Part 5-Plot and Themes
Persona 1 Retrospective
Persona 2 IS Retrospective
As previously mentioned (several times), the Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole saw a big shift that would change the direction it took forevermore with the release of Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. Nocturne was really the first of the modern Megaten games, changing nearly every aspect of game design. That game brought a whole new level of design, tone, creative direction, and immersion to the series that the rest of the games would follow. So too does Persona 3. A lot of them are gameplay focused, covered in the previous section. There’s a couple that impact the way that the game presents itself.
One of the biggest changes Nocturne made was moving the series away from the old-school CRPG-inspired model into something more akin to the typical turn-based JRPG. But Persona was always a series that was more JRPG-esque than the typical Megaten. So what does Nocturne bring there? Well, it turns the Persona series into a more modern JRPG. Starting with the POV. Your Point of View is something you probably don’t think very much of in games, but it can have a big impact on the how feel of the game. In this case, the POV, lowered a bit closer to your character than past Persona games, serves to put you more into the action. There’s more of a sense of energy as you’re navigating the dungeon, with the walls zipping by you and the shadows right in your face. Battle will place you right behind your lead, feeling the enemy’s presence as they tower over your character. School will… feel… schoolier because of… you there…. okay it’s getting away from me at that point. Point is, even compared to other games of its genre, Persona 3 will play with your point of view, particularly in the battle section, to make you really feel what’s going on. The camera’s zipping and zooming and makes sure you’ve got that scale of your guys against the bad guys, and it’s both rather effective and mostly unnoticed, just like you want good camera work to be.
Art design is another really big update to the game, here. Nocturne saw art director Kazuma Kaneko make big designs to all the series’ demons, creating a very distinct style and specific appearances that would be used until this very day. Persona 3, as with nearly everything else, makes use of those same demon designs for your personae. However, this game saw the rise of Shigenori Soejima into the head art role, as Kaneko was wanting to stretch his protege’s skills. Soejima was already character designer for Persona 2, and the characters in this game follow along those lines, creating a distinctive slim, lengthened character design for the series that would become rather distinct. With Soejima charged with designing everything else, it would create something that stands apart from the rest of Shin Megami Tensei. The shadows take particular note, becoming tarot-inspired bastardizations of rather common real world items and creatures. Beyond that, though, Tatsumi Port Island, where your characters spend most of their day to day lives, appropriately looks a lot brighter, cleaner, and more active than the typical post apocalyptic Megaten game or even the typical fantasy settings of the time, while the various settings of Tartarus manage to successfully convey the odd otherworldiness of the collective unconscious it resides in. The dark hour scenes look particularly striking, effectively taking the otherwise normal and pleasant looking places and using largely coloration to instill them with a sense of wrongness. The art design of the game is really on point, and manages to carry the anime-style off well while introducing enough twists on there to make it unique.
And that art style is important, because you see a lot of it in the story delivery. A lot of it is dealt in a somewhat visual novel-esque fashion, lending more to the comparison than just the social linking part of the game. See, stuff goes deeper than you expected. Even for the internet. Even for the Persona-fan part of the internet. Which is a much angrier place than even normal games internet, for whatever reason. A lot of the plot things are all text boxes and character portraits, in front of the 3D rendering of whatever’s actually going on. It’s not a very visually active means of telling a story, to be sure, and it takes some patience to enjoy. I’m a fan of visual novels, so I had no problem of it, but it’s not for everyone. It does lead to a bit of an odd dichotomy, where when things are physically happening, it’ll be rendered with your in-game characters and their animations, but then they’ll freeze and you have those 2D drawings and text boxes for all the speaking parts. Animations in the non-gameplay scenes are understated and kind of stiff, and would be more fitting with PS1 types of 3d animations than they are with the PS2. The story is really text heavy, though, and the strength of the writing is really what saves it. The music and the quality of voice acting also go a long way towards injecting a sense of energy into what are otherwise static and still scenes. You do get the occasional anime cutscene injected in there. They’re few and far between, as, you know, budgets used to be a thing that games tended to stick to before the HD era, but when they are, they tend to be pretty striking. The visual animation of those are really on point. Sound balancing leaves a lot to be desired, but they also tend to portray a lot of the most visually well-designed moment.
This is also where the series established another constant of giving each game a theme color. In this case, a light blue (unless you’re playing the FemC in the PSP version, in which case you get pink) covers every gameplay element there, from your HUD to your menus to your battle selection, both adding a cool and eerie component to your visuals as well as complementing the melancholy and trauma you’re often facing. Every bit of the daytime scenes are designed around this, as this blue is almost omnipresent, and your locations and characters are all either designed full of cool colors that complement this, or given the direct contrasts in a poppy red or orange to make them sharply stand out. This switches in the dark hour, though, in which a sickly green replaces the blue and invades everything, with a muted green filter being placed over the visuals while contrasting dark red bloodstains appears over everything. It’s stunning how constant this palette is over the 80 hour game without being overwhelming, and I really have to say, Persona 3 uses its coloration better than most any other game or piece of work I’ve seen, giving much more thoughtfullness to it than the “Orange and blue and call it a day” that would pervade the later years. The idea of having a theme color was so strong that the persona series would retroactively add it to rereleases of the previous games, giving the original Persona a deep steely gray theme and the Persona 2 duology a dark, muted red.
So art style is good. I’m glad for that. Because the graphics aren’t going to knock your socks off. Unless you’re not wearing socks. They might shift them in your drawer a little bit. They’re perfectly functional. They carry the strong art design smoothly, they make the visuals very understandable, and they’re never in the way. But they don’t go super far, either. This is not a graphically impressive game. It’s not bad at graphics. They’re just there. They’re OK.
What’s made the Persona series very distinct is that it takes place in modern times, in a familiar Japanese city. The visuals do carry it over well, here. The environments in Tatsumi Port Island are very detailed. Well, the school’s a little bland, which is a shame, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there, but maybe Japanese schools are bland in the first place. I don’t know. I’ve never been to one in meatspace. Out on the town is full of details. Train stations are busy and packed places, the mall is full of distinct stores, your dorm is very personal, the place looks to be very lived-in.
And, of course, there’s the music to talk about. So let’s talk about the music. Music in games can be a weird thing. It’s not going to make you have a good time if the game is at its core not great. And a great game with bad music can still be great. Music isn’t going to make or break your game. And yet, it can make or break your overall experience. Music is emotion. It’s drive. It’s energy. One of the big challenges with any artistic medium is making the viewer feel a part of it. Making them feel what’s going on on screen, or on stage, or whatever. The right music has the power to connect with that more directly than most anything else. It will make the emotional roller coaster reach greater highs and lower drops. It will hit you with the adrenaline of those cool action scenes. It will help you care about those characters, even if they’re facing things you never have and never will need to deal with in life. Music will not deliver something that’s not already there, but it will make what is hit you like a brick.
And the music in Persona 3 is top notch. In yet another series-setting trend, the Persona 3 soundtrack is so decidedly modern, in keeping with its modern setting. Other RPGs work their orchestral soundtracks, give you beautifully composed multilayered songs, make their string instruments weep for you. Nah, Persona 3 gives you Lotus Juice rapping his way through half the game. It’s hip hoppy, it’s modern, and it really adds a lot to the sense and tone of the game. It’s not all vocal tracks, of course, there’s plenty of the more orchestral stuff in there too, and they are really rather strong. But it’s the Jpop and hip hop tracks that really seem to add the most atmosphere and distinctness to the game. The music is fantastic, and I’ve been known to have the soundtrack on repeat as I’m going throughout my day. Some of the songs are truly touching. Memories of You still brings me big sexy manly tears whenever I hear it in context, and the fact that later releases insist on remixing and changing it is one of the few things that makes me nerdrage.
That said, there are a few problems with their implementation. The orchestral songs are mostly solid, but it seems they didn’t have as much experience with handling the vocals. Some hit really well. Some are just oddly placed. Biggest example is the one that’s playing when you’re hanging out in your dorm. It’s a relaxing place. You chat with your party, watch some tv, maybe work on some homework, there’s no danger, no rush, no pressure there. You’d expect a similarly chill and low pressure take. Instead, you get a song with a driving, sharp beat and harsh deep rapping. Likewise, there’s Mass Destruction, also known as BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY, the battle theme and therefore the song BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY you’re going to be hearing most often in that game BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY. And frankly, it can do without the BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY intro. It’s jarring, and frankly gets annoying with its frequency, given how much it pops up. With game music, you want something that can stay in the background of your mind, generally, and vocals grab your attention much more than instrumentals do (which is why the game’s vocals are in English, to give the Japanese players this benefit, but that’s not going to help us on this side of the language barrier). If lead-in to the song had been instrumental, I feel it would have been a smoother transition and jumping into a fight wouldn’t have felt so harsh, but as is, you will get tired of hearing that BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY long before it’s done with you.
But those are really just nitpicks. Overall, the soundtrack is really fantastic. It’s well composed, breaks a lot of new grounds, combines orchestral composition with rap with jazz instrumentation, and adds an immeasurable amount to the game’s proceedings. It hits hard in what’s usually just the right ways.