I've come to a conclusion on the seemingly random nature of my affinity for RPG videogames. I'm known as something of an RPG nut, but it's really an erroneous label. The truth is I try a lot of RPGs - but there are very, very few that I stick with and enjoy. I always seem to be on the hunt for an epic game that's going to engross me the way Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy VII or Vagrant Story did (and do).
So why, after trying and casting aside literally dozens of popular RPGs over the past few years has Person 3 stuck with me so emphatically? The answer, I think, is that it's significantly different to the traditional Japanese RPG, or at least my experience of it. There seems to be a reason to play it other than the compulsion to level up... it's fun to actually play.
I start playing most JRPGs full of enthusiasm and good intentions, but those quickly drain out of me as the inevitable 'RPG guilt' takes over. This is the overwhelming feeling that embarking on what typically amounts to 50+ hours of save-the-world, level-grinding gameplay is an inexcusable waste of time. An almost self-loathing feeling that comes over me after spending several hours playing a game that I'm not really enjoying all that much, but am for some reason compelled to attempt.
Persona 3 is different. It boasts over 70 hours of game time on the case, and it mainly consists of fighting repetitive battles to boost stats, with the ultimate goal of taking down a succession of boss monsters. If this were all there was to it, and if it played similarly to any other JRPG I wouldn't give it a second thought. Thankfully though, it's quite unlike any JRPG I've ever played. The easiest way to describe it is a cross between Tokimeki Memorial and Rogue. Not the most obvious match-up! By day the focus is on attending school, doing well in studies, and cultivating social networks. All these things constitute part of the stat levelling system in the game. Sing at the karaoke bar and your courage will rise... answer questions in class correctly and your charm and academics benefit. All these behind-the-scenes elements factor into your battle abilities, but it's all nicely hidden and to be honest it's refreshing to not be assaulted with the minutiae of character growth sometimes.
The Roguelike aspect comes in the form of a demonic tower named Tartarus that has to be scaled as the game progresses, each floor layout randomly generated, and offering up opportunities for more straightforward levelling up, items and boss battles every few floors.
The entire gameworld consists of the high school, a few locations in the city, and Tartarus. Major events in the plot are determined by the calendar (for example some kind of large-scale demon activity on each full moon), and day-to-day life is chopped up into sections where sometimes you get to pick an activity or social event to influence your growth. At midnight every night you have the choice of whether to venture into Tartarus or not (sometimes individuals will be too tired or sick to go adventuring, and need nights off).
Getting back to my original point, obviously this represents a substantially different structure to the standard fare. Yes, different RPGs have their different combat systems and different skill systems, but when it comes right down to it the structure and essential gameplay of them remains very conservative. Personified completely by Dragon Quest VIII, which is to all intents and purposes exactly the same game as Dragon Quest I. The graphical finery and vocal work and the substantial charms they bring aren't enough to keep me playing, because I've done all this before. It's not offering anything new to play. I admire Nippon Ichi SRPGs, but whenever I tinker with them I always come to the same conclusion: Why don't I just play Disgaea and be done with the rest?
Persona 3s fresh approach has me playing for sessions of several hours without the faintest hint of RPG guilt. I realised this was the same with Valkyrie Profile, and why it became the first RPG in over 5 years (since Vagrant Story debuted) that I avidly played through to completion. This is why I adore Final Fantasy XII, because regardless of my admiration for the team that created it, if it had simply been another in the long line of traditional Final Fantasies I would not have bothered to play it for more than a couple of hours, out of curiosity. As it is it's so radically different to its predecessors that it really does feel like a completely different game and a new experience.
It's not enough for me to be obsessed with stats and leveling up, or even to be gripped by a good story anymore. There has to be something in the very core of the game mechanic that I haven't experienced before, and that presents a fun challenge in addition to those other things.
I've happily come to terms with the notion of getting a great, fresh, compelling RPG every few years. If nothing else, it at least gives me enough free time to actually play other genres.