Why Persona 3 is better than Persona 4 and 5

My student union notebook is filled with numbers irrelevant to my university units. I was ecstatic when it’d finally arrived, five hours deep into a Persona 3 FES playthrough. I needed the notebook to help me keep track of my personas’ stats.

My student union had never intended for their free 2020 notebook to be dedicated solely to a JRPG released in 2007, but that’s what it’s being used for. I have spent hours agonising over which weapon and armor to equip to better boost my party’s capabilities. I’ve even got powerful quotes from social links written down.

I’d never done this with Persona 5.

Persona 3 is the origin of everything Persona fans today know and love. It brought in the series-staple “life-simulator by day, turn-based JRPG by night”. Because of this, it has taken the darker tones of its predecessors to craft a modern, mature game effective even fifteen years later. It sits comfortably between the bright aesthetics of Persona 4 and 5 and the darker caverns of Persona and Persona 2. A bunch of high school students, a dog, and a robot, fight shadows along their way up a massive tower called Tartarus to stop the end of all things. (You like Mementos? Persona 3 did it first.)

Timeless Social Links

Put simply, the social links (renamed “confidants” in P5) you create through P3 allow you extra EXP boosts when fusing personas (usually more numbers to add to my notebook). But with each social link is a lesson to learn.

The P3 protagonist (also known as Minato, Makoto, or just “Door-kun”) is considered a very passive, lethargic kind of character. “I don’t care” tends to be his style. One of his other defining features is constantly encouraging his social links to do dumb shit.

My first maxed social link was the Magician: Kenji Tomochika. He’s probably one of the worst characters in the game overall but there was something about how he clung to me when I (the protagonist) spoke to him for the first time. Kenji likes older women, specifically one of his teachers, and this was the basis for his entire social link. The frequency in which I encouraged his dumb behaviour for my own amusement could be borderline bullying.

So why am I using Kenji as an example of a “timeless” social link, and not someone “more important”, driven by the philosophical notions of mortality (Akinari) or what it means to be human (Aigis)?

As much as Kenji is flawed — so very, very flawed — and one of the shallower social links, he is universally known as the weakest social link (specifically Persona 3/FES). Not “one of the weakest”. The weakest. He demonstrated what the rock bottom of social links/confidants could be. Players can appreciate Kenji for what he is: a shallow guy with simple needs who happens to be so very gullible.

P4 and P5 try desperately to insert their social links into the narrative in ways that occasionally feel very janky. Because of this, players are forced to lead their associates, who they may never have heard of nor have any connection to outside the social link whatsoever, through their own story in a way that feels inorganic. Despite his estrangement from the rest of the story, Kenji, like every other social link in P3, is weaved into the game in a way that feels surprisingly natural. He appears elsewhere outside of school and has dialogue outside of the social link — the same can be said for the other social links. Meanwhile in P5, confidants appear because the gameplay demands it and may never interact with any other members of the cast at any point in time (looking at you, Shinya Oda).

You will watch this cast of characters grow organically. Sometimes they’ll make you laugh, other times they’ll absolutely rip your heart out. Most importantly, you’ll interact with these guys not because you have to, but because you want to.

Social links were brought in by Persona 3. It’s evident the game set the bar pretty high.

Self-reliant companions

I think it’s more fun to have the party members controlled by their AI, so each member’s characteristics and personality are on vivid display.

Katsura Hashino, Persona 3 Director & Producer

One of the biggest caveats with Persona 3 is the inability to directly control companions. To my knowledge, it’s the only game in the series that lacks this capability — though it was “fixed” in Persona 3: Portable. And while I agree, Mitsuru is awfully fond of her Marin Karin, the intention behind the mechanic gives the characters a realistic quality lacking in the following games.

I learned quickly in Persona 5 that I always, always needed someone running Heal/Support — it turns out I’m no good at looking after the HPs of four party members while running offense. Usually this was Morgana’s job. However, this is not addressed in game dialogue. It’s merely something you can do, as a player in control of party AI. It is an inorganic, purely-gameplay capability in later Persona titles. Morgana was never considered the party healer by other characters. In fact, one may argue his full roster of Dia skills contradicts his character arc of needing to feel useful to the Phantom Thieves.

Tactics in Persona 3 are significantly more extensive (likely to make up for the inability to directly control companions). Everyone looks to Yukari for Dia. She is quite literally introduced as the party member you should use to heal you.

Persona 3‘s cast has an unfair advantage over P4 and P5 characters from a narrative perspective: at least four members of the protagonist’s party have prior experience with the Dark Hour. Though they aren’t exactly experts in the field, they at least know how to handle themselves against shadows before the protagonist even takes the role as party leader. This gives them the opportunity to provide the protagonist, and the player, with valuable insight into skills, tactics, and equipment. You need only ask them in the dorm.

Though the inability to control them like the puppets the other Persona games sometimes can be frustrating for inexperienced players (or people who just like ultimate control over their games), it makes sense from a narrative perspective. The game dives deep into this mechanic: party members can tire out and exit your line-up. They make their own decisions about which skill they’re going to use next. They’ll also find and equip their own gear, sometimes returning something you’d given them in favour of something they like more (for better, or worse).

You’re given the ability to control them in Persona 3: Portable, but I haven’t had the heart to do so. Yes, the protagonist (you) may be in charge of battle line-ups in Tartarus, but you’re ultimately relying on a sense of teamwork. This isn’t as prevalent in P4 and P5, where you are the definitive leader of the Investigation Team and the Phantom Thieves. There, what you say goes. Compared to P3, it feels that those characters have been robbed of their agency.

Except for Mitsuru. Mitsuru only acts like she knows what she’s doing. Always control Mitsuru.

But what about the combat!?!

Here’s the thing: P3 plays very similarly to P4. Yes, there are differences like tactics and party control, guarding, rules for One More while using ‘Ma’ skills, but overall the combat systems are the same. Remember, P4 expands on what P3 put down, so it will inevitably play battles better than it’s predecessor. It’s not a matter of contest here, but rather, which version you prefer.

That said, it is more difficult than your average Persona 5 battle. This was the whole reason I’d cracked out my student union’s notebook. It is not a forgiving game: you will die at least once during a playthrough, no matter what difficulty you’re on — sometimes that’s just how the RNG gods work. This can either be a pro, or a con, depending on how much of a challenge you like in your games.

Musical impact

Persona 3 has an impressive, emotive, and thematically unique soundtrack that evolves over the course of the game. It’s unlike any other Persona.

And it’s really good music. Its ambient track The Voice Someone Calls can be the undoing of any cheap sound system. It’s casual day and evening tracks Joy and Iwatodai Dorm are some of the best head-nodding beats ever. When Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight rolled round, these tracks leant themselves into some smooth remixes. While admittedly not original to the game, I am intimately familiar with Aria of the Soul, often jotting down stat numbers in my notebook while in the Velvet Room, trying to fuse the best persona I can muster out of my vaguely respectable builds.

Kimi no Kioku is still considered the most powerful Persona closing credits track to date.

I truly believe we owe Persona 3‘s soundtrack for not only events like Persona Live, but the soundtracks of P4 and P5. Mass Destruction was the first track Lotus Juice recorded for the franchise — and supposedly, he re-wrote the first verse in fifteen minutes. He would then go on to record tracks for just about every other Persona game,and where he didn’t record, he likely contributed in other capacities (such is the case in Persona 5: Strikers). He and Yumi Kawamura have become important musical figures, second only to series composer Shoji Meguro.

In closing

Persona 3 is a JRPG that released ‘way back’ in 2007. It is tonally darker than it’s successors, but is remembered fondly by fans and franchise creators alike. From featuring heavily in spin-off material (Persona 4 Arena games, PQ & PQ2, Persona Dancing) to spawning four animated films — it is a deeply empathetic game players keep coming back to. It’s challenging, heart-wrenching, and overall, the game that set the bar other Persona games haven’t yet managed to entirely beat.

I wrote this small essay as a challenge, in response to Brian Wells’ “Why Persona 3 is better than Persona 4 and 5“. I’ve tried to expand on some of Wells’ thoughts with a more cohesive, in-depth take. I hope this small thesis brings some Reddit readers some closure over what felt like a very incomplete, bare-bones click-baity content released by Gen Y Gamers’ Lounge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s