Persona Walk With Me

by Arthur B

Persona 3 fuses traditional RPG action with elements of visual novels and dating sims to come up with a unique and fascinating combination.
Once upon a time, in a magical land called Japan, there was a series of horror-SF novels by Aya Nishitani called Digital Devil Story, the central conceit of which revolved around the use of computer software to summon demons.

A little later, someone made a console RPG adaptation of the first Digital Devil Story novel, Megami Tensei (or Reincarnation of the Goddess), combining dungeon crawling with a strong plot. This RPG would, like its peers Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior, inspire a whole slew of sequels and spin-offs, many of which take place in entirely different universes (although there are suggestions that at least some of the games take place in a common multiverse).

And so Megami Tensei began Shin Megami Tensei on the SNES, and lo, Shin Megami Tensei did begat Persona on the PlayStation, an alternate version of the series with its own take on the whole "demon" angle. In the Persona series, the demons are not summoned from some exterior source, but from within the protagonists themselves, and are expressions of their own inner selves (although the same cast of demons from the main Megami Tensei series fill in as the various Personas, the common demonic pantheon being a feature of the wider Megami Tensei series). Personas and Persona-users are mankind's bulwark against the Shadows, occult enemies whose nature is intimately tied in with the Personas themselves.

Then Persona 3 - or to give it its full title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 - came out on PS2, and things began to get really weird.

At the start of Persona 3 the protagonist transfers to a new high school in a new town, following the death of his parents. Arriving at his new dorm, he meets a strange child who gets him to sign a contract, swearing that for the next year he will take full responsibility for his actions, and after the contract is signed the child disappears. Within the next few days a series of strange events transpire - a dormmate is seen carrying what looks like a gun, the protagonist has Lynchian dreams of a blue velvet room populated by a little man and a strange woman where there's always music in the air, and it becomes apparent that the protagonist is being subjected to some sort of strange observation around midnight each night. The strange events culminate in a terrifying Shadow attack on the dormitory, during which our hero's hidden Persona powers are unlocked.

And that's when things get really strange, but I won't go into that now. Suffice to say that in terms of plot what ensues is an extremely traditional JRPG involving hidden destinies and secret backstories and horrible betrayals and the end of the world (seriously, what is it with JRPGs and the end of the world?). It's never dull, though; it's kind of fascinating seeing how the old tropes and cliches are refreshed by being transferred to the modern day, and the writers also manage to slip in some fun allegorical conflict between existentialism and nihilism too, as well as a bunch of high weirdness which by and large is perfectly judged; there's no Evangelion-like cop-out ending, and the story does come to a satisfying conclusion whilst leaving enough unanswered questions to retain a sense of mystery. Even more impressively, whilst some of those questions - like the true nature of Igor and Elizabeth, the people from the Velvet Room - aren't really the sort of thing that needs to be answered, others - like precisely what the final card Igor gives to the protagonist depicts - can in fact be answered by an attentive mind, so they aren't just being oblique for the sake of being gratuitously oblique; the writers have clearly given real thought as to what parts of the story should be explicitly explained and what should be left to the player to figure out.

The mix of traditional RPG elements and strange new ideas also pops up in the gameplay. Most of the actual Shadow-fighting action takes place in Tartarus, an impossibly high tower that mysteriously replaces the local high school every night during the Dark Hour, the slice of hidden time that exists just after midnight, which most people aren't aware of because they spend the entire time transformed into coffins. The Dark Hour isn't actually played out in real time, but there is still a limit on how much grinding you can sensibly do in a particular evening; the characters get tired after a while (the higher level they are, the longer it takes for them to get tired), and if you keep pushing them they can actually get sick. Furthermore, you don't have access to any shops during the Dark Hour, so sooner or later you'll need to stop so you can replenish your items, and your ability to progress up the tower is partially determined by how far into the year you've gotten - each full moon there's a major Shadow attack, after which another section of Tartarus becomes available to you.

This means that there's actually a limit to the extent that you can usefully grind - there comes a point each month where it simply is no longer worth spending the time grinding your characters when you can just wait a couple of in-game weeks until after the full moon, and then progress to the next levels and higher experience point rewards. I found that my limited access to Tartarus, combined with the time limit before the next full moon on one hand and the diminishing returns for excessive grinding on the other, meant that I tended to only go to Tartarus if I had a clear goal in mind - whether it was to reach the end of the current section before the full moon, or to complete the quests handed out by Elizabeth (the lady in the Velvet Room), or (in later stages of the game, where the cast of player characters ends up quite expanded) levelling up some of the lower-level members of the party so they aren't too far behind the others; as a result, Tartarus never became a chore in the same way that grinding in other JRPGs can become a chore, because most of the time there was a clear goal beyond grinding, and even when the goal was simply to grind a little the rapidly-diminishing experience points you get for fighting inferior enemies made sure I didn't take it too far.

The other 24 hours of the game's 25-hour day is spent in the town - and because it's outside the Dark Hour, the daytime and evening segments of the game give you a chance to interact with the rest of the town. Obviously, this is a good opportunity to stock up on items, and to rest up before the next Tartarus foray. In this sense Persona 3 is incredibly old school; having a single really big dungeon that the players go on planned expeditions to and aren't expected to fully explore in an evening and a nearby town to rest up and buy supplies and plan the next raid on the dungeon dates back to Gary Gygax himself and his original Castle Greyhawk home campaign which in conjunction with Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign led to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, so here the game is literally following a model that is as old as RPGs themselves.

Where it becomes radically different is in what you spend most of your days doing: attending high school.

Just as Tartarus is the centre of your world in the Dark Hour, school is the centre of your world during the day. You play through each individual game day (except for a few where the protagonist is sick in bed), and each day - except for Sundays, vacation days, and Japanese national holidays - you attend school. The great activities you can get up to there include studying for and taking exams, taking part in the sports teams and cultural interest clubs (I joined the Kendo team and the photography club), attending Student Council meetings if that's your wont, and - perhaps most importantly - meeting people.

The ties between the daytime gameplay and the Shadow-fighting action are your Social Links - relationships with people you develop over the course of the game, whether this involves friendships, dating, good honest rivalry, or any other sort of social interaction. Each social link is tied to a Tarot card of the major arcana - just all the Personas and Shadows are - and the better a particular social link is, the more Personas of that type you'll be able to pick up during your adventures in Tartarus. Igor from the Velvet Room has the power to create new Personas by "fusing" your current Personas, and when fused new Personas receive a number of bonus experience points that depend on how well-developed the relevant social link is - so, for example, if you've maxed out the relationship tied to the Justice arcana, all Personas you produce of that type will get a massive level boost as soon as you make them.

These benefits drove you to pursue my social links, but the little stories which unfold over the course of them made me stick at them. Each of them draws you into a tiny little soap opera surrounding the central character, their problems and lives not really being connected to the Tartarus issue at all but significant enough to make you all the more determined to protect them from the dark forces that (aside from your fellow party members) they aren't even aware of. The Social Links are also a great way to prompt you as the player to make some decisions about who your character is and what's important to them; my character started out as an absolute cad (if I were able to customise his appearance I would have given him a moustache to twirl) whose social life mainly revolved around cheating on women and encouraging his best friend to sleep with a teacher, but when things started getting really serious towards the end of the game he began to branch out a bit as he felt less and less comfortable treating women like playthings. In combination with the other events unfolding during the year - some related to Tartarus and the Dark Hour, some not - the Social Link soap operas create a backdrop to the dungeon adventures which gives them a meaning they couldn't attain on their own; you're not just dungeon crawling for the sake of it, you're trying to protect a town which has no idea of the danger that threatens it. The mix of high-school antics and occult action is reminiscent of a whole slew of anime and manga series, and the graphical presentation of the game emphasises this, both in its 3D and 2D graphics, as well as in the gorgeous hand-animated anime sequences that crop up at particularly crucial points in the plot.

Oh, and one last point about the plot: there is a "good ending" and a "bad ending" to Persona 3, but (in keeping with the contract you sign at the start of the game) which ending you get is utterly under your control. It hinges on a particular decision you are asked to make at a crucial moment. It will be very, very obvious when this decision arrives, so you need not worry about accidentally going one way or the other. The "bad ending" is, in fact, a fully implemented ending - its about as long as the good ending, includes a credits sequence, lets you save game completion data so you can start a new game with your level progression intact, and the scenario presented is so heartbreakingly awful I couldn't bear to actually watch it; I read the script for it online after I made the crucial choice, but even then I found it sufficiently traumatising that I didn't like to dwell on it, especially since that when I actually had to make the choice between the endings a part of me was genuinely tempted to take the bad option, as vile as it is.

The back of the box claims that Persona 3 offers 70+ hours of gameplay; this is, if anything, an enormous underestimate, since I personally logged over 100 hours in my first playthrough, all of them highly enjoyable. Persona 4, also out for the PS2, involves high school students investigating a murder mystery and people being sucked into televisions, and apparently is more of the same, only with a few gameplay quirks worked out - you can fully control all of the characters in your party in combat, for example, whereas in 3 you can only give them general orders, which is usually alright but very occasionally involves them acting like huge spazzes. I intend to play it as soon as I'm ready for another 100-hour RPG, and if it really is "more of the same, only better" it might knock Persona 3 off its perch. But for now, Persona 3 is a no-brainer for entry into the Axis of Awesome. If you intend to pick it up, it's apparently worth trying to get the "FES" (or "Festival") version, which includes some extra content added to the main game and an entire separate game, The Answer, that acts as a sort of mini-sequel.

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Comments (go to latest)
Jamie Johnston at 14:30 on 2009-10-03
Gosh, that does sound interesting. One day when I'm fabulously wealthy and have lots of spare time I shall finally get some kind of console and play such games. (Not because one has to be fabulously wealthy or have lots of spare time to play computer games, just because for some reason I feel that I would have to be.)

In the mean time:

...seriously, what is it with JRPGs and the end of the world?

This is probably far too superficial an answer, but I wonder whether it has anything to do with Japan having experienced something about as close to the end of the world as anyone can imagine. Twice.
Arthur B at 15:05 on 2009-10-03
In general I am wary of diagnosing aspects of Japanese culture with post-nuclear stress disorder; doing so implies that nothing else has ever happened in Japan. But in this case, the plot has sufficient callbacks to World War II itself and to the nebulous misdeeds of characters' grandfathers that I think it might at least be an influence.

(It's quite interesting on that point, actually - one of the party members' has a grandfather who did something Very Bad back in the day, and her father has consumed both his own life and hers in a relentless effort to put things right. The character in question is left having to balance taking on the job of making amends for the past on one hand whilst not letting her entire future be consumed by this process on the other.)
Wardog at 12:34 on 2009-10-05
Arthur I'm so glad you reviewed this - I've been meaning to try and do so for ages but I keep whimping out becuase I've had no idea how best to encompass the crazy genius that is Persona 3. You manage this surprisingly well - I'm particularly impressed at the way you've managed to make the plot come across as plausible. When I first started playing I was totally what-the-fuck about everything but it's amazing how quickly you come to accept it.

I really love the combination of old school JRPG dungeon crawling and high school action. It does set up this absurd situation, though, in which you're debating go to Tartarus to get on with saving the world but you have to study for an exam the next morning...

Also it's weird just how much you come to care for all your school friends - I was hopelessly invested in their little stories.

I heartily recommend Persona 4. It's even *better* - also it makes more effort to make the 'dungeon' part of the world connect to the in-game cast.

Also: Teddy.

And it has a remarkably sensitively portrayed gay plotline.
Arthur B at 13:29 on 2009-10-05
It does set up this absurd situation, though, in which you're debating go to Tartarus to get on with saving the world but you have to study for an exam the next morning...

It's amazing, in fact, how well-observed your interactions with school are, to the point where all of your old attitudes to school and exams come flooding to the surface. I found myself taking the exams uber seriously because I was that sort of guy in school, and I find the idea of failing an exam to be terrifying and abhorrent. I think it's down to the fact that your schoolmates are quite archetypal - there's the big old loser who doesn't give a damn about his exams, the incredibly tense overachiever who's constantly reminding you to study, and every major iteration between those two extremes.

In other words, it's exactly like being in school and being surrounded by people who are also in school.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2009-10-08
Hot damn, that does sound awesome. Arthur, I think you've convinced me to give it a try (once I finally finish of Final Fantasy VIII, anyway). It was the part about the social relationships which convinced me. Not that they're inherently less interesting than apocalyptic save-the-world plots and dungeon crawls, just that game developers seem to have a much better track record of making the latter fun and engaging than the former.
Gamer_2k4 at 18:48 on 2010-09-14
My roommate's been playing this game for over 100 hours now, leaving me with plenty of time to come up with my own conclusions about it. Rather than a dungeon crawl that includes a social simulator, I'd say it's a social sim that happens to have a dungeon.

To me as an observer (and knowing how I play games, as a player too), the social aspect of the game is the only part worth anything. Tartarus is just a bunch of cookie-cutter levels with cookie-cutter monsters. Oh, this cluster of enemies has a weakness to fire? Use the persona with a mass fire attack. I keep telling my roommate he's "gotta catch 'em all" when it comes to the personas, because they really feel like Pokemon. Each has a theme, a set of abilities, "evolved" versions (Jack Frost -> King Frost, for example), and you can swap them out in battles. There's nothing really unique or standout about the combat aspect of the game, and if I were playing, I would've dropped it long ago for that very reason (a reason, among others, that caused me to quit Record of Agarest War after only one generation).

As for school and your interactions with others? "Soap opera" is a very good way of describing it. Every single person you can create a social link with ultimately ends up with an attitude of, "You're the only person I can talk to about this...I'm so happy we're're so amazing," to the point where I wondered whether any of them actually knew anyone besides the main character.

Don't get me wrong; some of the content is pretty well done. The NPCs on your team are all fairly well-defined and banter among each other reasonably realistically. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments (at one point the stock "dumb" character says (not entirely jokingly, I'm afraid), "If we had a typoon on our side, it could throw a ramen stand at a shadow and kill it in one hit!"; he's met with stunned silence from the others). On the other hand, it's possible that most of the humor me and my friend derived from the game was from our own additions, like giving each character a nickname, pulling the maximum amount of innuendo out of every conversation the main character has with his love interests, and so on. In fact, when the potential for that is gone (like when he explores Tartarus), I often find myself leaving or doing something else.

So, the conclusion of my own personal review? Persona 3 might be alright if you're into that sort of game, but I'm not. Despite what the author said, grinding for the sake of a quest or to gain levels is still grinding in my mind, and I think it's safe to say that a good deal of the "70 hours of playtime" is spent grinding. Heck, even the social side involves grinding: you have social attributes (strength, courage, intelligence) that have to be leveled, you have social ranks (1-10) that have to be leveled, and all in all it's just very repetetive. You know why games are about going on adventures instead of going to school or work? Because we play those games to GET AWAY from the monotony of school and work. With the exception of a cutscene here and there, this game is all about repetition. For me, that gets old much too fast for it to be enjoyable.
Arthur B at 21:02 on 2010-09-14
As for school and your interactions with others? "Soap opera" is a very good way of describing it. Every single person you can create a social link with ultimately ends up with an attitude of, "You're the only person I can talk to about this...I'm so happy we're're so amazing," to the point where I wondered whether any of them actually knew anyone besides the main character.

Well, that is kind of the point - to maximise the benefit you get from the social link you want to boost it as much as possible, and the way to do that is to adopt a small-p persona and be the person they want you to be. Which implies some interesting and disturbing things about the main character.

But if you're not into the gameplay then it's not going to appeal.

(Oh, and the first Megami Tensei game came out 9 years before Pokemon, so it might be more accurate to say Pokemon feels like Persona. ;) )
Arthur B at 02:01 on 2011-01-16
I heartily recommend Persona 4. It's even *better* - also it makes more effort to make the 'dungeon' part of the world connect to the in-game cast.

Also: Teddy.
I've been playing it all day and HOLY SHIT YOU ARE RIGHT.

Not got to the gay plot yet but I can already guess how it pans out.

Teddy is awesome. I like how in a big emotional reunion scene the party is all "bawwww it's OK to feel like that inside we still love and accept you" and he's all "OK CUT THE CRAP WHO TOSSED YOU INTO THE TELEVISION?" at 18:05 on 2011-01-18
"Which implies some interesting and disturbing things about the main character."

Yes. Actually, I decided midway through Persona 3 that my protagonist was a sociopath. It really explains a lot.

--I took the stoic dialogue options in almost every case, which suggested that my character might literally not feel fear.

--He has no qualms about leading on a half-dozen women. Even beyond that, he's so driven to pursue novelty that as soon as he suspects a person is "out of new content," he drops them for new friends.

--He's fascinated by extreme situations and emotions. Something compels him to sit silently by the dying kid, the old monk, and so on. I decided it's because he is trying to understand the ranges of emotional expression that aren't open to him.

--And, as mentioned, he has "superficial charm" which lets ihm be all thigns to all people.

Of course, lots of videogame characters come off as sociopaths because the programmers didn't include reactions to things, but only in Persona did I feel that this was an intended reading, and that the MC's lack fo effect might be deliberate.
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