How Persona 3 destroyed my love for Japanese RPGs

Persona 3 FES
Persona 3 FES Cover
Platforms PlayStation 2, PSP
Genre Soul crushing Japanese RPG
Buy from Amazon

Update: I like Japanese RPGs again.

It was just a few years ago that I was a Japanese RPG freak.  In just one holiday, I asked for and received Persona 3 FES, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, and Rogue Galaxy.  Three of the biggest JRPGs to land at the end of the PS2 lifespan.  You know how much of those games I've played since?  About 30 hours of Persona 3, the first hour of Rogue Galaxy, and I haven't even touched Valkyrie Profile 2; I blame it all on the games themselves.

If I were to make an exhaustive list of my all-time favorite games, it would undoubtedly be topped by Chrono Trigger, closely followed by Suikoden II and Final Fantasy VI, with Final Fantasy X somewhere up there too.  All Japanese RPGs, and all very good games for varying reasons.  I spent my college years playing more from what used to be my favorite genre, and watched my roommate play a ton of them including the original Valkyrie Profile, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, my copy of Xenogears, and pretty much the entire Xenosaga trilogy.

Maybe I was already burned out on the genre when I heard about how great Persona 3 was; how it was the ultimate JRPG and that a re-release of the game was going to put it into my budget again.  By the time I started playing it, I even had Persona 4 in my possession already (which I also haven't touched).  I knew without a doubt I was going to love this game.

Note: This post evolved from a rant on Persona 3 into a rant review on Persona 3, so while it's designated as a full review, I have not beaten either Persona 3 FES or Odin Sphere.  No final scores will be given for obvious reasons.

Odin Sphere CoverRunning in circles

Maybe we should start where the downward spiral began: Odin Sphere.  If there's something I hate about video games, it's repetition, and Odin Sphere has it in spades.  While the game is undeniably gorgeous with some of the best sprite animations ever, the gameplay is just the same freaking thing over and over again.  Enter a stage, fight some bad guys for five minutes while frantically trying to plant and harvest seeds for alchemy purposes, beat the stage, collect a crapload of treasure, and repeat.  Sometimes there will be an extremely tough and unbalanced boss fight that will have you kiting it for 10 minutes followed by a 20 minute cutscene about characters you stopped caring about hours ago. Sigh.

I don't mean to hate on the game a ton, but even after devoting something like 15-20 hours, the game simply wasn't changing at all.  Every five hours or so you'd get to play as a new character and get to try out their move set while seeing their side of the same story, but it was still the same 2D hack and slash that I'd already been stressing over.  The game even makes you fight most of the same boss battles over because now you're playing as a different character, oooh.

And while the alchemy system was kind of cool, the limited inventory space made it a huge pain and the constant necessity of planting seeds just irritated me.  And when it was essentially the choice between leveling up and growing your plants to make potions to stay alive, I wanted to pull my hair out!

Everything about Odin Sphere felt like molasses. Oh, you want to go to Rabbit Town to spend your three coins on some food?  First spend 60 seconds loading the entrance to the town and then another 60 seconds loading the building you want to go into (and finally another two minutes to actually get back to some gameplay).  The town consists of two doors, both lead to a shop, why can't they streamline this?  Not to mention the talky cutscenes that go on forever with awful voice acting. Ugh.

By the time mid-2008 rolled around I was already on the verge of wanting to drop kick the next Japanese RPG that came into sight, but then of course, Persona 3 came along with all the fanboy hype to go with it.

F.E.S. = Frakking Endless Story?

Persona 3 fes ClassroomEnter Persona 3 FES, another Atlus published game on the PS2 and the enhanced director's cut of Persona 3 (FES actually stand for "festival," I guess...).  I never wrote a first hour review on the game, and it's probably a good thing I didn't because it would have bored you all to tears.  Confusing anime cutscenes, a crappy mute hero, and walls and walls of text.  Man, I really should have listened to my heart and not kept playing, but the promise of a great game made me go on, plus the first hours of JRPGs just tend to suck anyway (Final Fantasy VII excluded).

So once the game actually got rolling, it was pretty cool.  You play as some emo with spiky hair (redundant?) who just moved to a new town and is immediately caught up in its weird, paranormal activity.  Every night at midnight, time essentially stops for most residents as they enter the Dark Hour.  Evil stuff happens during this time and it's up to our band of depressed teenage heroes to figure out WTF is going on (also my own goal).  The Dark Hour is the only time when you actually fight during the game, the rest is spent socializing with schoolmates and an old couple who own the bookstore.

Let's talk about the non-gameplay part first, mainly Social Links.  Social Links are the bonds of friendship you make with other individuals.  There's a bunch of people you can interact with after school, but it's just a bunch of talking and you hopefully picking the correct answer to their problem.  I generally enjoyed this stuff, even if it felt like every day was on rails (wake up, go to school, maybe answer one question during class, finish school, do a social link, go and fight).  There were some interesting characters to befriend, until they started getting obnoxious.

One loser I befriended early on kept calling my cell phone at night wanting to make plans.  I wanted nothing to do with this guy because I was trying to get with the girl with the glasses, so I kept shutting him down.  His text response was always so sad, get the message, dude.  Tangent: why are games doing this so much lately?  Take Grand Theft Auto IV, I'm playing a game about shooting people and running down hookers, why do I have to maintain in-game friendships with people around me?  This trend needs to stop.

So every day is basically spent increasing your friend points with one other person, and then it's off to fight in Tartarus during the Dark Hour.  Tartarus is this magical tower that somehow holds the secrets to everything.  How anyone knew this, I can not remember, but it was probably just assumed that since this tower only appears during the bad time, we might as well climb it.

Tartarus sucks

Persona 3 fes TartarusThis has got to be the most lazy dungeon design I've ever seen.  The point is to keep climbing higher and higher in the tower and reaching these mid-points where you can resume from the next night.  Every single floor in a section of Tartarus looks exactly the same.  They use the same texture in every corner and if there wasn't a mini-map, you'd be lost immediately.  Thankfully, Persona 3 doesn't feature random battles, instead, enemies appear as a black blob on the dungeon floor: the bigger the blob, the more enemies to fight.

The problem with the purple blob is you have no idea what enemy lies within.  Is it a crappy bat you can kill in one hit?  Or could it be some giant snake that will kill your entire group in one hit?  You don't know until you fight it, meaning sometimes you will get your butt kicked and you just lost the last half hour of your life.  I hate you, game. The instant wipe isn't all that common, but it happened to me a few times and was pretty much the last straw that did me in.  I made it to like floor 80 or something and just couldn't take the monotony anymore.

I took two approaches to climbing Tartarus: when a new block would open up, I would try to rush up all the floors as quickly as possible so that I could guarantee I at least made it to the boss in time.  In time for what you might ask? Well, since Persona 3 follows a real calendar, days go by in the game and you have to complete a certain block of Tartarus before the full moon comes around again.  At the full moon you finally get to do something interesting and fight outside Tartarus, but because that only happens once out of 28 playable days, you've pretty much already gone insane by the time that rolls around.

The second way to climb Tartarus was to grind.  When that full moon day came by and you had to participate in the special mission, you had better be leveled high enough to beat the full moon boss.  Not able to beat it?  Grind some more. Grind, grind, grind.  I hate grinding more than I hate shimmying.  The reason I love Chrono Trigger is because you never have to grind.  It doesn't help that the battle system sucks.

Another bad thing about Tartarus: randomized floors means you're running around aimlessly even if you're in a level you've traveled through dozens of times.

Worst thing about Tartarus: if you don't hit the enemy with your sword while running around, the enemy will get the first round of attacks in.  If they're decently strong at all, you will wipe.

Battle system sucks

Persona 3 fes BattleI tried to think of a clever heading to put there, but that seems to sum it up pretty well.  The battle system of Persona 3 progresses very slowly and has the great feature of only letting you control the main character.  I understand that more and more games are doing this now including Final Fantasy XIII, but I like being in control of everyone on the battlefield.  I'm playing the game here, let me control what I would expect to control.

The lack of direct control over the other three characters in battle can lead to some huge issues, mainly that the A.I. can be dumb.  You can actually influence your friends by setting what mode they should be in, but it still isn't fine grained enough not to be yelling at them when they ignorantly use some crappy power instead of just killing them with a sword slash.  Most enemies in Persona 3 have a weakness, and exploiting this weakness knocks that enemy out for a turn (and you get an extra turn with the attacker).  If you knock all the enemies on the battlefield out, you can do a team rush attack and everyone jumps in and performs a beat down for a few seconds.  This is actually a cool tactic and entertaining even after the 100th time, but it's pretty much up to you to knock them all out as they just fail to make the connection.

So even though you've got three other combatants hanging out with you that you can't directly control, it still felt like I had to do everything in the battle.  Grinding in Tartarus made me want to chuck my PS2 through my window.

I mentioned the battles are slow, that's because whenever you perform a magic attack you have to watch your character put a gun (excuse me, Evoker) to their head and pull the trigger.  Each animation takes a few seconds, and is the same thing over and over again.  I get the point, you're being edgy with the suicide thing, I don't need to keep seeing it!  What should be a simple battle that takes seconds in games like Suikoden II or Final Fantasy X takes over a minute or longer in Persona 3.  Feels like Skies of Arcadia all over again.

Boss battles suck

Persona 3 fes Battle all out AttackOkay, this is hopefully my last sucks headline, but it's true.  If it's a full moon boss, you never know if you're going to be powerful enough to take it down.  Did I do enough grinding in Tartarus?  Beating the current Tartarus boss is never enough to know either because the bosses have totally different tactics with different strengths and weaknesses.  It pretty much requires FAQ reading if you don't want to spend hours overleveling.

Every time I beat a boss, it felt like total luck.  Bosses in Persona 3 come in two flavors: either you'll be able to whoop down on them in a few turns as you continually exploit their simple weakness, or it's a war of attrition and the battle lasts an hour as you each perform the exact same moves on each other over and over again and you just hope your calculations are correct and their health bar will diminish faster than your own.  Both kinds of bosses suck.

And if you happen to die? Prepare to face a multi-minute game over and loading screen as you try to get back into your game.  That's the worst punishment, having to experience the title screen all over again just because you died.  I heard Final Fantasy XIII just sort of plops you right back in front of the guy you just lost to, while that sounds like total Easy Mode it at least sounds better than the torture Persona 3 puts you through.

Oh yeah, somes bosses come in pairs, and unless you kill both within one turn of each other, the living boss will revive and FULLY HEAL the dead boss.  I hate you, game.


I eventually hated playing Persona 3, and now I hate the entire Japanese RPG genre.  I really wanted to like the game, I played it off and on over an entire year and put a ton of time into the game, but I had to stop.  The game was driving me slowly insane and I needed to move on to greener pastures.  Greener pastures obviously don't include other JRPGs, because I don't even want to look at the cover art of another one.

I should note that at one point, I really was enjoying the game.  For my 2008 Game of the Year Awards, I named Persona 3 FES "Game I'm in the middle of that could have been a contender" and actually said "I definitely plan to finish this game unless the daily routine becomes way too repetitive, but I think I'll stick it out."  I was both right and wrong: the daily routine (plus the grinding) did me in, but I didn't stick it out.

What I need is to find something that will snap me out of it and I have an idea what it is:

Play Suikoden II again.  I might just do that.  Now there's a fine game.