Ten hours in to Persona 3, I felt like I had picked a truly special game to study for this class. Atlus had melded a dating / relationship simulator, a genre I thought I'd venture in to, and a role-playing game into what felt like a fresh, new experience. Up to that point, the game's story and premise was, well... weird, but I like challenging narrative in my entertainment. So, a tale of quirky J-pop teenagers mixing night-time demon hunting with day-time high school romance wasn't so much a problem as a challenge. The mechanics of actually playing the game were quite strong. The battle system was rock solid, quick and deep, and the relationship simulator's integration with character's abilities was a fun and interesting take on genre conventions. At the ten hour mark, I felt I had played enough to get into all the fine details of the gameplay: managing relationships, equipping my characters, traveling to Tartarus at night to battle demons, and gathering and raising Personas to help me in battle. I could see only one potential, but major, flaw in the game: level design.
Tartarus is essentially the inverse of an enormous dungeon. It contains what seem to be dozens, maybe hundreds, of floors that change each time you enter. The designers attempt to explain this away in the context of the story, but it essentially means that each floor you enter is randomly generated. As I worked my way through the first several floors of gray-walled corridors, occasionally fighting monsters or picking up treasure, I figured that once I reached the foretold 20th-floor boss, I would be on to more interesting environs. After spending several days in game-time (many hours of my real-life time) entering the dungeon, battling until my characters were too weak to continue, then coming back the next night, I finally gained enough strength to beat the boss and moved on up to... slightly creepier, randomly generated, gray corridors.
Luckily, up until this point, the game had held my attention with the excellently designed battle system. Running through Tartarus wasn't exactly interesting, but fighting the monsters and leveling up my characters was fun enough to keep me going. However, after that 20th floor boss, each night that I entered Tartarus felt more and more like work. I kept at it, though, setting my eyes on the next prize: the 40th floor. But, you guessed it - nothing changed after that, either. In fact, the artwork used to render the corridors was exactly the same. It hadn't changed at all by the 50th floor, either - which was at about twenty-eight hours of my play time.
The complete lack of progression and reward for your journey through Tartarus is echoed in the rest of the game's design. I worked my way through entire relationship chains, but nothing interesting ever happened. My friend who had a crush on a teacher didn't end up running away with her. She had a boyfriend and, for some strange reason, didn't dig on teenage boys. Shocking. Essentially, the entire game revolves around visiting the exact same locations (school, the dorms or town shops, and Tartarus), while doing the exact same things (relationship building and battling in grey corridors).
I really wanted to like Persona 3. Atlus did so much right with it, and took a pretty big risk by essentially throwing a dating sim into a hardcore RPG. It's just missing so much in way of content and level design. Worse yet, in a painful twist and what feels like a way to make up for the lack of content, the designers have made progression through the game excruciatingly time consuming. Maybe the levels in Tartarus do get interesting at some point. Who knows? After twenty-eight hours of repeating essentially the exact same dungeon over and over, I'm not willing to give it the time to find out.