TBT – Persona 3
Persona 3 may not be the first game to release under the Persona name, but it is the one that firmly established an identify for this widely popular JRPG series.
Originating as a spin-off series of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, the first two Persona titles, despite noticeable similarities, are completely different games from later entries with their Megami Tensei influences being much more apparent. Persona 3 on the other hand, which is officially titled Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and released in North America on August 14, 2007 for PlayStation 2, shook up the established formula and put Persona on the map as its own entity, beginning a shift in people’s views towards it being more than a simple spin-off series.
Whereas early Persona games did focus on teenaged characters gaining the power of Personas to battle shadows, they played more or less the same as traditional role-playing games. Persona 3, however, went all in on the high-school setting and added the social simulator elements that have since become synonymous with the series. Playing the role of an average high-school by going to class, joining clubs, hanging out with friends, and choosing what to with the rest of your free time might not sound all that exciting, and maybe a bit pathetic, but it really is an addicting gameplay loop. As you work your way through the game’s calendar, which generally progress day-by-day, you begin to build relationships with the characters you choose to spend time with through the aptly named Social Links, which is used to great effect to touch on an array of social and psychological issues that the respective characters are dealing with and results in some of the richest character development in gaming.
Though it’s not as if your character truly is just some average high-student. No, after learning he has the power to call forth a Persona, which is a physical manifestation of ones personality, he begins moonlighting as a member of a secret organization of students dedicated to fighting and investigating the Shadows that invade their world during the mysterious Dark Hour, an hour of time that occurs after midnight that no one save for Persona Users are aware of.
Persona 3’s story is without a doubt the darkest in the franchise, filled with more heartbreaking and despair inducing moments than any other. Meanwhile the moments of levity that occur often in later Persona games to prevent the heaviness of the tone from being monotonous are much rarer here, though the seemingly required in any anime-related media trip to the hot springs is present along with all the ensuing hijinks that come with it. I’m not gonna lie, though, this game can start to ware on you emotionally and actually caused me to feel depressed for a period of time while playing. This is in part because at the time of my life when I originally played Persona 3 my life was sort of in a rout and I felt like I was just spinning my wheels so to speak, so throw in the dark nature of this game, the lack of lighthearted moments, and the long amount of time required to play through the game, you can begin to understand why I started to feel like I was wasting away my life whenever I picked up the controller.
Fortunately, in the game’s later stages the characters begin to overcome the feeling of helplessness that has seemingly overtaken them, which in turn allowed me to do the same, and by time the credits rolled the story had left a strong impression on me about how even when things are at their worst and every door of hope seems to slam in your face, with enough preservation you can eventually overcome anything, even the threat of world destruction.
Even with all the social simulator elements, though, Persona 3 is still a turn-based dungeon crawler. The combat revolves around exploiting enemies’ weaknesses through elemental attacks or a certain weapon type in hopes of stunning them, so all you characters can rush in to deal some extra damage. Collecting Personas and using them in battle is another prominent game feature that is present in Persona 3 and works about the same way it always does; allowing you to fuse Personas in your possession together to create even stronger ones. Despite lacking the improvements later games added, these gameplay systems are very engaging and lead to several standout boss fights. The most significant one being against the final boss; an mentally exhausting and tense battle that can easily take several hours to get through, requiring both patience and cunning, which in part is what makes the satisfaction of finally finishing the game that much sweeter.
Although not everything in Persona 3 is perfect. The game gas a myriad of issues; some of are due to the game’s age, while others are design issues that were evident when it first released. I’m talking about things like the lack of Social Links for party members. Friendship is a huge theme in the Persona series, however, in Persona 3 the main character rarely interacts with his fellow party members. Your character is labeled the leader of your group, however, whenever a group discussion takes place your character is promptly ignored throughout like he’s some quiet outsider no one cares about rather than the one calling the shots. This is also problem because when the characters begin to declare the source of their strength is their unbreakable friendship, it rings a little hallow. Having individual Social Links for every party member, like how it is in Persona 4 and 5, would have fixed this problem by having the player actually involved in their fellow party member’s character arcs instead of it all occurring in scripted moments where the main character isn’t usually even present. But as it stands, in Persona 3 the only party members with their own Social Links are the females, all of which lead to the player entering a romantic relationship with them. So unless you are fine with your character being a total player, you’re not going to get to much chances to delve deeper into these characters’ psyches. Although, admittedly, this is the weakest crop of characters of any Persona game. Not to say they aren’t far better than your average run-of-the-mill JRPG’s cast, but none of the characters particularly stood out to me, while as an overall group they are held back by two serious weak points, Junpei and Ken, whom are among the most annoying and unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered in a video game. The less said about them the better.
The overarching plot also suffers from some pacing issues. Three quarters of the game involve a lot of waiting around for the next literal monster of the month to show up – this is because the characters believe the way to end the Dark Hour is by defeating the twelve Shadows that appear only when the moon is full. And due to this, the time between full moons is very lethargic with actual plot developments being few and far between. Another problem, one Persona’s writers still struggle with, is the plot twists are so straightforward that they can be seen coming a mile away.
Persona 3’s gameplay isn’t exempt either. Like I mentioned earlier, Persona 3 is missing many of the improvements that later games added, which, fair or not, does make the combat feel a bit sluggish in comparison. Not having control of your party members is one of the biggest issues, as their AI is unreliable and tend to prioritize healing themselves over you, which is a huge problem because if you die than it’s game over and could result in you losing hours of progress depending on your last save. The dungeon crawling aspects haven’t aged as well either. With only one dungeon, a giant tower that appears during the Dark Hour in place of the protagonists’ school called the Tartarus, the repetitive nature of grinding in the same place throughout an nearly one hundred hour game can become quite tiresome. It doesn’t help that the Tartarus is already a bland and uninspiring place to explore with the only difference between its two hundred floors being the occasional palette change.
Of course, some of these issues I mentioned were corrected in the PlayStation Portable version of the game, which also added other content to the game, like the ability to play as a female main character. However, that version has issues of its own that would require a review of its own to tackle whereas this review for all intent and purposes is pertaining to the PlayStation 2 version only. Speaking of the PlayStation 2, Persona 3 actually has aged well for a game that came out on a console that it closing in on it’s twentieth anniversary; the character models and textures still look fairly decent, though the quality of the anime cutscenes vary and are a hit-or-miss. I have also yet to touch on the soundtrack, which is probably a mistake on my part because it’s a thing of beauty and just another indictor of why the Persona franchise should be mentioned whenever discussing the greatest music in video games.
I may not be the most unbiased person to say this as Persona is my favorite video game franchise of all time, but Persona 3 remains a great game to this day. I may not love it as much as Person 4 and 5, but I would still use the word “love” to describe my feelings for Persona 3, for without it laying the foundation to establish this winning formula the two previously mentioned games wouldn’t even exist. But I digress, Persona 3 is strong enough on it’s own laurels to warrant the praise. Sure it’s age hampers it in some areas, but all in all it does enough things exceptionally well to overcome these issues, which is what makes it still worth playing even to this day.