Persona 3 is a video game where Japanese teenagers shoot themselves in the head with magical guns in order to summon powerful monsters into battle. And that's not even the most notable thing about it. Persona 3 is sort of like what would happen if you mashed up a typical dungeon-crawling RPG with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You're still battling monsters and saving the world like in other games in the genre, but you also need to balance that with hanging out with friends, remembering to study, and just basically being a kid. But what makes the game so remarkable is the way these two seemingly disparate elements interact with each other in a way that feels natural and fun. When there's an exam coming up, saving the world can wait a night.
The concept of kids summoning demons is consistent across the Persona universe, but the third entry in the series introduced the idea of actually simulating a teenager’s life, making the game instantly more accessible and providing a nice break from all of the monster-battling. (It also features a completely standalone story, so you don’t have to worry about playing the early games.) Similarly, Persona 3 marks a dramatic step up in terms of the series’ writing and localization: it’s still very Japanese, but the characters are relatable and they’re faced with plenty of real-world scenarios. This also lets the game get away with some of its stranger elements, like the "dark hour," or the demon-summoning guns, or the little ghost boy that visits your room every so often.
At the heart of the game is something called the dark hour: a mysterious time of day right after midnight, when the majority of the population sleeps unaware in incredibly creepy coffins, while monsters called shadows roam the streets and attack anyone who happens to be awake. Your character — and everyone else in your high school dorm — just so happens to have the ability to summon monsters, called "personas," that let you battle these shadows. This leads you all to work together as a sort of after-school demon-slaughtering team. In order to learn more about the dark hour and defeat the monsters that lurk within, you venture into a constantly changing, seemingly never-ending tower at night, slowly making your way to the top.
When there's an exam coming up, saving the world can wait a night
But you're also in high school, so there are plenty of other things to occupy your mind (and free time). Persona 3 is divided into days, which are in turn divided into periods like morning and after school. Generally you spend your days in class (unless it's a Sunday or holiday) where you'll occasionally have to deal with falling asleep at your desk and other teenage drama. This portion of the game is surprisingly compelling on its own, but even more interesting is how it influences your nocturnal activities. Making friends creates "social links," giving you the ability to summon different and more powerful personas (which you can collect in the game, sort of like Pokemon). But, just like in real life, the challenge is managing your time effectively. If you go exploring every single night and fail to study, you'll fall behind in class. You'll also get tired and become less effective in battle. So you'll need to take a night off every now and then to open up a textbook or to spend time with friends and nurse those budding social links. What makes it work so well is that these things are fun to do, yet at the same time provide meaningful boosts to your stats — you don't just get a friend, you get a cool new monster to summon.
Persona 3’s mix of high school simulation and role playing game made it stand out not only from earlier games in the series, but RPGs in general. And it’s a formula developer Atlus continued with the equally excellent Persona 4. It may be a few years old, but it’s pretty easy to get your hands on Persona 3 despite its age. The "FES", or festival, special edition on PlayStation 2 is not only relatively cheap, but also comes with a bonus dungeon after the main game is done, while the PSP version might just be the ideal way to play Persona 3. It gives you the option to make the protagonist female (something that's missing in the original), but more importantly, the portable nature is perfect for grinding through dungeon levels on the go.