Game Completion: Half-way through the first month.
I got my hands on Persona 3 quite a while ago, back when it was first released. I ended up playing about 70 hours of it, enough to get me a bit past half-way through it, but I ended up stopping there. I had just watched a fairly dramatic sequence of events and thought it was a decent enough time to take a small break from the game so I could play a few other games I had recently acquired. For various reasons (which happen to include pretty much every game I have played since I started writing for this blog), I have not played the game since. The recent release of Persona 3 FES seemed like a great opportunity to give the game another chance. So, I have spent a bit of the last two days playing FES, and I have been having a lot of fun with it.
Persona 3 is easily the greatest implementation of a "rogue-like/random dungeon RPG" that I have ever seen. I have played a number of variants on that particular genre, but I have ended up hating them all, with the sole exception of Persona 3. I think this is primarily because Persona 3 thoroughly departs from a lot of the common conventions of the genre, and thus manages to avoid the pitfalls and limitations of such games.
One of my biggest problems with randomized dungeon games is that they tend to have very loose objectives and goals. Usually, the basic premise is that you try to get to the end of the dungeon, with no other primary objectives or ways of marking your progress. This leads to me feeling aimless and unsatisfied. I never know if I am doing well, doing poorly, and I fell like I have very little incentive or encouragement to progress at all. I have never been able to stick with such a game for very long, and always get bored and move on. However, Persona 3 is different. One of the basic themes of the game is that "time marches on", and that property of the story and gameplay changes everything. More than just saying "you need to explore Tartarus", the game tells the player "you need to reach the next barricade in Tartarus before the next full moon". This results in both a sense of urgency and achievable intermediate goals for the player. What is more, if you reach the barricade two weeks before the full moon you know you are ahead and doing well, and if you reach the barricade only two days before the full moon you know you are cutting it close and probably not doing something right. These goals and timeframes give the player a reason to keep going further and further into the tower, and also give a player some signposts so he knows if he is doing well, which is essential for encouraging the player's sense of accomplishment.
The passage of time in the game has another major benefit: it provides a structure for the plot. Plot events happen completely independent of your progress in Tartarus. Your ability to survive those events is not quite so independent, but the events themselves will occur whether you are ready or not. The plot is constantly moving forward and things are always changing, so things outside of the random dungeon never feel static or boring. Both the inside of Tartarus and the ordinary town where the heroes live are never the same two days in a row, so there is almost always something new to do. The fact that base towns in random dungeon RPGs tend to be static and boring has always been one of my least favorite elements of the genre, but in Persona 3 the town is probably more lively and interesting than the dungeon.
Persona 3 is an unusual game that happens to be both long and very, very good, so I will probably be writing about it for quite a few weeks to come.