Rated Mature 17+; PlayStation 2 & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & Y & lt;/span & ukari's egg-shaped head -- topped with swipes of auburn hair and punctuated by caramel eyes -- is almost as large as the gun she sticks in her mouth. She clutches the pistol's black handle with both hands, opens her tiny mouth, pops the barrel inside and then braces herself, legs wide apart. Just before she squeezes the trigger, she utters a meek "help me." Then Yukari closes her eyes and the back of her head shatters like a plate-glass window that has had a rock thrown through it.
From the fragments of Yukari's mind arises a Persona -- a super-powered part of her that is reserved for fighting battles. Floating above Yukari, a giant onyx-black woman sits chained in a bull's-head chair. Though she is manacled in place, she nods forward, and the monster confronting Yukari -- a big bobbing hand with a head where the wrist should be -- is vanquished in a blast of ice. Yukari smiles, her head suddenly whole. "That was easy!"
The story and setting of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 lie somewhere between Harry Potter's Hogwarts and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sunnydale High, though in a contemporary and much more brutal Japan. During the day, I'm in charge of a blue-haired teenager as he wends his way through the social and academic maze of Gekkoukan High School. At night, during a "hidden hour," I'm in charge of supervising the young man and his friends as they battle demons in a dark, Escher-esque labyrinth named Tartarus that rises from the school.
The standard turn-based role-playing format that has driven countless games on the PS2 is fused into a solid whole in Persona 3. What my character does during his after-school free time determines what Persona he can summon during battles. And even his late-night dungeon crawls are cut short by fatigue, which ends up affecting his academic performance the next day.
Surrounding this is a malaise-drenched contemporary world. Persona 3 is not a nice game. The main characters are adolescents who must literally annihilate their own selves to survive. Manga and its animated progeny, anim & eacute;, have been disturbing and extreme since their emergence from scroll painting and kabuki art; Persona 3 is from the same surreal and brutal aesthetic. But the game's expression of modern identity crisis, presented through the interactive art of a videogame, is more immediate and shocking than any film or television series could ever be.
THE GOOD: Art Director Shigenori Soejima's character designs are streamlined and emotionally ambiguous refinements of classic anim & eacute; style in mod, suave silhouettes. The matted palette of colors and a spindly downcast slope to all the designs contribute stunningly to the game's elegant and unsettling atmosphere.
THE BAD: My demon-fighting classmates don't seem to spend as much time socializing as I do. I might see them at student council or hanging out at school, but they're rarely engaged in any activities that would develop their Persona. For a group of people who urge me to make connections with as many different places and people as possible, my friends are surprising homebodies.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Persona 3 embellishes a classic PS2 role-playing formula with a disturbingly sophisticated mixture of banal innocence and unnatural violence.