Submitted by: Retro Gamer
The Megami Tensei series had been around since the SNES era, and during that time, the art direction that made the series popular was handled by the esteemed Kazuma Kaneko. For Persona 3, his assistant, Shigenori Soejima, took over, imbuing this new title with a trendier art style that ensured it was the most popular title in this series for years, especially in the West, boosted mainly by the game’s contemporary character designs. In relation to the other Persona titles, this represented an enormous creative sea change. Soejima’s creation of modern-looking young adult characters meant that the series suddenly found a large audience within the realms of anime culture.
Yet this wasn’t the only big behind-the-scenes move for the Persona series, as the third instalment saw director Katsura Hashino tackling a great deal of the scenario writing for the first time, too, which lent the game a different flavour to previous entries. Hashino was later surprised that Persona 3’s focus on the daily lives of Japanese students struck such a chord overseas.
In the West, an impressive localisation effort combined with some minor controversy garnered from the game’s Evoker idea – where the teenage characters summon Persona creatures by appearing to shoot themselves in the head – helped garner Persona 3 a significant amount of attention, as well as praise for the standard of its voice-acting.
It may initially sound like a strange comparison, but Persona 3 has a lot in common with Shenmue and its sequel. Like Yu Suzuki’s divisive Dreamcast adventures, the game presents a compelling role-playing experience through the prism of real life.
Persona 3 asks the question of how you spend your days in the same way that Shenmue does, having the player live through a calendar year in the life of a school kid in a town rich with part-time jobs, students to socialise with and clubs to join. Meanwhile, during the night, Persona 3 transforms into a traditional but nevertheless compelling turn-based RPG, having the players manoeuvre through hundreds of randomly generated floors in a dark tower called Tartarus, battling monsters.
Atlus creates a cohesive RPG out of two opposing styles of gameplay, carried off with a high degree of personality that makes it obsessively engaging.
The character interactions and school scenes feel so detailed that you can’t help feeling that the day-to-day life of the protagonist reflects the past experiences of the creators. Persona 3 walks the fine line between visual novel and traditional RPG, making the typically mundane situations in life seem thrilling simply based on the strength of its own gameplay systems. In turn, those interactions feed back into the Tartarus sections, with Social Links forged during the day helping the player’s RPG progression at night by strengthening your Personas, which are essentially summon creatures.
Despite being vastly dissimilar in gameplay styles, the day and night elements function symbiotically. A lot of developers face the trouble of trying to bring endless combat sections and a logical story together in a way that seems natural; Persona 3 doesn’t try to do that, instead building the game around a structure that allows the player to choose when to focus on each element.
It takes an enormous amount of confidence to throw so much of a game’s emphasis behind a story in this way, but that’s exactly why Persona 3 emerged as a creative bright spot in the declining JRPG sub-genre over the last decade. There’s nothing revolutionary about the turn-based stuff, as such, yet the way the story is handled feels like a vision of what the future of interactive narrative could be: taking an unusual premise for a videogame and just allowing players to live in that environment, as a simulation, letting them engage with the world before them as they see fit.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Stylishly executed and smartly designed, Persona 3 is against the tide of pretty much everything in its own genre and perhaps even its own industry. Only Atlus is making games like this, and while Persona 4 offers an equally rich world to interact with, the third instalment was such a refreshing change of pace for the RPG.
It demonstrates how lazily many primary genres are handled in modern games development, showing that merging existing ideas – in this case, from an RPG and Japanese character simulation – can produce something that feels new. The MegaTen series has a lot of different offshoots, all of which garner a similar level of praise from critics, but there’s something about existing as a person in the ‘real’ world that resonates with us more than anything else in Atlus’s canon.