I promised a little while back to write up something on the PS2 SMT series games. I'm not the first person to do it, of course. Spoony has done a Vlog on it (spoilers inside), and two follow-ups on Persona 4 specifically. So, without further adieu here's SMT According to Evilpaul.™
Note: I'll try to be pretty spoiler free here, but you'll hopefully learn something about the series and maybe be inspired to pick up one or two of these lesser known PS2 JRPGs. (I got most of them off Amazon, but I'd also check the local gamestore's website as you may be able to find copies for as little as $15 new.)
Something I like to do upon getting a new game is to sit down for a minute or two and see what the intro movie/demo stuff is like. In general with SMT on the PS2, they're pretty strong. Either sort of montages of the game's anime cut scenes and game play or some sort of vague, dark teaser about the game's story.
They also nearly all contain more than minor spoilers. Persona 3: FES has a pretty cool opening, but it shows the ending of both parts of the game in it too. You won't have any idea what you're seeing until you see it again in game though probably. There's similar spoilers in the others as well. Thankfully, the spoilers are mostly for things so bizarre you won't know what they are when you see them. It's sort of the way Final Fantasy games throw a whole bunch of crazy stuff at you at the beginning of the game that ends up being important later, and you've got no idea what the hell's going on at the time.
Here's the run down of the intros courtesy of Youtube.
Digital Devil Saga:
DDS1 has probably the most disappointing intro of the series. It was apparently changed for the English version and the music is quite jarringly different from the rest of the soundtrack. The rest of the soundtrack is kind of what I imagine cheesy 80's post apocalyptic world setting action movies through a nostalgia filter. (Clean, sort of downbeat, electric guitar riff heavy mostly that really fits with the atmosphere.)
Digital Devil Saga 2:
Persona 3 FES:
Persona 4 has by far the most upbreat and happy sounding intro.
Diving Right In...
My introduction to the series was with SMT: Nocturne. It's touted as one of the most soul crushingly difficult RPGs EVAR.In truth, that's partly true most of the difficultly comes in the form of obtuse spell names (guess what "Bufu" or "Makakaja" do?), opaque character progression, and some trial and error in having the right party at the time.The game is primarily a fairly linear dungeon crawler. As the main character you explore the newly destroyed and partially reborn world and see what a mess the place has become.The inhabitants are nearly all demons and just about every faction you can ally with is completely monsterous.
Press Turn Combat
It's combat is turn-based and the first game in the series to use the "Press Turn" system. Normal attacks consume one turn like in normal turn-based JRPGs. Criticals and striking weaknesses only use half a turn. Missed attacks cost two turns. Nulled/Repeled/Absorbed attacks end either the player's or enemies' turn immediately. The player gets one turn for each member in his party. Enemies generally get one per enemy, but bosses can give themselves two and four half turns via an ability and some enemies (usually very large ones) get two turns. Because of how much "momentum" this gives the turn-based combat you need to strike weaknesses and avoid having exploitable ones in your party.
Oh, and did I mention there's Instant Kill spells? Oh, and if the main character dies, even with the next party member up able to use a revive spell, the credits roll? That can be kind of cheap, and really fucking annoying when you get one-shotted and haven't saved in 30 minutes, but it's pretty avoidable in general.The other party members are demons which you can recruit by bribing them. They level VERY SLOWLY though, so you need to continuously be on the look out for new allies and use Demon Fusion which is kind of confusing. It's basically Demon Type X + Demon Type Y = Demon Z.
And there's moonphases involved.
No, seriously. Moonphases.
There's tables and FAQs available and it's really one of the game's biggest shortcomings because it's very hard to figure out on your own and its pretty essential to completing it without massive amounts of level grinding.Both the main character and his demon party members have strenths and weaknesses and can learn up to 8 abilities.
The main character gets his from Magatama which are bought in shops (post-apocalyptic consumerism...isn't it great?) or found in various places. You learn skills by having a Magatama equipped when you level up. You need to be sufficient level to gain the next skill off it though, so that's a bit confusing. Another barrier to entry is that you can only see the next skill of maybe 7 or 8 you can learn from a Magatama, you probably will need to look at a FAQ to find out what it does, and you won't know for sure that you'll learn it the next time you level, and some skills aren't on Magatama you'd even expect to find them.Also, because you can only learn 8 skills once you fill up all the slots (which doesn't take long) you need to start permanently replacing old skills to obtain new ones. Sometimes it's straightforward like getting a medium damage physical skill to replace a light damage one. Other times, not so much. Keep that Evasion/Accuracy down spell or replace it with a full heal one? Or maybe replace that fire damage one? Once you drop a skill it's gone for good, and you can screw yourself over pretty good if you ditch the wrong one.
Perhaps most bizzarre about Nocturne is that buffs and debuffs actually do something! In fact, stacking the accuracy/evasion buff on yourself and flooring the enemies is pretty much an essential tactic throughout much of the game. Enfeebling effects generally don't work on bosses, but the debuffs even work on the hardest boss in the game. Shocking, I know.
Aside from the hard to decipher character progression and complicated Demon Fusion Nocturne is an enjoyable game. The story is dark and interesting. The setting isn't overdone and cliched. There's a whole bunch of endings. And the combat system has a pretty decent amount of depth to it.
I wouldn't recommend it as your first title to pick up in the series though. I'd go with Persona 4 largely because just about anywhere you see the series' signature weird spell names you can hit the Square Button and see what they do. You also can reaquire disposed of skills in P4, but more on P4 later.
"...Like The Matrix, if it were told well..." --Spoony on Digital Devil Saga
If you watched the Spoony video on SMT, then you've already had most of this game's overall plot spoiled for you. I'm purposefully trying to avoid spoilers here, so I won't explain the above quote. (I had fun playing through the two DDS games with the ending spoiled already anyway, so I'm sure other people could too.) I'll address the two games separately because while DDS2 is a direct sequel it's got some significant differences from the first game.The setting is a world called the Junkyard. It's bombed out and crappy mostly and always raining. It's steeped in Hindu mythology with "Karma" being Experience Points and just about everything being pulled from it. There's Indian style architecture and at the center of the Junkyard is the Karma Temple which looks like a gigantic Taj Mahal sort of tower...thing. There's an unending war between several tribes the winner of the war gets to go to Nirvana. Which presumably sucks less than the Junkyard.
The game starts with the Embryon (the tribe the main character leads) finding an Egg, it shooting crazy light beams all over turning the Embryon into demons, and the Embryon eating the other tribe's dudes alive, and then finding a mysterious amnesiac girl named Sera who might be important later. That's the opening movie for you in a nice run-on sentence nutshell. From there out you spend the game crawling one dungeon after the next with the story advancing and then progressing to the next one fighting random battles on the way. If you want to know what happens either hit up Wikipedia or Youtube or better yet, pick up a copy and play it.
The character progression is much improved over Nocturne. Your party members each have a Strength and a Weakness that's fixed (the weakness can eventually be Nulled). And you can set and replace skills outside of battle. You may still need to look up what skills do though as you can't get a description of them on all the menu screens.
After battles, which use basically the same Press Turn system from Nocturne, you get EXP ("Karma"), money ("Macca"), and Ability Points ("Atma"). You buy Mantras from this grid for Macca and then learn them by getting Atma.You get more Atma and less Macca by eating your enemies. You need Macca to buy Mantras to learn abilities with though, so you need to try and strike a balance.
I found that the game made that rather hard though. It could be that I kind of just made my main character a heavy physical attacker who weakened and then ate all the enemies, but I found I either had no money and mastered all my Mantras or lots of money and it taking forever to learn new skills. You may also want to look online for a picture of the full Mantra grid so you can see what/where all the skills are (and what they do).There was also still that issue of trial and error in that you don't know in advance what a boss will be weak to or what attacks they'll use, so you may get your ass kicked and need to re-spec your party or learn new abilities to beat them. In practice, it wasn't much of a problem though with save points almost always immediately before every boss.
So that's DDS1. A fairly linear dungeon crawler (with a good number of sidequests if you go looking), but well executed. And you get to kill and eat dudes. (You can't even do that in Grand Theft Auto!)
DDS2 is a direct sequel from DDS1. And has a bunch of bonuses if you have a DDS1 completed save file. It also references lots of stuff from the first game, so you should probably beat DDS1 before moving on to its sequel. I hope that was fairly obvious.
I won't comment on the story, but there's definitely a few surprises even playing through with the ending spoiled. The gameplay and overall structure is largely the same. If you could make it to the end of DDS1 you should be fine for its sequel.
The Mantra Grid got an overhaul. It's now made up of interlocking hexagons making skill progressions much less linear. You'll still probably want to look up what's where online though.
There's Rings that provide (somewhat lame, generally) special abilities and have sockets for a set number of stat boosting gems.
And that's pretty much it. If you played the first and liked it overall this is the more refined second half of the game.
And Now For Something Completely Different...
The Persona series is a departure from the mainline SMT games in that it usually stars highschool kids in Japan, the world usually doesn't end, you don't kill God/the Devil, etc. Persona 3: FES is an updated rerelease of P3 (don't get the original by mistake) that takes the dungeon crawling of the other SMT games and combines it with an "Interactive Novel"/"Social Sim" where you play the main character and go to class, hangout with friends, date nearly every female in the game, etc.The combat is similar to the previous games, but different in that it uses the "One More" system which allows you to continue attacking enemies as you strike a new (or new for that particular enemy) weakness. Striking a weakness or scoring a critical hit knocks the enemy down. If you knock them all down you can launch an All-Out attack which will deal devastating damage and end most battles.
It's also different because: You don't control any of your party members! Worried about braindead stupid AI? You should be. But, it's not too bad. As you progress further into the game you get additional AI setting options and you can make your party member generally do exactly what you would have manually selected for them.Mitsuru using a triple her next magic damage ability and then using a regular physical attack the next turn or using an AoE Charm ability when a regular physical attack would have ended the battle can be quite irritating though. That's probably why I didn't use her very much.
The game's dungeon crawl is up Tartarus which is a ridiculously many floored tower that appears during a hidden 25th hour of the day called the Dark Hour. The game's story involves solving the mystery of Tartarus, the Dark Hour, the Shadows (think demons), and why the character's can summon Persona (think friendly demons) by using an Evoker (think putting what looks like a gun to their heads and pulling the trigger).
Character progression is thankfully straightforward. Your allies level up from exploring Tartarus with you and their Personas gain new abilities. They have elemental strengths and weaknesses. Their Personas tend to get two types of skills and possibly buffs/debuffs. One character has wind and strong multitarget healing spells and is weak against fire. Another gets physical attack skills, ice spells, debuffs, and is weak to fire. Etc, etc.
The main character is able to use multiple Personas. He can get new ones randomly after battles or by doing a Demon Fusion type thing. Other than 4-6 Persona fusions (the resultant Arcana and Demon's Name aren't listed for some assinine reason) I found the system much easier to navigate and understand than Demon Fusion in Nocturne. The Personas like the ones your allies get have elemental strengths and weaknesses and have affinities to getting new skills of a particular type. A fire demon Persona won't be learning many ice skills, etc. The other half of the game, the "Sim" part, lets you form Social Links that make your fusions grant bonus EXP for stronger Personas.
The fusions themselves take place in the Velvet Room. It's a blue room mostly covered in velvet themed in a way relating to whichever game its in. P3's about a mysterious tower, so the Velvet Room is a large old timey elevator. The Velvet Room's occupants are Igor, a creepily voiced, skinny, gigantically nosed bald man. And Elizabeth a seemingly insane, otherworldly, space cadet who you can take on "dates" to the mall, your school, etc, where she misunderstands everything in a hilarious manner.
I haven't mentioned it much up to this point, but the localization Atlus pulled off for Persona 3 is amazing. It's intentionally funny in parts (see: Elizabeth), genuinely sad in others, and the voice acting in general is pretty good. The story is interesting, the main characters are likeable, and one of the antagonists is really fucking creepy and a bit of an asshole.
That's all about The Journey, the first part of Persona 3: FES, now to dive balls deep into The Answer. The Answer is a stripped down epilogue. It's entirely dungeon crawling and cutscenes, it's stuck on Hard Mode difficulty (prepare to miss attacks a whole lot more), and I really would suggest just watching the cutscenes on Youtube.
The story bits it adds are great, but I wouldn't suggest subjecting yourself to the punishing level of difficulty unless you're actually into some kinky S&M type shit. In which case, congratulations on getting to have sex with machines years before the rest of us, jerk.
Saving The Best For Last
Persona 4 is the indirect sequel to P3:FES. There are connections between the two games, but they have about...the impact of a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan.
Good God that was the worst pun-type thing to ever grace The Pie Blog™, please forgive me if you got it. ^.^;
Yes, one of the things in common is a glowy butterfly that's never explicitly explained or really even mentioned in either game. Well, I think there's a single "...A butterfly...?!" line in P3, but I'm not 100% on that. And it doesn't matter anyway.
Persona 4 takes just about everything that was good about P3:FES and improves upon it and dumps everything that was bad.
On the battle/dungeon crawling side of the game the dungeons are "more varied" according to people who hated Tartarus but don't mind P4 (I personally don't see much difference really...you explore the floor, kill some shadows, get some loot, go up the stairs to the next floor, repeat in both). Your party members all have Social Links that give them additional abilties in battle. These include things like saving the main character's life by taking a hit for him. Which is quite nice since a dead MC makes the credits roll.
The "Social Sim" side of things is tweaked and cleaned up with a minor but extremely handy fast travel button so you don't have to walk all over town. The Social Links I think are more interesting in general in P4 than its predecessor, but that's a matter of taste, of course.
What really steals the show and makes the game so memorable are the characters. Persona 3's localization was good, but Atlus outdid themselves with P4. Many people would argue that P3 has a more "epic" storyline, and that's probably true, but P4 I just enjoyed playing more.
It's sort of like Suikoden versus Final Fantasy 8. Sure in FF8 (imagine, for the sake of argument that FF8 is good and you'd want to play it) you're SAVING THE WHOLE WORLD FOR ALL TIME and in Suikoden you're just getting involved in a civil war in a little province somewhere. But which game's characters and story really draw you in? I'd go with Suikoden everytime. This is kind of a bad comparison because P3:FES is a good game worth playing, but the general point stands.
And now for a montage of P4 screenshots (two amusingly enough taken of the same scene Spoony took them of, but before him and for different reasons). I won't include last boss fights or major plot points, but there's minor spoilers:
One Final Word...
As a final point, I wanted to mention something you can't get in text. Music. The games all have pretty excellent soundtracks, mostly by Shoji Meguro, but all in a variety of styles with a lot of memorable tracks. So if you like game music that's another reason to give the series a look.