By theuselessgod 19 Comments
(Apologies in advance for any formatting issues; I write stuff in Word beforehand and trying to convert it into GB's blog is something I apparently can't fully grasp)
In preparation for Persona 4 Arena: Ultimix and Persona Q coming out soon (I couldn't be more excited for both of these), I figured I'd incite some fanboy rage and do something nobody smart would do: pit two extremely popular games in the same game franchise against each other in a head-to-head to figure out which one is "better." Smart, right? That's like people arguing which Legend of Zelda game is the best (Link to the Past) or which Mario game (RPG, then 2) or which Final Fantasy game (Final Fantasy VI) is the best one. It's all subjective anyway...or is it? (answer: yeah, it kind of totally is)
Well, as a preface to this head shooting, social link reversing, Teddie-fur fulled throwdown between two cult classic games, I'll just toss out that I think both games are phenomenal. Even though if you boiled them down to their absolute cores you'd basically have two identical games (get social links, use social links to get personas, use personas to fight monsters, win), both are absolutely worth playing, and if you have any affinity for JRPGs at all you should pick not one, but both up. You also could probably break them down in completely the same way as I'm doing here and have totally different results based on your own personal opinions. So why compare them?
Because why not. Also I'm one wordy son of a bitch, so this will probably go long. Bear with me.
Hur hur hur.
For the sake of some kind of structure I broke the grading credentials down into five major categories: Story, Characters, Graphics, Gameplay, and Music. Each might have subcategories and others might not. They will be split up across four different posts, with Story and Characters getting their own days each, and Graphics, Gameplay, and Music all mushed together followed by a conclusion post. I will attempt to be a thorough as possible in my analysis, but keep in mind most everything here is entirely subjective and based on my opinion. However, my goal is to convince you that my opinion is right, so listen close, internet troglodyte!
(I'm sorry I called you a troglodyte that was unkind let's just break this down now shall we)
Oh, and THIS IS YOUR GIANT SPOILER WARNING! I won't ruin endings or who the villain is in Persona 4 or anything, but there will be hints to things that happen later in the plots of these games. It's unavoidable. Deal.
Part 1: The Story
I made a comment on my Persona 3 FES review that the story in Persona 3 was, quote, "Not all that original or interesting." After replaying Persona 3 Portable I am totally convinced that I was suffering from mild brain damage when I wrote that. Persona 3's premise follows a group of high school kids recruited into an organization called SEES, which exists to murder big nasty shadows that appear every month during an hour between midnight and one am where spooky scary shadows come out of their school and try to murder people. Also their school turns into the Tower of Babel except Satan made it.
Yeah, totally run of the mill here.
You know, just a regular story about teens shooting themselves.
While the story does turn into "teenagers save the world" (which is what I complained about in my earlier review), it manages to subvert it's cliche in a variety of ways. Probably the biggest crazy thing is how high the death count is in this game. I didn't realize until replaying it, but tons of main characters don't make it to the end, often dying in unfair or tragic ways. In addition, most characters have rather traumatic pasts that they have to cope with, which often tie directly into the events of the game. Mitsuru's history, Ken's mom, and Fuuka being a victim of bullying all end up tying into the main story in some crazy ways.
Most importantly, the game has a very clear three act structure, and it feels very tightly knit. While the "kill the big bad, save the whole world!" isn't exactly new, the entire game builds up to this point wonderfully, while still managing a ton of crazy twists and deaths along the way. The game is dark and but doesn't force the issue, letting it's themes and existentialism seep into the plot itself, while still providing a well crafted narrative. It's a complete package, with everything from Igor to Nyx tying together in the end as if it was all made for each other.
The only issue I have with it is that the story is that it doesn't really take off until the start of the second act (basically when you get Shinji as a party member). Up until that point it's a bit on cruise control. After the Shinji plot arch, however, the game kicks right into high gear, never stopping until the end. A minor pacing problem, but one never-the-less.
While I really enjoyed Persona 4's story, I felt that it really doesn't reach the level of depth that Persona 3 has. This is mostly due to the fact that, at it's core, Persona 4 is a detective story. Somebody is committing murders, and you've gotta find out who. While this makes the story compelling, these types of stories rarely have some sort of large overarching world-saving narrative going on in the background; the main focus is to solve the case and move on. Because of this, the addition of the "True End" boss feels weirdly out of place considering everything you invested in had tied off after solving the mystery.
Another problem with Persona 4 is your detective team sometimes seems to be falling a little behind on what is going on (yet are somehow ahead of Dojima...). Not offensively so, but you'll probably have figured out a lot of who got tossed into the Midnight Channel long before Youske comes to his brilliant deductions. The game also tosses not one, but two rather obvious red herrings that your party eats up before the end, both of which resulting in a "Whew, the case is closed!" and then "Wait, what?" that makes them look kind of slow on the upkeep. In the nicest way possible of course; I love you guys.
Youske: Master Detective.
That being said, this game isn't lacking for emotional standout moments. The final kidnapping of the game and the scene where it's revealed is arguably one of the tensest, craziest things I've seen in a game, with everybody losing their minds over what happened (and the player in shock that the game would do this to them). After rescuing said undisclosed person, the events following are equally traumatic, with the game taking a rather dark turn out of the blue. This, however, isn't necessarily for strength of the story necessarily, but the strength of the characters it established (which I'll cover later).
As it stands, Persona 4 is an engaging story because it's designed to be. Mysteries are popular because they're easy to follow and are proven to keep readers engaged (look at how well thriller novels sell, and how many are published a year). It's by no means a poor story, but it seems more like a device to both move the gameplay forward and give the characters something to interact over rather than the crux of the game.
That being said, when compared to Persona 3, Persona 4 has a much faster start. It immediately throws you both into the mystery and quickly gives you objectives and explains what has to be done in order to move forward. Because of this, it's first act feels much better paced when compared to its predecessor's.
Keep in mind, I'm not comparing characters here, I'm comparing the written, underlying story. While Persona 4 is certainly interesting, it doesn't take the risks or make the connections that I feel Persona 3 does. Persona 3 also digs deeper into its lesson on accepting death (which we'll go over more momentarily) and ties it into it's story beats perfectly. Persona 4's core element (learning to accept oneself, finding the truth about a person) isn't tied in quite as tightly with the murder mystery. So, in the end, I think Persona 3 takes this, first act pacing issues aside.
Conveyance of Underlying Themes
Persona 3 is about death. More importantly, it's about learning to accept death, and everything that entails. From the moment the game opens with you shooting yourself in the head to summon your Persona, to the 2/3rds-mark choice as to whether you'd rather continue living in ignorance but inevitably die a horrible death or continue knowing your demise and fight impossible odds against it, this game is heavily ingrained in it's message about dying. Characters have to shoot themselves in the head over and over and over again to summon their personas. Aegis, a robot, questions both whether she is truly alive and, thus, how to cope with her own "death," or if it even exists. The death of a main character rocks the party and makes them realize their own humanity. A freaking ten year old kid attempts suicide in this game, then attempts to murder the person who killed his mom. Ideas about persistence in the face of death and learning to accept that everybody will eventually die, but we have to choose every day to live is a core element of Persona 3, and it executes it near flawlessly.
There's a psychological theory called Terror Management Theory that I really think is interesting (so much so I wrote a paper on it). In a nutshell, everything human beings do and create and react to is in relation to this constant, pervasive knowledge that we will all one day die. Religion, relationships, social structures, creating offspring; all this stuff we do is just reactionary to this dissonance in our heads. We create these things things because thinking about death bothers us. We create buffers to combat it because it's pervasive and, since we are sentient, the realization of our inevitable demises will never, ever go away. Even if we shut it out, the thought of death horrifies us, even if it's dying of old age at the end of a long life. We can't escape it. It's going to happen.
Even your Personas are suicidal.
Persona 3 so excellently covers not only this type of terror, but also presents ways to overcome it (while still giving you a chance to succumb in a rather important plot choice). The shooting of themselves over and over again, the fighting against impossible odds knowing death is inevitable; all of this is to show that when we learn to embrace it, we no longer fear it. And considering how the final moments of the game play out, the ending is absolutely a perfect capstone on the message the game is trying to convey. It's bittersweet, but it was absolutely necessary for the themes in Persona 3 to persist. In addition, a good deal of the social links in Persona 3 (vs Persona 4) have themes of death and learning to accept death for what it is (particularly the Old Couple and Sick Young Man). I cannot praise this game enough for it's use of symbolism and psychological existentialism.
Persona 4...isn't nearly as dark. People have complained, actually, that it's "too happy" compared to other Persona games, but I don't mind it. Persona 4 seems to really have two main core themes: the idea that we all have a darker side that's a part of us that we don't want to see (but have to inevitably accept if we are to be truthful to ourselves), and the idea of seeking truth (presented in both a personal setting with the characters' individual shadows, and the truth of finding out who the killer is). Of the two of these, the former (accepting oneself for who you are so you can move on to self-improvement) is probably the most prevalent, and similar to Persona 4 this theme not only shows up in the plot but also the social links you find throughout the game.
This idea of self-acceptance is presented extremely well, and arguably the theme across multiple characters is actually stronger here than in Persona 3. Not only does every party member have to overcome and accept their shadow self, but even after the fact their social links have to do with them dealing in the aftermath. The game doesn't pull any punches and say "oh, you accepted this crappy part of you? Happily ever after!" Instead, they are simply made aware of these parts of themselves they don't like, and move to make steps in their lives to adapt accordingly. It's a story about self-improvement and introspection, something I can absolutely get behind.
More like one Youske and one awesome Youske.
The second portion, the seeking of truth, plays a somewhat lesser role in the story aside from trying to solve the case (though you could argue they're "seeking the truth in themselves," which is a valid point). They try to spin it into the random final boss that just kind of shows up at the very end after the case is solved (the "Seeking of the truth" lead you to realize the game wasn't over even though it clearly tries to get you to avoid the True Ending). Characters bring it up a lot, but honestly it isn't really executed as smoothly. In many ways, the mystery plotline seems distinctly separated from the personal introspective story presented by the characters, or at least not as tightly woven as it could have been.
Still, the themes are still there, are executed well. Truth be told, while they're important, the kind of take a backseat to the character interactions, which is fine but it just shows where more of the focus of this game was.
I'm a sucker for dark, depressing stuff, but that isn't the only reason I think Persona 3 has an edge. First off, as I explained already above, I feel it's underlying themes and message are better woven into the overall narrative. Everything just ties together better, especially considering how you could construe that the events at the end were predetermined from the start, and in that regard innocuous things throughout the game start to find new meaning.
But what I think is more important is Persona 3's story is more relevant on a broader scale. The idea of accepting the inevitability of death and finding the courage to continue living despite that is (as mentioned regarding Terror Management Theory) persistent across every human being from the moment they realize their own mortality until their inevitable passing. This makes the story one that is more "timeless," or at least can be applied to a whole range of ages, genders, etc.
And if Persona 3 couldn't beat the Jesus metaphor in any stronger...
Persona 4's message of introspection and learning to accept oneself, even the worse parts, is arguably just as constant over one's life, but in truth these types of things are usually more commonly explored during adolescence and new adulthood. I, as a 28-year-old married dude who is writing game reviews during his lunch break at work, feel as if I've undergone most of this transformation of learning who I am and coming to accept it. I'm now in the stage where I need to be self-reflective less often but still strive for self-improvement. Deep down I learned who my "true self" was through the "fun" trials of adolescence and my early twenties, and now feel comfortable with myself. That isn't to say everything is gumdrops and buttons, but Persona 4's specific message is less relevant to me than, say, my unavoidable death is.
As such, I found Persona 3's themes to not only be conveyed better in terms of the medium it was presented on, but also felt more powerful and resonated stronger. Of course, I'm also a dude diagnosed with depression so I think about dying like all the time, so I might be a special case. But I still feel that Persona 3 both embraces and conveys it's themes in a much more unified vision than Persona 4 does.
As mentioned before, Persona 3 is a dark game. This ties in well to it's predecessors, too, seeing as both Persona and Persona 2 (both parts) are intentionally dark and foreboding. Oddly enough, the style in Persona 3 isn't quite as dark as the previous two (with the characters being more cartoony and the sprites less adult looking), but it still conveys very dark themes.
Persona 3 is about death. I'll just keep saying this until you go insane from hearing it. Characters die, lots of them. The overall color pallet for the world is intentionally bleak and creepy. The Dark Hour is a mix of blood reds, dark greens, and blacks. The menus are a sort of muted blue color, using black as an accent. Even your school feels less bright and cheery (than, say, Persona 4), with the overall world feeling like it's in a haze of dreariness.
It fits the game well, tying it's themes into the way it looks nearly perfectly. From the opening scene of Yukari trying to shoot herself in the head and failing, all the way down to it's bleak final boss and shocking ending, Persona 3 knows the message it's trying to convey and isn't pulling any punches. Again, this is a game where a ten-year-old shoots himself in the head over and over to summon his inner self. They aren't kidding around.
While Persona 3 felt like George R. R. Martin writes a high school story, Persona 4 feels like the Scooby Doo after school special. This isn't a bad thing, by any means, but the mood is so dramatically different from P3 (and the rest of the series) it's almost shocking. Gone are drab, dark blues and blacks and reds and are replaced with popping, bumblebee yellows and blacks. Characters are brightly colored and wear brighter clothing (Chie's outfits are a sterling example of this) and just generally feel more alive and happy. And while the game is about solving murders (and does have a few rather dramatic and dark moments), the themes of the game are about overcoming personal problems, which almost every character does handily. The songs are happier and have more pop to them, NPCs you talk to are chipper, and the game is arguably one of the funniest I've ever played. It's in stark contrast with its predecessors, so much so that people actually bag on the game for it (not sure why; not like those other games went anywhere), but as someone once said to me, "This might be the happiest M rated game ever made."
This is a game about sadness and feelings!
This chipper attitude actually does the game some favors, if only for contrast. There is a rather dramatic moment in the game (the final kidnapping) which, had it been in Persona 3, would have been shocking but not as impactful. Putting in in the happy-go-lucky Persona 4, however, makes it all the more dramatic and heartwrenching. It's in this case where it's lulling you into a false sense of security works in the game's favor, and I commend it for it.
It's a TIE?!
It's a copout answer, but it really boils down to what you want in your JRPG story. If you are into dark, bleak stuff because that stuff's your jam (read: you like Game of Thrones or The Last of Us), then Persona 3 is the game for you. It doesn't have the same absurd levels of violence or gore-scars as you might expect from a "dark, adult" game (and I commend it for that; Persona 3 is a rarity among video games where it earns it's M rating for actually being mature, not by adding blood and guts and sex in the hope it'll sell), but it does present a very dark story that will make you think.
Persona 4 is, as I said before, like going on an adventure with all your friends. It has it's ups and its downs, but overall it's a good, fun ride. If you're into hanging out with a lot of funny characters and just having a good time with not as many huge "downer" emotional moments, Persona 4 fits that bill a lot better.
The point being is that I feel both games knew the tone they wanted to convey, and even though the tones are dramatically different, both succeeded equally at what they set out to do. As such, neither really excels over the other in that regard.
That's it for today! But what are the scores?
Persona 3 secures an early lead!
But be sure and tune in next time (tomorrow? Next week? Who knows?) where I blab even more about the characters from these games, top to bottom, nobody is left out! And as always, my reviews for all these games are floating around on the site, should you for some reason want more Persona related nonsense.
Angry at my decisions? Want to talk about Terror Management Theory? Care to chat about the storylines of these two games? Please leave a comment and we'll talk about it! I'm always down for some Persona talk, man. Always.