Okay, I've spent well over 70 recorded hours of my life on this game (which is a low estimate since it only counts the play time I kept, and this is the type of game that requires multiple save states). It's probably time to write some sort of reaction to it, if only to try to explain why a game like this can so thoroughly take over my entire life (not that this is all that hard).
Anyways, Persona 3. It's published by Atlus, who I trust because they also published Disgaea and Trauma Center. All these games have poor graphics that it made up for through very expressive hand drawn pictures that go along with the dialogue (not that this is an unusual strategy for RPGs). Also, the voice acting and writing quality is typically well above average (although I used the Japanese voices for Disgaea, but that's not important).
Persona 3 is actually included within the Shin Megami Tensei umbrella, which includes a variety of other RPGs as well, all of which stand out for a variety of reasons. The primary thing they all share is that they are typically a little disturbing compared to the average RPG. Topics like cannibalism and suicide are not unusual in these games.
So, what is the first thing Persona 3 shows you, during the opening video when you turn on the game? "Memento mori". And then a silhouette of a character holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger (and the eyes suddenly opening in pain as the right side of the head explodes). All this is set to some random upbeat J-pop song. Hell of a first impression.
However, it's not the first impression that got me to continue allowing my life to waste away while my entire focus was on this game. It's the gameplay. And this game, in many ways, revolutionized the genres it borrows from, to make them more than capable of taking over my life.
There are two keys genres where the gameplay arises from: classic dungeon crawling RPGs and Japanese High School Sims. Intuitively, these genres are not related. Also, intuitively, neither of these genres is particularly fun or popular outside Japan (okay, dungeon crawlers are kind of popular, I guess).
To be clear, dungeon crawlers are the kind of RPG that use fighting and leveling purely for the sake of fighting and leveling. Diablo would be a classic example of a dungeon crawler, but it used the point-and-click gameplay mechanic (instead of separate battles). The point being, you are meant to simply continue playing through Diablo's randomly generated floors and leveling your characters, purely for the sake of getting stronger. There is little other reward for your troubles. This genre commands a fairly hardcore audience in Japan that is willing to dedicate significant amounts of time to a game, simply for the accomplishment involved with doing this (think of those people that have to create level 99 pokemon, or climb everest for that matter). I will admit to the fact that I do sometimes get addicted to this type of game...
Japanese High School sims are basically only popular in Japan, to my knowledge (note that this is different from dating sims, which are ever-so-slightly popular elsewhere). Really, the only "fun" involved with these games is in accessing the different stories and cut scenes. These games main appeal comes from the idea of simulating life, except that you're allowed to save and try a different response. I'm sure this is fulfilling lots of fantasies, but whatever (it reminds me of the ending cinematic for Ubisoft's Prince of Persia, where the Prince kisses the beautiful princess, gets slapped, then reverses time a little ways so it never happened and instead he says something clever and walks away into the sunset, all classy-like). Anyways, that's all these games typically have to offer (although they can get pretty complicated, so I'm not saying they're necessarily easy...think along the lines of, like, Myst-type puzzles, only with more Japanese schoolgirls). And, I'm going on the record saying I'm not really into this type of game, I swear. I don't care if you don't believe me, since I know it's true and that's good enough for me (don't ask why I know things like the above couple sentences, too).
So, Persona 3 did something amazing. It combined these genres into something way better than either one. Dungeon crawlers suffer from a severe amount of monotony. It's kind of inherent to the system. High School sims suffer from a lot of problems as well, such as: unreality, lame stories, the utter pointlessness of it all, the lowering of personal self-esteem for even getting close to the game...you get the idea. Persona 3 eliminates almost all these problems (there is still a little monotony, but it's fairly optional).
Summed up simply, during the day, in game, your character goes to school and at night him and his friends slowly battle their way up a seemingly infinite tower. At school, you do things like go to class, hang out with friends, participate in clubs, and try to date girls. There's a limited amount of time to do most of this stuff, so you have to divide your time wisely. At night, you do things like fight bad guys (or stay home and study or stay home and sleep to recover from the previous long night).
Here's where it's cool, though. There are two ways to power up your spells and stats. By gaining experience, you can slowly increase your stats and learn new moves. Alternatively, the activities, friendships, and relationships that you nurture at school can be translated into very significant power ups to your character at night. In fact, there are far greater potential gains from a fully developed friendship than would be available without it.
This provides two keys answers. First, there is a reason to care about your friends and their problems. If you can say the right things and help them out, then it will make you more powerful at night. This makes the high school sim aspect of the game a lot more interesting because there's actual personal awards for your accomplishments. Similarly, because this is where you can reap significant awards, you don't have to waste massive amounts of time leveling your characters at night, which makes avoiding the monotony that plagues the dungeon crawler genre a lot more feasible.
It's brilliant. The result is that over the course of the game, I can continue getting stronger and preparing to face tougher bad guys, without have to spend hours leveling up against the current guys. Once I've unlocked the way to the next area, I just have to hang out with the right people to improve whatever I need improved. Plus, the high school sim doesn't feel as arbitrary, because there's actually a strategy involved. As an example, let's just say I've dumped girls who were improving aspects that I didn't need.
Completely unrelated, I'm glad I didn't have to explain myself to her, I can imagine a conversion like that in real life being a little awkward: "The spells I'm learning from our relationship are weak and useless, so I'm dumping you for this nerdy chick who'll teach me crazy awesome instant kill spells. I hope you understand. It's nothing personal. We'll still be friends, right?"
So, yeah, that's what I've spent my life doing for the past couple weeks (don't read as dumping girls to find ones that give me more powerful spells). The game is really interesting and innovative, which is really what blows me away about it. I sincerely hope more games copy this type of mechanic, since it works so well.
That is all.