Persona 3: FES
This post will only contain major Persona 3 spoilers beyond the horizontal divider. Anything before that and you should be good. Also the game is pretty old.
Right, so first of all, let's talk about the first ten minutes. Absolutely wild. Completely deranged. Please watch it. No seriously, I know it's five minutes long, but it's an absolute trip.
Seriously, what on Earth is going on? You have to understand, I had some form of expectations going in here. A gentle 'transfer student on the train gets introduced to his new school' perhaps. Maybe some hints at the magical world of Persona that is to come. I didn't expect... whatever that was.
This opening really sets Persona 3 apart from its two sequels, which is fitting because the entire game feels different somehow. It feels like a prototype: an artefact that has been limited by technology, budget and scope and yet still shines through with its own brilliant individuality. The themes of both Persona 4 and 5 are noble: the truth and rebellion respectively. Persona 3 is different. Persona 3 is about facing death.
In this world, you summon your Persona (Pokémon) by shooting yourself in the head. You fight in the Dark Hour - a secret hour after midnight where deadly shadows roam the streets; normal citizens become frozen in coffins and the sky turns a pale shade of green. Each game does a great job at conveying its style through these moments and Persona 3 is no exception. There's nothing quite like it. It's a true PlayStation 2 JRPG aesthetic.
Unfortunately, the novelty of this wears off rather quickly. A significant part of Persona 3 feels aimless. The story takes a long, long time to get going and the characters are not compelling or likeable at all (more on this later). You aren't given much motivation to press on, aside from the fact that this is a Persona game and you're probably going to get to fight God at the end and I am never, ever going to turn an opportunity like that down.
It's a game split into two halves. A JRPG where you fight monsters and level up your personas (Pokémon). And a dating-sim-like where you go to high school and hang out with the boys, do homework and help an old couple come to terms with the death of their son. The usual stuff.
It's with this that the criticisms begin. Persona 3 feels like a prototype for the two sequels and not in a good way. You can tell they were trying to figure things out. The social links are not intriguing. You can't form links with your party (kinda) and it's with this game where the social links feel most disconnected from where they're meant to help. While forming bonds with your party members in Persona 4: Golden could improve their skills in combat and Persona 5's confidants could outright turn the tide of battle, Persona 3 has little impact here before the late game. Combat and social links may as well be two opposite matters.
And unfortunately Persona 3's combat is not off to a good start. You can't control individual party members. Ridiculous! I've spent two games having complete control over what kind of hat Naoto gets to wear and all of a sudden I have nothing? No control over how they level up? No control over their skills? Their choice of who to attack? I can't provide any excuse. It's one of the most frustrating parts of the game to me. Your party members often specifically try and do the dumbest thing imaginable. There is a tactics system that provides you limited control, but it's just that. It was one of the biggest shocks to me coming from 4 and 5.
This pretty much sums up the first half of Persona 3
Your dungeon of choice this time is neither the palaces of the corrupt nor the oppressive fog of the TV world, but the mysterious tower of Tartarus. It looms above all in the Dark Hour, each floor filled to the brim with deadly shadows. It works very much in the same way that Persona 4's dungeons do, but I actually think 3 does it better. Tartarus is a marathon; the only dungeon of Persona 3. It's the focal point of the entire game and there's a certain charm to it, the winding corridors, the ghostly shadows, the haunting music that changes the closer you get to the top. I'm not big on the JRPG elements of this JRPG, but I did like Tartarus.
All of this lulls you into a false sense of security. It makes you think that the game isn't going to be very good. For the first half, or maybe first two thirds, it feels very standard. A Persona game that isn't quite there, because the developers don't know what they're actually making yet. Then the game tricks you.
Then something happens.
Each Persona game has a fall from grace if you will. A moment where our heroes are at their lowest point - a moment where they are not as untouchable as they believe. It's your typical death and rebirth point on that stupid journey wheel thing where our characters will suffer a setback and become stronger and more resolved for it.
Though this one is a pretty tough setback.
In Persona 3, one of your party members dies. This isn't something that happens in any of the other games and it hit me like nothing else. At the precise point that I was convinced I was going to be done with this game - the precise point that I was getting ready to slog it to the end, Persona 3 pulls this on you and it's simply horrific. There's a cutscene and everything. You get to look into the terrified eyes of Ken - a ten year old boy as he watches the man he wanted to kill die before him. Like, holy fuck. Remember, this is all on the backdrop of Persona 3's theme of death. You had a feeling it might be coming, but it's so visceral. It's not gratuitous or anything - you simply get to watch a man who is tired of it all die.
And now the game has a lot of catching up to do.
This is the exact point where the game turns around. The characters of Persona 3 actually seem to develop outside of the story. Suddenly it all makes sense - the lack of social links for your party means they can develop at their own pace at the exact time the writers want them to. The story now into fifth gear and feels like it's actually making some progress. The game's antagonists become more apparent. You can see the arcs of your party members develop. No longer are they boring one-line-spouters but genuinely interesting human beings that have grown as people. Junpei is one in particular who follows the journey from annoying idiot to loveable annoying idiot with likeable traits.
You reach the end of the social links and realise: holy crap, they're actually really good? There's just something about them that seems to explore the very reaches of the human soul? I don't know. On the surface they are generic and exaggerated stereotypes but then not everything is as it seems. The aforementioned old couple is a great example. They initially express anger when a tree that was planted in memory of their late son, a teacher at the school the tree resides at, is going to be demolished in favour of a new building. So of course, you're upset. You're angry. That tree was in memory of their son, why would the school want to demolish it and uproot the memory that this wonderful couple has?
But in the end, the couple decides not to oppose the idea, reasoning that education is more important than their own memory of their son. The new school building will be constructed as planned and the tree will even be relocated to a different spot.
And, like, that's so good? Writing? In video games? Not necessarily going for the outcome that you would think? Making you wonder for a second about life and what our memories mean and how, eventually, everything we know and love will turn to dust and the only way to fight against this entropy is remembering our loved ones? Persona 3 for the PlayStation 2 made in 2006? Hello?
There's a dog by the way. Did I mention it? There's a DOG. He has a KNIFE. He can open a portal to the DARK DIMENSION. 10/10
The game takes such a dramatic turn in its final third that I wonder if it was intentional. In video games we usually see the strongest moments frontloaded, but Persona 3 doesn't care. It demands that you sit through this build-up, slowly introducing you to this strange world of characters that you don't really like and a story that doesn't go anywhere - all to turn it around in the final (20) hour(s) and become genuinely one of the best games ever made. This is me going in from a 2021 perspective by the way. This game is fifteen years old.
It got me thinking about what should happen if this game were to ever receive a remake or a new version of sorts. With the recent success of Golden on PC, I wonder if the same thing is going to happen to 3, and whether Atlus should try and fix any of the rough edges or just leave it as it is. Is the long, slow build-up necessary for the payoff at the end, or would it be even better if the first half was more interesting? Should you be able to control your party members, or is it better to leave them with their own sense of individuality? I would have an easy answer for you at first, but now that I've finished the game? I don't know.
So what happens at the end? Well obviously the God of Death emerges and tries to devour the world, come on, we all knew it was going to happen. But the thing I'm not mentioning about Persona 3 is that it's a... 'classic' JRPG. In that it's very difficult. Even on easy. The final boss of Persona 3 is no exception - it's an hour long and took me several attempts.
I'm not too fussed about the combat of Persona. I see it as a necessary evil that breaks up the parts of the game that I actually like. But I had no such luxury in Persona 3. I had to pay attention to the combat in this one. I had to look up the best possible Personas (Pokémon) to fuse and I had to grind my way through several floors of Tartarus in order to be a high enough level to beat the big bad. Upon reflection I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing because it forced me to understand the game on a level that I simply don't compared to Golden. I know quite a bit about the game now. I know that Odin is broken and Satan and Lucifer lets you one-shot enemies and there is a secret floor of Tartarus full of challenging enemies that you unlock by defeating the reaper. Had Persona 3 been at the difficulty of its sequels then I wouldn't have known any of this.
So while Nyx does seem impossibly hard to defeat at first... surely that's the point? I imagined all of you nerds who played the game when you were ten years old and facing off against God and how it might actually feel that way? The Gods of 4 and 5 are a challenge for sure, but I think Nyx in 3 was the first time I felt like I had to pull everything I had together to beat it.
Persona 3 is so interesting to me. I hope I've made it clear that it's not like the other two games. It's very much its own thing, for better and for worse. If you're a fan of 5 or 4 and are wondering if you should play 3, then know what to expect. I saw it as more of a culture artefact that me actually enjoying the game, at least in the first half. But if you stick with it, there are some beautiful moments and decisions made in its structure and writing that are sadly absent in future games. It's rough around the edges and you'll pine for the comfort of 5 at times, but I'm so happy I decided to play this game. The view at the top of Tartarus is a hauntingly beautiful one.