A little classroom chat.
I was a little surprised to see Persona 3 at the Atlus booth. It has yet to be released in Japan, never mind North America. Personally, I was delighted when Atlus announced that Persona 3 would land on this side of the pond. I'm a big fan of games with style, and Persona 3 has a flair that's undeniable. The music is off-beat and fun, the game concept is classy and cool, and the graphics are delightful. The battle system may be the weak point of the series, but my understanding of the combat was limited. Despite the fact that I had an Atlus representative assisting me, neither of us knew how to read Japanese; the blind leading the blind, I suppose.
I reset the console and started a new game. I had to spend about five minutes at the name selection screen, mostly because (a) I don't speak Japanese and (b) X was cancel and O was select. After inputting mostly gibberish, I moved on to the next screen. The main character, a schoolboy with blue hair, was arriving at what appeared to be a boarding house. There was a girl there with a revolver, oddly enough. Although, the revolver probably wasn't the first thing I noticed; I think her legs were taller than the entirety of an average person and her skirt was around half a foot long. Anyhow, she must have thought our hero was an intruder or something, because she was about to "bust a cap in 'em" when a third character appeared. She was a tall dirty-blonde woman with an MP3 player and a blue skirt, and just her presence seemed to calm the leggy schoolgirl. I'm not quite sure what happened at that point, but the schoolgirl escorted the hero to his room (not in that way, guys) and he went to sleep. They went to school the next day, and I decided to wander around their school's lobby for a while. Every time I tried to leave I got a message telling me something. Probably something important, but it was in Japanese, so I got pretty stuck.
With the help of an Atlus representative, I loaded up a game file in a dungeon setting. A third person had been added to the party, a bearded fellow. All three of them wandered around what appeared to be an old mansion at night. The floor was coated in blood, and the atmosphere was really heavy. The skirted woman with the MP3 player contacted us on our cell phone to give us what were probably vitally important messages (in Japanese). Despite that, I managed to locate a ghost-like enemy and initiate a battle. The combat is entirely turn-based, with my choices being to attack, use a Persona attack, skip, etc. Oddly enough, I seemed to have no control over my allies. They did their own thing, and I did mine. Using a Persona was nifty though. Apparently, they don't actually shoot themselves in the head. They actually use a special gizmo that unleashes a Persona from their head; it just happens to look like a revolver. If you attack an enemy with their specific elemental weakness, you get to attack twice in a row. At one point, I got a critical hit on an enemy, and it became stunned. The three allies jumped up and gangbeat it to death in a giant cartoony cloud of smoke. Classic. If you didn't feel like actually choosing attacks, pressing triangle engaged an auto-battle mode.
After one of the random battles I aquired a Persona card. It was a dark faerie, and I was able to equip it to the main character. Although, I was unable to figure out just how to equip it to any of my other allies. I was also not able to use the fusion system, but the Atlus rep. said it was extensive. Another thing about the characters was that they only had three stats: Academic, Courage, and Charm. I don't know quite how that translates into gameplay, but the fact that the main characters are also students is probably central to the character development.
What really made Persona 3 shine was its style. Menus are brilliantly laid out in blue and yellow. They tended to be asymmetric and artistic, and the battle menu was laid out similarily. The music was incredible. During the day, when the party is at school, the music tends to be very modern and funky. It is intended to emulate what an actual Japanese youth might listen to. At night, the music is stylish and heavy. Lots of great melodies and tons of panache. Combine that with the nifty character portraits and visual style, and it looks amazing. Let's not forget that every time you summon a Persona, the character shoots themselves in the face. I don't know if that will survive the trek to North America, but it's still pretty cool.