Note: For this article, it’s assumed that you’ve played Persona 3, or at least have a cursory knowledge of the game’s plot, characters, and combat system. If not, you may find yourself a bit lost.
Memento Mori. Remember that you will die. Remember your death.
Riding the train on the way to a new city and new life, we suddenly experience a moment in time where everything twists. The city is bathed in reds and greens, and everyone around us now resides in a literal coffin. To everyone else, this moment in time doesn’t exist. To us, and a select few others, it has a name: The Dark Hour.
This, and the enormous, seemingly endless, tower that dominates the landscape during this time, make up the bulk of Persona 3’s narrative, themes, and play hours. I can’t honestly say that Persona 3 is better than any of the other games in the franchise, but I feel that some aspects of it are worth taking a closer look at.
“Would you believe me if I said that a day consists of more than 24 hours?” – Shuji Ikutsuki
Upon our arrival at the Iwatodai dorm, things are quickly set into motion. This aforementioned tower in the city shows up every night during the “Dark Hour,” and the initial goal is simply to explore it because frankly it’s big and tall and no one knows what’s at the top, and that’s weird.
While not the most captivating introduction sequence, the beginning of Persona 3’s story rests on two hinges. The first is some, but not everyone’s, sheer curiosity. If there’s a tower so tall it pierces through the clouds, and it only exists during a special time that only a few people are even aware of, bets are high that something interesting is up there. Should that not be enough, our fellow party members do pick up a good bit of the slack early on. While most of them only carefully move within predetermined Japanese character tropes, the writing is quick and funny enough that we still want to hear more from them.
The first problem in the story hits about after the 4th of 12 full moon shadows. Another group called Strega is introduced as adversaries, but they don’t do anything of consequence to the player. Aside from freaking out the cast multiple times, they’re about as much of a problem as the mysterious bedside boy that shows up during the Dark Hour before and after the full moon to talk to you. Not until right before the 12th full moon shadow do they actually fight you, and even then, it’s a complete joke.
After the twelve shadows are defeated however, a twist that is almost 100% impossible to see happens. Ikutsuki, the older leader the shadow fighting teenagers we’re a part of, becomes the villain. As a quick note, between my original time with the game years ago and my actual playthrough recently, I ended up reading the manga up to the last translated chapter, which happened to show Ikutsuki laughing maniacally in front of the party, who were all pinned to metal crosses. My point being, even knowing that he was a bad guy going to turn on me, and carefully reading his every line, I had no idea how I was supposed to see this coming. One could argue that that’s the point, and/or that his cover was just that good, but even during secret tapes you can find of him alone, he shows absolutely no malice or ill intent. What’s more baffling though is that he’s taken out just about as fast as he’s brought in. Ikutsuki has just long enough to force Aigis to turn against everyone, (somehow) pin them to these crosses, and promptly fall off the side of Tartarus when Aigis decides to side with her friends instead. If not for the entire existence of The Answer, this would easily be the worst part of Persona 3’s story.
Shortly thereafter, the bedside boy disappears, and a few kid that coincidentally sports the same mole as him and the protagonist’s voice shows up to our school. It doesn’t take too long to decipher that at least our bedside boy is this Ryoji figure, but we have no ability to say anything to anyone else about this. Stranger still, Ryoji extremely quickly slots himself into the friend group in a way that feels rather forced. Within days he’s paling around with everyone at the dorm and hanging out with Junpei almost daily.
I say it feels forced, because the timing between him showing up in our life and then dumping the entirely of the backstory and endgame plot on us happens within the span of a month or so, which makes me wonder if the developers didn’t or couldn’t plan out a way to introduce him sooner than before the 12 shadows were defeated (for story reasons) or couldn’t compress some part of the earlier story to let him have more time with everyone.
Back in the plot dump, Ryoji reveals to you in the span of one conversation that-
- He’s an envoy of death.
- An event called “The Fall” is coming, wherein-
- The mother of creation, Nyx, will descend upon the earth to erase all life instantaneously, and-
- There’s no way to stop her.
While I can understand from a RPG perspective the need to have more bosses and a clear (new) villain to fight, the pacing suffers drastically from this, as I’ve already mentioned. That aside, one of the finer points of P3’s storytelling comes from Ryoji’s choice and the month that follows.
Said choice is simple enough. If we kill Ryoji, we will forget the Dark Hour’s existence and die peacefully on the anointed day. If we don’t, we can be conscious of The Fall until the day Nyx arrives and still die. There’s multiple things I appreciate about this. The first is that Ryoji makes a very real point that it would be better to be blissfully ignorant of the end of days then to spend another month under the crushing weight of the burden of knowledge. Second is how, at least at first, (while not wanting to kill someone) most of your party agrees with that. Rather, it’s very common to have RPG characters who dive headfirst into the fray and never look back. They understand from the get-go that their lives are forfeit. But in P3, these are high school students, and understandably they’re terrified. They’re scared to die, and don’t know if it’s even worth trying to fight something that’s supposedly unbeatable. Only through actual time conversations with each other do they eventually build up the resolve to stand and fight.
With newfound courage and now Olympian-grade legs and stamina from climbing the entirety of Tartarus, the team come together and defeat the avatar of Nyx, which brings on the apparently controversial ending. I say apparent, because in my playthrough, the protagonists self-sacrifice and death makes for a great, and more importantly, natural ending. The player character is often viewed as some sort of demigod by everyone but the other characters anyway, so that they are the only ones able to fight back makes sense. Even the epilogue, when the erasure of the Dark Hour made everyone forget each other, our protagonist still waits until the day that everyone suddenly remembers one another again to finally pass away. Nearly poetic in a sense.
While it was not and to this day is not a groundbreaking story by any means, I personally really loved the way Persona 3 viewed time as a valuable resource through the lens of death. The people in this world came to wish for Nyx because they lost or never found their purpose in life, and therefore had nothing but empty time. Those who filled their lives with the light of learning, making friends, enjoying hobbies, and seeking worldly truths were the same ones who were willing to fight to continue to have those privileges.
And those are the people make up all of your party members, and most everyone in the cast of all of Persona 3.
“So, Tartarus and the Dark Hour will be gone. That’s good. That’s what we’ve been fighting for. So why am I so pissed?!… I know why. I’m the reason. I was like “Fighting is my duty”. But hell, it’s all I’m good for. If it weren’t for that, I’d be worthless.” – Junpei Iori
Almost everyone in Persona 3 has or will suffer some kind of loss over the course of the story, whether it’s Yukari’s, Mitsuru’s, Ken’s, or the protagonist’s parents before the story, Akihiko’s friend Shinji during it, or Aigis’ “sister” during “The Answer.” For this however, I’d like to talk about Junpei Iori, because he’s a good example of an arguably “real” person. When you first meet him, Junpei only exhibits one note, and that’s “hitting on chicks day and night without pause.” He casually flirts with nearly every woman he can, and comes off entirely as comedic relief of the era. As one of the first new people to join the party, he reveals another quality; he’s completely bullheaded. He goes in without thinking, alone, into dangerous situations that end up risking other people’s lives as well as his own. At this point he’s right on the mark for a typical JRPG party member, but what’s good about Junpei is the ways in which he changes, and ways he doesn’t.
A couple of full moon shadows in, through private scenes with him and through his own actions, we come to see that Junpei has a very real complex about wanting to be the hero of his own story. Junpei doesn’t want to be regulated to “just another party member” under the watchful eye of the leader. He outright states his anger and jealousy towards us because we’re the protagonist, the demigod, the one with all the special powers, and (even though he has the ability to summon a persona himself) he’s just a high schooler with a big sword by comparison.
Always the sidekick that’s good for a laugh. Never the hero that almost every woman within a 50 mile radius wants to be with. In that respect, Junpei’s actions make a lot of sense if considered not from the omniscient player’s perspective, but Junpei’s own. This makes it all the more heartwarming for him to swallow his pride and own up to his mistakes in a one on one with us, and heartbreaking when he lapses for a girl he falls for.
When Junpei meets Chidori, a girl on the side of the street drawing something, he tries his best to strike up a conversation, but not in his older fashion of starting off by hitting on them, but simply asking what she’s sketching. Though she’s not interested at first, his persistence pays off, and they stoke a relationship of sorts. The fault is in that Junpei still thinks, even now, that he has to be the hero to be someone important to someone else, and his lies once more get him and so many others caught up in a dangerous situation. For pretending to be someone he’s not, Junpei nearly gets killed, and Chidori winds up in the hospital. Only now that his consequences have had adverse effects on someone he really cares for does Junpei make his first real change. He tries to be more honest with himself, admitting that he’s not that strong, courageous, smart, witty… but he’s caring. When Chidori goes to the hospital, he visits her every day, and they talk for hours, and for the first time, Junpei is the hero to at least one person.
Junpei’s second and final change comes with Chidori’s death. Sacrificing herself to save him from a fatal gunshot wound, Junpei awakens to his reformed persona and takes Chidori’s sketchbook. In the following days, he’s quiet and distant, completely unlike the man from before. Once he opens Chidori’s sketchbook however, the one he bought for her, he discovers the myriad of pictures she drew of him; of a confident, hopeful, and caring man. Not wanting to disappoint the way Chidori thought of him, Junpei gains his new resolve to fight until the end, whether he’s the world’s hero or not, because he’s a hero to at least one person.
More than Yukari and the story of her father, Mitsuru and her’s, or even Akihiko and the loss of his friend Shinji, I believe that Junpei has the best character arc in Persona 3, and possibly the best of 3 and 4. What’s key is that while he did change a lot, understanding his place in the group and what he wants to do, he also doesn’t completely lose his character in the endgame. Junpei is still a goofball, he still flirts with the girls during the New Year’s festival, and still won’t study for exams. He’s real because he doesn’t do an outright 180 of his entire personality for the sake of the story or “just an arc.” He’s a person who changed the aspects of him that were hurtful to those he cared about, and strengthened the ones he was good at, while keeping some of his other negative traits. Junpei Iori is identifiable a “real” person, in the world of video games or otherwise.
“Most of the time, this is our school, but during the Dark Hour, we call it Tartarus.” – Mitsuru Kirijo
Strictly in concept, Tartarus is beautiful. A tower that absolutely dwarfs the rest of the city builds itself piece by piece during the Dark Hour, meaning its layout changes nightly, and whatever’s at the top probably isn’t good news.
For the player though, aesthetics aside, this means that Tartarus is one big procedurally generated dungeon. Each floor is pieced together with a basic template of hallways, corner rooms, an access point (to return to the entrance) and stairs to the next floor. The problem is, as with many RPGs that have done this before and since, procedurally generated dungeon crawling is a slog. The first few hours are inside Tartarus are fine enough, exploring each unmapped section for chests containing treasure and engaging in quick encounters, but it doesn’t take much longer than that for the gameplay faults to trump the premise entirely. By the third block or so, I was no longer interested in the concept of this extraordinary piece of bizarre architecture, and just wanted to bolt for the stairs with every new floor. Also, since they’re generated upon every reload, that means that if we go back to the entrance to fuse or save, or (god forbid) die, there’s no way to know where the stairs are upon returning to the same floor. Sometimes they’re at the very beginning, sometimes we have to split up the party and sacrifice multiple members to combat encounters just so we can slip right by them to the stairs further on. Tartarus would make a great concept for either a much shorter game, or something like a book or film, where the random nature of the floors can actually have an effect on the characters.
“Please hit!” – Yukari Takeba
Combat follows a similar trend to Tartarus, which is to say; strong thematically, weak in practice. Back before I did my complete run of the game, I staunchly defend the inability to directly control your teammates in Persona 3, usually by brushing it off as not needed. The other, and more fascinating reason, was that I believe it worked from a limited perspective viewpoint. Put another way, I liked how we could only control the protagonist in P3 because it made me feel like I was less of the puppetmaster player, and more of a real character with limited abilities residing in a world. I could no more control my actual friends than my party members. As the appointed leader, the best I ever could do was give them advice on what to do, and what they choose to do with the tactic I gave them is fully their choice. In essence, they’re their own (AI) people.
Sadly, this is the part where I admit I was wrong. For the first half of the game, this works fine. Combat is challenging, but whether the other party members go for a melee attack or their persona’s ability doesn’t really matter. In the latter half of the game, roughly after the twelve main shadows are defeated or a bit before, this system hits its limit. The big outlying issue is that while your party members always make a good decision (according to their tactics, abilities, and knowledge of the enemy), they don’t always make the optimal one. The easiest instances of this are when Koromaru would cast mudo on an enemy (because they’re weak to it) instead of hitting it with a basic attack, or Mitsuru/Akihiko/Yukari use a basic attack to kill an enemy rather than one more elemental attack to knock the last standing shadow to the ground. On paper, it game is making the right call, but just not the best one, and in the endgame of a JRPG, where we’re grinding for hours to fight the final boss, not the best is in fact the worst.
“I see… Then, you must already know. What people fear most… What they try to ignore… That is what I am.” – Nyx Avatar
Said final boss, the Nyx Avatar, is the culmination of all the problems inherent to the combat system wrapped in one, painfully beautiful, hour long fight. Just to point out up front, I lost at least five times against the Nyx Avatar, and each time made me feel worse than the last. As I’ve said so many times already, the concept of the boss is good on paper. They use the power of 13 arcana, with each one giving them different abilities and resistances, each testing your ability as a player to switch up your strategy. The final arcana, death, gives them a significant amount of extra health, and an incredible amount of armor (but not elemental resistances). What this means is that the final form isn’t challenging; it’s merely a battle of attrition. Does the player have enough resources to keep up healing and curing ailments in the event the support goes down? Or, in my case, can the player mentally hold out, or will they eventually get too tired/too angry to make the right decision on a single turn, which will cause them to lose the fight on the next rotation? Frankly, this isn’t good boss design; at least not for a JRPG. A rigorous test of endurance is neat on paper, but in a turn based RPG, it leads to a lot of turns looking the exact same. Heal, debuff, attack, heal, debuff, attack…
The aforementioned problem with party members making good, but not optimal decisions comes to a head here, as quite literally one false move, one heal on the wrong party member, leads to a loss. This is confounded by the fact that late into the 13th arcana fight, the Nyx avatar begins to use an ability called “Night Queen”. In addition to doing a relatively set amount of almighty (read: cannot be resisted) damage to the whole party, it has a random chance of inflicting a random status ailment on each party member. So, this means that while there’s every possibility that nothing will happen to anyone, there’s also a very real possibility that someone (or multiple people) will be charmed, giving them a (say it with me now) random chance to cause diarahan on the Nyx Avatar, healing them for their entire health bar. The fact that this exists either means that the developers were aware of it and would say “tough luck”, or considered it fine under being “thematically resonate” with my earlier mention of being a battle of attrition. Maybe the intention was to drain the party of all their resources, and actually test the mental state of the player. If that is the case, I would both applaud ATLUS for being so incredibly ballsy, and appalled that they would actually go through with it.
“This ordeal… it may be that we brought it upon ourselves.” – Aigis
Persona 3: The Answer is a travesty upon an already scarred but still beautiful game in Persona 3: The Journey. I consider myself lucky that I convinced myself that merely watching the cutscenes would be enough, because if I feel if I spent all thirty of those hours actually playing the game, I would have lost all of my love for P3 proper. But why is it so bad?
There’s two ways to look at this. From an extremely cynical perspective, one could assume that The Answer was made to satiate crying and bitter fans who either didn’t understand or outright didn’t like that the protagonist of Persona 3 was dead and gone.
Put in a more welcoming light, the story of The Answer is wholly unnecessary. We didn’t need to know that the protagonist, after bravely sacrificing themself to stop Nyx and peacefully drifting off to sleep, became even more of a messiah figure in this universe. It’s revealed at the end that the protagonist literally chained his body to the gates of death, sealing Nyx behind them and holding back a metaphysical manifestation of the malice of all humankind.
Even if we can put that aside, what hurts the narrative of The Answer so much is the way they story has to undo all the progress of the character’s arcs in The Journey just for the sake of giving them the same one.
The most obvious example is Yukari Takeba. In the early parts of The Journey, she comes off as kind of standoffish and very cagey about her past. Eventually, we come to learn what happened to her father, and with the help of us, she comes to understand what it means to put the past in its place and move forward in life. In time, she even helps Mitsuru help overcome the death of her father in much the same way we helped her.
In The Answer, Yukari is once again stuck in the past over the death of someone close to her. Somehow, not only did she not remember to keep moving on, but she actively impedes everyone from leaving the time loop that they’re stuck in because of her. She’ll even risk fighting her friends to their death just for the chance to fight the Nyx Avatar again and stop the protagonist from leaving her. To her credit, in the end Yukari has a breakdown in front of everyone and shows that she’s just incredibly hurt and tired of losing people, which is something I and many others can relate to. And once again, she learns to move on, put the past away, and look to the future.
So again I have to wonder; why does this expansion exist? The Answer, contrary to its name, doesn’t actually resolve any needed questions beyond maybe what happened to the cast after the events of Persona 3, but it barely does even that. The Answer’s biggest crime isn’t just that it’s a waste of time, but that it actively tries to ruin an otherwise bittersweet, but earned ending and character arcs.
“Woof! Woof woof! Arf! Arf!” – Koromaru
With credits rolling on The Journey and The Answer shortly thereafter, I felt liberated from the game that clung to me for so many years now, and I’m honestly surprised at just how much I had to say about it. I didn’t even mention other things like the social links here (most of which are fine, but unmemorable), the scene in which Yukari points out that the protagonist has a knack for being so perfect (because they’re the player) and actively uses that against them in an argument, or the way hama and mudo skills unbalance the game in really poor ways for no good reason.
Regardless, problems and all, I’m quite glad I played Persona 3. While not perfect, I felt it had a lot to say and show me about the director’s outlook on life, finding purpose, fearing death, and building relationships to help you with those and so much more.
If you would like to read more about the director’s (Katsura Hashino) design philosophy behind the game, I would highly encourage you to read this translated interview from Persona 3: Official Design Works.