With every passing day, Persona 5 gets closer and closer to its release date. The anticipation for the game is at an all-time high. As a fan of the franchise, I have had many people ask me if you need to play the previous games in order to fully enjoy this upcoming title. While you can jump into Persona 5 and still enjoy it fully, the previous titles are still incredible games that are worth your time. I’ve talked a little about Revelations: Persona as well as the Persona 2 games. Next, I’ll talk about Persona 3.
Persona 3 was originally released on the PlayStation 2 in North America in 2006. In 2008, an updated version of the game entitled Persona 3: Fes. This version of the game is a director’s cut of the original game with new items and cosmetic costume changes during battle for your player characters. There is also an epilogue to the game’s story called “The Answer”. Later in 2010, a port of the game was released on PSP entitled Persona 3 Portable. The main thing that this port adds is the choice of playing as a female protagonist rather than the standard male character. This gave veterans a lot of new dialogue and romance choices that were unavailable in the original title.
Persona 3 is notable for a couple reasons. While the first games in the series certainly had their own cult following, this title is where the series really made its mark in North America. Thanks to some great marketing and positive reviews, this title gained a significant amount of notoriety. Another thing that brought a lot of attention to this game was the controversy around the way the kids summon their Personas. In the game, the heroes use devices that look like guns called “evokers” to summon their inner selves. They literally point the evoker at their head and pull the trigger, resulting in a slick animation that in many ways, displays the individual characters’ personalities. While the action of using an evoker is largely symbolic within the actual, the idea of teenagers pointing a gun at their heads and pulling a trigger caught a lot of attention. A large part of the conversation around the game became more about glamorizing suicide. Despite this, Persona 3 certainly made a name for itself.
This game’s plot focuses on a group of high school kids who are part of a group called the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES). Their main objective is to investigate a mysterious hour of the day called the Dark Hour. During this time, most people turn into grisly coffins and are completely unaware of it. The Dark Hour also reveals the existence Tartarus, a twisted tower that is filled with monsters called Shadows. You and your party climb the tower to solve the mysteries of the strange phenomenon while battling their own personal demons.
Persona 3’s plot setup is fairly straightforward but as you play the game, you quickly find that there is a lot more going on than initially implied. Each character in your party has a deep backstory that informs their personality as well as their action during major plot points. For a game full of characters based on anime archetypes, the tone of the game can be quite dark and downright nihilistic at points. The story was not quite as complex and winding as Persona 2, but it involved some interesting twists and explored the ideas of human connection.
Persona 3 introduced some fantastic elements to the series as well as set a precedent for JRPG’s of that era. One of the most fascinating things about this game is the fact that it is half dungeon crawler, half life simulation. The adventure takes place over the course of a year. You take on the role of a high school transfer student who goes to class, joins clubs and hangs out with his friends during the day. As you spend time with your friends and other NPC’s you will continue to increase your social links with them. As you do this, you will learn about their individual lives and help them through their struggles. Some of these NPC’s have really fascinating and deep stories that themselves are rewarding to work through. It really does feel like you are connecting to these characters and building a network of friends and supports throughout the year that this game takes place. These social links also play directly into the second part of the game. During the Dark Hour, you and your friends fight your way through the Tower of Tartarus climbing your way to the top. This game differs from the previous titles as it very much streamlines the combat system significantly. While this game is arguably much easier than the first two, the battles are much more traditional turn-based combat rather than taking place on a grid. This leads to significantly faster-paced battles and much simpler menu navigation, making the game much more user-friendly. Another change is the fact that only the main character is able to change their Persona. You are able to obtain Persona cards from defeating shadows with Tartarus. You can then use these cards to summon Persona or you can combine them to create new and more powerful creatures. The social links are each connected to a specific arcana. The higher level of your social link, the more bonus experience you will receive when you create a Persona with a matching arcana, leading to more powerful creations. Because of this, your actions during the day play directly into making you more powerful during your dungeon crawling segments. It also adds to the customization of your experience. If you like Personas that fall under the Justice arcana, you can focus on leveling up that social link. The other party members only have one Persona that has set path as far as stat and ability progression, so it certainly feels much more streamlined that Persona 1 and 2.
Further streamlining things is the implementation of the “press turn system” from Shin Megami Tensei 3. If you exploit an enemy’s weakness by hitting them with an element they are vulnerable to, you will get an extra turn. Players have to be careful as enemies can use the same strategy to completely wipe out your party. For easy battles and grinding purposes, you can also set the battle to rush mode, which will fast forward your party’s actions and defaults everyone to physical attacks. The game also flows quickly during battle because you don’t actually have direct control over your party members. They are actually controlled by AI that is fairly competent but will make baffling choices every so often. This was changed for the PSP version of the game, giving players full control over their party. The dungeon exploration is quite different than the past games as well. You generally do most of your dungeon crawling in the procedurally generated floors of the Tower of Tartarus. During special events, you and your friends will travel out into the city and take on gigantic Shadows.
On a console that had a plethora of JRPG’s Persona 3 was able to set itself apart with its contemporary setting, mature themes, multi-layered characters and its mature themes. On top of these features, Persona 3 also set another precedent for the franchise; and incredible sense of style. It goes without saying that every menu, animation, particle effect and character design have a distinct touch that set it apart from it from its contemporaries. This sleek presentation really lends itself to the game’s tone. The cool blues and eerie greens of the Dark Hour gave the game a sense of surrealism leaning slightly on horror themes that few JRPG’s generally approached. The eclectic designs of the titular Personas, as well as the boss Shadows are incredibly creative and downright weird. If you look up the religious and fantasy creatures the Personas are based on, you will likely find their designs to be packed with thematic and symbolic references in their designs. Another aspect of the game that contributes greatly to its tone is the incredible soundtrack. The Shin Megami Tensei series at this point was already known for its unconventional music, but Persona 3 took this to another level. Shoji Meguro’s (Shin Megami Tensei III, Trauma Centre: Second Opinion) score for the game is incredibly moody, full of fairly upbeat rap, somber vocal themes and pulse-pounding battle themes. Some of the standout tracks include “Masters of Tartarus”, “Want to Be Close” and “Battle Hymn of the Soul”.
Persona 3’s reach continued to increase well after the game’s initial release. A spin-off anime series called Persona: Trinity Soul aired in 2008. This series is considered non-canonical, but features at least one cameo from Persona 3. More true to the game is the four-part Persona 3 The Movie series. These four films do a great job of retelling the game’s story in beautiful animation.
Persona 3 is an incredible game and is well worth your time. The story, characters, music and art style came together to create a game with an incredibly unique voice. Even within the Shin Megami Tensei series, there was no game quite like it at the time. Persona 3 set trends within the series as well as JRPG’s in general. Its influence within the genre can still be seen today. At this point, it was hard to see where the series could go next, but Persona 4 somehow managed to exceed the expectations of fans and newcomers to the series alike. Join me next time for the final entry in the Persona Primer to take a look at the incredibly influential Persona 4.