I finished Persona 3 FES: The Journey this evening, something I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time and finally got around to. Persona 3 remains one of my favourite games of all time, and the additions to The Journey — the story told in the original version of Persona 3 — are very welcome, offering deeper insight into the characters as well as some good old-fashioned fanservice.
Persona 3’s biggest strength is also one of the reasons why I imagine an awful lot of people won’t finish it: its length. Having played The Last Story earlier this year, I’m very much of the opinion that JRPGs don’t have to be incredibly long to be tell satisfying stories, but in the case of Persona 3 and its sequel, both of which are somewhere in the region of 85-100 hours in length, I can’t help but think that a lot of the respective stories’ impact would be lost if they decided to reign things in a bit and keep them snappy.
Persona 3, for those who haven’t played it, takes place over the course of a school year in Japan. You start in April, increasing amounts of Bad Shit comes to pass as the year progresses and you eventually finish either on New Year’s Eve with a bad ending or on January 31st with a good ending. And you’re expected to play through all the days in between, with only a couple of exceptions.
A day in Persona 3 typically consists of getting up, going to school (assuming it’s a school day), perhaps answering a question or two in class, hanging out with friends after school then either going dungeon-crawling, studying or socialising in the evening. The format occasionally gets shaken up with public holidays (and Sundays) when you don’t have school to worry about, and there’s a couple of trips out of the game’s main Japanese town setting at specific points in the story, but for the most part you are living the life of a Japanese teenager, albeit one who fights monsters after midnight.
It’s a long, slow slog through the game’s days, in short, but it’s only through dealing with this that you truly come to respect the sacrifices the game’s main cast has made in the name of trying to build a better world and beat back the darkness. Sometimes you really want to hang out with that hot girl who seems to have taken an interest in you, but instead you know that you should go shopping with the nice policeman who sells you various sharp implements, then go climbing the mysterious tower that appears after midnight and start twatting some Shadows in the face. Having to find this optimum “work-life balance” means that the time you do actually get to spend with your in-game friends becomes more precious — particularly as each of the “Social Link” stories that is attached to each person ends up being interesting and often emotional.
By the time you reach the game’s final battle, you have been through Hell and back with these characters, both in terms of having to cope with the everyday stresses of teenage life — exams, angst, friendship drama — and in having fought your way through hordes of Shadows to strengthen your party. By the time the final boss appears, you are ready to kick some ass and save the world.
And then the final boss fight takes somewhere in the region of an hour to complete. The game isn’t going to let you win so easily. It’s not an especially difficult fight if you’ve prepared appropriately, but it is long – a test of endurance… and of whether or not you remembered to stock up on items before wandering into the dungeon. It’s not boring, though — it’s paced in such a way that it shakes things up regularly, requiring you to change and adapt your strategies accordingly, particularly as you get closer and closer to final victory. By the time you finally take down the boss and get onto the “home straight”, as it were — and there’s actually a surprising amount still to see even after you’ve kicked its ass — you are physically and mentally exhausted, just like the characters, and the game knows this, hitting you with some intensely emotional scenes while you’re weakened.
Persona 3, then, uses its length to its advantage. While there is plenty of stuff in there that is clearly designed to allow masochistic players to inflate their play time yet further (I didn’t beat the Reaper, for example, and I seriously doubt I will ever see, let alone beat the “Ultimate Opponent” secret boss that only appears in New Game+) for the most part, it’s good stuff that allows you to immerse yourself in the small but very well-realised game world. You’re either doing teenagery things, or you’re fighting Shadows. Fight too many Shadows and you’ll exhaust yourself, meaning you’ll need to make sure you get some rest before you do anything strenuous — but while you recover, all your friends are waiting for you.
There’s always something to do and someone to see, and meanwhile the clock is ticking ever-onwards towards an inevitable conclusion. As time passes, everyone’s life goes on — even the incidental NPCs sitting around in various locations all have their own stories to tell that progress gradually as the seasons turn. Will the shy girl ever talk to the boy she’s stalking? Will the girl who’s obsessed with Mitsuru ever confess her feelings? Will the elementary school student at the station ever stop being a jerk to her obviously-nervous new teacher?
“Bonds of people are the true power,” runs the tagline to the Persona 4 anime, and it’s right. Both Persona 3 and 4 are what they are because of the people in their respective game worlds. After 80+ hours with them, it’s difficult to not feel a sense of attachment to them — even the most seemingly-innocuous incidental character. This sense of “belonging”, of immersion in a game world with realistic, believable characters — that, right there is why I love these games so much.
On to The Answer next, which I know nothing about beyond the fact it’s supposedly very difficult and wraps up the ambiguities left by The Journey’s ending. I’m very intrigued to see how it concludes for real, so doubtless you can expect another post on the subject after another 20 hours of gameplay or so.