This is the conclusion to my retrospective on Persona 3 as I describe why it has been my favorite JRPG on the PlayStation 2 and the best JRPG I’ve played in a long, long time. Part 1 focused on the story and the characters (check out part 1 here if you haven’t already), Part 2 focused on the gameplay and combat system (click this link to check it out). Now we’ll cover the rest, particularly social links, an element some found immensely enjoyable and others, not so enjoyable. I’m going to argue that the reason many gamers had such a strong reaction to the social system was how authentically it reflected reality. Getting annoyed of friends calling you all the time and asking to hang out, then getting peeved when you refuse because you want to spend time with the girl you like (and this in turn affecting gameplay)? Welcome to the world of Persona 3— or should that be real life?
Warning, there are spoilers!!!
Friendships are hard. They take years to develop, and sometimes, they’ll shatter in a day over some stupid misunderstanding or a petty grievance that can fester over trivialities. Pride has to be swallowed, empathy has to abound, and above all, respect has to be at the forefront. Easier said than done, I know. It’s no different in Persona 3. You have to commit to a friendship for it to develop. Be too frank in answering certain questions, and the friendship stalls. Say the right thing, and the girl you’re pining for starts developing feelings. I loved social links because it flushed out the world and made NPC’s (non-playable characters) more than just vessels for conveying game information (e.g. go here, or, this villain is blah, or, tutorial in the form of, etc. etc.). These characters had a life and story of their own. Some of their arcs were tragic, others, hilarious. Social links were an exploration, a journey of human nature. It’s easy now to look back on my awkward high school years and know how I should have responded to certain interactions. Regret has a way of reweaving history in a person’s mind.
The great thing was how the social links connected back to the gameplay. Each of the friends represented a separate arcana of the Persona. The stronger the bond between you two, the stronger any Persona in that specific arcana would be, receiving additional experience points and benefits because of it. I’ll briefly touch on a few of the more notable social links. Kazushi Miyamoto, the Chariot arcana, is a fellow athlete on the swimming team. He’s dedicated to winning and aspires to be the best, in part because of a promise to a young nephew. Unfortunately, he hurts himself and tries to hide his pain. Eventually, he resigns from the team to get surgery. What made this so touching was I could feel his desire and pain. I really thought he was going to recover, come back, and win it all. But no, at the end, he’s forced to come to terms with his injury and take the year off. It was surprisingly realistic. Another competitor, Mamoru Hayase of the Star Arcana, is a phenomenal athlete from a rival school. Tragically, he’s from a poor family and his father recently passed away. His arc ends when he realizes he has to quit school so he can go work and support his family. The saddest by far is Akinari Kamiki who is dying of a fatal disease and chats philosophy with you once a week. I could feel tears creeping up on me in the final act. Pat resolutions are lacking and there is no magic spell to cure his condition. On the opposite end is Mr. Tanaka, a cruel, ruthless businessman who tries to teach you the ways of his Devil arcana. He always gives the most cynical insights into humanity. For example, he mentions how much he loved his high school reunion because it gave him a chance to look down on everyone. He also mocks people for buying placebos he’s marketed as diet pills. Kenji Tomochika, the Magician Arcana, is the most annoying of the social links. He falls in love with his teacher and constantly asks for advice on how he should approach her. Unfortunately, the teacher gets engaged and plans to leave school, crushing his heart. This guy got peeved at me so many times because I ignored him (let’s hang out— no thanks; are you busy afterschool? yes, I want to spend time with one of my potential girlfriends), it resulted in a link reverse which meant if I used any Persona within his Arcana, I’d get an adverse effect. I finally had to make up with him and he liked me again. But when I ignored him a couple more times, he got upset again!
Romancing was a lot of fun. I tried to charm Yukari, Fuuka, Chihiro, and Mitsuru. If you develop an intimate relationship with any of the girls and date someone else, they’ll get jealous and their anger will evolve into rage. The women all have fascinating stories and as you get closer to them, you really feel for them. These relationships take longer to develop and there are a lot of study sessions and walks home that don’t result in any upgrade in the social link. Present them the wrong gift, and they’ll even give a lackluster response. I admit, I was mainly interested in Mitsuru, and the conclusion to her social link ended with— dare I say it? Our hero gets “lucky.” These romances felt way more real than any romance I’d felt in any other RPG or game. Time plays a big role because you really have to commit to these relationships, spending precious minutes you could be using to strengthen your character. You also see the girls develop over the school year, adding a deeper dimension to their personalities. There’s nothing quite like finding true love in a videogame.
School life wouldn’t be complete without the chance to upgrade academics, courage, and charm. You can raise academics by studying at the library, at night, or on a holiday. Courage can be raised by singing karaoke at the Paulownia Mall (like in real life, the karaoke places get crammed on Fridays and Saturdays and thus are inaccessible) or going to the movies all by yourself. The hero can raise attributes by eating different foods at Iwatodai Station and praying at Naganaki Shrine. His health condition can even improve by using the bathroom. One of my favorite parts is the week-long examination per term. They draw questions from class sessions you’ve had earlier and the music in those sequences, called, “Junior Exam,” is one of the catchiest. I remember as a kid going through the intensive testing and wondering how I’d score. Not well, unfortunately, but in the case with Persona 3, raising up my academics to full, I got one of the top marks. This impressed Mitsuru and the rest was— well, see above for more about my relationship with Mitsuru.
Too many games have great soundtracks that just don’t fit the game. I’m talking about the grand orchestral arrangements that sound like something from a generic rip-off of Carmina Burana. Persona 3 bucks the trend with a hip, catchy soundtrack that is unlike anything else out there. Composed by Shoji Meguro, the music oozes brilliance. Meguro loved utilizing the real-time streaming allowed by the PlayStation 2 and went all out from, “Burn My Dread,” to, “Enduring Bonds.” (even the track names are cool) There’s a mix of vocals and jazz that perfectly evoke the necessary mood. As much as I’ve loved the music in recent RPG’s, I can’t hum a single track back from memory. With Persona 3, I can hum a dozen of them back to you. My favorite is one I mentioned in part 1 of this retrospective. Once you figure out the end of the world is at hand, the overmap music changes to a tune more somber and sad. Respectively called, “Memories of the City,” and, “Memories of the School,” I felt a tremendous amount of tension and melancholy for the future. Persona 3’s music not only complemented the game, but helped take it to another level. A great sample disc came with my original copy of Persona 3. I pop it in once a week and listen to the beats which even my wife recognizes and enjoys.
Of course, rounding everything out is the phenomenal art. A lot of games have taken a more realistic track, and while I applaud their direction, Persona 3 was geared more towards an anime aesthetic that gleamed with a dark punk rock feel. It fit the mood of a school setting and worked masterfully in the context of the game. In regards to the main character, art director Shigenori Soejima said he, “was drawn first, and the other characters were drawn to complement him. That’s why his design took the longest to finalize. Initially, he looked more honest, like an ordinary, handsome young man. But, I worked to achieve greater ambiguity in his expression.” Every character has a story behind his/her art and their amazing character designs exemplify this. The cutscenes were beautifully painted as well and I loved the portrait styled images accompanying the dialogue boxes. Overall, the animation was solid, though some of the animations would repeat during their dialogue— for example, Yukari makes a slashing motion with her arm every time she expresses any strong emotion.
There were some negatives to the artwork. Tartarus’ dungeon aesthetic got very repetitive as it’s pretty much the same look throughout each of the individual blocks. One floor looks exactly like another despite randomization, and there was no part of the dungeon that made me drop my jaw and go, wow, the way some dungeons in Final Fantasy or even Zelda have done. Soejima did say, “Since this (Tartarus) structure changes from night to night, it was drawn to look distorted, as if it has no fixed supports or dimensions.” As you ascend higher, the enemies start repeating, albeit with texture swaps. This also made the game easier as it was simple to identify what particular foes were weak against which elements.
I was impressed by the number of different outfits the characters wore. I’ve talked about this in an earlier article, but the characters change their costumes depending on the season or if they go on a holiday or are just chilling for the weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in any other JRPG before. Sure, they might get a model swap in other JRPG’s if they get more powerful, or as in the case of more open-world RPG’s, costumes can be customizable. But in this case, they wore what was appropriate to their setting and the costumes looked great. The art team really did a great jump pumping out lots of assets, and the game exudes a level of polish and a vigor for details that hasn’t gone unnoticed by fans.
Persona 3 takes place over a year and every day is split out into different time periods. As the characters age, get closer, or feud, you feel like you’re there at school with them, undergoing the journey they are, watching the seasons change. Some of my favorite moments included asides that had nothing to do with the plot, like when Junpei plays a game with a flashlight of ‘Believe It or Don’t,’ and the time Junpei leads an excursion of Akihiko and the hero to find women on the beach called ‘Operation Babe Hunt’ that goes awry (many of the more mischievous moments are spurred on by Junpei). Very few games can immerse you at that level. Persona 3 succeeded and reminded me of what I loved about JRPG’s and games in general. Some have suggested JRPG’s are a dying breed. I beg to differ. I know Persona 3 is a few years old, but that same team is out there and when Persona 5 comes out, I will be one of the first waiting in line. I give big props to the development team at Atlus for bringing this work of genius to fruition. By writing this retrospective, I want to extend a social link to everyone who’s interested in Persona 3. Let’s go up a few levels together, shall we?
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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