Persona 3: FES
System: Playstation 2
These days, we’re faced with what one could call a franchise overload. Sequels, remakes, relaunches, and reboots of all stripes. Everything from movies, to television shows, to video games. It all gets spun around at some point. It’s understandable that people feel overloaded and tired of seeing the same stuff repeatedly. With video games specifically, sometimes there can be no end to a popular franchise; and a continuing story can go on without rest. Mega Man, Pokemon, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed: those are just a few examples of video game franchises that seem to exist in perpetuity. However, sequels aren’t inherently a bad thing, as you can see the evolution of a series happen over time — both stylistically and thematically. One of my favorite examples in this case is the Persona series; and at this point it’s easy to say we’re fans of the series here at Pop Culture Uncovered. What was once an easier spin-off of the famously (or infamously depending on your perspective) difficult Shin Megami Tensei evolved into its own as a cross between RPG and high school social sim. That evolution began in the third iteration of the game, which has still proved to be powerful even over a decade later.
Persona 3’s story largely ditches the original conflicts of the connected first three games (there were two Persona 2 games and it’s complicated), while retaining the same thematic cores, as well as the basic premise of being a Persona user that gets sucked into a conflict involving the monsters known as Shadows. The game focuses on your beginning as a student at the elite Gekkoukan High School which coincides with the discovery of an additional time of day called the Dark Hour. One where mankind turns into coffins, your school becomes a very literal hell tower called Tartarus, and a select few humans including your classmates can perceive and fight against the Shadows. While the game is (by comparison) primitive to its successors, it is easily the most terrifying game in the series when compared to the following two numbered entries. That is no accident, as Persona 3 shoots for an atmosphere of horror and corruption, and it wildly succeeds in that regard.
What does (and continues to) make the game so unique can be boiled down to two words: “Memento Mori” (Latin for “Remember Death”). All the elements of the game coalesce into creating a unique kind of pressure that isn’t present in most other games. This starts with how time is processed in the game with the calendar and date system. Persona 3 was the first that began tracking the day of the week, as well as the corresponding time of day, the month, and so forth. While ostensibly it was to track your social schedule, its overlap with your life as a member of SEES (the student group that hunts Shadows at night), and the phases of the moon that affect the game, it was also a means of pushing the player to do as much as they could where they could. Time is in itself a form of currency after all, and the economics of existence are inherently limited; both for the player in real life and within the game itself. You can’t join every school club, you can’t do every activity, you can’t see every movie, you can’t fight monsters every night, or form relationships with every person. In the end, every choice is a crossroads where one road is taken at the expense of the other, it creates a tension where your decisions require a degree of forethought before completion. If you focus too much on one area at the expense of the other, you’ll be deprived of necessary skill for both your school life and in battle. It also helps contribute to the atmosphere of nihilism and inevitability that pervades the game.
The RPG mechanics of Persona 3 are rather punishing — even when you factor in its roots as a Shin Megami Tensei spinoff. The main action outside of the high school-related elements takes place during the “Dark Hour”; the additional time of day where you and your team explore Tartarus, which is a seemingly endless dungeon filled to the brim with Shadows. Where the game (somehow) manages to get even more difficult is with the combat and exploration system. Your exploration of Tartarus allows you to switch party members and automatically heal when you return to the first floor of the dungeon. However, your actions are constrained by a fatigue system where your party members accumulate to the point that any of your characters can eventually become tired and have to leave. This even includes the main character, whose ability to study can be restricted by overextending in Tartarus. While it can be frustrating initially, as you grow stronger, you’re able to play longer, go further into Tartarus, and swap out other party members as needed. Though, by design, it feels extremely restrictive in the early game; though it’s a design choice that I’m personally glad is gone.
In addition to the constraints induced by the fatigue system, what also helps tilt the game over the edge in terms of difficulty is the lack of control you have over your party members. The only character you’re allowed to control is your avatar. You’re allowed to guide the AI (i.e. instruct it to heal, attack, act on its own, do nothing), but you’re not allowed to direct it. This is… troublesome to say the least in a turn-based game that relies upon precise actions like Persona does. The “One More” system that governs gameplay rewards you with extra actions when you strike at an enemy’s weakness or score a critical, and punishes you in turn when the enemy does the same to you. Having unreliable party members in a game that relies on control over your actions is deeply frustrating; and speaking from personal experience, it can be really frustrating when a good strategy or tough boss fight gets upended by the AI acting out.
That being said. and despite the game being the type that can result in controllers being thrown at the TV, Persona 3 is still one of my favorite RPGs. It’s an elaborate construction of a story that weaves its subtext into the overt action and narrative into a game that manages to keep a consistent feeling throughout the story. While that doesn’t stop it from being frustrating, it’s worth remembering that some of the best works of art challenge us. While Persona 3 may not necessarily hit every note perfectly, the overall work is still transcendental and one worth revisiting. The idea of traveling through our literal hell is timeless after all.