_Persona 3 was released in the US in 2007. As a fan of Persona 1 and 2 on the PS1, I was surprised and happy to see a 3rd installment kind of pop up out of the blue. I picked it up, but never got around to playing it. Meanwhile, people shat themselves over how great P3 was.
“OMG this is the best RPG this gen!”
“Uaaaahhhhhhh so gooooooooood!”
I’m making up quotes, but that was the general feeling you got from people that played the game. A year later, an update under the title of Persona 3 FES came out. “The best RPG of 2007 gets even better!” That’s on the back of the case, so that is an actual quote this time. Again, the internet goes up in arms about how great it is.
I picked up FES without ever having played the original…mainly because it actually came out at a discounted price. It was kind of like buying the Game of the Year version of a game you already own because it’s nice having the extra content all on one disc…even though GOTY editions of games now are lazy as shit and just come with DLC codes. That’s besides the point, though. Again, I got the game and just kind of didn’t get around to playing it.
2 years later, 2010…Persona 3 Portable hits US shores. Again, the internet goes up in arms. “Uah haaaaaaaa so goooooood! I’m gonna love playing this again with party control!”
“Wait one fucking second,” I said. “What do you mean party control?”
Turns out that in the PS2 Persona 3 games, you didn’t actually have the ability to issue commands to your party outside of the main character.
“Hmmm…” I thought. “That seems like it would be really annoying, especially with the spells and abilities from previous Persona games…” It was then that I made a decision. I decided that instead of getting the version of Persona 3 with party control, I would instead play the game that sounded like it had an inherently flawed premise in regards to combat that everybody fell in love with despite it.
In 2015, I started that playthrough of Persona 3 FES. That decision all those years ago is currently plaguing my entire being and likely took years off of my life due to the amount of energy I have expended trying to wrap my head around the amount of disdain and hate that is flowing from my essence right now.
So all of this?
I brought it upon myself.
_P3 is basically the tale of two games: A time management dating game and an RPG dungeon crawler. Wrapped around these disparate sections is some plot about shadows that show up during an hour of the day where time stops for 99% of the population called “The Dark Hour.” During the Dark Hour, most of the population turn into inanimate coffins. People who don’t sleep in magical coffins that form around them during the dark hour are generally Persona users. Through the use of Persona, which for a lack of wanting to explain it better are basically friendly monsters that cast spells for you, you fight the shadows and investigate why the Dark Hour exists in the first place.
During the day, you have your time management dating sim. You go to school, form relationships with your classmates, study, form relationships with old men, sing karaoke, form relationships with little kids, and…do whatever. It’s basically a Japanese high school life simulator for weeaboos. The time management section is competent, with most of the issues feel like they stem from a dev team’s lack of experience doing this kind of thing before, rather than outright incompetence. Things like event triggers being too strict, or how making plans with people in the morning skips over the afternoon so you can hang out with them in the evening…little things like that can be frustrating, but it’s not game breaking. You just go “Well, I’m already trying to maximize my time, so this is just one more thing to plan around.” The flaws of this section are kind of offset by the fact that they’re manageable and the entire point of this part of the game system is literally managing your time. Sure, that shit is stuff that I questioned within the first few hours of playing the game and made me wonder how exactly nobody thought about those things during development and changed them or why after thinking about it, they decided it was still OK, but…yeah, manageable.
The “dating” part of this comes in the form of social links. Social links are basically relationship levels that one has with different characters in the game. This basically equates to hanging out with people as they deal with their own individual problems. People might ask you questions like “Yo, should I go to the doctor for my fucked up knee?” and you can tell them “Yes, do that before you can’t walk anymore” or “Suck it up, pussy. And walk off that concussion, while you’re at it,” but no matter what you tell them, they’ll just go do whatever they feel like anyways. The same goes for the girlfriend links. No matter what you do, as long as you hang out with them, they’ll fall for you. Shower them with affection or stand around them in stony silence with your hands in your pockets, it doesn’t really make a difference. For a game built upon building relationships and getting to know people, your silent protagonist main character is mind alteringly passive. He would come off as kind of introverted, the way he hangs out with people specifically to listen to them blather on forever…except he goes out of his way to meet all kinds of people even outside of his dorm mates and classmates, be they drunk monks at nightclubs, elementary school girls at the playground or famous TV personalities at the mall.
…this all ties into the dungeon portion of the game. Somehow. Yeah. So…let’s jump into the dungeon portion of the game…
…fuck me, man.
_So the dungeon and RPG battling half of the game mainly takes place in a place called Tartarus. You can’t comprehend the nature of Tartarus’ form. Because it’s a procedurally generated dungeon. 250+ floors of randomly generated crap. There are a few floors etched in stone, about every 12 floors or so, where you’ll fight horribly designed bosses, but everything in between is random. And generally pretty ugly. “Pretty ugly” extends to the enemies, too. There’s maybe…20 total enemy models in the entire game which have about 3-5 palette swaps each. Between that and 6 different kinds of aesthetic themes for floors of Tartarus, just looking at the game gets really boring really fast.
Battles take place using a pretty traditional turn based system…kind of. You basically select your MC’s action and the rest of your party’s tactics on your turn, and each player and enemy gets their turn in order. Repeat. Similar to many SMT games, a straight up turn based battle engine isn’t quite enough, and they have to make their games “hard” by introducing concepts where you can have your entire party wiped out from a single mistake/lack of info. In this game, that manifests itself in a number of ways. You have the classic SMT Hama and Mudo skills, which for the uninitiated, are the insta-kill spells of the series. Not being killed by these spells is managable, but the biggest issue with them is not knowing what enemies can cast them. If you’re not expecting them, they can randomly be cast and game over you in a heartbeat. Another method of “difficulty” is the infamous “Party leader dies = game over” mechanic, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single person ever state was a redeeming feature of any RPG it was ever featured in. Even worse when it happens in games with revival methods. “Dickbag died! Quick, phoenix down! Oh no, the party leader died! …fuck man, I’m way too depressed to drop some bird feathers on him.” This is almost always a terrible mechanic from both a gameplay and a logic standpoint…so why wouldn’t it be present in P3.
_In actual “unique to P3” stuff, we have the “Down” state. A few things happen when a unit is in the downed state. A downed character will take more damage from any attack, although if they take damage, they get back up and are no longer downed, even if hit by another attack they are weak to. A downed unit becomes more susceptible to status effects, and will remain downed even if hit with a status spell. If left in a downed state, a unit will not get an action on their turn, but will instead use their turn to stand back up. If all enemies are downed, you have the opportunity to do an All Out Attack, where you rush at every enemy, doing a large amount of damage, and any surviving enemies go back to a standing state. I actually think that enemies can All Out Attack the party, but I never actually witnessed it in my play through.
There are two ways to put a unit into the downed state. The easy, fool proof way is to hit an enemy with an elemental they’re weak against. An enemy weak to fire will be knocked down by a fire spell, for example. The other mostly random way is to hit an enemy with a critical attack. This is generally random, although an enemy in a shock state will always sustain a critical hit when attacked. When a character knocks down an enemy, they get to take another action, assuming they knocked down every enemy targeted. An example would be if you used a spell that targeted all enemies, if the end result was that every enemy was downed, you’d have the option to use an All-Out Attack, or you could Relent and the unit would get an additional action. However, if the result of the target all spell was that only one enemy was knocked down, you wouldn’t get an additional turn.
Important to knocking down enemies is using Personae/Personas/Hard to say what the plural form it should be as “Persona” in these games are used as a proper noun. Your main character can switch between many Persona, which is what determines your main characters elemental resistances and weaknesses and what spells he can use at any given time. A Persona like Jack Frost resists ice and has many ice spells, but is weak to fire. It is important to switch your Persona so that you can knock enemies down and don’t get knocked down yourself. Most importantly, some persona are immune to holy and dark, which are the elemental property of those instant kill spells I mentioned earlier.
_Now, I figure most people who would bother to read this by now know all about the in’s and out’s of the battle system. If that’s you, you’ve noticed that I brought up all of those aspects of the battle engine without mentioning the lack of full party control I brought up earlier. I have a reason for that. I wanted to present the battle engine in a kind of way where you can see the basic framework and how it’s kinda interesting but also kind of janky…before I even decided to point out the other numerous buttfuck stupid decisions that negate everything that could work and turns everything into an unenjoyable chore.
I didn’t bring up the AI earlier as it looms over every other part so massively that it’d be hard to view the rest of the battle system for what it is otherwise. So, the only party member you have direct control over is your Main Character. You fight in a party of four, but the other three party members are controlled by the AI. But you do get to kind of give them general orders in the form of Tactics. Under Tactics, you can tell each individual member to try to knock down enemies, to save SP, to focus on heal/support, to just attack with no regard to what is happening around them, or to just do what the AI deems is best.
Being able to assign tactics to your party members is nice…but it’s a far cry from any kind of party control. All of the tactical commands are often too limiting or not specific enough. An example of limited usefulness is the Knock Down tactic. It’s simple enough – any party member set to Knock Down will try to knock enemies down and will leave any knocked down enemies in a downed state. It’s actually one of the better commands in its straightforwardness…but it doesn’t leave any wiggle room. If they can’t do any action to knock down an enemy, they’ll simply use the Wait command and do nothing…when they could just as easily use that turn to heal a party member, or use a debuff spell that wouldn’t put any enemies back into a standing state, or try to inflict a status effect. Nope…if can’t do anything to actively try to knock anybody down, they’d sooner do nothing then try to actively contribute, even if the rest of the party is near death.
How about Heal/Support? It gets used a lot – it’s generally the tactic you set on somebody when you want them to focus solely on keeping the party healed, so it’s easy to see why you’d use it a lot. But…that’s the “Heal” part. “Support” consists of buffs, debuffs and status effects. So if you want a party member to do nothing but focus on raising the party’s stats, lowering the stats of the enemy, or trying to inflict a status ailment on them…you also have to put up with them healing your party even when you have someone else assigned to doing that exact task. But at least a character in Heal/Support will also attack when they have no healing or status spells to use! Yeah, that’s right. Unlike the Knock Down tactic, if they have nothing to actually do pertaining to their assigned role in Heal/Support, they’ll just attack shit…even if you don’t want them to! Got a bunch of guys knocked down, trying to get that All-Out Attack or have them miss all their turns? Don’t worry, that Heal/Support unit has your back. Seeing how they have nobody to heal, it can only be a big help to cast an Attack-all spell to put everybody back to standing, fucking up everything in the process, right? Or maybe there’s a group of enemies, and you’ve managed to get one of them down to critical HP, but someone else in the party is also near death…that Heal/Support unit will actually weigh their options and decide the best way to keep the party healed is to prevent an enemy from doing more damage to them and kill them. Sure, killing an enemy unit is far from the most useless thing that could happen…but it really runs counter to the actual thing I told them to do, which was “Keep everybody healed.” Unlike the Knock Down tactic, which was extremely simplistic, Heal/Support simply does too much.
The “Act freely” tactic is what you’ll generally use the most over the course of the game, simply because it’s the closest thing to a balanced tactic you can give your AI teammates…but even then, they’ll leave you scratching your head and wondering how science fiction keeps predicting AI will rise up against their human masters when it can’t even logic its way through a turn based RPG battle without royally fucking it up. Unless specifically set to Knock Down, which I just went over why it’s often not the best tactic to set your guys to, your party will always take a chance to kill over knocking down as many enemies as possible. Never mind that if done properly, a knocked down enemy does as much damage as a dead one, since it’ll lose its turn. Never mind that the fastest way to kill every enemy is by knocking everything down and hitting it with an All-Out Attack. If the AI thinks it can kill that downed enemy, they’ll try to kill it before trying to knock down every other enemy, even if they can cast the spell that will knock it down without fail. The AI will always take a detour over a shortcut. The worst part? The AI isn’t always right! They’ll often hit downed enemies trying to kill them, only for them to survive with a sliver of health! The AI can’t even properly abuse the fact that it’s the AI and should know if they can kill enemies with an attack or not!
_Persona 3…not the first game to have AI controlled party members. This was in Dragon Quest IV. In DQ4, after a point, you controlled the main hero and you had your party dickin’ around, doing whatever they felt like. It was pretty lame in DQ4 too…but…DQ4 is a much easier game than P3. It’s a lot more straight forward, with a lot less stuff going on in battles. In Dragon Quest games, if you can’t beat a boss, you go get more experience and level up. That’s generally the solution to everything in DQ, because, no offense to DQ games, the series isn’t really strategically intensive. It’s generally pretty simple. That’s obviously where the games differ. The MegaTen games are generally mean games, often with an overabundance of enemies in normal encounters that will inflict crippling status effects on your entire team, or do nothing but use instant death spells every turn. P3 is no exception to this design philosophy. There is a ton of shit that will kill you very quickly…but like I said, that’s MegaTen. But all of that asshattery is just increased by also limiting the amount of control you have. DQ4 with dumb AI partners? Not a big deal, the enemies are also stupid and generally aren’t that dangerous. P3 with dumb AI partners? Have fun with all of the battles against faceless enemy mooks with one hit kill moves.
You assign tactics to your party members during your own turn. This means that you’re generally telling your party members what to do before anybody takes a turn. Hell, that’s not that different from the original incarnation of turn-based RPG’s where you gave your entire party commands at once and everybody acted in turn, when you think about it. But, again, the lack of party control rears its head. You aren’t giving your party in Final Fantasy 1 or Wild ARMs hand waving suggestions on what you’d like them to do, you were giving them specific orders. And unlike those games, P3 has the knock down mechanic. Since the only time you can change your party’s tactics is on your MC’s turn, if he gets knocked down and misses said turn…your party members essentially just go “Fuck it” and keep on doing what you told them to. And if you get continually knocked down every turn? …fuck it, AI doesn’t give a shit if the MC dying results in a game over, we’re gonna keep on keepin’ on!
All of this combines to make every battle “The Main Character show.” Your AI teammates can’t be trusted to do anything worth a piss. If enemies get a turn, you risk getting knocked down and losing battles without another chance to act. So…you generally want to try and end every single encounter in the game on your MC’s first turn, since he’s the only person you can count on not being an idiot.
_I want to bring up a thematic aspect of the game, or at least, what I took away from P3 as a theme. At the start of Persona 3, some creepy kid makes you sign a contract that states “I choose this shit of my own free will” or something to that effect. Basically, it states that you’re responsible for your own actions and decisions. That’s at the start of the game. Throw on top of that the Social Link aspect of the game, where you basically form relationships with different characters, get to know what drives them and what makes them who they are. These combined with the AI controlled party members gave off a sense of individuality as a theme of P3. Your character is an individual, but so are the other characters of the game. You don’t control them in battle, you give them suggestions. Think of it kind of like in a team based multiplayer game: You can assign people into different roles, but ultimately, it’s up to them to do what they think is best in a given situation.
OK. I get it. If that’s what they were going for, it’s not lost on me.
The problem with this is that the sense of individuality that it gives all of my teammates is that they’re all fucking idiots who can’t grasp combat no matter how much time they’re given. Valedictorian Mitsuru? Moron. Serial slacker Junpei? Moron. Boxing enthusiast Akihiko? Moron. The dog? Moron. Everybody just comes off as a moron. They each have unique skills they can use, but when they each use them equally as ineffectively as one another, they all come off as this huge group of fuckwits, incapable of fighting shadows properly, despite all being in a group put together specifically to combat shadows. There were times when AI party members were such liabilities, I fought bosses with a party of two or with just the MC by himself. Yup.
So…how could they fix these problems? The obvious one is “Just give me full party control.” They did that in P3Portable, but even then, it’s not perfect. P3P uses the P4 engine, which has a few key differences to the way the knock down and extra turn mechanics work that really needed some re-balancing that wasn’t done to work well within P3. I actually think the solution would’ve been a middle ground of issuing tactics to each party member as their turn came up. It retains the thematic element of character individuality, but allows you to have far more control on the fly. As opposed to characters being set in their tactics regardless of what happens, you could adjust what they do relating to the outcomes of the actions that just preceded them…almost as if they were able to think on the fly instead of just obeying tactical orders blindly! But they’d still feel like individuals due to the fact that you’re not specifically telling them “Do this spell on this enemy” or “Do this to this unit.” It would still be kind of broad strokes, but there would be far less of a feeling of just throwing your hands up and hoping for the best that the combat often bestows upon you. It would also help prevent battles from becoming unwinnable just because your MC missed an attack and got knocked down once.
That’s the crazy thing about the battle system of P3. So much of what is wrong with the battle system is just because of the AI party members. It’s a single issue that has a massive, cascading effect of awful on the entire combat portion of the game.
But…there’s another aspect of the game that just kind of bothers me. I mentioned that the MC is the only character who can change persona, and thus is the only character who can change his elemental strengths and weaknesses. This is actually another one of the reasons why I did a few boss fights in the game without a full party. You can essentially have your MC running around with no weakness to anything, and thus can’t be knocked down. Other party members don’t have this luxury, sadly. They eventually gain some resistances, but they will sadly be weak to something all game long. They will also only get one set of elemental spells to cast. So hooray, on top of every other issue I have with the way battles play out, your uncontrollable AI buddies are also offensively one dimensional all game long.
_I didn’t mention my issues with the social links earlier because I wanted to jump into the combat, mainly because I had a lot more issues with the way combat was done. But for a game where forging relationships with characters is such a big deal, your character is generally really passive in all of the social link interactions. It’s unfair to compare a PS2 JRPG to a game like Mass Effect, but part of the reason why the interactions in ME work is because Shepard actually communicates with other characters. You can believe that people would feel close to him because it shows in both his actions and his words. When characters so through deep shit, Shepard says “Hang in there, buddy.” In P3, the MC stands there with his hands in his pockets. The only time he communicates with people are when they ask him direct questions. And even then, there are generally Right and Wrong answers to their queries, which affect how much Social Link points you get towards leveling up said Social Link. Often times, the “Right” answer is giving people horrible life advice and telling them what they want to hear. Which I suppose is kind of realistic, cause all people want to hear is how their terrible decisions are right.
“Hey, I want to date our teacher…you think that’s a good idea?” “Of course it is, why would I dissuade you from pursuing a relationship doomed to failure that could also cost people their livelihood? GO FOR IT BRO-CHAN!”
“Shit, my knee really hurts…should I go see a doctor?” “Don’t worry about the fact that you could find yourself crippled by age 30. Just rub some dirt on it, keep going, and don’t come back to me with that wussy shit.”
“Do you think I’m wrong for blindly throwing around accusations at other students with no proof?” “Nah, your sociopathic tendencies are totally justified.”
…granted, these are some of the more extreme examples in the game. But for the most part, if you’re not just telling people what they want to hear, you’re generally just around for the ride, hands in your pockets, while you hang out with other people going through life issues and solving them without (or in spite of) your help. Then they thank you and tell you that they feel really close with you. This is one of those times where the silent protagonist really hurts the game. Why would people feel close to him when all he does is stand around in silence 95% of the time?
On the topic of writing, you might have noticed something I haven’t brought up yet: The main plot of the game. I remember so little about it, not specifically because it wasn’t that good, but more because there was generally so little of it. The easiest way to put it: Persona 3 is a game that takes most people on average of 100+ hours to beat, and the plot is summarized on Wikipedia in five paragraphs. Single paragraphs of the main plot of the game play out on average over 20 hours each.
_As I bring this to a close, the crazy thing is that I could go into more detail on things in the game that are poorly done, but it would just come off as anal and nitpicky, as if all of this doesn’t already. Maybe I’m just too old to get into Persona 3. It’s not hard to see that Persona 3 is a game more about atmosphere than anything else…about getting lost in the virtual world of Japanese school life. Go to school everyday, have your character study for exams, hang out with people at the ramen shop, spend some nights fighting monsters in a drab tower that only exists in a mystical 25th hour of the day when everything is green. I mean…that’s a pretty crazy sounding description, and it’s not an exaggeration.
Maybe I just missed something, but I just couldn’t get lost in the game. It did not absorb me. I wanted it to, I really did. 80 hours into P3, I was just hating it so much, but I still wanted the game to turn the corner and suddenly make everything I’d suffered through up to that point worth it. I wanted the ending to be so great that I ended up liking P3 despite everything else that led up to that point. I hoped that the game really would be like actual school, where everything sucks but as the end approaches, you look back at it through rose tinted goggles and think “I’m gonna miss this place.” You naively forget that those good times happened in spite of everything being horrible. The epiphany is not that it was secretly great the whole time. The true realization is that it was mostly just a gigantic waste of time.