Hell yeah! We’re back with this! It’s been, what, four years since we did the last entry in our much vaunted Persona Retrospective? You thought I gave up on it, didn’t you? And look at how much a fool you are now! No, you gave up on me! You think four years matters to one such as I? I never forgot. And I never quit.
Well, maybe I did. Sort of. You may notice that rather than finally doing the second half of Persona 2, I’m coming right in your face with Persona 3. That’s true. And I’m sorry. I’ve actually tried a couple of times to get the next step in this retrospective going with good old Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, and I just can’t. I was halfway through the game when I made a big cross-state move and life transition, and couldn’t keep up with my usual playtime in the aftermath. Then, sometime later, I picked up Persona 2: Innocent Sin again with the intention of getting background on that for the eventual Eternal Punishment analysis, but frankly, although the Persona 2 duology does a lot of really unique things and is a very interesting game in all, its design has aged a bit. Not as poorly as many other games, but I found, with a lot of things I was going through then and continue to go through now, I just didn’t have the patience for it.
So we’ll skip it and come back to it later. For now, it’s Persona 3 right up in your grill, suckers!
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh Aether, you sexy hunk of pure genius, isn’t your time already very full? And didn’t you just start another project where you’re going to be reviewing all the Godzilla movies? Are you really going to be able to keep up with another commitment?” And sure. That would be what sensible people would think. But I’m to busy being awesome to be sensible. I’m not one to let fear of failure or fear of commitment stop me. I’m going to bite off more than I can chew. And then I’m going to chew it.
In case you haven’t noticed, I like talking about the thing that I’m going to be talking about for a good while before I really get into talking about them. But let’s get into that now.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
Okay, up until this point in the subseries, Persona games have been all about taking the ethos of the greater Shin Megami Tensei series and making it more familiar, more accessible, and more character-driven, while also experimenting the hell out of it. Shin Megami Tensei has been very WRPG-influenced, and the Persona subseries takes that and fits it into a JRPG shell, creates room for a hell of a lot of character exploration, then adds a whole lot of new, wild, and largely unpolished features onto it. Persona 3 follows on in that progression.
But it’s also the turning point in it. See, Persona 4 and 5 don’t carry the same wild experimentation the earlier games did. Instead, they take the model that Persona 3 built, and polish it further, and further. And they make beauty out of it. Persona 3 is a fantastic game. But it’s like a raw gem. It’s valuable. It’s beautiful. But it needs some rough edges pared off and a lot of polish to really shine. Persona 3 is a turning point in the Persona subseries. This is where, I would say, it really hit true greatness for the first time. And the developers recognized it, and went in the same direction for future entries.
To really get into Persona 3 and what makes it what it is, we have to talk about another game. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. The first SMT game of the PS2’s era. And it would represent as much of a shift for the SMT franchise as a whole as Persona 3 is for that SMT subseries. Shin Megami Tensei games had largely stuck to its classic WRPG influences all through the SNES and PS1 entries, but by the time the 6th console generation had rolled around, frankly, technology had far outpaced that mode. Even WRPGs themselves were drastically different from the Ultima/Wizardry days. The technology was capable of so much more than the pure first person grid-based dungeon crawler with minimal world interaction was providing, and the largely 2d and simple visuals those games utilized were growing outright bland in that new world. So Nocturne brought the series roaring into the new era. Fully 3d environments, visuals that more accurately represented the urban apocalypse the series brought through, more involved visual storytelling, and a completely redesigned crew of monsters that would be distinctive of the series for years to come, it’s presentation has made SMT what it is every since. The gameplay updates were no slouch either. Battles were no longer matters of numbers against numbers, but made much more strategic with the press turn system in which the amount of turns you have were tied to your manipulation of elemental strengths and weaknesses. Enemy encounters designed so that even basic random battles would test you, requiring so much more than just mashing attack as was standard for most RPGs. Dungeons built so that the important thing in success is your long-term resource management across hordes of challenges as much as your ability to overcome individual battles. It created design elements that had ramifications across the entire series.
And all of that carried through to Persona 3, in some form. Previously, the SMT series had a more eclectic and varying mix of demons and what roles they held. Nocturne really codified and brought consistency to the mythological set of demons the series held, and Persona 3 slotted them firmly into the role of your personas. Your enemies and adversaries were made completely different in both tone and origin, marking the first time the series had such a significant demarcation between persona and enemy. They use the same visuals for the beasties, too, as do all 3d SMT games from that point further, building and taking advantage from the Shin Megami Tensei trademark design. The press turn system was imported in a more limited form, with both you and your enemies being able to gain a single extra move for targeting your opponent’s weakness, or lose one if your own are hit. Tonally, well, SMT has always been about destruction and apocalypse, but Nocturne brought new impact to that in the 3d era, and Persona 3 took that and run with it. Although it’s not as dire as Nocturne was, it’s still rather oppressive, and it takes that to a more personal level.
Persona 3 is generally considered the first of the modern Personas, and to many people, apparently Atlus included, the subseries starts here as far as they’re concerned. This is the first game that has the social link system, where a lot of emphasis is on getting to know and helping NPCs through a sort of visual novel/dating simulator-esque interface, that has become such a series trademark and one of the biggest draws of Persona games. Although 4 and 5 would make minor updates to it, this is also where they established the game model largely used in everything following. Whereas previously, every character could use multiple personas, but had some limits on them, and a lot of their capabilities were based on their stats, starting with Persona 3, only your main character could use multiple personas but they had no limits on them and their stats were determine by said persona, making your main character effectively over a hundred characters you could choose from. These is where you get Lotus Juice and the Jpop soundtrack setting the mood, driving home just how modern this series is in comparison to others of its genre. The Persona series had been pretty heavy with its theming and storytelling in the Persona 2 duology, but this is the first time the series with so deep in its plot and multi-layered in its themes. Everything where you have a certain amount of days to do everything you need to do while the plot and conflict progresses on a fixed calendar, where managing your available time as a resource is essential, where basically everything in the combat engine comes from, it all comes from here. Persona 3 represents not just a paradigm shift in the Persona series itself, it was so utterly different from every other JRPG out there, and yet, for all its experimentation, it still came together in a fantastic form. Honestly, it’s no wonder this is the model all the rest of the games took after.
Even then, Persona 3 is unique. It stands apart, even so much that as its descendants made its gameplay obsolete, it still has plenty to offer the modern player. And such can be seen just from booting up the game. Check out the original intro here, because I really have to give props to it. Never have I seen a game intro that so perfectly encapsulates the themes and motifs you see in a game. You get the moon and other spheres showing up all over the place, which has a very significant presence throughout the story of the game. Sayings in various languages pop up over the screen, all of which being reminders of mortality, when death, grieving, and recovery, is a huge theme in this plot. Similarly, your faced with guns and suicide imagery a fair bit, which are rather prevalent through the game, as it also deals with depression and self-destruction in a rather significant way. And finally, you’ll see power-lines and geometric shapes throughout on top of the decidedly modernly-dressed characters, emphasizing that, rather than the classical fantasy you see in most JRPGs and the post-apocalyptia in the SMT franchise, Persona 3 is very much an urban fantasy title.
The plot itself provides a rather unique experience as well. It starts with the premise of there being an extra hour of every day that most of the loser normies turn into coffins during except for the ones that the repressed feelings and thoughts of humanity want to eat but luckily there’s a team of plucky high schoolers who can fight against it by weaponizing their personalities, and somehow, it gets crazier from there, and yet throughout it all, it actually keeps it relatable and believable as far as the game world goes. Persona 3 is a master craft in internal consistency. It pulls in both the down to earth parts of Jungian Psychology as well as a few of Carl Jung’s trippier concepts, gives them literal, physical manifestations, and puts you face to face with them, yet because of how deeply they designed the world, the story, and the gameplay features you have working into them, you can actually make sense of all that and mentally put yourself in the game world. And, as I’ve mentioned multiple times here, the story is one of the most personal level bits I’ve seen in video games. Your characters, in concept, may be similar to many others you can find in anime and games, but in execution, they’re way more nuanced and realistic than you’ll find elsewhere. Well, most of them, at least. Freaking Ken. These are mostly teenagers you’ll see, and they come with all the sets of teenage flaws, ideals, moodiness, and connections. And you’ll be diving right into them directly, taking time off from saving the world in order to help them with their down-to-earth personal problems. You see that old guy over there?! Hell yeah you help him make amends with his estranged family! That kid at the playground?! She’s got divorcing parents to deal with, and you get to be all emotionally supportive of her and shit as she goes through the toughest part of her life. Your best bro at school?! You best believe you’re going to be helping him work up the courage to hit on his teacher ok that one’s a little weird. These aren’t throwaway scenes, either. There are dozen’s of characters in the game with their own developed private dramas that you get involved with, digging down into their character, what makes them tick, and what helps them develop.
Even on the macro-scale, though, the story’s significantly more personal than many others. Your characters deal with trauma. Some of them it’s in their pasts, and they come to terms over the course of the story. Some face it due to plot events, and you catch them right in all stages of grief over it. Some characters due both. Then add to that that your antagonists have a rather personal stake in taking the world to twisted places, that one of the big effects of the Dark Hour is that it’s putting tons of people in depressive, apathetic stupors so severe they can no longer take care of themselves, and that societies collective depression ends up nearly bringing its own demise down on top of it, yeah. It’s a very feels-driven story for a game that’s basically about a bunch of high-schoolers bashing monsters.
Of course, it is a very forward-looking game for the time, and as a result, there were a few missteps made as part of the process. Most notably is your limited control over your party. There were three versions of the game made, and in the two of them that came out before Persona 4, your control is limited to your main character. All your party members are AI controlled. And to be fair, the AI is surprisingly complex sometimes, and can make some really well-educated decisions. It’s also utterly moronic sometimes as well. You will learn not to rely on your team members after a few times of being desperate for them to just drop the difficult enemy that’s on his last legs, only for them to pump their healing spells and status effects when you really just need them to take that last bit of HP off. You’ve got some tactics you can set for them, but those really seem more like suggestions than anything else. It gets to feeling like you’re one character with a few AI helpers that you have to escort, rather than a true team taking down these enemies. With the game’s calendar system determining the rate at which the plot advances, the storytellers have taken control of the pace at which you go through the game, contrary to most other experiences out there. That’s not absolutely a bad thing, in and of itself, but for whatever reason, there’s large stretches of time in this game where there’s not much of anything going on. This is also coming out pretty early in the time that Atlus was becoming a translation powerhouse, delivering real quality with their imported works, and with this much text in a game, it had to have been a huge challenge. There’s several points where values or cultural cues didn’t come across well, and can lead to you making decisions that don’t go your way, as well as times where things just got a bit lost in translation. Social Links with women can be a tricky prospect, or at least that’s what people on the internet say. There’s no platonic way forward with them, if you want to get closer, you will end up dating them. And once you’re dating, they’ll get jealous if you spend time with other women, potentially leading to you being unable to progress in that social link any further. It seems pretty similar to what I go through in real life, personally, but apparently everyone else talking about the game has figured out how to get to know women without them becoming crazy attracted to you. There’s also the odd mechanic that later games wisely excised, such as social links reversing, the largely useless ability to split your party, etc. It’s not a perfect game, is what I’m saying.
It’s still pretty damn good. It’s got a lot of content, it makes you really feel it’s characters, and it’s one of the most thoughtful experiences developed up to it’s in video games. And that’s about all I have to say to summarize this little beauty, here. We’re going to dive more into it in future posts in this series. We’re doing it. We’re making it happen. You better believe it. And I hope you join me there, as we dig into this game more in depth.