Atlus’s Persona series, starting with 3, mixes a ton of disparate elements into a surprisingly effective package. Persona 3 is the simplest take on the formula, but that simplicity has helped keep it distinct from its sequels. Where 4 and 5 weave intricate plots throughout the massive length, 3 feels more episodic. This allows the social element to feel more centralized.
The selling point of Persona is the way it mixes classic JRPG elements with the visual novel. Set over the better part of an in-game year, each day gives you time to do only a few things. The main character has just started at a new high school, where he’s dragged into a group fighting Shadows which invade the city during certain times. At the center of all this is a massive tower which the player must climb over the course of the 80+ hour game.
As a teenager, a social life is also necessary. Throughout Persona 3, you will meet characters corresponding to tarot cards. The player can summon his own personas with those labels, and improving relationships with these characters makes his personas stronger. These connections are a necessity – fresh personas tend to be under-leveled, but the experience boost from a strong bond gives a powerful edge.
Thus, the game is all about balancing time between building those bonds and conquering that tower with little direct guidance. The game suggests reaching a certain floor by certain points in the story, but it’s up to the player to find the time. Unfortunately, party members will grow tired over time, limiting how much you can explore during a single in-game day. Though this game is massive, time is always limited – unless you follow a guide, you will simply have to ignore some social links. Though well-integrated into the gameplay, these social links are also well written and serve to better emphasize the setting outside of the party members.
Something which has always intrigued me about Persona is how it manages to capture the feeling of an epic without necessarily being one. Despite its size, the majority of Persona 3 feels like a slice of life story which gets repeatedly invaded. Though plenty prefer the stronger narrative presence in the later games, Persona 3 lends itself to a more laidback experience. By breaking the experience into daily activities, it’s a story which is easy to take in pieces – or if you’re really engaged, it can have the same effect as the Civilization series. I’ve definitely found myself promising to only play ‘one more day,’ with the longer dungeon sequences being a nice reminder to take a break after that day turns into a week.
As with the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, the Persona series has its own strong combat engine compared to other JRPGs. While a bit simpler than Nocturne’s turn press system, the one more system still emphasizes the need to hit weaknesses. In this system, each character acts separately, and they can chain together multiple hits if they keep hitting weaknesses. The main character might be well-equipped to hit whatever weak point is present, but that’s where the time mechanic becomes essential. Magic costs SP, and SP generally only recovers once you rest for the day. This forces a heavy focus on resource management during each trip – the last thing you want is to use more days than necessary to climb Tartarus. You need that time for social links!
While the overarching narrative remains in the background throughout most of the second act, the finale hits hard. Throughout most of the game, why you’re stuck fighting these shadows is a mystery. The finale goes to some heavy places, a perfect payoff for such a long journey.
It would be careless of me not to mention the soundtrack. From the soothing Velvet Room piece which serves as a series staple to the J-pop bops scattered throughout the cities and battles down to the dark ambience of key revelations, everything here stands on its own while perfectly adding to the game’s modern atmosphere. The highlight is “The Battle for Everyone’s Souls,” which plays during one of the final battles. Starting with heavy metal guitars, the song soon gives way to the Velvet Room vocals. These two disparate sounds are seamlessly mixed together and help make this one of gaming’s most unforgettable final bosses. The guitars reinforce this difficult battle, while the serene vocals serves as a reminder of how far you’ve come with these people. Another highlight is the tragic yet empowering “Memories of You” which plays over the credits. The fact both of these come from the ending reinforce the fact this game simply gets better as it goes – and it starts pretty strong!
Persona 3 helped establish one of gaming’s best formulas. The year-round social mechanics sets a perfect stage to really get attached to the characters while also serving a gameplay purpose. Like any other Shin Megami Tensei game, this is a JRPG which provides a legitimate challenge. Plenty of games mix genres to varying degrees of success, but few match how Persona 3 uses elements of the visual novel to add weight to its procedurally generated dungeon crawler.