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.
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