Persona 3 is my first foray into the Shin Megami Tensei universe and I feel very mixed about it. First and foremost I need to say that I think it is an objectively good game that holds up fairly well despite being 10 years old at this point. My issues with the game are somewhat tied to my limitations on the time I have available to me to play games which is probably not something I should penalize the game for but still find myself doing.
I decided to start the SMT series with Persona 3 for a few reasons. The main one being that Persona 4 is often heralded as the best, or one of the best, JRPGs of all time and I just felt it made sense to play its predecessor before diving into a game with that moniker attached to it. I considered playing Nocturne or Digital Devil Saga but didn’t feel like committing to playing through both DDS games. Nocturne was intriguing, but again, I felt drawn to the Persona side of the franchise due to the high praise P4 gets and there is a considerable amount of buzz about Persona 5 coming out later this year. It just made sense to start with this piece of the franchise.
For those unfamiliar with Persona 3 let me give a brief synopsis based on what I have seen so far in the game. You played as a silent protagonist transfer student who discovers he has the ability to summon Persona’s, which are basically another side of our personality capable of using abilities like magic and other types of skills. Not everyone can summon Persona’s, so when other students at your school with the same ability discover you are like them you become fast friends. You then discover from these other Persona users that there are things going on in the world that you weren’t aware of before. Every night at midnight there is an hour aptly called the Dark Hour. The Dark Hour essentially takes place between midnight and 1am and is an extra hour in the day. During this time a tower called Tartarus appears and is filled with shadows. Shadows are creatures that prey on the mind of humans and cause them to go into a state of lethargy and an almost vegetable like state called Apathy Syndrome.
The game is then spent climbing Tartarus during the Dark Hour trying to figure out what is going on with shadows and figure out why Tartarus even exists. There is also the social simulation elements that take place when you aren’t climbing Tartarus where you essentially simulate a school year. Its through this social simulation that you develop Social Links, which are basically relationships you make with your classmates and people around town that you meet. Improving your Social Links help you to better evolve your Persona’s, which are used in battle in Tartaurus, so the gameplay systems tie together.
On paper I love this concept. It’s fresh. It’s different. It avoids the traditional fantasy JRPG tropes we see time and time again. Even the idea of this hour at midnight most people don’t know exists is a cool concept. The setting is modern and the game has a varied cast. We are still dealing with high school students, a common JRPG trope, but at least here we are acknowledging them as such. Battles are generally quick and the process of finding and improving your Persona’s has depth to it that can allow you to get lost for hours but isn’t overly cumbersome so can be managed casually as well.
In this case I like the idea of playing as a high school student. Done right it can tap into some mature content that video games don’t often deal with. Life is Strange, another game where you play as a high school student dealing with supernatural shit going on, dealt with teen pregnancy, bullying, suicide, drug use, peer pressure and cliques in a way I have not seen in gaming. So on paper this concept works for me if it’s done right. But for some reason I find the Social Links in Persona 3 to just be a drag. Some of it is because many of the links are with people who are not part of the main cast that you go to Tartarus with to fight shadows. So as the player I don’t have as much of a vested interest in the characters. I did just recently open up a Link with one of my teammates (Yukari). So I am wondering if I just missed Social Links with my teammates. But I really want to like this aspect of the game. In fact I want to love it. Conversations on the Normandy in Mass Effect were the best part of that game. I love the skits in Tales gamea that focus on getting to know your party. But here it feels more like a grind since you literally play every day in a school year. They can go by quickly which helps, but it doesnt eliminate the grind. I am going to reserve final judgement until I finish the game but based on where I am today I am feeling burned out by the day to day social stuff and just want to get to the end of the game.
On the other side, I love the plot, setting, combat systems, and just the concept of the Dark Hour and Tartarus. I love battling through Tartaurus if only because the concept is new to me. I want to see this through and figure out what shadows hope to gain with inflicting Apathy Syndrome on people. I want my team to be successful. If the end result is stopping someone from becoming a God like in so many other JRPGs then that’s okay here because the journey to get there is so unique and different.
I have to add one more thought on this. While the social simulation component of the game isn’t quite clicking with me I do wonder if some of that is due to the fact that it is difficult for me to commit extensive time to the game. I get a few hours a week to play games on the couch right now, and when I sit down with Persona 3 I know I likely need at least and hour to grind through Tartarus or move through a few days at school. With no sleep or suspend mode, and only a few save points, my play sessions often have large gaps between them because its hard for me to carve out time for an extensive playthrough which hurts the cohesion and immersion factors. I don’t want to penalize the game for it because it is ambitious and does a lot of things other games do not, but I can’t deny it has impacted my experience.
I will hold final judgement for when I finish the game, but right now Persona 3 leaves me with a very mixed bag of emotions.