Persona 3 is very different from the preceding games in the series, to the point it honestly feels like the start of a different series entirely. Instead of a standard jRPG, it’s a kind of blend between a dungeon-crawling roguelike and a dating sim: By day you live as an ordinary high school student, take classes, and bribe your friends to get Relationship Points™; by night you fight monsters.
Unfortunately, while it’s better than the preceding games (and actually playable), it feels very much like a rough draft. This makes sense, since it was their first attempt at a lot of radically new mechanics, but I don’t think it aged well. I’d say the story is decent, but either watch a playthrough or the anime adaptation instead of playing it yourself.
The first thing you will notice is that the pacing of this game is totally bizarre. It’s several in-game days before the supernatural plot begins, then you spend a week in a coma, and then the main mechanics are gradually taught to you over the course of several more days. Afterwards, dungeon progression is completely optional, and basically only exists to help you level grind for the mandatory story fights… which isn’t even that necessary, because the story bosses are trivial compared to the dungeon bosses, which are often brick walls. You can’t even level grind meaningfully, because the EXP rewards from enemies are pathetically small. Like with most roguelikes, the dungeon-crawling honestly feels more like a chore than anything else.
When I initially heard the premise, I thought you had to fight monsters every night; instead it’s a completely optional choice you make and are sometimes even barred from because the characters decide studying for academics is more important than stopping monsters from killing people. This makes the tone, pacing, and ethics of the situation extremely weird; the monster-hunting feels like a hobby the characters only do when they’re bored or they absolutely have to, rather than a serious, important job. The fact the characters insist you need to balance academics with saving the world is just so utterly absurd on every logical and moral level. The in-game incentive for this is that the group leader will give you items if you do well in exams… which, put another way, means she’s willing to withhold potentially life-saving equipment from you if you don’t dance to her satisfaction. If you don’t train your fighting skills you (and tons of other people) can die, but if you don’t study you’ll fail your exams and somehow that’s worse.
I feel like this is a plot that makes sense to actual high school students, for whom high school is their entire life and they can’t conceive of anything else, but as an adult it just seems so silly. It would be one thing if they at least gave a handwave to justify it like “We need to keep up appearances for the normies,” or “You need to make sure you have a future after saving the world,” but their monster-hunting group is led by the heiress of the massive company who runs the school, so there is absolutely nothing stopping them from pulling strings to support the kids hunting monsters full-time.
The daytime segments feel only slightly less grindy and repetitive as the dungeon crawling, unfortunately. You’re given two time blocks you can use to either advance characters’ plotlines for relationship points or grind your stats, including special stats that are only used for the dating sim elements. There are also several events that can only be done once per day but don’t consume a time slot, yet for some reason the game doesn’t keep track of these or warn you if you’re about to miss them, making them tedious and stressful to keep track of.
The character subplots are the real draw for these segments, but because they can be done in any order, they necessarily have to be decoupled from the progression of the main plot, forcing them to exist as a weird atemporal mass that makes it hard for me to immerse myself. Characters will act like they’re about to do a time-sensitive or important thing, then politely wait weeks in stasis before continuing as if no time has passed. It makes the whole thing feel too artificial and game-y to me, like they too obviously exist just for me to observe them. I’m sure the alternative, of character plotlines being mutually exclusive and missable, would be a nightmare to keep track of, but I do feel like it’s missing something. At the very least, there definitely shouldn’t have been the grinding mechanic where you need to see a number of generic scenes before advancing the plotline, because dear god does that bring the momentum to a screeching halt.
The battles, at least, do gain a number of new mechanics that make them far more interesting. They use a streamlined version of the Press Turn system where striking a weakness just grants the character an immediate extra turn, and unlike the Press Turn system this can actually be chained semi-indefinitely. (Fortunately, the punishing aspect of the Press Turn system isn’t present.) Additionally, hitting a weakpoint will knock the combatant prone, which prevents them from dodging attacks, and landing another weakpoint on a downed enemy will stun them. This honestly makes battles pretty trivial if you can target a weakpoint, but I think it’s deliberately designed to synergize with another new mechanic, which is that you can split the party to explore floors more quickly, at the obvious penalty that everyone has to fight enemies alone. The One-More system makes soloing enemy encounters much easier provided you can land a weakpoint, making this a viable strategy instead of the suicide it would be in a standard RPG.
Furthermore, my complaint about the characters feeling interchangeable has finally been addressed: Now, only the main character can switch personas, with party members’ being fixed. (You also get new skills just through level up, rather than the grindy rank system from the previous games.) This greatly streamlines party management and makes a lot more sense lorewise. It also makes it easier to have party members discuss their personas and abilities in-character, which was one of the few good things in the previous games.
Additionally, the negotiation system has been axed in favor of just giving you personas as random drops after battles. It’s a bit disappointing, because the negotiation system was a fun concept, but it was also very unpredictable, unintuitive, and convoluted, so I don’t miss it too much. This also means you fuse personas directly instead of going through the intermediary of monster cards, which is much more intuitive and matches up better with the main series.
The other major addition is that there is now an in-game calendar, with days constantly advancing. Certain sidequests have deadlines and plot-relevant boss battles happen on certain dates regardless of if you’re prepared, giving a greater sense of urgency and tension to your decisions. I’ve often felt like resource management is the most neglected part of a jRPG, since you can always just retreat to heal and restock whenever you like, making your resources effectively infinite; but if time is a finite resource, that reintroduces resource scarcity.
…Unfortunately that’s not quite how it works in this game. When dungeon-crawling you can in fact retreat at any time to use a heal point and then resume from the same floor you left off, not even losing any progress. I was expecting something like you can only gain money outside of the dungeon so your healing is still limited that way, but no, monsters still drop oodles of money like in any other jRPG so you can in fact fight and heal indefinitely. The real limit on dungeon crawling seems to be your own boredom.
So with that out of the way, what’s the actual plot this time?
Fortunately, there is a clear central theme that the plot actually manages to stick to this time: DEATH. Almost all the major characters (and several of the minor ones) are motivated by the death of a loved one, and the final boss is the literal god of death. Though this is still a spooky demon man plot, it works way better than P2’s due to death being a natural phenomenon instead of a human creation. It functions as a man vs. nature plot rather than man vs. man, which is exactly what I said it should be last time. It does fall into the other pitfall of spooky demon man plots, “we solved this abstract problem by punching it in the face,” however; punching out a spooky god monster doesn’t really have anything to do with overcoming death. Naturally, the moral is also the usual Stockholm syndrome about how death makes you appreciate life more, somehow.
Honestly, the real theme of the story seemed to me not to be death, but loss. The characters don’t engage with the fear of their own death (except at the very end), but rather how they cope with the deaths of those close to them, and I think that is conceptually a very different thing. Nor are any of the deaths due to the inevitable slow rot of entropy; they are all sudden violent deaths. The horror is much more the unfairness of senseless loss and destruction, rather than the existential dread of an inevitable end. Once again, this would be different if the third-act twist of “btw the end of the world is coming and you will die on this exact date” was revealed at the start of the story rather than the end. (This would also help with the plot being absurdly backloaded, as usual.) This has the unfortunate effect of making the story feel schizophrenic and like it doesn’t know its own theme; it’s about loss for about 80% of its span, then abruptly transitions to being about death, then transitions back to loss for the ending and sequel chapter. (Said sequel chapter also has the issue of wanting to give the message that you can’t change the past while introducing a magic way to change the past, making the reasoning incoherent.)
Related to this is a whole thing where the characters have to summon their personas by shooting themselves in the head with a fake gun, which you’ve probably seen memes about. The characters outright mention how weird this is and I assumed there would be some explanation, but there never is one. I assume it’s something about facing death? Would have appreciated if that thread wasn’t completely dropped.
There are human villains too, but their motives are incomprehensible nonsense. They want to destroy the world because they believe it’s hopelessly broken and the only salvation lies in oblivion, which is not something that maps onto any real-life villains except maybe Christian extremists. I thought they were drawing a parallel to the fossil fuel industries when we got the explanation that they were trying to use the monsters for energy, but no, they’re just cackling evil death cultists. What was the point of this?
The characters, at least, were good this time. I liked all of them except Anime Horndog Junpei, and found them to have nicely varied personalities that worked well together. (Ken desperately needed to be aged up though, 10yos just do not talk like that no matter how traumatized.) I particularly liked how Yukari and Mitsuru formed such a close bond after initially being at odds, as well as Yukari’s general proactiveness. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking Aigis; I expected her to be a generic robot waifu, but she actually ends up with a surprisingly mature personality and delivers some genuinely profound thoughts about the story’s central themes.
…Unfortunately we kinda do get the trite character arc I expected for Aigis with Chidori, an emotionless girl who learns to understand This Thing You Call Love and then immediately gets fridged, which 9_9 Bonus points: She sacrifices herself to resurrect her boyfriend, who dies to a gunshot wound which is somehow instantly fatal in cutscenes but easily shrugged off in combat. (No explanation for why no one tries using healing magic this time.)
They also decided to crank the anime horniness up a notch. One of your male party members just refuses to shut up about objectifying and creeping on all the ladies, and most of the minor male NPCs follow suit. If you play as the male protagonist, everyone immediately assumes you’re dating your female party members and ignore you the few times the game allows you to disagree. Nearly all the social links hound you about your taste in girls; one of the social links in particular is about a student who wants to date his teacher while you’re forced to be his wingman, which was deeply uncomfortable. (It does at least end with the reveal the teacher wasn’t serious, but yeesh this is not a story that needs to be told.) Speaking of which, one of the female protagonist’s love interests is a 10-year-old boy; said 10yo is also a playable character you can throw into the meat grinder, which is fine because he volunteered and as we all know, 10yos can give informed consent. The female protagonist can, at least, turn down her love interests to remain platonic; the male protagonist cannot, which inevitably leads to you cheating on half the cast if you want to max out everyone’s social links. (There are, of course, no gay options, even though there was one in the last game and Akihiko is so obviously gay.)
I’m overall left with a sense of good ideas but poor execution, which is increasingly seeming to be the standard for SMT. I’m willing to try the next Persona because everyone insists it’s super awesome, but my expectations are low.