At this point in the Persona series, gameplay has truly become only part of the full experience. Persona 1 and 2 had plots too, and a lot of characterization, but they were still as much gameplay delivery engines as any other game out there. Starting in Persona 3, they put a lot more depth and content into their plots and characters, to the point where the gameplay is not the only selling point they have. And for a lot of people, the gameplay is not even the main reason they get into the game.
Yet, no matter how good your story, setting, characters, etc. are, if the game side of your, you know, game, isn’t up to snuff, the game as a whole won’t be good. It’s been tried, and good plot really doesn’t make up for bad gameplay. So even with the Persona series running head-first into the story-based wall, let’s start by taking a look at where you’re actually going to be spending most of your time when you’re actually playing the game.
By this point, we’ve already had two, but three, but really two, games in the Persona canon. That’s enough to establish a pattern, right? Although both of those games are rather distinct from each other, there’s still some common design elements that we can pull out here.
So, what is makes a Persona game, and how do those elements relate to Persona 3? Well, thus far, to make a Persona, you take the typical for the time Shin Megami Tensei design, strip out a bunch of the more unique to the franchise and complicated features to simplify gameplay a bit and make it more accessible to the typical JRPG fan. And then you come up with some crazy and experimental features that few if any other games in the genre are doing and make them absolutely central to the whole experience. And then, of course, there’s the whole plot and themes making heavy use of Jungian Psychology personified, and the main characters with the variable stats and ability loadouts, the butterfly motifs, the vast sum of humanity summoning their own demise, multiple endings but not really, etc. Etc. There’s lots of stuff in the recipe for a Persona, and it all carries through to this game.
And I suppose this is a good time to mention, for pretty much this entire retrospective, I’m going to be basing it off the FES version of the game. For those not in the know, there was the original Persona 3, then, less than a year later in the US, Persona 3 FES which was basically Persona 3 with a bunch of DLC before DLC was a thing that you had to pay for, including a separate playable epilogue that we won’t get into here just yet. Then, years later, there came Persona 3 Portable, which incorporated all the gameplay updates from Persona 4 into Persona 3, gave you a choice in the gender of your protagonist and with that vastly increased the amount of content, at turning a lot of segments from more directly interactive bits into visual novel scenes in order to fit it all on the PSP disc. There’s a lot of discussion on which is better. I roll with the FES version because… well, that’s just the one I have. As much as the games industry obviously hates me for it with the remakes and rereleases and updates and Hyper Fighting Championship Editions Turbos they’re putting out, I make a practice of not buying games that I already own. So, sorry, P3P fans. Just going by what I have available to me.
In the typical JRPG, you usually have two gameplay modes. You’ve got your ‘Walking Around Poking Stuff with your Chest’ mode and your ‘Hit the Bad Thing with the Hard or Pointy Thing’ mode. And yes, those are the technical terms. I am a video game scholar, don’t question me. One of the first big, mind blowing, experimental things that Persona 3 is that it takes that first mode, and splits it into two! So you’ve got your ‘Walking Around Poking Stuff’ mode, but only in dungeons, and the additional ‘Dude on the Town’ mode that the game really structures itself in, overall. Persona 3 is like an onion. It’s got layers, it makes you cry, and it’s an underrated element on pizzas. Since we’re talking about gameplay here, we’ll stick with the first element. The big layer on the outside is the ‘Dude on the Town’ mode. When you’re in that mode, you can enter your freaky school extra midnight dungeon tower (it’s complicated, I’ll explain later) layer where you have a completely different style of gameplay for running around and looting stuff and picking fights. When you pick said fights, you go one layer deeper, into the game’s combat engine, yet another completely different gameplay style. You following me so far? I hope so, because if you’re not, you’re going to have a hard time with the rest of this stuff.
How much time do other games give you to just see the day-to-day lives of your people? Just a bit in the intro at most, right? You get to visit grandma for a brief cutscene before all of a sudden the horde kidnaps your brother and then it’s go time. If you even get that. Sometimes, the only calling in life your lead dude/dudette has is that of ass-kicker, and they go right into the action. Not here. No, as you may have heard, Shin Megami Tensei is kind of a hard series. And Persona 3 is not any different. See, not only do you have to fight off the shadows to save the world, you also have to deal with the horrors, the tyranny, the all-encompassing doom and despair, of real life. That’s right, in addition to having to delve into the depths of your mutated school megadungeon (we’ll talk about that later), you have to attend classes and keep up your grades! Not only do you have to solve the mystery of there being an extra hour full of horrors every night that only you and your friends are aware of, you have to navigate the complicated waters of dating! You may be fighting for you very life every night, but by day, you must help your friends face their various personal challenges! The horrors! Truly, only the hardest of players can stand up to the demands of this game!
Right, so you spend a large portion of the game just living the life. The game works on a calendar basis, and the plot progresses according to the days passing, not how far you’ve gotten in the dungeon. Most of the time, you wake up, and your day is divided into a few segments. In the mornings, you usually get a small scene with some chitter-chat giving you the layman’s perspectives of whatever events have been going on. Then it’s school-time, which graciously, the game largely skips over, except for sometimes when you sit through a lesson or you’re called upon to answer a question. With your knowledge. And you better remember that answer, because it’s probably going to a test later. Correct answers will get you a bump to your social stats. After school is really where you’re finally free. That’s when you get to do all the typical RPG town stuff, like shopping and picking up the scuttlebutt. You can also take part in a variety of activities that will also boost up your social stats, or work your way through the distinctive social links the game is well known for. At night, you can chat with your party members, go for one of the few night-available social links, study to get more smarter, catch some extra sleep to improve your condition, or enter your school-turned-helltower (we’ll go over it later) to engage in some rompous combat with those ever present Dark Hour beasties.
And, yeah. I guess I should mention that. So, we’ll get into this in more detail in the relevant plot/setting/whatever the hell I end up doing sections, but the main conflict behind the game, the reason you go out busting heads, is that there’s an extra hour every day, in between midnight and 12:01. In that hour, everyone transmogrifies into coffins except for the people who have awakened to their personas, or the people that the shadows want to eat. The shadows are this game’s monsters. During this Dark Hour, your school transforms into a massive tower/dungeon filled with the shadows. And you want to know why. And also keep the shadows from eating folks. I suppose that’s important to.
In the dungeon, Tartarus, is where you switch over to the second gameplay mode. Outside of a few features, just doing your thing around Tatsumi Port Island isn’t really all that different from going around town in your typical RPG. And inside Tartarus, it’s… well, also not all that different from your typical RPG outside of a few unique features. You’ve got a team of up to four people in Tarturus, including your protagonist. Can never have him/her out of the party. There’s some justification for why you can only take for people, but I don’t remember it. It’s probably a good one though. You’ve got weapons out, the camera angle switches to one that follows closely behind you, and you can move freely along the dungeon.
Dungeon floors are procedurally generated, which… ugh. You know what? I just gotta say this here. So the SMT series, with the exception of Persona 5, has never had good dungeon design. Most of the time, it seems like they design their dungeons by pulling apart a ball of steel wool and then tracing the results. Up to this point in the series development, the Persona 2 duology probably had the best dungeons of the series, and even those were pretty meh with a side of mildly frustrating. So I can see why Persona 3 would mix it up. And I suppose to some extent, I can understand the allure of procedurally generated dungeons. If you’re going to be running players through them again and again, they can keep things from getting too stale. And the attraction developers have to them, I would guess that they’re fun to implement. And this way, you can design this whole several hundred floor dungeon on the cheap. So there’s good points to it.
But procedurally generated dungeons are pretty much the equivalent of just throwing your hands up in the air and giving up on having a good, compelling dungeon out of it. You’re never going to make anything particularly engaging out of it. At best you’ll get something bland. At worst it’ll be awful. And that’s not a good scale to be on.
So yeah, the dungeon floors here don’t really light any fires. And the visual design really doesn’t mix them up all too often. You’ll be well tired of running through them before long. There’s treasures, and shadows, and a single set of stairs to the next floor strewn semi-randomly throughout each floor. Your goal is to get to the stairs without getting killed by the shadows. In a twist from other RPGs and even previous SMT games, shadows are visible while you’re just wandering around. No random encounters here. If you can hit one with your weapon outside of battle, you might end up with an extra turn heading into it. If they initiate the fight, you may find yourself staring down an enemy taking their turn well before you have the hopes of making your moves. While you’re wandering around, should you choose to, you do have the option of splitting your party up, sending them out to either hunt down shadows or search for the exit stairs individually. There’s no real point in doing so, as that means your team members will have to fight whatever groups of shadows they come across, which are balanced for a full party, all on their lonesome, but it’s there if you want it. For that matter, if they get stuck on the level geometry, you could find yourself accidentally dealing with a split party anyways. You do have to be quick, though. If you spend too much time on any one floor, you’ll find the Reaper, one of the game’s resident optional superbosses, chasing you down.
When you or a shadow lands a good smack on one another, you’ll get a screen wipe, and the sweet, gentle, dulcet tones of Yumi Kawamura will drift pleasantly into your ear screaming “BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY!” and you’re transported straight into the battle engine. Which is where like half of this game’s magic happens. And that’s where all the titular personas come into play. So if you haven’t been following along with this retrospective series, which, c’mon, I started it like four years ago, you had plenty of time to catch up on what should obviously be the most important thing in your life, let’s go ahead and go over that. So, in this world, you get the power of persona, which is the aspect of your personality that you adopt to deal with various parts of the outside world, except in this case they turn into gods and other mythological figures and smack bad guys around for you. Basically, you’re not casting spells or using special abilities yourself; you summon your persona, and they do it for you.
In one of the big shifts of this game in the franchise history, previously, all your characters were granted their persona from Philemon, which gave everyone the ability to use multiple personas, but they had to worry about affinities, the personas only supplemented their natural abilities rather than supplanting them, and you only had enough storage to hold a couple personas for each member. After Persona 2, Nyarlathotep isn’t around screwing everything up, so Philemon doesn’t really feel like making the effort. Instead, most of your members awoke to their persona on their own, which seems to have a different set of rules attached to it. Namely, they can’t switch personas. At all. They have one persona, and that’s it. Their persona will evolve once they go through great personal development, but they can’t switch between them the way previous party members used to be able to. Their persona stats and their personal stats are also one and the same, but personas don’t have caps on their growth anymore.
That doesn’t apply to you, though. Your team woke up to their personas on their own. You had a bit of help. And in fact, this, as well as the social links, are probably the biggest changes this game brings to the franchise. A lot of games, your protagonist is probably your most useful character, but they’re still just one character, right? That’s not good enough for Persona 3. No, the developers here took a look at the typical turn-based RPG model, and they asked, “Hey, what if your lead guy was, like, really about a hundred different guys?” Persona 3 gives you the power of the Wild Card. Which is a greatly expanded version of the persona switching abilities party members of previous games had. Whereas their affinities determined what personas they could use and how skilled they were with them, your protagonist here can use any persona freely. Whereas they were limited in how many personas they could have at the ready, you… are still limited, but much less so. You can hold a lot more personas. And as always, you can switch them freely once per turn in the middle of battle, drastically altering your stats, abilities, and weaknesses and resistances on the fly. And this leads to an incredibly powerful character. The way the battle engine shakes out, it’s really built upon, and takes full advantage of, your incredible flexibility. If you build things right, you can do nearly anything. And you’ll need to learn how, to make it through the various challenges ahead of you.
Getting into the mechanics of the fight, at its foundation, you’ve got your typical turn-based RPG workings. You’ve always got the option to make a melee basic attack, striking out with whatever weapon you have equipped. Seems pretty simple, but weapons that have a chance to add extra effects are very common, and if your weapons are strong enough, it might be more damaging than any of your persona abilities. You can switch your persona once per round as a free action, and can summon your persona to use any of its special abilities. Spells cost SP, which is the local equivalent of MP. If it’s a souped up physical attack, as had recently been established as series tradition with the advent of SMT: Nocturne, it costs you a portion of your HP rather than SP to cast. Spells can range from the typical elemental damage spells to your standard status effects to your healing spells to the much-more-effective-than-in-your-usual-game buffs and debuffs to a whole host of alternate effects on enemies or allies. And, of course, you can chuck your array of items, as usual. No ability to guard like you can in most such games, because frankly, you never actually used that anyways.
Throughout all this, the only character that you directly control, at least outside of P3P, is your protagonist. You’ve got up to three party members, but they’re going to do their own thing. They control themselves in battle, and they select their own abilities and upgrades as they level up. You can talk to them and manage their equipment outside of battle, but they’ll switch things themselves if they find something they prefer out in the field. You can request the healers work their magic on your team, but when they do, they’ll do so over their own volition. You can suggest strategies to them, but it’s really up to them how they implement it.
I think I can see what the developers were going for here. And it’s an idea with some potential. The latter Persona games are really at their best when they’re blurring the lines between fiction and reality, you and your avatar. I’d say one of their biggest strengths is in jumping the line of willing suspension of disbelief, of making you feel like you’re honestly the character on screen. And this facet could well be a part of it. After all, when you’re battling monsters using your supernatural powers in real life, you’re not exactly jumping into their heads and mentally controlling their actions. Not being able to do the same here does bring it one step closer to the real.
It also does make you take full advantage of that wild flexibility you’re offered. When all but one of your chess pieces have predetermined moves, you’ve got to think long and hard about what you’ll do with that remaining one, and your success or victory is going to clinch on it. And the system is deep enough that changing yourself around does wildly change your team’s overall strategy and approach to battle. As the encounters were designed here, your ability to only control yourself is a very key part of the game.
That said, the artificial intelligence of your partners leaves something to be desired. Which kind of makes this whole feature an exercise in frustration. It’s not that they’re bad, compared to other AI partners of the time. It would be a while yet before the programmable AI if-then actions became standardized and really opened up the value of such partners, and these guys here had a decent amount of intelligence for the time. They learn, they react reasonably, they have their priorities in battle. Those priorities can be a bit out of wack, though. They’re always geared towards fighting a long-term fight, and won’t adapt their strategy for times when just crushing the enemy as quickly as possible is the best move. At the same time, they only focus on one fight at a time, and you’ll often see them targeting a series of enemies with individual-hit spells instead of using the more cost-efficient but less accurate multi-enemy spells, and running out of SP because of it. They’ll prioritize healing someone in danger over just killing the last blasted enemy in the fight that’s already on his last legs and we need to take him down before he has another chance to more. And they value certain skills more than you’d think would make sense. One of your party members becomes a rather risky bet to include throughout much of the midgame, as she gets addicted to casting an almost useless status effect spell in the weirdest situations. Which is not to say that there’s good points to their AI. They do react really well to learning an enemies weaknesses and resistances, and will adjust their approach accordingly. But they’re not nearly as good in the computer’s hands as they would be in yours. Enemies in Persona 3 are balanced around this limit, so it’s not overwhelming, but they can still be difficult and unforgiving, as befits SMT. It can be painful when you’re losing a fight, which you likely will a few times your first playthrough, and by design you’re operating at less than full efficiency.
So that’s the basic mechanics. That’s what you need to know if you want to bruise your enemies. But if you’re like me, you won’t stop at bruising. After all, the fate of the world is at stake here. That’s why it’s important that you joyfully and gratuitously brutalize your enemies. Not because it’s more fun. Because the world needs it from you. And as with most RPGs, to do that, you need to really understand the system here. So lets get more into the nitty gritty of what you need to know to gloriously curbstomp your foes.
As with all Persona games, the list of elemental resistances and weaknesses are far more expansive than you’re probably used to and rather vital to success. They work a bit differently here, though. As previously mentioned, Persona 3 was influenced very heavily by SMT: Nocturne, and implements a Diet Press Turn sort of system here. If you hit someone’s weakness, or get a critical hit, you knock them down, and get an extra turn. If you get all your enemies knocked down at once, you can, in lieu of your extra turn, have your entire party jump in for an all out attack dealing huge amounts of unblockable damage. Enemies can do much the same to you, and plenty will strike at your party’s various weaknesses. Hitting a downed enemy will just bring them back to their feet, without the extra turn, and unlike other games in the series, there’s no penalty for hitting with an element they reflect or absorb. Given how much damage you and your foes can do in a single turn, entire battles can swing on how well you manage this aspect of it.
As previously mentioned, physical attacks have three possible elements, bashing, piercing, or slashing, that have their weaknesses and resistances exactly like the elemental spells do. In what would become a series mainstay, the four main elements of spells are fire, ice, wind, and lightning. Light and dark spells exist as well, although they instantly kill rather than doing damage, and weaknesses or immunities there impact the chances of them hitting rather than the damage they do.
And as with so many other RPGs, how you set up your character is at least as important as what you do in battle. And you’ve got your typical options for equipment there; weapons, armor, and accessories, but it’s really in your personacrafting that you make magic happen. You get personas by one of two means. You get them in the card shuffle minigames that frequently arise after battle, or by fusing the persona you already have. Personas from the card shuffles are always at level one, whereas fused personas can get a significant amount of bonus XP depending on how far along you are in the social link associated with their arcana, potentially gaining up to 8 or 9 levels at the higher reaches. Given that another thing inherited from Nocturne is that personas level up independently from you, gain extra skills by level up, and that their rate of levelling is far slower than yours or your partners’, building your social links ends up imparting a great deal of power in you that would take quite some time to build otherwise. Fused persona also gain a semi-random selection of skills from the persona they’re fused from, usually giving them skills they’d never be able to learn naturally. There’s always skills that a given persona will never be able to pick up through fusion, and others that they’re more likely to have in the random selection, but otherwise, it just chooses from the skills the parent personas have available. Don’t like the selection of skills they have, just back out before you fuse them, select the same fusion material again, and they’ll have a whole new set of skills being inherited. If you’re looking for a specific build, this randomization can really lead you to wasting a lot of time selecting and unselecting and reselecting until you get to juuuuuuust the right skill loadout, but you can build some real beefeaters this way.
So, yeah. Social links are important. Because they give you a lot of POWER. By supplementing super hard your main means of acquiring POWER. So how do you get those going?
Well, mostly when you’re out and about on the town. You get to know people. Some people will be your friends just on contact. Some people will build a connection after certain events have passed, or after you’ve raised your social skills enough. In any case, once you get your social link established, for most of them, not all, but most, you’ll be able to progress deeper in that link by hanging out with them in your afternoons or at night, whenever they’re active. The ones you don’t raise by hanging out will progress as automatically through the game. And that’s where we get into what many call the dating sim elements of Persona 3. Every social link has ten levels, each of which you reach by getting a certain amount of… I don’t know what you want to call it, affection points? Whatever. Every time you get a new level, you’ll get a scene with them, kind of going bit by bit through their arc. You’ll be posed with opportunity to provide your own input during this scene, and if you get the responses right, you’ll get some bonus affection points towards your next level with them. In between scenes, you can get more affection points just by choosing to spend your afternoon with them, or hanging out with them on your weekends or holidays, or, for you romantic interests, giving gifts. If you have a persona of the same arcana that they represent, you’ll get bonus points with basically everything you do with them. So spending time on your social links and building up your social stats tend to make up your main use of the days the game gives you, and in a macro scale, actually requires quite a bit of careful management to get in as much as you can, and thus, as much power as you can, before the game ends.
Social links with your opposite sexed peers can be troublesome however (except in P3P if you’re FemC). People seem to complain about it, but in as far as I can tell what is a completely accurate rendition of real life, all the women you build a connection with want to date you. In fact, it’s impossible to have a platonic relationship with them. If you progress to a certain level, your relationship will turn romantic. And of course, once you’re there, it becomes a minefield. Romantic relationships can ‘reverse’, cutting you off of the bonuses and requiring extra time to fix them, if you spend too much time with other women. Or if you answer wrong. Or if summer break happens and cuts you off of the social link for a while. Freakin’ Yuko. You can avoid that with careful management, or by focusing on one woman at a time until you’ve maxed her link out and hit the heights of romance, then you can forget about her forever. Just like in real life.
…some other people say. Not me.
In any case, as I previously mentioned, managing your calendar days ends up being an important thing in the macrogame. This extends to your dungeon delving as well. You might think that when you get to the top of a given section of your multilevel school labyrinth (we’ll talk about it later) that you face the boss and then you get on to the next section of the game. But that’s not true. You need to make it to the top for the game’s final boss, but other than that, the only real purpose Tartarus has is for you to grind. There’s minibosses in there, but they only serve to be a roadblock, not for any major milestones. Instead, you face the resident boss when there’s a full moon, about once an in-game month. Now, the boss segments can be some of the better parts of the game. There the dungeons you find yourself in are purposefully made, the encounters are chosen, and any bosses you face are more deeply and complexly designed to work around the battle system. Although, to be fair, there are a few stinkers in that, as well. Especially the final boss, which is just awful. Either way, they’re coming, whatever you do. If you spend tons of time in Tartarus, or if you ignore it completely, it’s still moving towards you. If you focus entirely on your social links, that boss is still ahead of you. Or if you spend all your time sleeping, you’re still going to have to stare down whenever the next full moon. The game takes complete control over the pace with which it moves. And it does some really odd things with it. Sometimes, it wants to give you plot for an extended period of time and locks you our of everything else, even if you just want to get your fight on. Sometimes, you really want to build your social links, but they’re not available. There’s one point where it gives you a whole in-game month that you have to play through, with no purpose and absolutely nothing to do. Later Persona games take the same control over your pacing, and they can do rather well with it, but I feel like the developers had a bit of trouble with the structure they designed for this one.
Divorcing your progress through the game from your progress through the single dungeon you have has a rather unfortunate effect as well, at least the way I’ve been playing. Tartarus largely exists only for you to fight enemies and build levels within. You’ll be facing a boss however well you do in there. The boss is a step up from the enemies you’ve been fighting, although how significant of a step up, you don’t know. Which in my experience, led to an irresistable impulse to be over-prepared. Not helped by you comrades constantly pushing you to go to Tartarus and train. And a lot of time with nothing else to do, really, so you jump back into Tartarus even though you may not wish to. As a result, although I rather enjoy the overall battle system, the game feels really grindy, especially as you get towards the end. I’d imagine P3P is a lot better in this regard than FES, just by virtue of being able to control all your characters and thus having more options and variety. For the FES version I have even in my best runthrough, and even with as wrapped up as I can get in everything else here, there’s always a sense of ‘Ah, I’m glad that’s finally over’ when I finish up the game. They do have some sidequests they throw in to mix it up, give you more purpose to go into the dungeon over and over again. And I suppose that’s the whole reason that they have the procedurally generated dungeon floors to begin with. But really, you end up matching a kind of limited dungeon-delving and combat system with a 60-100 hour game, and it ends up with too much repetition to keep things seeming fresh. The more constructed segments are really highlights of the game, but that’s not where you spend most of your gameplay time.
There’s a bunch more facets to Persona 3’s gameplay we could bring out, but I’m almost 6,000 words in this already, so I think it’s time to give it a rest. I kind of ended on a sour note there. Really, I think the game is good overall, definitely above-average gameplay-wise, although it’s really the plot and characterization where it most shines. It is a little hard going back to it, though, because later games in the series really polished up this model and removed a lot of its rough edges. I would imagine that, gameplay-wise, you’d have a rather different experience with it if you’re going through P3P, which uses the Persona 4 gameplay engine. In any case, I did quite enjoy my time with it. I just happened to develop a habit of having videos playing to the side whenever I ended up hopping into Tartarus.
I’m trying very hard not to plug Persona 4 here. VEEEEEERY hard.