JRPG Journey 2022: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (July)
June’s game: Tales of Legendia
August’s game: Live A Live
Persona 3 was my entry into the Persona series, and the Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole. Around the time Persona 4 came out, my more weebish friends were heaping endless praise on P3, saying that it was still the best one, and a good entry point. They also recommended Persona 2, but I happened to pick up a copy of the third game years ago, and it always stuck with me that I should start with it.
In 2022, it was finally time. I came down with the unspecified virus of unknown origin 🇨🇳 and had plenty of time to sink into the game. And, I suppose that’s a good place to start. Persona 3 is long, one of the longest JRPGs I’ve played, and even discounting time spent on optional Velvet Room requests, the story still took me a good 90 hours.
That’s because there’s a ton of content in this game. It’s best played slowly and methodically, and while I blew through it in less than a week, I’ll try not to knock it for feeling repetitive since the way I chose to play it is on me. And, it’s a testament to how fun this game is that I didn’t get sick of it by the end. There’s a huge variety of content here that I haven’t seen all in one game before. You play as a transfer student, living out almost an entire calendar year at school, day by day, making friends, nurturing relationships, and getting a high quality Japanese education. Then at night, you fight monsters on a demon hunting team. You know, standard Japanese school kid stuff.
I’m simplifying that a lot, by the way. The school day mechanics are surprisingly deep, and the battle mechanics even deeper. Best of all, they tie into each other perfectly. Your relationships with NPCs are tracked by what the series calls social links, and raising these social links by spending time with your friends unlocks new personas for use in battle.
What are personas? …You’re probably not asking, ’cause if you’re reading this, chances are you’re already a Persona fan, but I’ll quickly explain: they’re basically demons you catch, train, and battle with, similar to Pokemon or other monster catching games. The focus here though is on combat, and on constantly swapping out personas for new, stronger ones, typically by combining several weaker personas via fusion. Unlike in Pokemon, you’ll be at a big disadvantage if you stick with your early favorites; instead, you’ll probably gravitate toward a few classes — called Arcana in this series — and will want to focus on getting stronger personas of the Arcana that fit your play style.
This is my favorite mechanic in the game. P3 offers an insane amount of combat strategies, and unlike many other series, almost all of them are viable or at least useful enough to include in your squad. You’ve got your standard physical attackers and elemental magic users, but there’s also plenty of strange status effects that, while not often helpful against regular enemies, can be life savers in boss fights. What makes the system so compelling, though, is that while Personas of the same arcana tend to learn similar skills, you can also customize them in near-infinite ways. See, every new persona you fuse starts with a random set of skills from their pool of default skills. That alone is enough to warrant re-rolling your fusions to get at least a few of their best skills, but it gets more complicated than that. A fused persona can also inherit skills from its “parent” personas, letting you keep your favorite skills as your team grows stronger. This turns out to be vital if you want to master the combat, since the personas with the best stats don’t come with certain skills they could make enormous use of.
So it’s up to you to plan fusions carefully, making sure your personas are carrying the skills you want and passing them along. Some might find this tedious — it does take a long time and you’ll have to look up info online, but for me that’s addictive and fun. This kind of planning appeals to my urge to overly optimize, and I’m happy that the game all but requires it. You’re in for a tough time otherwise. You can always grind up the personas you’ve got, but this is much slower than fusing personas efficiently, and I’m talking an order of magnitude slower.
Combat itself is a dream. I played the enhanced “FES” (short for “festival”—it’s a Japanese thing) version for PlayStation 2, which adds an epilogue I won’t cover in this retrospective. More importantly, it retains the original Persona 3’s lack of party member control in combat, unlike the PSP version. I, for one, love this. I can’t imagine how much longer my playthrough would have taken me if I had to choose commands for every party member in every round of every battle in the game. I do not want that, because the combat isn’t designed around it. The AI is smart and almost always did what I wanted it to. Each party member only has one persona tied to one magic element for the whole game, and it’s usually obvious what they should and will do on any turn. If there’s enemies weak to thunder, you can count on Akihiko using a thunder attack. If you need healing, you can count on being healed — if your party members have the right healing skills. This mostly comes into play during boss battles and other particularly tricky fights, and it’s all about choosing the appropriate party members to bring. It’s also vital to change your party member’s strategies when needed — sometimes, Yukari ought to focus on healing for an entire battle, but she’ll only do that if you command her to. This system works super well, and it only frustrated me until I fully understood it. Now, I wish more modern JRPGs had AI-controlled party members.
I’ll quickly touch on the dungeon crawling, which easily took up half my total play time. And by dungeon crawling, I mean the classic definition: one dungeon that you delve deeper and deeper into throughout the game, Diablo style. Or, to go further back, like Wizardry or, of course the original Megami Tensei, but I haven’t played that game. In this case, though, the dungeon is a giant tower named Tartarus that you climb, unlocking a new block of levels after each major boss. Though this was the biggest reason I put off playing Persona 3 for so long, since dungeon crawlers don’t typically appeal to me, because the combat is so dang good, I didn’t mind that there’s only one dungeon. In fact, it’s pretty neat how you learn the layouts over time — there’s only a few of them — and how you get good at dodging enemies and start to feel like a god.
Plus, you spend a ton of time outside Tartarus too, and the game’s pacing accommodates any play style. If you only want to explore Tartarus a few days a month, that’s no problem. Sometimes I would rush to the highest floor available and hardly battle at all; other times I’d have a lot of Velvet Room requests to work on and personas to fuse and would spend hours in there. It’s all about what you make of it, and the game won’t hold your hand.
OK, I keep mentioning months and the calendar, what’s up with that? Well, when you’re not exploring Tartarus, you’re living your life as an ordinary high school student. Every school day, you’ll attend classes, have to remember the contents of lectures, make new friends, and explore the town. This was my first time playing a JRPG with slice of life mechanics like this—as far as I can remember, anyway—and it was a ton of fun. It did get repetitive, but since I marathoned this game, so that’s to be expected. Persona 3 could last a player an entire year of real life if they take it slow. What’s compelling about these sections is the range of stories you’ll encounter during social links. You’re encouraged to make friends with all sorts of different people; not all of them are the … savoriest of characters, but that’s part of the fun. There’s a wacko, paranoid dude who thinks everyone’s out to get him, an over-the-top athlete who constantly beats himself up and wants you to verbally abuse him, too. Seriously, this guy pours his heart out to you, and the appropriate response is “you really need to toughen up.” Damn, that’s cold. But hey, it’s what motivates him. That’s realistic for his character, and understanding everyone’s underlying needs is key to succeeding at the social links. And boy, you’ll need to know exactly what to say if you want any hope of maxing them all. There’s little room for error here, so I focused on several but not all the social links, which worked out for me.
Due to social links, practically character is well fleshed-out, with at least 10 conversations each and solid progression throughout. This is nothing mind-blowing, but it’s more than most JRPGs, and I appreciate that. The overarching story, though, the one with the demons, is fairly cookie cutter. I get that it’s all about, oooh, emotions and dealing with the reality of death, but I dunno — these themes come off somewhat weak and underdeveloped. It’s mostly up to you to add your own interpretation of them, and there’s not a ton of story cutscenes in the game in the first place — not when you consider its length, anyway. I respect those who get into analyzing the plot and themes, but that’s not what I’m interested in on this channel, and I’m not very good at that stuff anyway. I enjoyed the story but wasn’t overly impressed, so that’s all I’ll say about it.
I’m more about the general vibe of a game, and that’s something Persona 3 succeeds marvelously at. It oozes a special kind of charm that spills over every aspect, coating the experience in a tone that’s uniquely Persona, or at least uniquely SMT, I dunno — I gotta play more of this series.(I may have recently bought Digital Devil Sagas 1 & 2 as well as SMT V.)
Names of elemental magic spells, for example, are specific to the SMT series as far as I know, and it’s neat using spells like Magaru instead of “wind-all” or something generic like that. I know it’s just flavor, but it’s flavor that tastes good. What’s even cooler is that the names draw from a variety of real world religions and languages instead of, I dunno, basing everything on the Nordic gods or something. There’s influences from Hinduism, Greek, Sanskrit, Shinto, and all kinds of other stuff. It makes me want to read — that’s always a good thing. The Arcana come directly from real life tarot cards, which I don’t know much about, but it’s a creative way to distinguish the game from other JRPGs, and it’s clever how each social link’s associated character at least somewhat embodies the arcana they represent. There’s also a chilling sense of dread or even malaise that permeates both the school sections and the dank, dreary dungeon crawling. Even the generally upbeat music has a whiff of wistfulness to it that rarely goes away.
Speaking of the music, it’s a fantastic example of how Japanese game composers went crazy over jazz in the mid-2000s, a trend that continues today. (OK, the Japanese have always been crazy for jazz.) The compositions here are wild, all sounding like they could be from different games, but when heard during your playthrough, they’re somehow a natural fit. I can’t put it into words better than that, except to say this soundtrack is worth a listen even if you never plan to play the game. Besides jazz, there’s heavy hip hop influences as well as standard rock-based or haunting ambient tracks. My only complaint is that the game is so long that I wish the themes for certain areas were changed up more. It does happen a few times in a few locations, like the school entrance and each new block of the main dungeon, but I spent a lot of my over 100 hours with the game playing the day-to-day activities on low volume with a podcast going in the background. Long games need long soundtracks, and I wish publishers paid more attention to this.
Well, if my biggest complaint with a game is that there’s not enough music, it’s a damn good game. I thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3 and can’t wait to check out the rest of the series. Oh yeah, I’m gonna play all the games as well as dive more into the larger SMT franchise, and you can bet I’ll cover all of them—eventually. I hope you stick around while I continue my journey.
Next month, I’ll be covering the original Super Famicom version of Live A Live—an RPG not-quite-classic that never saw a release in the US, until it recently received a remake. See you then.