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Why Persona 3 Is The Best JRPG on the PlayStation 2: Part 1

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I’ve just recently finished the best JRPG I’ve played since Final Fantasy 7. It’s been a long time since a game has moved me so much. Persona 3 could best be described as a RPG with social simulation elements that came out in 2007 for North America. But that would be a disservice to the complexity and depth of the game as there’s a whole lot more involved. I’m currently stationed in Asia and I’ve found myself thinking back on the experience I had during my recent play-through of Persona 3. It was so good that my wife, who’s only finished three games in her life, played the entire 100+ hour campaign with me. This article is a retrospective on what I think makes Persona 3 the best JRPG for the PlayStation 2 with this first piece focusing on the story and the main characters.

Warning, there are spoilers!

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The Setting:

Characters are at the core of Persona 3. The game not only fleshes out the protagonists, but the NPC’s and villains as well. With the backdrop of a Japanese city called Iwatodai, the game focuses around an aberration of time and space called the Dark Hour. During this stray torrent of minutes drifting between midnight and the next day, the regular citizens are transformed into coffins and a labyrinthine tower, Tartarus, ascends from the depths. Strange phantoms called Shadows haunt the city streets, originating in the dungeon and possessing any who fall within their grasp. Their grip induces a malaise of apathy that is rendering the city unconscious. The only ones who can resist their attacks are the SEES members (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad)— high school students who summon powerful Personas through their Evokers to fight the Shadows. The opening cutscene is a vibrantly stylized anime, as is the chilling sequence that shows us what ‘evocation’ entails. The main protagonist (who I named Zach) takes a gun, places it against his head, then pulls the trigger. It’s a continual sacrifice resulting in the rebirth of Orpheus, Zach’s aligned Persona. Aside from being a disturbing image, the evocation made it clear this was going to be a uniquely dark RPG.

We get introduced to the cast at a gradual pace. There’s the student body president, Mitsuru, who’s also the daughter of the chairman of the Kijiro group. She’s tough but vulnerable, brilliantly cold, but also charming when she has to be. Akihiko is an upper classmen who tries to exude leadership, but is suffering from an injury that has humbled his relentless pursuit of combat excellence. Rounding out the initial group of four is Yukari, a cheery and exuberant classmate, whose enthusiasm contrasts with her short temper as she expresses her emotions without reserve. The chairman of the group, Ikutsuki, is an empathetic leader who strategizes the best way to end the threat of the Shadows. The group discovers that Zach has a special gift. Unlike other Persona users, the hero can change his Persona, shifting between different alignments. The story that follows is rife with tragedy, betrayal, death, love, and consequence. When the game was over, I missed the characters.

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The Story:

My biggest problem with current JRPG’s are that their stories are boring and predictable, the same melodramatic blarney recycled over and over. Persona 3 isn’t afraid to take risks with the story and some of the plot twists are shocking. As I was playing, so many WTF?! moments gripped me, I was reminded of what I used to love about Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Quest. The Kijiro Group is up to some twisted machinations, trying to harness the power of the Shadows and control Death. Fortunately, the path to good vs. evil is anything but simple. Every member of the cast has their own reason for fighting. Junpei, one of the new SEES members, starts as a rebellious student who’s behind on his examinations, but eventually finds purpose in the only thing he’s good at: fighting. Then he falls in love with the villainess, Chidori; his blind affection for her changes both characters in a startling fashion. How about Ken Amada, the young boy who’s been embittered by the death of his mother and seeks revenge on the teammate who caused it, Shinjiro? Their arc is a tragic cycle that ends with sacrifice and a moment of absolution that was done with subtlety and nuance. The betrayal of a close member of the team also completely caught me off guard and the resulting crucifixion of the members was a gruesome moment. Instead of some rote obsession with evil, the traitor had good reasons for doing what he did. I’m glad he was defeated, but I still understood him.

            Part of what makes the narrative so great is that the high school setting works masterfully. I actually attended two years of elementary in Asia, so while the details were different, the mood reminded me of those days. Studying continuously, tough examinations, meeting friends, going to school on Saturdays, even taking swimming classes; it was like a trip to the past. Except instead of the tedium of being a student, Persona 3 captures the best elements of schooling, expedites them, and puts you into the role of secret savior by night.

The developers really spent a lot of time getting the little bits right. The SEES team members change costumes depending on the season (jacket for winter, short-sleeves for spring). The characters also get into more casual gear for weekends and holiday jaunts. Additionally, almost every night back at the dormitory, the characters adjust their dialogue depending on the events of the day, giving them a dynamic feel. When Fuuka, the SEES member who provides recon info for the team, is recruited without much of a choice, Yukari seethes at Mitsuru and expresses it to the hero whenever she can. Aigis, the anti-Shadow android, struggles with her guilt for the decision she made ten years in the past when she fought off against death and changed the fate of Zach. I’d say the only character who didn’t really receive any exploration was the dog, Koromaru. He’s a great fighter and it’s understandable that a canine would be a hard character to develop. But I would have loved to have seen just a touch more. One positive note on the cast; most JRPG’s inject a super annoying character that also happens to be a deadweight in battle. I’m happy to report that Persona 3 skips this trend.

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The Villains:

Now any set of heroes is best defined by their antagonists, and there are three major groups of villains. I’ve already mentioned the traitor in the ranks. The second set of opponents are the triad called Strega, experimented on by the Kijiro group and infused with the power of the Persona’s. Unlike the SEES members, their power is artificial. Hence, summoning their Persona causes them immense pain. Both Takaya and Jin are a creepy pair that embrace the power the Persona’s grant them. They attempt to stop SEES, not because they want destruction, but so that they don’t lose their only meaning in life. In that sense, Strega is the dark shadow of SEES, a contorted reflection.

It’s the third enemy that defined Persona 3 and helped it enter the stratosphere in terms of story depth. Throughout the game, the hero is visited by a mysterious young boy named Pharos. He speaks in astrological riddles, but his presence grows fondly on the hero as they establish a close friendship until Pharos disappears. Later on, a transfer student named Ryoji makes his appearance. He forms a strong bond with the characters, joining Junpei in his escapades to flirt with other female students. He bears an uncanny similarity to Pharos and Aigis warns the SEES members that he is dangerous. Turns out Ryoji is Pharos grown up and that his true identity is Death. He will act as the Appriser for Nyx, Nyx being the Avatar that will bring about the destruction of the world. Ryoji himself did not realize this until later in the story at which point he is horrified and begs the team members to kill him. The end of the world is inevitable, but by killing him, the team members can buy time and voluntary amnesia. Never had I experienced a main antagonist begging and imploring the heroes to execute him. If players choose to terminate Ryoji, they receive the first of two endings in which they live out their lives in ignorant bliss. If players decide to let Ryoji live, the entire mood of the game changes. The music becomes a somber jazz, there’s a sense of hopelessness and destitution that marks the dialogue of the characters, and even the shopping centers are marred by graffiti and trash. The atmosphere oozes despondency.

Remember the destruction of the world in Final Fantasy 6? Or Meteor looming ominously in FF7? How about the feeling of despair caused by Lavos throughout time in Chrono Trigger? Nyx, through Death, was going to ravage the entire planet. And the worst part was that I didn’t want to kill Death as he was my friend!

Without giving away too much, I’ll say the ending was sublime, eloquent, poetic. Great stories transcend culture, transcend their medium, transcend even the time they were written in. I’ve played many JRPG’s on current-gen platforms, and while they’re all solid, none of their stories moved me the way Persona 3 did (even though they’ve greatly refined the gameplay). In that sense, I consider the game a work of art that elevated JRPG’s— and videogame storytelling— onto a whole new level.

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Conclusion:

This wraps the first part of my Persona 3 Retrospective. What else awaits? There’s the battle system, social links, fusing Personas, Karaoke, Ramen, amazing music, and finding true love. Now please excuse me while I go wander the streets of Chengdu.

Peter Tieryas is an industry veteran who has worked in both film and games for over 10 years. He loves writing about obscure videogames while traveling the world with his wife. You can follow his musings at tieryas.wordpress.com.
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