It's pretty rare for PS2 titles to get "director's cut" versions, which is especially true right now with developers moving on to other systems. But it's even more unlikely when that special edition comes out for an RPG that commands a niche audience. When it was released last August, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 combined dungeon crawling, monster collection and dating sim mechanics to make one of the best RPGs of the year. But that wasn't nearly enough for Atlus, who decided to revamp the game in just about every way and make the definitive version of the title with the recently released Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES.
Persona 3 FES is broken up into two separate sections known as The Journey and The Answer. The Journey essentially recaps the basic events of Persona 3, including the mysterious Dark Hour that always strikes at midnight. During this weird period, humans are turned into coffins and disturbing creatures named Shadows attack and feed on people. Fortunately, a select group of students at Gekkoukan High School are immune to this strange state of affairs and can attack the Shadows with Personas, physical manifestations of a person's Psyche. I won't go into a lot of detail about the plot of The Journey, since it hasn't really changed in FES (if you're interested, check out our review
However, much of the gameplay has received significant enhancements across the board. The first and most immediate change that owners of the original Persona 3 will discover is the ability to transfer portions of their save files to the new game. This means that if you've sunk in dozens of hours registering personas in the Persona Compendium, creating fusion skills from combining Personas, gaining items from maxing out social links or want to retain attributes from a previous playthrough, you can do so and get an early advantage.
For those players looking for more of a challenge, the game includes a Hard difficulty mode which obviously makes battles much tougher because monsters will take more damage before they die. The twist to this mode is that it also makes it trickier to run away from battle, so if you get into a fight that's way too dangerous for your party, you might not be able to escape and may quickly be crushed.
Apart from the initial tweaks, a whole host of changes have been made to the game. Just to highlight a few: The pop quizzes and tests that the students go through throughout the year are completely new, as are the locations of some of the characters that you'll interact with. No longer will you always find some students in the same hallways, classrooms or other areas day after day; you'll have to find where they've moved to. There's a larger assortment of equipment, as well as the ability to change outfits and even gain new weapons based on different fusions of Personas.
Speaking of Personas, there's many more that have been included within the title, further expanding the number of skills and beings that you can summon in the midst of combat. I believe it's upwards of 170 or so now, compared to the almost 150 in the original game. And that's just scraping the surface. Toss out most of your old strategy guide if you happen to have one for Persona 3, because just about everything has changed within the game, and it's all for the better.
Now, if you're impatient about playing through the original (or have already beaten it once and want to continue the story), you can choose to play through The Answer, which is an epilogue to The Journey. This mode lets players find out what happened after the close of the original title, and takes place on March 31st of 2010. Unfortunately for the S.E.E.S. members, they are subjected to an incident similar to the movie "Groundhog Day," where they constantly repeat the same day over and over again trapped in their dorm. Unfortunately, a mysterious spatial distortion known as the Abyss of Time has appeared below the dorm, and is forcing this space/time distortion for the characters. To get down to the bottom of this problem and save themselves, the characters need to explore the Abyss.
The Abyss is broken up into seven separate sections, each of which can be explored akin to that of Tartarus from the original title. That means that every time that you enter a specific "dungeon" within the Abyss, the level layout, amount of monsters and items are randomized. What's more, each dungeon has a number of boss fights scattered throughout their walls, making the clearing of each zone much more hazardous the farther you go. Fortunately, your party is still skilled in Shadow elimination, and with the addition of Metis, Aigis' mysterious metallic sister that joins the party at the beginning of the mode, players have even more ways to cut a path through the monsters that pop up in their way. You'll need it, however, because while each character starts out this mode on level 25, the gameplay is tuned significantly higher than before. In fact, you'll frequently find yourself facing off against much harder enemies even though they may visually appear to be much easier to defeat.
This is coupled with a shocking lack of restorative items that you'll need to heal yourself in the midst of battle. While you'll eventually gain the ability to purchase and acquire a lot of medicinal potions, the number of skill point potions that you acquire is practically non-existent. In fact, because you won't get these items from battle and can't purchase them, you'll have to constantly rely on entering and exiting dungeons to replenish lost skill points. This turns the game into much more of a level grinding/dungeon crawling experience than that of the original game, where your progress is inordinately tied to the amount of investment you have with slowly building your characters' levels by gaining experience, exploiting monsters weaknesses and eventually clearing levels. Luckily, many of the weak spots that some Shadows had in the original can still be exploited in this mode.
While this harkens back to a classic, more hardcore RPG experience of fighting and grinding, it's done at a detriment of the elements that made Persona 3 so intriguing in the first place. The interaction that you have with other characters is practically non-existent; apart from adding or removing S.E.E.S. members, you barely talk to anyone else in the game. The Answer doesn't have any social links that you develop or use via interactions to unlock new Personas. In fact, there isn't even a Persona Compendium that you'll have access to. This means that if you attempt to fuse Personas together and make a mistake or accidentally discard one of these beings, you lose them entirely and have to keep your fingers crossed that you reacquire that particular creature at a later time.
While regaining Personas is a little easier to do thanks to the large number of "Shuffle Time" card events that are constantly thrown at you after almost every battle, it can be a bit restrictive to either continually discard new Persona for fear of losing skills you've worked hard at, or continually re-train your Personas over and over again, even after successful fusions. (The Answer does even throw in a little more challenge towards the Shuffle time system, accelerating the speed and motion of the cards, so you're not necessarily guaranteed to get the item you want).
Unfortunately, the same battle issues that affected the original game still wind up popping up in FES, particularly in The Answer. It's still hard to discern what some skills or abilities are unless you write down what the names are and what they can do. This can frequently come back to bite you when you're only allowed to switch to one different Persona per round and the skill you thought you needed isn't associated with the one you choose. You're still only controlling one character during battle, with all of the other characters being controlled by AI commands. While you still give them basic commands and they are intelligent for a majority of the time, some battles (such as boss battles) will require a certain level of micromanagement to be successful.
Also, your characters will still abandon you at times to focus on some monster instead of healing you. This can sometimes happen at the worst time, because if you're knocked unconscious, the game automatically ends. Considering that the Shadows you face off against are much tougher and inflict much more damage, you'd hope that this would've been adjusted. That's not the case at all. All of these issues make this episode much more for a hardcore fan that's willing to reload over and over again because of a harsh sequence of battles. However, if you're looking for an ending to the overall Persona 3 saga, you will get it here.
For the most part, Persona 3 FES does a good job of recycling assets from the previous title without any visual degradation. Monsters from the original title are still as striking and obscure in their construction as ever before. It's pretty strange to suddenly see faceless creatures lying on floating couches, statues with multiple legs or large lions with balls attached to their legs by large chains. If it sounds strange, just wait till you see them in action. Similarly, the summoned Personas are just as unique, and the fact that there are a lot of new ones, each one stranger looking than the next, only makes the title more visually appealing. However, it's some of the subtle improvements, such as the addition of brand new costumes for some characters in The Journey, or the addition of brand new cutscenes that highlight the anime influences on the game, that really stand out.
Once again, the game features a lot of voice acting, primarily during battle sequences where your characters will continually banter back and forth during fights. Just like the original, most of the dialogue is pretty good. There's a bit more of a sense of the characters and their development as you move from The Journey into The Answer, which is great, especially because you have much more of a connection to your party and their diverse personalities. While the music still winds up looping much more frequently than you'd hope (particularly in The Answer, where you'll hear the same battle theme over and over again), at least in The Journey you're allowed to change music tracks, including swapping over to some earlier Persona tunes.
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