I'd regularly post this to the Persona 3 FES forum, but tagging blog posts to game pages seems to be broken right now.
First, a confession: I didn't finish Persona 3. I got to January 1 (right after the big Ryoji decision), saw the half-assed New Year's event, contemplated the continued Tartarus grinding and frustrating final boss fight I'd have to put up with, and decided to watch the finale on YouTube. I put 70+ hours into the game, completed most of the social links I was interested in, and grew completely sick of the dungeon crawling. I just didn't have it in me to play any more.
Don't read that as a complete dismissal of Persona 3. There's a lot about Persona 3 I really like, but my six-month-long, on-again-off-again crawl through the game says volumes about my relationship with it.
I didn't love the combat in Persona 4, but I also didn't particularly dislike it. The changes in setting kept things fresh, and the narrative stakes of each stage made the fighting feel important. The bosses were often challenging and rewarding, and rarely feel cheap. In Persona 3, the only real challenge is in the floor bosses, and the balancing is all over the place. I'd tear through some, and get utterly wrecked by others until I spent a night grinding through the same repetitive corridors. AI partners would make exasperatingly idiotic decisions at the worst possible times, making me yearn for the direct party control of Persona 4. Winning was more of a relief than genuinely satisfying. The SEES operation bosses, because of the way the game uses floor bosses to ensure that you're levelled appropriately, were a cakewalk in a way that felt at odds with the narrative.
I don't expect a JRPG to keep me constantly on my toes, but Persona 3's grinding felt tedious and disrespectful of my time. I liked parts of Persona 3 despite the 30+ hours I must have spent grinding in Tartarus while listening to podcasts, and that doesn't appear to be an uncommon opinion. I suspect part of my problem with the Persona games is my lack of interest in the fusion system -- I know some people love fusing uber-powerful persona and poking at the underlying gameplay systems, but that's never been my jam.
Even the real-world parts of the game often felt half-baked. Months went by with almost no original content, and events like the Kyoto trip and New Year's felt half-assed. I was able to max out my character stats weirdly early and finished the evening social links midway through the game, meaning I was stuck making the same run to Game Panic every night to buy persona stat upgrades. There were no social links with the main male characters, and the forced dating of female characters meant I had to walk a scheduling tightrope to avoid letting their social links reverse. Many of the ancillary social links felt trite and forgettable. For an 80+ hour game, there's puzzlingly little attempt made to keep things fresh.
I needed to get off that off my chest, but let's be clear, I also liked a lot of stuff about Persona 3. Like Persona 4, Persona 3 concludes in a really satisfying way. I think there's a good case to be made that the length and relatively slow pace of these games makes them well-suited to appeal to emotion -- particularly in their conclusions -- without feeling corny or unearned. I think Persona 4 did a lot more to get the player invested in the characters, but even so, I was pretty touched by Persona 3's conclusion.
The concept of friendship and love being this supernatural force able to overcome all is odds with my trained disposition against earnestness and platitude, but as pieces of fiction, Persona 3 and 4 resonated with me, and were refreshing in this media atmosphere of cynicism and irony.
Persona 3 has style, both artistically and technically. While I was a big fan of Persona 4 (a game with a larger scope, to be fair) I think I might like Persona 3 more as a complete artistic package. The Dark Hour feels menacing and almost macabre without feeling cartoonish or otherwise over-the-top, and it's accented perfectly by the slowly-layered-upon piano hooks. The use of green -- not only on the moon and sky, but also in the oppressive smoggy tint -- gives the Dark Hour an appropriately toxic and menacing character. It plays off the presence of blood at the lower levels, which gradually (and also appropriately) gives way to a more seraphic and otherworldly look near the top.
Iwatodai is tonally ambiguous. It's equally appropriate as a setting for dark and light moments. The school -- particularly the roof -- feels safe, youthful, and bright -- a disposition cemented by the energetic pop music. Even as the Apathy Syndrome reaches its peak, the school remains an oasis. The stations are rough around the edges, and their level of upkeep reflects the mental health of the population. The dormitory feels like a much more adult place than the school, as reflected in its music. The members of SEES -- both in terms of their personal histories and the task they've been given -- are not innocent children. The dorm music shares its musical influences with the Tartarus battle theme and SEES operations -- the dungeon theme even follows Ryoji into the dorm.
The character portraits and modelling are great -- succinctly conveying aspects of the characters personalities and dispositions. Mitsuru's moneyed upbringing, internalized expectations, and cultivated distance come across not only in her script, wardrobe, and voice, but also in subtle aspects of her portrait and animations. Likewise, a lot of Junpei's insecurity and projection of carelessness comes across in his character art, idle animations, and posture.
Persona 3 is obviously a PS2 game, but it doesn't suffer much because of it. For all of the contemporary focus on specifications and how many gigabytes of memory the PS4 and XB1 allow games to use, Persona 3 gets an astounding amount of mileage out of the PS2's 36 MB of RAM and 300 MHz processor. A lot of modern games -- in an era of orders of magnitude higher memory and CPU budgets -- struggle to make their characters feel like real people as effectively as the Persona games. Textures very rarely stick out as being low-resolution, and the low polygon counts are very rarely noticeable.
Shōji Meguro's soundtrack is all over the place in a way I really appreciated. How many video game composers could pack this video gamey ditty, this this mournful orchestral piece, this reserved atmospheric piece, and this straight-up J-pop ending theme into one soundtrack without the aggregate product feeling like an aimless mess? While I have no idea what Meguro's mindset is, I get the sense that he possesses a potent combination of eclectic influences and non-self-seriousness that's allowed him to stake out a pretty unique and endearing style.
I'm not an art book person, but I went out of my way to grab the Persona 3 Design Works. Likewise, I tracked down the soundtracks for Persona 3, Persona 3 FES, and Persona 3 Portable, as well as the "Reincarnation" remix album. When I look forward to playing Catherine, Persona 4 Arena, and the slate of Persona games announced for 2015, the work of Shigenori Soejima and Shōji Meguro are a big part of the draw. Soejima's art is good enough to speak to me despite a lack of manga or anime background, and Meguro's music nails a melodic pop sensibility that I'm not typically drawn to.
Persona 3 is one of those games that I really wish I liked more. Aspects of it are masterful, and aspects of it are downright exasperating. It feels special to me in a lot of the same ways that Persona 4 Golden did -- and it's arguably not all that different of a game -- but Persona 4 Golden was tightened up and fleshed out to an extent that kept me largely hooked from beginning to end, and Persona 3 was constantly losing me in the drudgery of actually playing it.