Author's Note: This blog contains MASSIVE SPOILERS!
It's A Great Time To Be A Fan Of The Persona Games!
So, it appears a new Persona game is in the works. With the series celebrating its 25th anniversary and Persona 4 turning thirteen, the franchise is the healthiest it has ever been. The rise of the Persona series to become a respected household name alongside the likes of Dragon Quest, Tales of, or even Final Fantasy is nothing short of a miracle and a testament to how hard Atlus has worked to make the franchise the best it could be. Better yet, the franchise has addressed many of the sticking points that previously afflicted it. For example, any game with the Persona moniker will feature a professional localization in dozens of different languages. The breadth of characters the Persona games have shared with audiences is astounding, and the overall quality of writing surrounding these characters equally so. Likewise, the production values of the Persona games and its growing emphasis on aesthetics have set industry standards. The list of positives goes on and on, and I don't want to deny that. Shit, some of you frequent Giant Bomb because of a particular recurring video series about Persona 4.
There is, however, something that has been lost as a result of the Persona series rising from a niche JRPG series to one with industry-wide cache. Whatever shape Persona 6 takes, it will not be a self-contained story that begins and ends within the scope of a single game. Now, this is not breaking news or anything new to long-standing fans. Persona 3 started the franchise's trend towards spin-off games, and an argument could be made this habit even began with Persona 2. Nonetheless, even the most ardent Persona or Megaten fans must admit that when the credits roll in Persona 6, that's most likely not going to be where the story finishes. There will be spin-offs, crossovers, and even multimedia tie-ins that flesh out the characters and bolt-on post-game storylines. I want to emphasize this is not necessarily a bad thing but, instead, a compromise of the series attaining mainstream and international clout. And to be honest, that's why the news that the Persona team is working on a new game shouldn't be surprising. The Persona 5 spin-offs have left no stone unturned, and that world has been fully excavated.
This point leads me to the topic of Persona 3's original ending, and I need to stress the word "original" even if it pains me to do so. It's hard to imagine this, but Persona 3 ended. When Persona 3 essentially rebooted the franchise after a six-year-long hiatus, the prospect of spin-offs and media tie-ins was not a given. As a result, Atlus went HARD when writing its story and conceiving its ending. When compared to its successors, Persona 3 is unrelentingly nihilistic and sullen. None of this should be construed to dismiss the mature content and darker storytelling moments in Persona 4 and 5. However, when you look at the overall "body count" in Persona 3 and notice how it overshadows that of Persona 4 and 5's by a country mile, you start to grasp how much more dire that game's world is to its contemporaries. The characters of Persona 3 are not simply stopping a misguided Shinto god or goddess from establishing a new world order. The characters of Persona 3 are forced to sacrifice everything they love for the sake of preserving a harsh, corrupt, and flawed world they often detest. Nonetheless, it needs to be done.
Why Persona 3's Ending Is So Special
The image above is one burned into the minds of everyone who has played Persona 3. After subjecting the player to a nigh one-hundred-hour experience, Atlus made The game's message being the world of Persona 3 is one of enormous sacrifice and one where you need to accept death as an inevitability. If players want to prevent the world from ending, they must concede that there is no neat present with a pretty bow on top that contains a conclusion where all the characters get together and cheer each other on as friends for life. That was never what Persona 3 was about, and its last moments solidify that once and for all. Your protagonist needs to die. To call this an "emotional moment" is an understatement. In their quest to send a message and preserve the game's tone, the writers were willing to disregard your hard work and due diligence. It was ballsy at the time, and it is almost incomprehensible when you look at where the Persona series is today.
Even at the time, fans were in denial that there was no cheerful ending to Persona 3. For months, GameFAQs had an endless stream of threads asking if there was a "secret ending" wherein the protagonist did not die. People scanned the game's code in hopes of finding some way to get that neat little bow they desperately wanted, but to no avail. The rumors and speculation revived once more when Persona 3 Portable was released and presented an alternate protagonist. However, yet again, Atlus remained committed to its original message and forced players, yet again, to watch their protagonist die. All those times Igor whispered into your ear that "the end is coming," the game fucking meant it, and there are no take-backies. Which makes it far more decisive than tragedies in subsequent Persona games.
Even if you object to my notion that the current Persona games withhold their entire stories for the sake of post-release content, there's the issue with messaging and intent. It is unlikely Atlus will ever recapture the lightning in the bottle of Persona 3 because Atlus has continually shown they do not have the appetite to confront their audience that aggressively ever again. For example, Nanako's death in Persona 4 is a gut punch, but one the game is unwilling to stand by, and there's a similar problem with Persona 5. While Persona 5 is willing to subject you to grim scenarios and wronged victims, it always provides an opportunity for the player to feel like they came out on top and ensured that the "good guys" won. You don't leave Persona 3 with that feeling. The ending of Persona 3 is a heart-stopping moment that I have yet to see a single Persona fan tell me they did not get teary-eyed when they first encountered it. Even though you've beaten back the game's monolithic big bad, you feel as if you've failed.
Additionally, this ending addresses an issue plagued by many AAA titles. Repeatedly, games have told us that "sacrifices need to be made" to conclude their events. And yet, most games allow you to resolve cataclysmic disasters and existential crises without nary a scratch. Even industry titans like Bioware, Square-Enix, and Bethesda are prone to including fan-satisfying conclusions that allow players to retain all of their in-game possessions and companions after finding a "third way." Persona 3 said, "fuck that." If you want to stop the suffering inflicted by Nyx, someone would have to pay a toll. So, even if you fulfilled every social link in the game, and even if you maxed out your entire party, you watched your protagonist die in the arms of Aigis. No matter what you did, that was the result. The game doubled down on its overall theme that calls to adventure have consequences and Persona 3 .
This Is Never Going To Happen Again, And There's An Elephant In The Room
Persona 6 will likely be a great game. Atlus has a reliable track record, and there are no immediate red flags they will not deliver a memorable storytelling adventure. Likewise, I don't want this blog to suggest that Persona 3 is a perfect crystal that needs to be gawked at like the Hope Diamond. The quality of writing in the Persona franchise has evolved and gotten better over time. The cast of Persona 5 feels more fleshed out and fully realized than the vast majority of characters in Persona 3. And there are some real hard "misses" in Persona 3 that make it harder to recommend to newcomers than Personas 4 or 5. Characters like Ken Amada are abrasive in all the wrong ways, and the game's unflinching nihilism is not for everyone. Also, mechanically speaking, it is an awful experience. Tartarus is a lousy dungeon, and depending on which version of the game you are playing; I'm going to pray the RNG Goddess is nice to you. It also does not help the lack of a proper remaster of Persona 3 has left the OG PSP as the platform of choice to experience what most consider the "definitive" Persona 3 experience.
More importantly, the Atlus of today is a different beast than the one that took wild risks when making Persona 3. When they hammer down what they want to accomplish with Persona 6's cast and story, I will make a wager that the game will leave things open-ended enough for post-release content no matter what. As I mentioned before, I am not saying this is a bad thing; it's just the path that Atlus wants to blaze, and we all need to live with it. Persona 4 and 5 getting additional spin-off adventures did not adversely impact your ability to enjoy the original games. Nor were any of the spin-offs objectively terrible in their own right. The days of bad OVAs like Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei or Trinity Soul are gone. Yet, there is something to be said about playing a 100+ hour video game and not needing to worry about missing out on shit three years after the fact.
That said, as the subtitle of this part of my blog suggests, . While Square-Enix gets a ton of shit for picking at the conclusions of games after their release (i.e., Final Fantasy VII and X), Atlus has somehow gotten away scot-free doing the same shit to the ending of Persona 3. "The Answer," Persona 4 Arena, and the eleven billion Persona 3 OVAs Atlus produced are a crime. Atlus had something beautiful and incredible, and they couldn't help themselves when they saw an opportunity to expand Persona 3, and the series in general, into a multimedia empire. Not only have they shown they have buyer's remorse, but it also looks like Atlus does not have it in them to make a story as morose and moody as Persona 3. The fact they have wholly retconned the ending of Persona 3 so that the male protagonist, who is NOT MY PROTAGONIST, BY THE WAY, can continue to pop up in crossover games sucks a lot of shit. Suppose Atlus ends up announcing a Persona 5 Arena after fans have been calling for them to make it for years. In that case, I look forward to it collecting the "big three teams" to ruin everything good about Persona 3's ending, once and for all. Fuck everything.