The ILG Coint & Plick Awards

Make Your Case: Persona 3: FES

Posted in Best of PS2, Make Your Case by trdn89 on March 3, 2010

Lamp:

atlus’s persona 3 FES is a gothic-tinged rpg that came out in the waning days of the PS2. the player takes on the role of a silent, mysterious transfer student to a japanese high school. on your 1st night in your new dorm you and your housemates are attacked by a slinking inky mass of arms and faces called ‘shadows’. after shooting yourself in the head you summon an otherworldy spirit guide – classically allusioned and perfectly art-designed – to defeat the shadows & save yourself and your housemate. all of this takes place after about 35 minutes of introductory cut-scenes, expository dialogue and cryptic visitations.

so persona 3 divides its time btw the world of shadows & the day-to-day life of a japanese high school student. & as you make way through both of these worlds, studying for exams, building friendships, occasionally venturing into the shadowlands to defeat monsters and gain strength the two worlds begin to build inwards upon each other, permeating their counterparts in strange & unexpected ways. like twin peaks P3FES does an incredible job of portraying a mundane world that is constantly under threat from the unknowable & mysterious horrors that underlie our everyday world. but unlike twin peaks the ‘regular’ existence never feels like an afterthought, the pleasures of simply being in this world & the social link mechanic are equal to the pleasure of dungeon crawling & the story-driven mystery elements of the game that mostly take place in the hidden shadow world.

it seems kinda crazy that a part dungeon-crawler rpg part japanese dating sim game can be summed up using em forster’s famous maxim ‘only connect’ but persona 3 FES is above all about the longing for contact & the terror of isolation. its most meaningful moments take place in the spaces btw how we see ourselves & how the other characters see us. i think its a mistake to want the game’s dialogue trees and social interactions to function in the same way as they do in d&d-influenced western rpgs. in a western rpg the focus is on developing a character & so the best games give a sense of true possibility and naturalism. whereas with persona there is always a right answer, a correct path. the point isn’t to give the player a blank slate to write his intentions on, to chose a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ path & then make descions based upon your character’s intentions. in P3FES your character is a mirror held up to the npcs. you reflect their vanities & insecurities, their hopes & fears. and so the player is forced to consider them, who they are & at best you can understand and help that person. your goal, your job is to build relationships, not a character.

finally – finally! – the combat in P3FES is one of the most tactically interesting mechanic of any turn-based rpg. every npc is self-directed and their actions will often – frustratingly – shadow their reallife personalities. as battle leader you can give them directives but you cant control their actions perfectly. so combat begins to double the social link aspect of the game, you’re forced to predict the actions of your comrades to know their strengths & weaknesses & so to understand them as people. the difficulty of this makes what is a very grind-heavy game both more fraught and more engaging. never a game to miss an opportunity death literally haunts the game’s dungeon & his shadow is always present in P3FES. even regular combats are perilous & you will die. a lot.

the best that i can say for P3FES is that unlike almost any other game the memory of its events stayed with me. although its mechanically frustrating, overlong & exacting it manages to create a plausible, engrossing world like no game before or since.

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