By GrantHeaslip 37 Comments
I loved Persona 4 Golden, and from the moment I finished it (and the moment I heard Persona 4 Arena has Persona 3 spoilers) I knew I wanted to go back and play Persona 3. Before anyone tries to tell me that I should be playing Persona 3 Portable: yeah, I've heard, and I know it's a better game mechanically in a lot of ways. But it also doesn't have 3D environments, character animations, or FMV cutscenes, and I've heard it modifies the tired/sick system in a way that kneecaps the game balance. At least for my first time through, I want to play Persona 3 as originally conceived, and FES strikes me as a much more pure experience. And yeah, I know, The Answer is to be avoided.
Fun fact, by the way: Persona 3 FES is the first native (well, emulated, but you know what I mean) PS2 game I've ever played.
I knew very little about this game going in, and it's turned out to have less in common with Persona 4 -- especially in terms of narrative and style -- than I expected. Relative to Persona 4's slow ramp-up (which I should say I didn't really mind), Persona 3 kicks into gear incredibly quickly. Days into the story and less than an hour of play time in, you're dropped into the first stage of Tartarus (the game's giant dungeon) with a full team and given full responsibility to plan future visits. The player, unless I missed something, is expected to just know that the ominous, omnipresent "next" countdown at the top right of the screen is important. The main characters go from "what the hell is going on?" to "okay, let's explore this giant tower full of monsters!" in about 5 minutes. I can't say that I mind, especially since I know the general Persona game rulebook, but the change of pace and relative hands-offedness has been the most noticeable difference so far.
I'm loving Persona 3's style and atmosphere. While Persona 4 had its moody, dark, and serious moments, Persona 3 (at least so far) leans much more in that direction, and less on the cheerful, heartwarming and chummy ambiance of 4. Where 4 would strike a mysterious tone, 3 seems to strike a menacing one. Seconds into the opening cutscene, I was completely on board. The quick cuts between city streets and a girl slumped on a bathroom floor struggling to shoot herself, the playing on circular shapes, that out-of-left-field shot of cow people, the oppressive static, the blood-stained green and yellow streets filled with coffins, the Japanese hip-hop -- it's just plain cool, offbeat, and strangely cohesive in a way that resonated with me more immediately than Persona 4. I love the casual prep fashion -- particularly Minato, Mitsuru and Akihiko -- and the Paris-esque stylistic idiosyncrasies. It's -- at least from my place of relative cultural ignorance -- Japanese design at its best: integrating a broad swath of cultural influences into a compellingly cohesive package.
The music complements all of this perfectly. I was already enjoying a lot of the compositions, but man, when I hit the Monorail incident before Golden Week and Deep Breath Deep Breath hit, I knew this game's soundtrack was truly special. There was some part of me, not very long ago, that would have heard that Japanese rapping and had a hard time getting past it, but perhaps because I've got a long-standing blind spot for lyrics in music and have played several games with vocal-heavy soundtracks recently, I straight-up like it at this point. The clipped synths, weird half-lady-half-saxophone backing vocals, and jazzy piano work come together for a great track that complements the scene very well.
The moody Tartarus Block 1 dungeon theme, that jazz rap dorm theme, that energetic exploration theme -- almost every track in this game is great. I'm going out of my way to avoid "spoiling" future music, and I think that says a lot about my reverence for it. And really, any game that is willing to go balls-out and use Mass Destruction as a battle theme you'll spend hours listening to is a game that I feel some obligation to get behind.
One last quick note: I think the tired/sick system is some really smart game design. One of my bigger pain points in Persona 4 Golden was that the dungeon gameplay wore thin when I was finishing every dungeon in my first visit. A combination of the game's general easiness, SOS system, and tight social link timeframes strongly incentivized the player to maximize every day they entered the TV, and that manifested in my grinding through dungeons in a single sitting in a way that pushed the fun factor of the battle system past its breaking point. As much as I'm sure I'll resent it from a cold min-maxing perspective, the tired/sick system is effectively preventing me from treating Tartarus exploration as a chore, and is making the game's pacing much more enjoyable as a result.