Freedom overload

Persona 3 exceeded all my expectations — it’s by far one of the best RPGs on the PS2. I assumed the game would bore me when I first heard it had randomly-generated dungeons, but instead I found them to be liberating. I was free to make progress on my own schedule, and I never had to worry about overlooking some unmissable treasure chest. I expected its high school simulation elements to be obnoxious and creepy. Instead, I found them to be an interesting way to let players dictate the flow of the game’s narrative, and the connection created between the simulation and battle elements strengthened my investment in the story. I thought its AI-controlled party members would frustrate me, but instead they added a new level of strategy to battles and created a stronger sense of identification between myself and the main character. I was suspicious of almost every individual element in the game, but in the course of playing it I came to realize that Persona 3 really was much more than the sum of its parts.

The best innovation of all in Persona 3 was the shift to a narrative that moves temporally rather than spatially, taking place over the course of a calendar year of game time. Being forced to manage your main character’s limited schedule by balancing school, dungeon exploring, and social obligations was incredibly addictive, and it also helped break the game into manageable chunks. So, when Persona 4 came out here in Japan back in July, I rushed out to buy it on day one.

It’s definitely a solid game, and fans of Persona 3 wanting more of the same will enjoy it. But for me, playing through Persona 4 felt a bit like trying to awkwardly rekindle an old relationship. It was fun while it lasted, but it left me feeling empty. Maybe I should have just let it go without looking back.

Many features that I think were intended as improvements to Persona 3 come across here, at best, as two steps forward and one step back. For example, the connections between the simulation and battle portions of the game are strengthened; characters in your party learn new skills as you develop closer relationships with them. However, the benefit for maxing out your relationship with a party member is so great that it feels like a waste of time to interact with any characters who are not already part of the game’s main story. The simulation elements in Persona 3 provided an interesting break from the main narrative, but in Persona 4, it begins to feel like an obligatory extension to that narrative. Sure, you could theoretically choose not to spend most of your free time with members of your party, but it would seriously handicap your characters in battle.

As for the battle system itself goes, your party members are no longer AI-controlled. This certainly makes the game easier, but I’m not sure it makes it better. In both Persona 3 and 4, the main character is incredibly powerful, capable of switching strengths and weaknesses at will and able to use practically any ability in the game. Having AI-controlled party members with more limited skill sets balanced this out in Persona 3, but Persona 4 lacks this balance. Anyone who can’t stand the thought of AI party members will find it less frustrating, but I think it makes for a less interesting game overall. Yes, you can choose to switch to AI if you don’t want to control them directly, but I just couldn’t bring myself to handicap myself like that when I had the option not to do so. This makes Persona 4 feel more like a standard RPG and decreases your level of identification with the main character.

Another disappointing change for me in this game is that characters no longer grow tired when exploring dungeons. This removes an essential limitation in Persona 3’s gameplay that both helped to maintain that game’s brisk pace and forced the player to manage their time wisely. In Persona 4, you can keep exploring as long as you have the curative items or skill points left to keep your party members alive, although skill points no longer regenerate automatically. However, fairly early on, you can encounter a character who will refill your skill points in the game’s dungeon sequences for a fee. This is easy to exploit, and as a result it more or less destroys the pacing and flow of Persona 4. Instead of forcing the player to manage their time between dungeon and simulation elements like in the game’s predecessor, in this game, it makes more sense to largely ignore the dungeon except to jump in once per month of game time for hours on end until you’ve achieved your goals. This makes both the dungeon and social elements seem more repetitive, and the feeling of constantly traveling between two worlds is gone. Yes, you technically could force yourself into the more interesting pattern of Persona 3, but, again, only if you want to consciously handicap yourself by cutting down on your time to strengthen relationships in the simulation portion of the game.

All that being said, I still enjoyed this game. Much of what is good about Persona 3 is still good in its sequel, and I do think people who liked Persona 3 will like this, too. However, I think those who haven’t played Persona 3 will like it more, and I think Persona 4’s changes largely make it less innovative than its predecessor. Removing limitations like AI controlled supporting party members and characters who became exhausted or sick after working too much in one day might make Persona 4 a more accessible game, but I think it also takes away from just what made Persona 3 so unique.

11 thoughts on “Freedom overload

  1. I guess I need to hurry up and play my Persona 3 FES already!

    on a side note: can someone tell me why I can’t post or reply on Talking Time? :(

  2. Seems to me like everything you didn’t like in 4 was an option that 3 didn’t have. You could have played it more like 3, but you chose not to and ended up liking it less for that reason.

    I find this a little odd.

  3. “You could have played it more like 3, but you chose not to and ended up liking it less for that reason.”

    A valid criticism. However, from how it sounds, Christopher played that way because it was the optimal play style the game encouraged. Whatever it is you enjoy in the game, “not losing” is an essential situation to maintain. So if turning off party AI and tackling dungeons in binge delves is the best way to win, then it will feel like the path of least resistance.

    The better the game design, the better that “playing to win” will coincide with “most fun.”

  4. I feel like it would take me an entire post of equal length to explain why I like all the changes Christopher describes here. But first I’ll note that I WORKED ON THE GAME and I AM SELLING IT TO YOU and you should feel free to ignore everything I say.

    Regarding the party Social Links, the most useful ability each of them learns is at level 2, where they’ll take a mortal blow for you once per battle. Everything on top of that is gravy, and is hardly necessary to defeat enemies. I’m playing through the game now and finding that I’m spreading my social links out as much as I did in P3, and it doesn’t feel like a waste of time to me because I’m interested in their stories.

    The rest of where I differ with your post is that P4 feels as hard or harder than P3 to me, because the difficulty of the regular fights has been adjusted for the greater flexibility of the battle system. Which is another thing I welcomed–I liked the AI aspect of P3, but too often I felt like my party members were just wasted space. At best, they were Options to the MC’s Vic Viper. In P4, everyone contributes, which changes all kinds of things, right down to the way I approach Persona fusions. (In P3, your MC HAD to be able to cover everything you’d conceivably need–every element, healing, buffs/debuffs. Here, he only needs to shore up the rest of your team’s weaknesses.)

    Finally, I didn’t see a significant difference between P3’s “tiredness” system and P4’s SP-rationing, because P4’s economy is much more stringent than P3’s. Buying up tons of SP-replenishing items costs money, and so does paying the Fox’s outrageous fees, to the point where I treat dungeon exploring in P4… pretty much the way I treated it in P3.

    This is all down to the way I played the game, and if you had a difference experience, then then you had a different experience. But having played both games, I honestly preferred the tweaks and additions in P4 and think it’s a stronger game overall.

  5. One thing I don’t think I can stress enough is that I liked both games.

    @Adrenaline: In P3, I felt like playing otimally was the most fun wan to go through the game. In P4, playing optimally made the game less fun. This is a problem to me.

    @Nich:I can’t agree that the best upgrade you get is at S-Link Level 2, becasue most characters lose their elemental weakness at Level 10. Having a party with no elemental weaknesses makes every battle much, much easier, given how big a role weaknesses play in Persona’s battle system.

  6. The “tiredness” thing doesn’t bother me at all, since I always played P3 doing all of my dungeon stuff in as few nights as possible. I liked taking on the huge chunks because it meant I got to play large amounts of the S. Links with no interruptions. In fact, I cleared almost every section (except the first two and the last) in just one visit.

    Also, I’m probably just going to use the AI usually, unless it’s really bad or I need not to, since auto-battle is a feature I use basically any time it’s applicable.

  7. Christopher – Just because I think it’s important knowledgeable to the rest of the review, what is your level of Japanese reading skill at?

  8. @spineshark and nich: I definitely agree that some people, possibly even most people, will like or not mind these changes. I’m just not one of them. Although the post is about things that I didn’t like in the game, if I were to assign both a letter grade it would be something like an A for P3 and a B for P4. So, I definitely didn’t hate the game.

    @Chuck:I’m not sure exactly how to answer that, but I passed the top level of the JLPT with a lot of room to spare back in 2006. I admittedly have to pull out a dictionary if I’m reading Akutagawa Ryunosuke or something, but I don’t feel like it’s a barrier at all for most all games/manga/etc, including P4.

    I have only played the Japanese version of P3, so all comparisons are between the Japanese releases of the two games.

  9. I’m torn….while the limitations of some elemnents in P3 were one of the few things that gave the game any semblance of challenge (as well as providing it with a few interesting management wrinkles), AI controlled party retards who always do the wrong thing and end up getting my crew wiped on the final boss after having run through 30+ minutes of unsaveable build-up-battles can burn in infinite hells.

  10. I’ve recently started playing P2:IS so I cheerfully welcome the news of the return of non-AI controlled to the series. Though part of makes the fully player controlled party so painless in P2 is getting to input everyone’s commands at once and letting the turn play out (a la Suikoden) and the last input commands being saved so that if I wanted to I could run through an entire dungeon on auto-pilot so long as I had enough SP for someone to be casting Media every turn. SP regenerating while you walk is so cheap. I’m glad it was removed in EP. I assume (having no way of knowing otherwise) in P4 you give a character a command, he executes it, and then it’s the next character’s turn just like any old RPG.

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