anime-styled student that has just transferred to the local Japanese high school. Aside from the usual Memory Loss/Orphan Syndrome that plagues most RPG heroes, you’ve also got a nasty case of insomnia. But since an alternate dimension opens up at midnight and turns everyone but the main characters into coffins, being exhausted is the least of your worries.
Of course, getting some shuteye is favorable to getting ripped apart be a mass of shadowy abominations. Thus, you’ll join up with the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (your Handgun/Persona Evoker has S.E.E.S. etched into it to remind you of the longwinded title) and learn the art of ass kicking. Apparently, the high school faculty doesn’t notice that one of their most elite clubs carry around mental revolvers, swords, bows and arrows, or any of the other several items available. But hey, considering all of the other clubs and activities, who can blame them? While most of your nights will involve you exploring the school/Labyrinth of Doom, you’ll have to continue your daily life as a student. That means attending classes, taking exams, joining athletic clubs, hanging out at the mall, and romancing some lucky coed. In the meantime, the Japanese pop music will continue to blare through the background, adding much to an already engrossing setting.
Don’t ignore all of this seemingly regular stuff, though. Your life as a student is just as vital to your success as battling. Since the power of your Personae comes from your self identity, nearly every action and choice you make as a student will affect their growth. You know that ramen-addicted kid that’s pining after the Homeroom teacher? Chatting with him every day not only builds a relationship, but also creates and strengthens the stuff that keeps your psyche in one piece. Being a bookworm and teacher’s pet can net you some serious academic points. Besides, if you can make an ass out of yourself at the local karaoke bar, you should have plenty of courage stats to take on the fiercest foes. Even taking a piss will improve your mood. Basically, the more activities you do, the stronger you’ll become. Eventually, your identity will be so interconnected by these so-called “Social Links” that you’ll be able to combine your Personae into stronger forms and wreak havoc. Given the extensive combination and leveling system involved, mixing and matching Personae is half the fun.
Too bad the rest of the game isn’t so original. Despite the character-driven story and intriguing approach, the action-oriented parts get old quickly. The high school turns into an evil-ridden skyscraper every night, thus prompting you to explore its mutated halls in search of a way to end the chaos. Even though the different floors are supposed to be randomized, the tiled halls, misplaced staircases and lingering fog aren’t very interesting. The game tries to liven things up by focusing on the characters; your motley crew of jocks, class clowns, student council members, and whoever else will spout plenty of well-voiced lines and victory quotes. But since you’re required to talk to your pals (all of whom tend to mash together to make the task even more annoying) in order to check and change their stats, you’ll inevitably find yourself consulting them by mistake while the nearest enemy charges at you. Given the somewhat tedious nature of the exploration and the need for leveling grinding, you’ll likely have more fun developing your Personae than actually battling.
So, what exactly is Persona 3? It’s a game that explores the power of self-perception. It reflects who we are, what we believe in, and how we live. Yes, the story is like the bastard lovechild of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Call of Cthulhu, but both it and its characters are presented with a dark and stylistic flair that most RPGs lack. The whole “student life versus alternate reality” makes for an interesting idea; it forces you to balance every day commitments with attempting to save the world. While psychology students might appreciate the Jungian influences, RPG aficionados will like the Persona concept even more. Besides, shooting yourself in the head never looked better.