Spoiler warning: If you haven’t completed BOTH Persona 3 FES and Persona 4, you might want to steer clear of this post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Let’s get something out of the way before we begin. Yes, Persona 4 is almost undeniably the better game of the two. Yet, after playing both games through to the end, I still found myself more in love with Persona 3. I often get asked why, so I’m going to try and examine just that in this post.
When I first played Persona 3 FES, it reminded me why I love Japanese games. It was like playing my very first JRPG all over again. The fascination and the complete sense of escapism it evoked had me wanting to skip work, lock myself in a room and not leave until I’d completed the game. It was frighteningly like Hiroshi Yamauchi’s legendary generalization of RPG fans, and it’s certainly not an effect every game has on me.
At the start of Persona 3, when an expressionless Minato [note: that’s name of the protagonist from the manga] walked through the dark hour with his MP3 player blaring in his ears at full blast, cut off from the rest of the world, intermingled with a scene of what then looked like a girl trying to commit suicide, you knew you were in for an experience that would be very, very special. My immediate impression was that it was like a manga come to life – an impression that stayed with me throughout the game.
Perhaps this is because, thematically, Persona 3 was much more of a "tense" game and it inspired some sort of a call to arms – a sense of responsibility – in me. While it had its light-hearted, often laugh-out-loud hilarious moments, it pulled no punches when it came to drilling the severity of the Tartarus and Dark Hour situation into your head.
There was always a sense of tension that kept you on your toes and constantly reminded you that, regardless of your school life and what you did with your friends, you were far from a “normal” kid…and that you had a job to do.
Unlike the Investigation Team from Persona 4, SEES were a group of soldiers that lived and faced tragedy together with Minato as their commander in battle. The game played up the fact that you were their leader. It made you feel responsible for the actions of a team that was entirely devoted to the extermination of shadows and preventing the approaching apocalypse. It made you feel responsible for the safety of the world and it made me feel like I had a purpose…a place in the grander scheme of things.
SEES weren’t as “in touch” with their personae as Souji [note: this is the name of the Persona 4 protagonist according to the manga] and his friends had the chance to be, but then again, I’m not sure anyone from SEES was really ever all that concerned about finding their true selves anyway. Or maybe they just didn’t have the time to think about it because they were too busy dealing with a crisis that only they knew existed.
No, to SEES, the personae were tools…a means to an end that they someday hoped to be rid of. This is evident just from the design of the Evokers. And this is a concept that I found very, very cool — even more so after playing Persona 4. If I had to make a comparison, I’d compare SEES to the X-Men and the Investigation Team to the Secret Seven. Even the way they spoke was different. The Investigation Team’s conversations were usually laced with humour. Even during the most desperate times, you could count on Teddie to crack one of his dumb jokes. Conversely, when I think back to the conferences in the SEES dorms, what I remember most clearly is Mitsuru’s authoritative voice, making sure everyone was on the same page.
The difference between them was like night and day. Minato was much less outspoken than Souji, and perhaps this is why I could relate to him better. His passive nature made it easy for the game to convince you that you were him. Every choice I made as Minato felt natural and like the response I would have given in real life. When I played Persona 4, I had to make a conscious effort to play Souji differently because the choices I would have made personally didn’t suit his personality.
Souji didn’t make it his priority to please others and his personality was far more assertive, whereas Minato always seemed more like a silent observer, ready to hop in with aid or encouraging words whenever required, regardless of his personal feelings. In contrast, Souji was never afraid to admit it when he just didn’t care about something. You could say that Souji was more true to his own feelings than Minato was.
Ultimately, Souji was human. And while you’d think that would make him more relatable, there was a sense of mystery and a desire to protect within Minato that just made me like him more.
Minato was summoned to Tatsumi Port Island for a far greater purpose — to fulfill his destiny as a messiah. In fact, if you play through Persona 3 a second time, you’ll probably figure Minato was already halfway there even before he entered Tartarus. Never once did he back down from facing his destiny and acting as was required of him…even going back to the scene where he first put an Evoker to his head with — as my friend likes to call it — the classic "He’s nuts" anime smile and pulled the trigger.
Looking back, it almost seems like Minato was always ready to accept whatever fate awaited him. We may never know how much Minato’s actions were influenced by Death lurking inside him, but perhaps that’s what made him so special. Even Igor seemed far more impressed with him than with Souji…you could hear it in his voice. Being Minato really made you feel special.
In contrast, Persona 4 scaled things down a bit, story-wise, instead of escalating them. It kind of went against the rules you tend to follow for a sequel, which is probably why it took me a little longer to come to terms with what it was: a story about friendship and high school romance and acceptance, rather than saving the world. It became much easier to fall in love with the game once I came to accept this.
When I started to play Persona 4, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d heard it was some sort of a murder mystery, but I’d carefully avoided most media coverage of the game so I wouldn’t spoil it for myself. I had even tried not to think about the game too much until such time as it became available in English. In fact, when I started Persona 4, I stared at the name entry screen for about 20 minutes because I was debating what to name Souji. I couldn’t call him "Ishaan" because Ishaan died at the end of P3. That’s how strongly I connected with Minato.
Some things were readily apparent a few hours into Persona 4. a) It was better paced than its predecessor b) It had a much better UI and presentation and c) It was far less grindy than P3.
Despite this, I had trouble getting into the game for the first 20 or so hours because I found it really hard to step into Souji’s shoes. He was outgoing, confident, slightly cynical. He was "outwardly badass," so his personality tended to overshadow your own. Ironically, eventually, it wasn’t Souji’s personality that won me over, but the personalities of all his awesome friends whom I couldn’t help but care for. It was sometime after rescuing Kanji from his embarrassing monkey dance routine in the bathhouse dungeon that I really started to feel the draw of the game.
The way personae were handled was refreshingly different from Persona 3. Here, each individual persona — with the exception of Souji’s of course — mattered because it was so strongly connected to the personality of its owner. P4 did an incredible job reminding you how multi-faceted human beings can be, and that while people might seem strange or even bad, appearances can be deceiving. It was also an important reminder that you don’t need to be perfect yourself to be a good human being. The insights into the minds and hearts of each member of the Investigation Team were some of the game’s best moments.
Little details like talking to Nanako every night before bed or listening to Chie and Yosuke argue every minute they weren’t obsessing over food or playing hero really added to the experience as well. It had been a while since a game had gotten me to care so deeply about its cast, and — as a friend pointed out to me — made you want to rescue someone so desperately (in the case of Nanako) that you grinded through their dungeon as quickly as you possibly could. Naturally, I shed a tear or two during the hospital scene that followed as well.
Persona 4’s cast was as real as they come. The game wasn’t afraid of delving deep into the complications that are a part of adolescent life and really exploring the nature of human beings. Heck, I’m 22 and it helped answer a few questions I had about myself even well past my teenage years. Games like P4 are what make me believe so strongly that one could really learn a lot from the medium, if only they’d give it a chance.
In the end though, I think Persona 4’s greatest asset is also what made it lose the race ever-so-slightly to P3 in my mind.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m 22. I started working at an earlier age than most of my friends and I never really had the time to properly enjoy my late-teens. And while Persona 4 does a fantastic job of letting you relive your younger years and taking you on a journey of self-discovery, it doesn’t deal with the harsher realities of the world…something which I feel Persona 3 did, even if it wasn’t quite in the way you’d expect. Maybe I could just relate better to the constantly stressful lifestyle of being a SEES member.
To its credit though, Persona 4 did drive home one important, timeless lesson about life and relationships, which is that everything — no matter how important or profound or satisfying — must come to an end. I never stood a chance against P4’s carefully choreographed parting scenes at the end of the game, and the "true" ending only made the tears flow even more freely. I almost didn’t complete the final dungeon because I didn’t want it to come to an end. Then Laura got on my case:
Laura: you’ll love the ending scene
Laura: ok, you’ll probably bawl your eyes out
Ishaan: i’m actually considering not finishing the final dungeon
Laura: /me slaps
Laura: THE URGE TO FIND THE TRUTH
Ishaan: i don’t want him to go!
Laura: bad ishaan!
I love both P3 and P4. While I might personally be more attached to Persona 3, its sequel reminded me of quite a few important life lessons about people in general. Few games offer insights as heartfelt and "human" as those in Persona 4, and it’s this knowledge that makes the wait for Persona 5 so unbearable. I can’t wait to see where Atlus go from here.