Persona 3 is easily described in one word: “different.” That might not sound too promising, considering that the connotations of “different” can be either positive or horrible - ever hear someone describe some delicious foodstuff as tasting "different"? Hearing about what makes this RPG so unorthodox might also make a gamer uneasy: Most of your exploring takes place in a single, randomized dungeon; you only have direct control over one party member in battle; you have to manage a simulation of high-school life for a good portion of the game. Any one of those could be a huge turn-off for an RPG fan.
But in the case of Persona 3, different is good.
The game begins with a young boy, Insert Name, transferring to a new high school and getting shuffled into a strange dormitory. Our hero soon discovers that the dorm is actually home to a very special campus club devoted to exterminating demonic beings that spring to life at night. Most humans are unaware of these monstrosities, making them easy prey, but the few that can see the shadows are able summon beings known as "Personas" - physical manifestations of their inner psyche - to fight in combat. How do you bring Personas out? You use a gun-shaped "Evoker" device and shoot yourself in the temples. Yikes. To top it all off, the high school morphs into a frightening tower late at night, which the club members are tasked with exploring.
Investigating the cause of the shadow menace is only one part of our hero's life. During the day, he has obligations to school and friends. He needs to study, meet people, help others with their problems, and keep a fine balance between the time he spends with his social life and the time spent fighting evil. The teenage hero may be a Japanese RPG stereotype, but it's a refreshing change to see one actually deal with the social awkwardness common at that point in life. In turn, the relationships the hero forms grant strength to his various Personas, thus making him a more formidable force in combat. This aspect of the game is very fulfilling, both from a story and a gameplay standpoint.
Like other Shin Megami Tensei series games (Digital Devil Saga, Nocturne), the combat engine in Persona 3 is turn-based, and it puts special emphasis on finding and exploiting the weaknesses of enemies for extra turns. The dungeon Tartarus changes its layout each time you enter. Battles are frequently challenging, and often the line between life and death can hinge on a single player screw-up. Although the environments in Tartarus look great, you’ll be seeing many of them so often that you’ll start to grow weary of them after a while.
Unlike the aforementioned games, though, the only character you control directly is the hero. You can give general orders to your teammates in battle and make some specific requests from them outside of combat, but for the most part they behave on their own. Thankfully, unlike most RPGs with AI-controlled characters, your party members act with some semblance of intelligence. If they see that an enemy is weak to an attack, they’ll keep using it. If the hero’s running low on HP, they’ll drop whatever they’re doing and rush to his aid. While they still do behave oddly on occasion, the well-designed AI helps turn a potentially annoying game element into a fun and strategic twist on an old formula.
There are plenty of other things we could rave about – a memorable cast of characters, a fun R&B soundtrack, the slick style - but in the end, Persona 3’s gameplay is where it truly shines. This game is a lot of things: thoroughly unique, frequently challenging, and sometimes quite disturbing. But most of all, it's a fantastic experience on many levels.