Before we get started, be aware that Persona 3 FES is a very dark game. It wouldn't be wrong to call it edgy, however it never really does so in a try-hard way. If you're bothered by people shooting themselves in the head, turn back now.
Let's get into some history before we start. Shin Megami Tensei (True Goddess Rebirth) is a long running series in Japan. Not many games have been translated. They typically center around post apocalyptic situations involving demons and what have you. Not necessarily bright and sunny outings. Persona is a spin-off of this series. It started out fairly close to the Shin Megami Tensei series in tone with a lot of depressing scenarios (see: Persona 2: Innocent Sin). Persona 3 represents an evolution of the series to the modern style that we see today; a social simulator where you live out a year of high school interacting with friends and entering dungeons at night for the gameplay portion. If you're familiar with Persona 4 or 5 then you're used to a much different series where the power of friendship is a magic that always prevails. Check that shit at the door, because the stakes are higher here. I would go so far as to call 4 different enough to almost be a rejection of the classic tropes of the series.
Persona 3 FES takes place in 2009. You're a nameless high school student who transfers to Gekkikan High School, you'll be spending the year there living in a dorm (Japanese high schools do have dorms, high school is serious shit there). Upon arrival things immediately aren't quite right. You'll be treated to a dramatic cut scene of our nameless blue haired hero arriving in town only to find that blood flows through the streets and the people are... coffins.
From this opening cutscene the game's tone rarely wavers. The opening cutscene is also a fantastic preview of what's to come. The music, the art style... this is what an opening cutscene should be. If you'd like, I recommend you check it out on YouTube.
After you're treated to the shocking imagery of what's to come, you'll first be introduced to the social simulator playstyle when you meet your dormmates. You'll settle in and head off to your first day of school. The social simulator aspect is composed of a few different pieces. You'll go to class where occasionally you'll be presented with questions. Answer correctly to raise your acaemics stat, which will assist with improving your social links with your friends. You also have courage and charm which have similar effects of allowing you advance different social links. After school, you're mostly left to your own devices. You can spend time with your social links, go to restaurants, watch movies, go shopping.. it's pretty much up to you. Your most beneficial path however is pursuing social links; maxing links will allow you to fuse the strongest Personae in the game as well as adding experience when you fuse them. More on that, later.
The next piece of the game is the dungeon, known as Tartarus. Tartarus is a 250+ floor dungeon which you can explore during the Dark Hour. The Dark Hour is an additional hour which occurs in the Persona universe when the clock strikes midnight. During this hour normal people become coffins and are unaware of the Dark Hour. Persona users are aware of the Dark Hour and you'll use this time to explore Tartarus and fight bosses with the goal of determining what is causing the dark hour and how to stop it.
Your dorm is composed of fellow Persona users who are investigating the Dark Hour, you'll team up with them and join S.E.E.S. (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad). If you're familiar with the newer games, you know that you summon your Persona by either punching a floating tarot card in the case of 4 or ripping off a mask in 5. Well, in 3 you shoot yourself in the head with a gun called an Evoker.
Frankly, it's strangely hypnotic and makes summing Persona incredibly exciting, even when it's just the fairly simplistic character models doing it in combat.
I never got sick of that. It was just as strange and exciting every time. It made battles so much more dramatic. And you'll be seeing that a lot. I mentioned that the dungeon Tartarus is 250 floors, right? At night, you can elect to go to Tartarus. Every few floors you'll get a checkpoint so you can resume your progress. Your teammates will go with you into Tartarus to help in combat. Here's something that might be a real enthusiasm killer for some people... you do NOT have direct control of your teammates. They act on their own. You can set tactics, but you cannot pick their attacks. You will understand why fans refer to Mitsuru as Marin Karin-senpai. That said, I actually never had a problem with the system. Some people can't stand it, but I adapted quickly. As you make progress through Tartarus, you'll gain additional Personae through battle. You can almost think of this piece like Pokémon, they gain experience through combat, have their own abilities and can be fused together to get new Personae. It's fairly addictive tracking down new Persona and fusing them. The main character is special in the sense that he can use multiple Persona. Your teammates are stuck with the Persona that they started with, though they do "evolve" if you're diligent with your social links. It's beneficial to do some research into the backgrounds of the Persona. Most of them are based on some type of figure from different culture's mythology. The backstory of a teammates Persona often is a reflection on that character in some way.
I previously mentioned Pokémon. Combat is somewhat similar in the sense that you'll spend a lot of time in combat exploiting enemy weaknesses. This is a huge piece of combat. Hitting a weakness causes an enemy to stumble. If you can stumble all of your enemies, you can engage in an attack with all of your team members called an All Out Attack. This is the best way to quickly finish battles and it benefits you as well as this is what allows you to collect new Personae. Likewise, if an enemy hits your Persona's weakness you will be stumbled as well.
One thing I haven't touched on yet... the music. I love this game's soundtrack. Many people praise Persona 4's music which is sort of a playful jazzy style. Persona 3 is 100% my type of music. It's a jazzy hip-hop style and it will get stuck in your head. Especially the dorm theme. Listen to it... if you dare. The music in Tartarus is also worth noting. Tartarus is divided into different sections, called blocks. As you progress through each block a new layer is added to the background music. That alone adds some fun incentive to continue on.
At this point, I can't delve much deeper into the game without hitting spoiler territory. This is a highly addictive game that you can sink a lot of time into. What I've covered with this review is essentially the core gameplay flow, as I think this is something that is difficult to understand if you're an outsider looking in on the Persona series. I highly recommend this game. It's even cheap to pick up: I bought my copy brand new and sealed on Amazon in 2017 for $15. It was so cheap that I even sent my friend a copy as I wanted him to check it out too. This certainly makes it the easiest and cheapiest Persona title to get your hands on, too.