In retrospect, I’d have to say my high school days were pretty typical. I’d worry about tests. I’d worry about friends. I’d worry about whether Suzy thought I was cute or not, and if not, what it showed about her character that she was more interested in that towel-snapping Steve guy.
But I rarely worried about fearsome, blob-like creatures attacking me at the stroke of midnight.
Which makes me all the happier I didn’t go to the Tokyo-based high school featured in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. Not only do students have to concentrate on their studies, friendships and extracurricular activities, they must navigate a shadowy netherworld teeming with monsters. And these monsters want nothing less than the extermination of life as we know it. If that’s not enough to aggravate your acne, I don’t know what is.
I Should’ve Joined the Track Team
P3 is a complex, anime-style role-playing game in which the player is a slouching, swoop-haired high school transfer on the make for good grades, good friends and a good night’s sleep. He spends much of his time answering questions in class, talking with other students and hanging out at the local mall.
But there’s a darkness lurking underneath all this predictable prep-school life. When the clock chimes midnight, the world enters a hidden time zone called the dark hour. Most folks don’t even know such a time exists, but those who do are under serious threat from a host of creatures called “shadows”—entities that suck life from their victims and leave them as husks, lethargically staring at nearby walls or television sets.
Which is where your slouching transfer and his compadres, who all belong to a supposed extracurricular club, come in. These folks not only walk around during the dark hour, they’re able to fight the shadows—sometimes with swords, poles or any kind of martial arts exotica that’s handy. But their most awesome fighting powers center around their “personas”—parts of the psyche that, when summoned, become godlike warriors.
How are these personas summoned? By pointing a gun-like device at your head and pulling the trigger.
As is the case with most RPGs, characters (and their personas) grow stronger as they fight. But they also grow stronger as they develop social ties with the folks around them—which means that all your school interactions outside dark hour make you a better fighter once the hour arrives. In other words, the more friends you have—and the better they like you—the more likely you’ll be able to smack down shadow dudes when need be.
Making Friends With Darkness
P3 is as much an interactive story, then, as it is a game—one with several possible endings and punctuated by lengthy narrative clips. And the characters that surround you are, when compared to standard video game offerings, startlingly complex. You learn their personalities and motivations, making them seem more like people than pixels.
The fact that characters gain strength through friendship is an intriguing—and welcome—wrinkle. It’s nice when you come across a game that lauds human connection rather than just who has the biggest chain saw.
But P3‘s own dubious darkness ultimately sinks it. Violence is pervasive, with characters offing countless shadows, and even the occasional evil human. Blood can be found spattered on walls. Many characters curse, a few smoke and drink, and girls wear short skirts, snug-fitting pants and, on occasion, revealing swimwear. A few bad ‘uns launch their personas by taking heavy-duty drugs. And the fact that even the good characters, in order to release their personas, must do so by essentially firing a gun at their own heads, is unsettling.
The Witching Hour
Even more disquieting, however, is the game’s muddled spirituality—an element given away immediately by the pentagram-like symbol on the game’s cover. Shadows are sometimes called demons (though they have apparently little in common with biblical demons) and their primary lair is a place called Tartarus—named after a hell-like realm from Greek mythology. The personas take names and some characteristics from a huge array of religious and mythological figures. A persona named Thor, for instance, has his roots in Norse mythology. Kali, another persona, comes from Hinduism. And a third, Gabriel, was spawned right from the Bible. But the personas’ main characteristics stem from 22 standard-issue Tarot cards: The power in each card is, um, personified, by a persona.
You learn all about the Tarot during gameplay, as you’re inexplicably enrolled in a class on witchcraft. In the class, magic is divvied up into “good” magic and “evil” magic, and Christianity is presented as restrictive and backward—an unnecessary hindrance to the hidden, magical power within.
P3‘s gameplay is visually lush and artistically compelling. But let’s face it: The game’s shadows aren’t limited to just the ones the characters fight. P3 is one, vast dark hour … that takes more than 60 real hours to explore.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.