Going into P3P after P4: Golden, for me, was akin to trying to get into baroque era music after discovering the works of John Williams, or perhaps Hamilton’s federalist papers upon seeing his hit new musical. Sure, it was easy to appreciate how revolutionary it was compared to its predecessor, what with its hip-hop-influenced soundtrack, urban Japanese setting, and a sea of anime tropes so vast that the average teen would be pained finding something they CAN’T relate to.
Yet, despite all this, warming up to this entry was a bit of a struggle. No doubt, this was the same Persona I’ve grown to love. The formula is very much intact, social links and all, only this time all your friends are raging nihilists, cults have run rampant, and the jank levels have reached a point only made excusable by a particularly rose-tinted pair of glasses. Unfortunately, these shades don’t come often, and my latest pair is already reserved for P4.
Right off the bat, I knew I was in for a ride that takes itself much more seriously than its successor. Gone were the days of sunshine, rainbows, and J-pop– unlike Inaba upon Yu’s arrival, Iwatodai greeted me with a crisis it’d been in the midst of for over a decade, even going as far as having a dedicated task force with the sole purpose of eliminating the shadows which continued to wreak havoc upon the city. After a delightfully pleasant cutscene depicting a cloudy, foreboding night sky, coffins lining the streets, and what appeared to be a fellow teen attempting to commit suicide, I arrived at my new dorm, absolutely ecstatic to find out what wonders the evening would hold. And what did it hold, exactly? Well, first there was a demonic ghost child only I could see wanting me to sign a suspicious-looking contract, and then my future dormmate threatened to shoot me, and… Well, you get the point.
As far as P3’s overall vibe goes, the last word I’d use to describe it is “inviting,” and unfortunately, things don’t really improve much as the game progresses. Up to the game’s conclusion, I more often than not found my SEES (short for “Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad”) colleagues treating myself and each other as simply that: colleagues. Sure, everyone has their more upbeat moments where they let loose and bond as per your usual ragtag group of anime protagonists, but it wasn’t enough to get me sympathizing with the main cast as much as with that of P4G.
I think my issue with this mostly has to do with how the game treats each of the main character’s lives outside of SEES. In P4G, the investigation team wasn’t formed on the basis that the world needed to be saved. In fact, the investigation team wasn’t even a thing until three of the game’s main characters had already formed a solid friendship, and that friendship only continues to strengthen as the story progresses. Sure, it’s incredibly cheesy (and unrealistic), but for a game series whose basis is formed on the slaying of darkness through the power of friendship, the formula works perfectly. Each member of the investigation team was riddled with insecurities before joining, whether it be due to potential queerness, dorkiness, or being a literal bear, and it was the mutual acceptance of these insecurities that served as the core of what made their relationship so powerful.
In Persona 3, not only does each main character very much have a life outside of SEES, meaning they never feel the need to depend on each other emotionally (save for the few you can s link) but they’ve also each faced a deep loss of some sort. The game essentially does with grief what P4 does with insecurity, which leads to a much different, and in my opinion, less enjoyable dynamic between Minato and his squad.
Whether a character is insecure or facing the loss of a parent, it’s merely par for the course for them to block the world out with a more reserved personality. The difference, however, comes with how similarly affected characters can interact with each other. I know in my high school days it was only natural to open up to and befriend those who had similarly awkward pasts. “Oh, you liked sonic riders too but thought it was too nerdy to talk about it? Cool, let’s be buds!!” Like with most budding friendships, we shared common interests and personality traits and we connected thanks to those similarities. Simple.
But with dead parents? If anything, my first response upon learning a classmate has suffered a major loss is to never mention it. It’s an immediate buzzkill, and though I haven’t suffered any comparable losses myself, I doubt it’d ever be something I’d like to bond over. This same mentality is translated into the game, resulting in a tension between the characters that never quite passes, and understandably so. Yukari, for example (the threatening dormmate from earlier, for those who haven’t played), lost her father to a shadow experiment gone wrong, and as a result, actively avoids becoming too attached to anybody, presumably for fear of having to face even more grief if she were to lose them. She’s also this game’s Lovers Arcana, which, while posing an interesting juxtaposition with P4’s Rise due to her more hard-to-get attitude, still makes for a drier character in my opinion, even with her social link maxed.
The same thing applies to the majority of SEES; while their grief certainly adds to their depth as individual characters, their more jaded, withdrawn outlooks on life result in less meaningful interaction between them, and thus, much less development by the end of the game.
Persona 3 is also the series’s introduction to social links, which were a bit of a mixed bag based off of the ones I experienced. The majority weren’t terribly exciting, and while this was also sometimes the case in P4, that game at least sprinkled in cliffhangers to tease the player into being excited for what would happen next.
Worse yet is that many of the available social links failed to even reach the level of depth of some of the least developed SEES members. Links available early in the story such as Kenji and Kazushi (whose names I had to look up, for the record) provided great experience boosts for my newly fused personas but made very little impact beyond that. Another quirk in the whole social link system is how you can’t max s links of the opposite gender unless you decide to pursue them romantically, meaning you’re basically forced to cheat if you want to boost persona stats the quickest. P4 would fix this later by adding friendship paths to all s links, but it still did allow cheating for if the player so desired.
This isn’t to say all the characters and s links were duds, however. Junpei was fascinatingly two-sided, serving as the game’s main source of comic relief and upbeatness while also having a more dark, insensitive side. Keisuke was another really enjoyable one for me due to how relatable his search was in finding a balance between his hobbies and career interests.
There were also a few social links that took incredibly bizarre and unexpected turns as they progressed, and while they weren’t enjoyable in the same sense as Junpei or Keisuke, they were definite highlights for me if only for their sheer weirdness. The half-girl, half-death-weapon Aigis epitomized this category upon reaching the end of her s link, and yet, in some strange way, she managed to be my favorite character in the game. With P4G, Catherine: Full Body, and now this under my belt, I’m pretty much desensitized to the point that when the toaster starts to get affectionate, I just see it as part of the Atlus charm.
Beyond the story and social aspects, P3P’s gameplay was… err… it was alright. It was similar to P4G in many ways, only with a new quirk hiding behind every corner waiting to jump out and remind you how old the game is. In fact, depending on how old a version of P3 you decide to play, the experience will vary considerably.
You know what? It seems like as good a time as any for a tangent now that I’m 1388 words in.
Fun fact: There are three completely different versions of Persona 3, and none of them are considered the definitive edition. Let me explain.
This is it, folks– the one that started it all. It’s not like there were two (three if you count the Persona 2 duology) critically-acclaimed installments released beforehand; this one gave us waifus, and thus it is the true beginning. Above all, this release played a massive role in making Persona the household name it is today, pioneering the franchise into both the third dimension and the realm of anime social sims.
You can skip it.
For all its innovation, this is still objectively the worst version one can play nowadays. Not only was it never rereleased, meaning the only way to play it is on original PS2 hardware in blurry 480i glory, but it’s also the most tedious of the bunch due to its unpolished state compared to later updates. Social links advance slower, giving you less time to enjoy what other aspects the overworld has to offer, and the stats of both personas and shadows are quite poorly balanced, leading to certain party members needing much more grinding to even be considered viable.
It’s still the P3 we know and love, but unless it’s the version you grew up with and you’re nostalgic, there’s virtually no reason to choose this over its two enhanced ports.
When most people think P3, this seems to be what they’re referring to. In addition to making social links more manageable and tweaking everybody’s stats, the game also introduced entirely new features such as weapon fusion, additional difficulty settings, and even minor story events that give the characters a bit more personality.
The game’s largest addition is unquestionably The Answer, a new epilogue that serves to provide closure to some of the plot left ambiguous in the original P3. Not only does it add another 30 hours to the game’s already beefy 60 to 80-hour campaign, but this new story takes place almost entirely in one underground dungeon, leaving room for a whole lot of battles, some cutscenes and not much else. With the social sim segments of the game absent and grinding at its highest since perhaps the original Persona, many players who actually complete the answer are left fairly conflicted about the experience.
While the SEES members’ expanded backstories and clarification of the original game’s ending come much appreciated, many still seem to say the grinding wasn’t worth it in the end, recommending new players simply watch the cutscenes after completing the main campaign to experience the true ending without the extra effort. As someone who did just that, I can wholeheartedly say I agree with this claim, which leads us to our last entry:
As the title suggests, this is the first and only version I’ve played through to completion, and despite its setbacks, it’s the version I’d recommend to newcomers, especially those used to more recent JRPGs. This PSP adaptation essentially takes FES, adds even more new features, and makes it more streamlined with some quality of life improvements never before seen in Persona. Case in point: this is the first time in the franchise’s history that party members’ moves in battle are able to be controlled by the player and not the A.I. To me and I’m sure many other newcomers, the prospect of playing any RPG without controllable party members seemed pretty blasphemous in the first place, so the mechanic alone was enough to convince me to break out the Vita and download this version.
While the freedom to waste healing items on my own terms was more than enough to push me over the fence, there were plenty of other additions that acted as the icing on the cake. These include the return of skill cards from P4G (or I suppose it’s the other way around), weakness exploitation changed to emulate P4’s battle system, and new in-dungeon dialogue between party members. The list goes on, and while I can’t say missing these features would make me dislike FES, they still added to the experience all the same. This isn’t even mentioning Portable has an exclusive campaign starring a female protagonist whose new perspective, character interactions, and s. links make a second playthrough oh-so-tempting despite the massive time commitment.
Unfortunately, these enhancements do come at a fairly large cost in the form of the hardware Atlus chose to develop this port for.
Though dungeons and battles have been kept the same graphically, people who’ve enjoyed the original or FES will be quick to point out the lack of explorable 3D overworlds and anime cutscenes. To get around this problem, which I assume was due to the PSP’s storage limitations, Atlus opted to replicate the overworlds in a 2D point-and-click style and to simply redo any pre-animated cutscenes in simplified visual novel fashion. This certainly doesn’t help the immersion factor, but it does wonders for accessibility. Howlongtobeat.com lists P3P as 15 hours shorter than the original game on average, and I’m sure the minimized travel time plays a huge role in that. Thus, I can’t recommend this port enough for fans who like their JRPGs on the shorter end (relatively speaking, of course).
Overall, I found P3P’s new style of gameplay more complementary to the experience than anything, and of course, with it being the only version I’ve played through, I don’t know what I’m missing. I do know, however, that until a hypothetical “HD Definitive Edition+” comes out with all the bells and whistles of FES and Portable, all of FES’scutscenes are only a click away, and there are even guides created for those who wish to view them spoiler-free while still having all the improvements Portable introduced.
So as I was saying, P3P’s gameplay was perfectly acceptable, held back only by how desperately it screamed for a remake each time I missed a sword poke in Tartarus, by far the game’s largest, and only dungeon. Towering at a monstrous 264 randomly-generated floors, Tartarus is where the vast majority of the JRPG half of the game takes place. Coming from P4’s abstract televised mind-palaces, I was admittedly left disappointed by the spooky tower’s lack of variety and bland aesthetics, but it also wasn’t as monotonous as I thought it would be. I was let down at first by the lack of goofy antagonists to chase down and fancy gimmicks to play around with, but after approaching it more like, say, a Pokemon: Mystery Dungeon game, things began to seem much more reasonable.
Tartarus is simply a very traditional take on dungeon crawling– you climb from floor to floor defeating shadows and collecting loot as they appear, with a miniboss appearing every 10 floors or so. It’s divided into 6 blocks, each with its own set of enemies and visual theme. The variety as I progressed did help the experience stay somewhat fresh, but considering how blown away I was to see that the fourth block’s walls were yellow instead of green, I feel like there was still room for improvement, even by 2006 standards.
Speaking of rooms for improvement, the series’s transcendental velvet room makes its return as per usual, this time in the form of an elevator soaring to its eventual destination, presumably to emphasize the game’s recurring theme that death is inevitable and life is merely a long, repetitious journey towards that point (more on this later). I’m glad to say this is one element of the game that was just as satisfying as P4, as was, by extension, the whole process of collecting, fusing, and leveling up personas. Working with Elizabeth, this installment’s velvet room assistant, I became addicted to trying to fuse the personas with the most optimal combination of type coverage, skillset, and simply how cool they looked. This ain’t your granddaddy’s pokemon, folks.
Elizabeth also gives you access to the persona compendium, a slew of optional sidequests, and even a social link of her own, which was definitely one of the most entertaining for me due to her alien-like confusion with human tendencies.
During the times where I wasn’t working on social links or fighting shadows, the game did provide some other events, whether it be in the form of part-time jobs, karaoke, arcade games, studying for exams, walking the dog, and so on. The problem is none of these proved to be enthralling enough to keep me from feeling like just another anti-shadow soldier eagerly waiting to either win the fight or die, and it’s for this reason precisely that I came close to dropping the game around 20 hours in.
This is probably where my most controversial stance lies, given that most recommendations I received for this game were based on the belief that the story more than made up for any faults in the gameplay. No matter how many times the game tried to “raise the stakes” with deaths, threats of death, cults about death, death weapons, or death shadows, I always failed to care about anything as much as I did with P4 because of just how cold everything and everyone was. Just like how the death of a loved one doesn’t in itself make a character interesting, the possibility of humanity being wiped out doesn’t in itself make for a thrilling 60-hour experience.
P4 as a whole was centered around finding “the truth”– to the murderer’s identity, the intentions of the media, the characters’ purpose in life, everything. This gave the game freedom to branch out far beyond just killing shadows, letting the player stop and smell the roses by having parties, going on ski trips, or even starting a ska band.
Meanwhile, in Persona 3, everybody already knows their “truth.” They’ve already witnessed it with their loved ones, after all, and most are extremely troubled because of it. It has its upbeat moments for sure, but they’re few and far between, leaving most of the incentive to play relegated to simply preparing for the next boss fight.
Like with any great story, it’s the little moments that matter most. It’s those extra bits of pizazz everybody seeks which can push a piece of media from a quality timekiller to something that stays with you for months, even years to come.
Don’t listen to revolver Jesus.
As the ancient proverb goes, it’s about the journey, not the deliverance of mankind through mass genocide. Uh, I mean the answer, I mean… Well, you get it.
Persona 3 is a good game. No, a great one. I appreciate the moments it does have. I appreciate the battle system. I appreciate Aigis’s weirdness. I appreciate imitating a fox in the hotel hot springs. I appreciate the symbolism deriving from Christianity and ancient Greek mythology. Heck, I even appreciate the game’s unrelenting edginess.
But did I truly feel for any of it? Not really.
Now for the real reason I wrote this post…
I don’t care what anybody says. These are the best games ever made. Not in terms of quality, but in terms of simply existing in the first place. Who would have thought there’d be such a wide market for dancing spinoffs of massive JRPGs which have their own lore that’s entirely separate from the main games?
My intro to the series was with Persona 4: Dancing All Night, which was essentially a full dance-filled sequel to the story of P4G, so when I learned there were spinoffs of 3 and 5 as well, it played a major role in motivating me to finish P3P.
And boy, am I glad I did, even though it turns out the later dancing games were made much more beginner-friendly. Instead of creating a continuation of P3, Dancing in Moonlight simply takes place during a dream in which SEES is forced to drop their weapons and have a dancing contest against the cast of P5. It’s stupid. It’s completely nonsensical. And yet, I’ve been loving every last second of it!
Persona’s dancing series has made up some of the most glamorous games I’ve ever played, and P3D is no different. The UI is total eye candy, the new remixes are mostly fantastic, and while the new social links (yes, the dancing games have social links) haven’t made me forgive how relatively bland P3 was, they do ooze the exact same euphoric cheesiness that I was missing from P4G.
It’s a love letter to P3 fans (and skeptics alike), and though the lore isn’t quite as deep as P4’s rhythm game, it’s made me view SEES in a much more playful, positive light that I can’t get enough of.