Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Persona 3 Portable

Shin Megami Tensai: Persona3 Portable (!) is actually two games. As part of the Shin Megami Tensai series, it’s a dungeon crawler populated with demons from a wide range of cultures who can be recruited to fight, breed, and hand over powerful spells and items used in the turn-based combat system. As part of the Persona sub-series, dungeons are a small part of an otherwise normal world populated with characters you can befriend, date, or leave for dead - but there is only so much time, and too many possibilities. Unlike many other RPGs, Persona makes you pick and choose what you want to spend your time on. Your social life enhances demons of a certain alignment (represented by the tarot’s Major Arcana), and capturing demons of a certain Arcana in turn makes it easier to connect with friends of the corresponding alignment.

The interplay between these two games is compelling. New dungeons open up once every 30 days, but going into the dungeon gives you less time to spend with your friends. Scarcity of time means your time has great value – picking one person to hang out with means forsaking dungeon time, study time, and other friendships. By the end of the game you can easily max out about half of the total friendships, but each friendship is one you’ve chosen for any number of reasons – maybe they are genuinely interesting, or attractive. Maybe they correspond to an arcana you use frequently in dungeons. Sometimes, it’s because you don’t have anything else to do – it’s either hang out with a six-year-old girl or head to bed early.

Another tension that arises is emphasized from the very beginning – when you enter your dorm to find a girl with a gun pressed against her head, you know you’re into some freaky shit. See, the dungeon lives outside the normal time/space continuum – in the Dark Hour, a witching hour squished somewhere within the stroke of midnight. Consequently, not many people know the school becomes a magic tower of demons every night – the “normal” world containing your school and your friends is almost entirely mundane, save for the mysterious, mildly concerning “apathy syndrome” secretly linked to the appearance of the dungeon. You therefore lead a double life: one involving school trips and vacations, and one in which you court demons and explore dungeons.

The plot does a great job of exploiting these mechanics to give meaning. The majority of the game is about establishing the balance between school, friends, and slaying demons – between the dangerous and the mundane. After you solve the mystery of the dungeon and banish it along with the Dark Hour, however, the game doesn’t end. You keep living your life, but instead of a city full of activities, there is nothing left for you. The shops serve no purpose anymore. Your friends are too busy for you. School is over, so there is nothing to study for. You can search in vain, but time only passes when you take an action, and there are no actions left to take save heading to bed. And the next day, the same. And on the last day, resigned to a life without monster hunting or chance encounters, empty of all actions to consume your time, you fall asleep on the roof while waiting for your friends. They aren’t coming to make you more efficient, to give you better stats, to make your strategies more effective – they come because you are their friend too, but in a world without monsters to conquer, the player has no more role to play – and the game ends.