This is part 2 of my retrospective on Persona 3 as I describe why this game has been my favorite JRPG on the PlayStation 2 and why it’s been the best JRPG I’ve played in a long, long time. Part 1 focused on the story and the characters (check it out here if you haven’t already). Part 2 will focus on the gameplay of the battle system.
A Fun Battle System?
After decades of grinding in JRPG’s to gain experience and money, I’ve come to loathe turn-based combat and the thousands of battles against worthless minions (I could have learned two new languages with the time I spent earning experience points, something I’ve been struggling with as I’ve grappled with Mandarin!). Persona 3 went a long way to revamping the battle system while cutting away everything extraneous to make combat fun and smooth. One of the most controversial decisions made by the developers was making your companions AI-driven. I thought it a brilliant move because it streamlined battle. You only had to focus on the main character while giving tactical strategies for the AI characters to follow. This would have been a problem if the AI was stupid, but I found the characters, for the most part, intelligent, healing when needed, attacking when support spells were unnecessary, even adapting to the battle at hand. I’ll admit that their frequent slews of auxiliary spells could become frustrating, especially when mistimed. But it allowed the characters to take on a life of their own, fighting in a manner that reflected their personalities, especially in the animation. Mitsuru, adept with single-handed swords, attacks with a finesse and grace that is emblematic of her character. Akihiko is the brawler, tough, sturdy, and packing a mean punch. Aigis, the cold android, attacks with a lethally calculating deadliness. Junpei, while reckless, always seems to come to the rescue in the nick of time. As art director Shigenori Soejima describes him, “He tries to act cool, but inside, he’s timid and lacks confidence. Since he’s also clumsy, Junpei steps forward with the wrong foot while swinging his sword. It looks like he’s swinging a bat instead.”
Because I didn’t control the other players, I felt like I was there in battle with them. They talk to each other, curse when they screw up and get elated when they inflict a devastating blow. After defeating the foes, the characters each have a unique victory dance. You can even split up the group and have them fight by themselves, a very nice feature to have, especially when you want some of the weaker characters to gain XP. There’s a lot of customizing in Persona 3, and I thought limiting the customization to the main character was a good way of focusing the game. If the developers had made party control an optional feature, rather than enforcing it across the board, I think it would have gone a long way to appeasing fans who wanted full control.
Fuuka provides backup and analysis on the foes. This is invaluable information as every enemy is strong and weak against a certain element, whether fire, ice, or strike attacks. If players can identify the weakness and exploit it, the opponent will get knocked down, granting an additional move. Knock all the enemies down on a screen, and an all-out attack commences, a cut to an anime-like series of comic panels and a super combo attack reminiscent of Chrono Trigger. This is key to victory, especially early on when your characters are weak. I liked this aspect so much because it made every battle intriguing, each foe, a new puzzle to figure out. There’s one small touch in the all-out animation that I liked. If you can defeat the enemy with a single all-out attack, puffs of smoke will come out, but you’ll still overwhelm them. If the enemy is too powerful, as in the case of a boss, characters will get knocked back several times, even though they rush right back in.
After a battle is completed, if you’ve fulfilled certain requirements, you’ll enter Shuffle Swap. This is a mini-game involving randomized cards where you earn extra items like increased experience points, money, and Personas, depending on the card you pick. Again, rather than going the routine way of handing you a set amount of ‘rewards’ and leaving it at that, the Shuffle Swap made each battle variable and fun. When characters level up, they respond with an excited cheer. I especially liked young Ken’s jubilant exclamations, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Grinding is still grinding and there are times the battles can become repetitive. Fortunately, the developers have given players the ability to speed up time in battle and zip through them more quickly. Another nice touch is that whenever you return to the first floor, HP and MP is automatically refilled. If there’s one big complaint I had, it’s in the naming of the elements. For example, agi is fire, bufu is ice, hama is light, etc. For those familiar with the series, it’s not as big a problem, but I still found myself consulting the manual to check which name represented which. Add in suffixes and prefixes like agidyne and maragi, and it gets even more confusing, especially for those new to the series like my wife. A simple explanatory note next to the spells could have eliminated the problem entirely.
Tartarus and the Alchemy of Personas
When I first heard Tartarus, the central dungeon of the game, was over 250 floors of continuously randomized terrain, I was scared. How big was this game? Add in the fact that players were constantly getting fatigued and there was a set time limit before the next major boss would arrive, and it made the labyrinth seem overwhelming. I would soon find out that I didn’t have to worry. The randomized floors made some sections very difficult, and others, simple beyond belief. There were series of floors where the stairway to the next floor was literally a screen away from the starting point. I came to realize that the dungeon itself was only an avenue for the battles as well as the mini-games, which I’ll describe shortly.
The enemies, AKA Shadows, are a bizarre suite of demons and monsters that range from creepily cute to outright shocking. There’s checkpoints on specific floors where a mini-boss awaits. They act as a gauge to let players know if they are ready for the monthly boss. Struggling against the mini-boss? Your characters need to level up. In fact, I found some of the later mini-bosses more difficult than the actual bosses themselves.
Early on, the main character is teleported away to the Velvet Room. Those familiar with the series will recognize Igor, the omniscient guardian who watches the transpiring events with his eerie presence. His assistant, Elizabeth, aids in fusing Personas together. She also makes a lot of personal requests that range from retrieving specific items scattered throughout the city (a beetle shell and a google-eyed idol to name two), to gaining specific personas (Loki and Lilith), and finding rare treasures hidden within the depths of Tartarus. In exchange, she awards useful items and prizes that aid the character. Towards the end of the game (or on a second play-through), when an optional dungeon, Monad, opens up, she challenges the player with defeating the ‘Ultimate Opponent’.
This gives added incentive to explore the dungeon. The permeable landscape of the floors gives them a twisted semblance of chaos, forever in flux, scaling and shrinking in perpetuity. It might not be the most creative use of a dungeon block, especially as the architecture repeats over and over, but it gets the job done.
Now it’s the Persona mixing that is one of the core mechanics of the game. The main character is the only one that can use multiple personas. Building them is like building Lego or collecting monstrified Pokémon. All the Personas are stratified within certain Arcanum, whether Fortune, Justice, or Death. Fusing them together results in stronger Persona’s with better abilities. Depending on which Persona is evoked, the player will gain attributes from them, as well as inherit their strengths and weaknesses. Fighting an enemy that’s strong with fire? Don’t enter the battle with a Persona weak against fire or swap to one that isn’t (easily done through the battle menu). As your companions have set Personas, you need to strategize which elements will be most effective against which bosses. If someone in your party is weak against physical attacks and the boss is a physical fighter, that could spell the end of the battle before it’s even begun.
Inside the Velvet Room, the fusing options and combinations are listed. You can record Personas within your possession in case you want to take back a melding that turns out to be less than optimal. The Personas level up with the characters and mutate depending on the components that fused them together. My wife and I had a particularly fun time trying to form a Metatron from the Sun Arcanum because we wanted access to the Almighty spell, megidolaon. We had to create four other personas, Michael, Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel, then combine them together to create this Persona whose name sounds like a Cybertron Transformer. It took several hours, but it was well worth it as Metatron’s presence made the game much easier from that point on.
There are countless ways to customize the Personas and this is a game in itself. Abetting their strength are the social links which I’ll cover in Part 3 of this retrospective.
In battle, the heroes use their Evokers to summon the Personas. It doesn’t get any less shocking seeing the characters point the gun-shaped weapon at themselves and fire (thankfully, in the case of young Ken, the developers cover up his face so you can never tell what exactly he does). The Personas become an extension of the heroes and they even evolve at specific story points to match the experiences of their masters. Fear pushes them to instinctual desperation which in turns makes it easier to summon the Persona, a literal representation of the idea of dying to oneself to give birth to a new existence. Rebirth, resurrection, and rejuvenation are tied up with rage, bravado, and courage. That, and a touch of madness. Scratch that. A lot of madness.
I’ve played many JRPG’s in which I loved the story, but deplored the gameplay, and vice versa. Persona 3 did something I didn’t think possible; it made turn-based combat interesting again. This is because the developers incorporated the story and characters into the style of the fights. Battles weren’t just rote motions undertaken to achieve an ultimate end (leveling up), but instead, an extension of the story and characters we’d come to love.
Many of the Personas were taken from mythological counterparts. Fuuka’s is Juno, whose name means to aid and benefit, matching Fuuka’s role perfectly. Slight spoiler here: Akihiko’s Persona, Polydeuces, or Pollux, was a boxing fanatic (Akihiko liking to fight with his fists) in Greek Mythology and defeated King Amycus in a match during the expedition of the Argonauts. Pollux’s twin brother, Castor, is Shinjiro’s Persona. In the myth, Castor is a mortal who is fated to die, foreshadowing Shinjiro’s end. Finally, the ultimate Persona the main character can gain, Messiah, is the savior of the world, also perfectly representing his role in the game.
It’s this amount of attention to every aspect of the game that has me continually impressed with Persona 3, oozing through every moment, fusing and melding the individual pieces into something even better. Even Elizabeth in Igor’s room couldn’t ask for a better combination.
Stay tuned for part 3 where I cover friendships, romance, and annoying friends.
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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By Peter Tieryas
This is part 2 of my retrospective on Persona 3 as I describe why this game has been my favorite JRPG on the PlayStation 2 and why it’s been the best JRPG I’ve played in a long, long time. Part 1 focused on the story and the characters (