I finally finished Persona 3 over the months of April and May this year, and although it was pretty challenging at times, I definitely am glad I went through with the experience. Just like I did for Persona 4, I’ll be writing a post or two about the game as well as reviewing a Nendoroid, but before that, I wanted to spend this post highlighting some of the most notable differences between the two games for me as I played both pretty much back to back.
[This post contains SPOILERS for both Persona 3 and Persona 4. If you haven’t already, please play these wonderful games before reading this post!]
Gameplay is, of course, the most talked about difference between the two games. However, when you really think about it, the two games are really not that different. Persona 4 was only released about 15 months after Persona 3 FES (the definitive version of the game) and Persona 3 Portable was actually released after Persona 4. Compare this to the eight-year gap between Persona 4 and Persona 5! Because I played Persona 3 FES (more on the differences at the end of this section), the two main gameplay differences I will highlight are from that version of the game. Also both Persona 4 and Persona 3 FES are on the PS2, making it more of a fair comparison.
One major gameplay improvement in Persona 4 that was lacking in Persona 3 can be summarized by the weird housewife in the picture above. Both games have a decent amount of exploration/character movement outside of fighting shadows with the protagonist going around town to meet Social Links, buy items, raise stats, etc. As both of these games can clock over 100 hours, one can see how this can get tedious over time. Fortunately, in Persona 4, the square button more or less allows you to teleport around each area, minimizing the amount of walking, which is especially helpful when you’re at school. In Persona 3, however, this teleportation is limited to getting from your classroom to the various parts of Tatsumi Port Island. Outside of that…you’re walking.
Another huge change to make the battles easier in Persona 4 was the introduction of full party control, whereas your Persona 3 party members acted on their own according to the limited tactics options you set for them. This often led to comically frustrating scenarios such as Mitsuru casting Marin Karin when she should be trying to heal the protagonist. Some would argue that this is necessarily an improvement, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and give two reasons that Persona 3‘s battle system was not a flaw but a feature instead:
- It makes the game more challenging and closer in difficulty to the Shin Megami Tensei series the game originated from. Ask anyone who’s played both Persona 3 FES and Persona 3 Portable and he/she’ll say that the latter’s full party control made the game much easier.
- It makes sense from a story perspective. As the player, you are only role playing the protagonist, so it doesn’t make sense for you to also fully control your party members. In addition, the relationships you form with your party members in Persona 3 are much more shaky at times compared to the Scooby Doo-esque camaraderie of Persona 4 (see below); therefore, there’s less of a team trust dynamic and more individualistic decision making among the members of SEES.
Now to settle the FES vs P3P debate once and for all:
- If animated/3D cutscenes, actual exploration, and the Answer epilogue are important to you, choose Persona 3 FES.
- If the above two gameplay differences annoy you to no end, or if you want a unique (but non-canon) experience as a female protagonist, choose Persona 3 Portable.
Unlike the gameplay differences between the games, it’s hard for anyone to make an argument that Persona 4‘s music is better than Persona 3‘s, especially since both soundtracks are by Atlus’ legendary composer, Shoji Meguro. They both include some of the catchiest tracks in gaming history, while embracing different musical styles that fit well to each game’s themes and characters.
Persona 3‘s soundtrack is defined by Meguro’s heavy use of brass instruments along with hip-hop elements throughout the tracks. Its most famous track is probably “Mass Destruction” (above), the theme that plays in all of the regular battles of the game. You’d think that like most random encounter background music, it would get old after a while, but for me and many others, it’s hard not to sing along to the “Ooh yeah! Dada-dada, dada-dada. Baby baby! da-dada-dada, dada-dada.” On the other hand, the lead single “Burn My Dread” and the ending theme “Memories of You” feature strong vocals by Yumi Kawamura that left a memorable impression from the opening sequence to the credits roll of Persona 3.
In Persona 4, Shoji Meguro utilized more electronic sounds for a more J-Pop-like experience throughout the game. “Your Affection” (above), the fun theme that plays whenever the weather is sunny in Inaba, is a prime example of this and is well-known by any fan of the game. Fortunately, like in Persona 3, the awkward English lyrics (Your affection Your affection Taking pride from fear) for many of the songs do not deter players from their catchiness. During the more dark action sequences of the game, Persona 4 unleashes the metal with heavily distorted electric guitar riffs along side thumping bass in pieces such as “The Genesis” and “Awakening”. Again, strong vocals, this time by Shihoko Hirata, provide bookends to the game in “Pursuing My True Self” and “Never More”.
Persona 4 has 8 playable characters and Persona 3 has 10-12, depending on if you count the female protagonist and Metis. With a roster this large, there is bound to be individual personality differences between the characters of each game. However, large overarching themes exist for both games’ ragtag groups that I will describe below.
I’ve already talked about each of the characters in Persona 4 at length in a double post, and as the title of those posts suggest, it’s really the strong friendships and relationships in Persona 4 that define each of the characters. From individual pairs such as the protagonist + Yosuke and Chie + Yukiko to group dynamics such as studying for exams together and frequent meetings to discuss the murder case, the Investigation Team is what everyone dreams that high school friendships could be like. There’s very little drama, and any jealousy or envy is ironed out and talked through relatively healthily (except for Yosuke’s brawl with the protagonist) throughout the story. In Persona Q (more coming in a future post) when the two groups meet, the members of SEES actually mention how they’re in awe of how close the Investigation Team members are. The game really sold me on this group of friends and when the main character leaves Inaba at the end of the story, it tugged on my heartstrings more than I expected it to.
If Persona 4‘s Investigation Team is Scooby Doo, then Persona 3‘s SEES is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As the protagonist, you enter an already existing group of students who already hide secrets from each other. Forget the closeness that Persona 4 expects you to have with all of your teammates; you don’t even get to have social links with everyone, and the ones that you do have (Yukari and Mitsuru in particular) come relatively late in the game. And wow is there drama. Junpei nearly betrays SEES and fraternizes with the enemy. There’s heavy resentment to the point of revenge with Ken’s feelings toward Shinjiro. There’s a weird love triangle with Aegis, Yukari, and the protagonist. Shinjiro dies and everyone has to cope with that grief. I could go on, but you get the point. The members of SEES definitely live in darker times than their counterparts in Inaba.
The stories between Persona 3 and Persona 4 are vastly different, so anyone claiming that one is better than the other is pretty much comparing apples and oranges. The former is a nihilistic take on a group of kids trying to save the world from its own negative emotions, while the latter is a murder mystery intertwined with humankind’s desire to see the world not as it actually is, but as they believe it to be. They definitely cater to different crowds, but both are examples of great storytelling in their own rights.
For Persona 3, it’s not just the characters that are dark, but the story contains plenty of dark elements as well. I won’t get into all of the details, but here are three examples. First off, to summon a Persona, the members of SEES must use special guns called Evokers and shoot themselves in the head. The act of using an Evoker is supposed to be a traumatic and tiring experience that represents the user’s acceptance of the inevitability of death and mortality. Second, in the ending of the Journey portion of the game, the group must come to terms with either the world ending in despair, or facing an impossible-to-defeat opponent that is the manifestation of Death. Choosing the former ends the game early as everyone forgets their despair and lives their last days unaware of the impending doom. Choosing the latter allows you to defeat Death by sacrificing the protagonist to save the world. Lastly, in the Answer epilogue of Persona 3 FES, we find out that the reason the protagonist’s soul must be imprisoned to keep the world safe is that Erebus (above) will continue to exist as long as there is any grief and negative emotion in humankind. In other words, it’s an unbeatable evil that will always continue to threaten the world.
Fortunately, in Persona 4, Atlus gives us a much happier ending. The Investigation Team first solves the mystery by catching the real killer (after several fake suspects) and putting him to justice. Then, they defeat a spirit of the TV world that is responsible for the fog in Inaba that was slowly draining away the body, mind, and soul of the town’s residents. Lastly, in the true ending, the protagonist finds the goddess behind all of the events of Inaba and defeats it, proving to it that humankind is willing to face the world as it is, saving the people of Inaba from their own lies. In fact, the only part of the ending that is bittersweet is the protagonist leaving Inaba at the end and saying goodbye to his friends. And even this isn’t so bad, as we find out in future games of the series that he visits his friends frequently to maintain the strong relationships he built throughout the story of Persona 4.