It is now April 4th, 2011, the day after I finally finished Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES that I began in January. Also in January, two years ago, I had started Persona 4. The only reason I played 4 before 3 was because the fourth installement had just come out, and well, I just happened to grab hold of it first. The first few minutes were magical; I was intantly hooked and loved to play it, especially on rainy days, when the day outside would coincide with the rainy day in-game. The soundtrack was marvelous, the characters, endearing. I only stopped when I got the True Ending and thought it was about time to start the much appraised prequel. Unfortunately, the magic in that one didn’t last long; after three months of neglected playthrough, I started the game to find my data corrupted. Everything, gone. I was crushed and, if I was dissatisfied with the pace of the game by then, that made me shun it for years. I couldn’t possibly comprehend why fans vocally defended that 3 was so much better than 4.
Having finished both, I can finally gather my thoughts on the matter.
First of all, the obvious should be stated: Opinions. Of course there is the ultimate truth about opinions, that one will always prefer one over the other for the simple fact that it appeals more to them. This is true to me as well. I like Final Fantasy VII better than VIII because I played it first. I played FFVII before I played any other RPG, so that is also, likely, the reason why it’s my favorite game of all. I could come up with reasons and arguments, but in the end, it is just my preference.
I played Persona 4 before I played 3. I was engrossed in it, I thought it was bright and colorful and so much fun. I loved the characteres, the Social Links, how the protagonist seemed to grow in ways I had never seen before in a game (intelligence, courage, etc.). By the time I got to Persona 3, which came first, I may have had unfair expectations. The characters seemed duller, the main character development in a simpler way, and everything seemed to take so damn long. It took me a while to warm up to Minato, P3’s main character, who seemed so much more boring than Souji in P4. But these were two different games. Completely different, while also being as alike as two games from the same franchise can be.
I love murder mysteries. Actually, I love mysteries in general, I’m fascinated by them. I can jump into a story, guiltfree, if it presents me with a convincing mystery. And if murder is involved, then hell yes. We have a deal. I’ll follow you, and you shall entertain me. Persona 4 took no time in presenting me with sensational murders. Souji has barely set foot in Inaba, and the player is presented with the first body. Persona 3 is not like that. It takes its sweet time to present the game mechanics, then the characters, then your purpose. It takes storytelling really seriously and character development even moreso. Between Persona 3 and 4, I’m positive 3 would work beautifully as a book. 4 would pale in comparison, but still a bestseller because, well, MURDERS. Mitsuru, Akikiho, Yukari… Each character seemed to have so many mysteries hidden behind them at first glance. And they did, in fact. The characters in Persona 3 were complex, and each month seemed to last for so long as they grew. There was a tension not only in moments of battle, but in dialogues. The player can physically feel the burden of being in a SEES meeting. You don’t know what to expect, what you’re going to face. Tartarus is hardcore training for the full moons. You take it seriously. You don’t want to die.
Meanwhile, Persona 4 is moved by curiosity. Nobody knows what’s going on, and slowly that curiosity leads to the Midnight Channel, to the discovery of the TV World, the discovery of friendships and, as a matter of cause-effect, the discovery of one’s self. Perhaps none of the characters would have overcome their fears on their own. The journey on the TV World was a choice, not an inevitability. There is the same sense of, “I have this power, therefore I must do something with it,” but there is a less sense of mission. Characters are driven with words of, “We can do this!”, “Let’s do this”, but it’s all very informal and casual. Oh, I’ll save people, but let me study for my midterms first. No rush. Meanwhile, The Dark Hour is an omen, and you can almost hear the clock ticking, taunting you as you struggle against it. It is an imminent threat. You must dedicate yourself to beating it.
So, there is a clear dichotomy at play, the serious x the irreverent. While SEES faces the Bringer of Destruction, a group of friends fight against a capricious god with time to spare and a dislike for humanity. Maybe here is where you can easily take your pick. Which would you like better? Just pick the tone that better suits you, shades of gray or the hopeful rainbow. For me, however, there are still more points that cause my decision.
While the characters in P3 are much better developed, I had a hard time actually caring for them. The ones I truly liked were Mitsuru and Akihiko, and I am not afraid to admit that it was due to shallow reasons. I could understand the characters’ pain, their troubles and traumas. It was beautiful to watch them all mature, but I remained mostly indifferent. I may have cared for a few Social Link characters (Bebe, for instance) more than for some of the protagonists. The friendship between the group of friends in P4 seemed much more real.
They were fighting together for a single goal, as opposed to fighting for their own reasons and only together by means of convenience. They were truly a group, while SEES felt like a group of co-workers that eventually parted when the day of work was finished. With the eventual end of the Dark Hour, would they truly shed a tear at parting? Yosuke, Souji, Chie, Naoto. The characters in P4 seemed to, little by little, trust themselves into each other’s hands. It felt easier to connect.
I cannot take credit out of P3’s story. As the climax neared, I grew in expectation, knowing the ending but at the same time, completely oblivious as to how I’d get there. P4 was almost comical at the end, while P3 remained original. But I think that, at the same time it was a fascinating story, it was also what tired me of it.
I have a hard time picturing myself going through another 107 hours of playthrough. Finishing P3 was truly a mission. I felt tired, I had to take breaks. Tartarus, with each new block, would give me a new headache. I climbed up floors, defeated shadows, over and over, and nothing ever seemed to end. Just two more shadows, I once thought, but hell, it was too soon, not enough floors had been explored, too many months to go, what awaits me, I don’t know, let me get out. It is not that I disliked the game, I didn’t. But it felt like a chore. It was draining and exhausting, and everything was dark, so dark. And the ending, while beautiful in its own right… I also felt incredibly tired during and after it. This is it, I thought. I had done it. While the accomplishment was great, it felt like putting away that thick, classic book of literature on your shelf and hoping the test on it would take it easy, because you sure as hell would not go through the most important parts again.
On the matter of the games’ most important themes, the meaning of life in Persona 3 and the discovery of oneself in Persona 4, I find myself much more acquainted with the latter. The importance of struggling to live, to give your best, to never give up is hard to discuss. However, as much as life eventually catches us unprepared and we must face it, it is the battle within ourselves that is felt by every single one of us quite early in our lives. To fight against who we want to be, who we really are. To accept our flaws, to see our potential, to face it and move on with renewed motivation. Our struggle in life never quite ends, but I find the pursuit of one’s true self more appealing, even if some characters in the game end up as terrible stereotypes. But such is the theme of the game, and I can’t help but be fond of it. It is close to home, and it should definitely be on the player’s mind, especially if they’re a teenager. To give them something to think about, as they go through all the Social Links. It might be hopeful thinking of me, but it brings the game closer to me.
In the entertainment department, I surely prefer P4. There is no question. It is lighter, brighter. Each new dungeon is different, you don’t feel like you’re perpetually stuck in a suffocating puzzle. While shorter, in terms of content, it still retains its beauty. P3 has The Journey, The Answer, and quests and challanges. It has a whole world. But it’s heavy. It requires dedication, attention. It is a mission in itself.
In the end, P3 is a remarkable game, a full-grown adult with complexities while P4 is like the younger, cute sibling. It should be noted that I actually prefer the distant, eccentric cousin called Persona 2 over the two of those, but while I thought P3 was fascinating, P4 still wins me over.
Now, let’s see how many months it takes me to play The Answer.
this post was brought to you with the OST of both games and the hopeless cries born out of pixiv hunting for good images in the background.