I’d heard a lot about Persona 3 over the last year, and was torn: on the one hand, it sounded both good and interestingly different, but on the other hand, people reported it as taking 70-100 hours to finish. So it kept on never quite making it to the top of the list to play: I could never convince myself that I’d rather play it instead of another set of five or so games.

Then fate intervened in the form of my Xbox dying in December, a month where I had eleven days off from work between Christmas and New Year’s and no Vintage Game Club games to play. Which turned Persona 3 from a potential serious roadblock in my gameplay schedule into just what I needed to fill a major void! And I wasn’t disappointed in my expectations: it’s a quite different game from others that I’ve played, in ways that I still haven’t wrapped my brain around.

Take its basic genre category: it’s a JRPG. I’m used to thinking of the physical layout in JRPGs as consisting of cities, overworld, and dungeons. Right from the beginning, though Persona 3 avoids that: you do spend time wandering around in the sorts of buildings that you’d find in a traditional JRPG city, but you don’t really wander around in the city as a whole. Instead, the game teleports you from place to place, and you’re teleported under the game’s control at least as frequently as you’re teleported under your control. When you wake up, you don’t get to wander around: you get shown a view of your room, and then get teleported to school. The computer then controls most of your school experience until school gets out (including whether or not you’ll see the inside of any classrooms or get to interact with people during lunch), and occasionally the computer even keeps control after that. I’m used to JRPGs scripting aspects of your experience and removing interactivity via cut scenes; this form of jumping you from place to place with short interactive pieces between was new to me, however. And you see this right at the start of the game: while you do have control of the character reasonably often during the intro, you don’t have enough freedom to actually get to a save point more frequently than every thirty minutes! Fortunately, that aspect of the game calms down a bit, so later on you can save reasonably frequently.

I’m not the only person who found this somewhat jarring, but it actually works quite well: the game is about story, about interactions set in the social framework of a regular school day. So this style of shepherding you from potential interaction to potential interaction puts that front and center: it’s not about you exploring a city and moving on to the next one (with, of course, some sort of overarching save-the-world plot in the background), it’s about the rhythms of your daily life in that same city over the course of most of a year. (Still with an overarching save-the-world plot in the background, though!)

So: the traditional JRPG city model doesn’t really fit this game very well. What about the overworld? That one doesn’t fit so much, either: Tartarus, the dungeon in the game, is located in your school, so you don’t have to travel to get there, and in fact the game just teleports you there on nights when you decide to go there. So there’s no need for an overworld, you just go straight from city to dungeon and back.

At which point another framework starts to make a lot more sense, that of the Roguelike game. There’s just one dungeon in the game, with hundreds of levels; the levels are even randomly generated, which is a time-honored tradition in that genre. And having a city on the top of the dungeon (or bottom, in this case) isn’t unheard of in that tradition: it was there in one of the earliest Roguelikes that I played, Wizardry, and it was there in the most recent Roguelike that I played, Etrian Odyssey. Note also that, in both of those examples, you couldn’t actually wander around the city to explore it: instead, you could simply select which building to go into, to interact with people. So maybe what we have here is a Roguelike game, albeit one with an unusually well-developed city part of the game?

That’s not the most comfortable fit either, though. I said that the game has one dungeon, Tartarus; but, every month, you have a boss fight, and those boss fights don’t happen in Tartarus. Instead, they happen in some other part of the city, and it’s never a part that’s accessible during the normal wandering around during the day. And there’s typically a bit (though not a lot) of wandering around and fighting minor enemies before you get to the boss. So maybe those monthly encounters are the dungeons (albeit pleasantly compressed ones), and Tartarus is the overworld (albeit a reflexive one that only leads back to the same city)?

Ultimately, I don’t think either of these is a perfect fit, or even a particularly good one: the game has noticeable Roguelike aspects, and noticeable traditional JRPG layout aspects, but it’s neither one nor the other, nor even a hybrid of the two. It may be a hybrid of the two plus the dating sim; that is, for better or for worse, a genre that I haven’t played very much, but the rhythms of the game remind me as much of Harvest Moon as of any other game that I’ve played.

Another way in which it interestingly differs from traditional JRPGs: the level-up system. Traditional JRPGs have a dual level-up structure: you level up your personal stats, you level up your equipment. Both of those are present here, but there are others as well: you acquire new Personas, you level up your personal non-combat-related stats. (Nice to be able to become a charismatic badass genius; haven’t quite reached that in real life, alas.) And there are two further leveling up systems around Personas: you can level up individual Personas, and you can also level up your ability to fuse new Personas.

Which sounds like a lot: having typed that paragraph, I’m kind of amazed that the perfectionist part of my brain didn’t freeze up when confronted with all of this. As near as I can remember, though, I only started to do that right at the beginning (wait, fusing Personas means I’ll lose them? How will I ever get another Orpheus?), but I quickly got over it.

In fact, in retrospect, the game’s pacing and uncovering of its rules was kind of remarkable. At the start of the game, I was treating it like a normal JRPG: following the plot, going where I was supposed to be going, fighting pretty often. Then the social links started to appear; I only had access to a few, so I followed those along, and managed to max out one of them fairly quickly. (The Old Couple in the used bookstore.) As traditional in a JRPG, more characters started to appear, and the game occasionally gave me interludes outside of the main city; at about this time, I started getting annoyed with the dungeon crawling and with having to level up an increasingly large cast of characters. A bit of experimenting showed that I could do fine only going into Tartarus four times a month (and perhaps could have done okay with even fewer than that), though, which wasn’t too bad.

And then more social links appeared, and I started working to more actively increase my social stats. And I realized that some of the social links, the girlfriend ones, were special, so I successfully wooed Chihiro. By which point I felt that I understood the mechanisms of the game fairly well, but I was enjoying the story (not so much the main plot as the unfolding of new social links) that I could happily enough power my way through to the end, maxing out most of the social links along the way; in particular, I finished Mitsuru’s social link on, if I’m remembering correctly, the next-to-last day.

So yeah, it’s 70 hours long, and I’m not super-eager to play another game of that length; I won’t swear that I’ll never play Persona 4, but I’ve got a lot of other games I’d rather play first. But it’s a surprisingly pleasant 70 hours: it kept me going throughout, and even though the mechanics felt routine enough after around the halfway point, the social links (Bebe!) kept me going enough that I was happy to put in a couple of hours most weeknights and more than that on weekends. (Fortunately, I didn’t mind Miranda watching most of the game.) In fact, despite its length, it could have been a lot more bloated: you could have had to walk everywhere, you could have had to sit through irrelevant classroom events, you could have had to manually control all the fighting. (I imagine I would have found it a lot worse if I’d played it on a level other than Easy, and you would have been treated to a rant about instant-kill attacks coupled with lack of access to save points.)

Having said that: 70 hours? And thanking a game for not requiring me to manually control the fighting is pretty backwards: if the fighting is generally straightforward enough that I want the computer to do it for me, maybe the game should do me a favor and not have me fight as much at all? Maybe the game would have been stronger with Tartarus entirely removed, just restricting the fighting to the boss battles? (On which note I should really play the new Prince of Persia, shouldn’t I?) But, actually, the mechanics of fighting with your Personas was kind of fun, and you need to be trained in that a bit before getting dumped into the boss battles. And fusing Personas has its charms, though (for me) not as much as the game expected. Maybe a shorter Tartarus?

I liked the social links, but there were a lot of them; maybe that could have been toned down? Though I wouldn’t want to have them thrown away, either, that’s good content, and I would have been frustrated if I couldn’t have made it all the way through most of them. I’m almost wondering if I wouldn’t prefer a game that focused exclusively on the stories in the social links, and that was a lot shorter, designed in such a way (with more connections between the different links and between the links and the main plot) that you really wanted to play it multiple times?

Hard to say. That would be a different game, and really would be more dating simish instead of an RPG; after playing through this one, I’d be curious to play a good game like that (any recommendations?), but I don’t know if I’d like it as much. There are so many different things thrown into Persona‘s melting pot; I’m loathe to make judgments about how the game would have turned out if that mixture had been different, had been more concentrated or purer.

Some interesting Persona 3 web pages:

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