Rethinking Persona 3’s Most Divisive Mechanics

We could harp for a while on all the reasons Persona 3 has become outdated by the series’ current standards. Unrefined persona fusion, no friend route for female Social Links, limited fast travel, lack of daily activities; P-Studio has come a long way. However, I don’t believe every critique should be blamed on ill-conceived design choices. Some were deliberate and purposeful. I’d like to go over a few of those decisions here.

To clarify, this write-up is not a list of things I wish the Persona series would bring back exactly as they were. In my opinion, P5 has the best overall gameplay of any Atlus title to date. I simply wish to point out the thought process behind some of the more controversial mechanics of P3.

AI-Controlled Party Members

This is the big one. Just type “mitsuru marin karin” into Google Images to get up to speed (seriously, it’s hilarious). The decision to use AI-controlled party members has led to some great discussion among fans, albeit heated at times. I only have one new comment to add to the debate: P3 was balanced from its onset with AI-controlled party members in mind. As such, every Full Moon and Tartarus boss has been tweaked around this core mechanic. The game is not harder or unfair due to AI-controlled party members. Its difficulty is as intended.

To elaborate, I have some P3 experience under my belt. I’ve beaten Persona 3 FES three times and Persona 3 Portable twice. I’m only mentioning this because I want my words to have weight when I say that due to Direct Control, Portable on Maniac is easier than FES on Hard. The game is simply not balanced for you to have complete control over your party. It removes character autonomy, reduces player exploration of mechanics, and ultimately goes against one of the fundamental pillars that define P3 as a unique title.

I have two bits of advice for those planning future playthroughs of P3. First, don’t leave characters on Act Freely. If Mitsuru is casting a bit too much Marin Karin for your liking, place her on Knock Down or Full Assault. Second, scan bosses. Though the result of the scan may show up as all question marks to you, it doesn’t to the AI, and their attack patterns are changed accordingly.

There are only a few additions I’d make to alleviate some of the frustration caused by our good-intentioned AI companions. Additional Tactic options, such as a command to exclusively buff allies or debuff enemies, would be greatly appreciated. It would also be nice if P3 did more to encourage the player to experiment with Tactics through Help messages or unique boss scenarios.

Though the option does exist to have AI-controlled party members in P4 and P5, their gameplay was not balanced around the mechanic and some Tactics from P3 are absent. For a series built on its characters, autonomy has been sorely lacking. This unique flow of combat is something I wish the Persona series explored further, not swept under the rug. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s what director Katsura Hashino and character designer Shigenori Soejima have to say on the subject:

Katsura Hashino: …There are a lot of RPGs out there where you can control every aspect of your party members, including what kind of underwear they are wearing… but because we wanted the player to relate to the Hero more than any other character in “Persona 3”, we wanted the other characters to feel like “other people”.

Shigenori Soejima: It was important to make that distinction. It helped to emphasize the concept of Social Links, and it also allowed us to show off the improved AI. It would have been extra cool if the party members had been completely free of player control, but we knew that would be pushing it a bit too far, so we gave the player control over their equipment at least.

Katsura Hashino: It’s true that we got some feedback stating that the party system was “too difficult” to control effectively, but I’ll honestly say that I don’t regret doing what we did with it. I’m glad we stuck to our guns on that one.

— Persona 3 Official Design Works

Randomly-Generated Floors

Tartarus is big. Like, really big. Anyone who’s seen artwork of Tartarus knows what I’m saying. Anyone who’s completed P3 feels what I’m saying. Having set-piece dungeons in Persona 5 worked for that title because the story called for smaller, isolated areas that were relevant to the character-of-the-month’s internal conflict. They needed to feature diverse themes. Tartarus, however, needs to have a foreboding presence. It’s a perpetual eyesore in the skyline of Tatsumi Port Island that imposes a tremendous challenge to the player.

To accomplish the feeling of traversing a large space, it wasn’t practical to feature set-piece design. The development team implemented randomly-generated floors as an efficient way to convey the tower’s massive scale. Furthermore, I think they did an admirable job writing this design into the story. By making Tartarus’s ever-changing layout a part of its lore, as well as backing it up with a surreal visual aesthetic, at least the use of randomly-generated floors was believable.

Perhaps the best result of all this comes from the feeling of accomplishment of reaching Tartarus’s peak. It’s earned. Clearing dungeons in future titles just hasn’t left the same level of satisfaction. The top of Tartarus is not only the accumulation of the cast’s growth, but the player’s skill as well. This experience just wouldn’t be as potent had Tartarus featured less floors.

All of this isn’t to say things couldn’t be improved. I would love to see additional elements added to the generation algorithm in a future re-release such as new floor structures or rule sets. For now, the development team has shown they’re at least aware of the potential monotony of climbing Tartarus. P3 features a “split up” command to help clear floors faster, and later re-releases added the ability to change background music. P3P in particular stands out for its unique mechanic of Social Link characters needing rescue from Tartarus, a great way to add meaning and urgency to your progress. For all the criticisms Tartarus receives, I think it undeniably made its mark on the player, and that’s a success in my book.

Tired Condition

I’ve noticed with recent Persona titles that earlier and earlier you can clear an entire dungeon in one go. Gone is the balancing act between school life and dungeon crawling. In P5, my playtime was spent either doing 8-hour runs through Palaces, or 8-hour segments of daily activities. There wasn’t a healthy back and forth, just one then the other. In P3, due to party members becoming Tired, the game forced the player to make multiple trips to Tartarus in a month. It wasn’t optimal to plow through a block in one night. As a result, the balance between daily life and deadly life seemed much more diverse. It also lent itself well to the story. In P4 and P5, if you play the game optimally and clear a dungeon in an afternoon, there’s a lot of waiting around afterwards. The character-of-the-month must rest for weeks before they can advance the story. It becomes a tiring plot device.

P3 attempts a certain amount of realism with its gameplay of which the Tired condition lends itself to. This can be found in other aspects as well. For example, you don’t have access to a sub-menu that allows you to swap your party’s equipment. You must talk to each individual character at the appropriate time to give them your newest loot. As a bonus, this allowed for more interactions as characters could respond to the equipment you force on them. Healing was also handled in the same fashion. These inconvenient systems existed not because the development team had never heard of such sub-menus before, but because they wanted to add a layer of realism to the game.

Bringing this back to the topic at hand, the Tired condition works in the same way. Characters become sick! They aren’t always on your beck-and-call to go to Tartarus. Things happen and you must change your schedule accordingly. While I understand that SP management has effectively replaced the Tired condition in P4 and P5, I don’t see it as a perfect solution. There are just too many ways to efficiently replenish your SP by mid-game. If there’s one element of P3 I would like to see make a return it would be the more balanced game flow due to the necessity of tackling dungeons through multiple attempts, whether this be from the Tired condition or otherwise.

Wrap-Up

I think all the design choices discussed above are similar in that players feel they all add unnecessary frustration to the game. My hope is that I’ve shown you how the development team sought to make P3 a unique experience. If trying new mechanics is P3’s biggest flaw, then I consider that a flaw worth forgiving.

References:

Thanks reddit user OseiTheWarrior for the cover image

  • LulcyXV

    To add to Hashino’s point, the player having control of the MC only adds up to the storytelling of the game, what do I mean exactly?

    For a game that its premise is about the player inserting themselves in an avatar character and how the player interacts with other humans it makes a lot of sense that the player should be limited to control 1 character (the MC). Having manual control over everyone gives a different feeling and breaks that premise, turning it into more like the player is an omnipotent god controlling pawns (hyperbolic analogy but I think I get my point across).

    I am fine with having full party control in future Persona games (or RPGs in general) but only if the story of said RPG does NOT involve “avatar characters as a mean for the player to interact and personally build relationships with other characters/individuals” (or something similar like that).

    • sir forde

      It was also stated that you don’t control the other party members due to everyone not being friends with other at the start, they don’t know you so why would they listen to your command

  • Doortothe

    There’s also the personal growth that party members go through during the main plot, outside of their social links. In P3, plenty of cutscenes were dedicated to the characters simply interacting with each other, or by themselves, reacting to the events of the plot. The mandatory cutscenes weren’t just, “plot plot plot” to quote Hiimdaisy, like they are in P4 and P5.

    With P4, this is acceptable because the method party members acquired personas was filled with naunce and told us a lot about a character. P5 doesn’t have anything like that, another reason why it feels so lackluster compared to P3&4.

  • simon askew

    P3, in my opinion, was by far the best one; awsome music, great characters, the yuki and Aigis relationship was fantastic. 4 was second; probably had the best overall characters, and pq third. I didn’t care for 1 and 2. P5 was all style no subsance, and I could not care less for any of the characters. The music was great though.

    P3 never made me feel restricted like p5. I felt I could do what I wanted when I wanted, for the most part. P5 really got me annoyed with all the constant messages, and I felt there was not enough free time to do what I wanted. Really disappointing.

    And lets not forget the Nyx fight. Perhaps the most epic of all boss fights ever!

    • Shang Langdang

      You know nothing about how the calendar system works in P5 than, P5 uses its time much more wisely than P3 ever could. I played P3 4 times, and let me tell you, it uses it horribly. A lot of days in P3 are just there… nothing happens, nothing to do and did you forget that the entire month of december is just there… with just one event in the end? P5 uses all of its days to its fullest extend ether be for story or to increase stats or other activities. P3 may have a good story with well-developed characters but the GAME itself is rather piss poor and really outdated especially compared to P4G/P5.

      There is this guy on Youtube called KillscottKill (Highly recommended, also did a very awesome guide for P5) did a stream for P3 (tries to 100% it) and pretty much explains/shows on why P3 isn’t a very good game.

      • simon askew

        Each to there own. Lets not get into how many times who has completed each persona game cuz I’ve completed p3 fes 3 times, persona 3 portable 4 times, persona 4 5 times and persona q twice.

        And I would take them all over p5 hands down. Your one of those people that think visuals are the most important thing in a game. But start to peel back those amazing visuals and your left with nothing special.

        But dont worry, your not alone. Just recently a Japanese poll voted p5 best jrpg of all time lol. Bit premature really. And dont tell me it had nothing to do with visuals. Unfortunately visuals blind people into thinking a game is better than it acually is.as a kid I grew up playing atari, NES SNES and played each iteration of console thereafter, so I look at games differently from you obviously. P5 looked good. The music was good. The end.

        And son, for your information I am quite familier with persona calander system.

        Were the fighting mechanics, fusion mechanics, social link mechanics better than 3 or 4? In my opinion no. It was quicker and more refined but that to me didnt make it better. Didnt make it more fun. In the end the game turned into a chore.

        Anyway, these are just my opinions, I’m in the minority, so dont worry about it. I just wanted to share my thoughts with other persona players that felt the same since we’re in the minority.

        Your favourite persona game is p5, thats great. Enjoy. I dont like it.

      • sir forde

        I’ve done two ng+ runs f p5 and I can say for certain that the game certainly takes more days away from players than you say. did you forget the large chunks of days that Morgana will tell you to go to bed early, and the game gives you no choice but to listen? a new player would have no idea when this is about to happen so frankly on a blind playthough it makes buying dvds to watch a liability since you don’t know if the game will give you the time to go return it.

        Persona 5 has the best visuals but persona 3 left a bigger impact on me from the characters, the story, and the fact that persona 5 borrows heavily from Smt strange journey where if you played that first than the final boss was super predictable from 2-3 months into the game. if we compare final boss fights from 3 and 5, Nyx wins hands down as it isn’t as much of a push over as the end boss for p5 was

  • Moyashi Desu

    fair points.i dont remember much abt p3 bcos its been a long time since i played that game, but i never really thought of it that way. a nice read

  • Ian Zebarah Shears

    This was a timely article for me. After beating P5 early this month and experiencing the equivalent of a “book hangover” from the long slog; I decided to jump into a new game plus of P3 FES and the full ai of the party felt the most jarring. Thanks for clearing that design decision up!

  • MDH

    Nope, nope and nope again. I understand the intentions behind the mechanics, and this article makes some great points about them, but in the end, clunky game mechanics don’t become any less clunky just because they are implemented for smart reasons and not incompetence.

    My advice “for those planning future playthroughs of P3”? Just play P3 Portable. Despite that game having shortcomings too I have not touched FES even once since it came out.

  • DoctorJoeCool

    I have to disagree on the Tired condition. In Persona 4 and 5, you had SP which you would eventually run out of, making it feel more fair when you had to leave and that it wad on your own terms. Instead of the game arbitrarily telling you you’re tired, and that you need to leave, you instead felt YOURSELF run out of stamina and realized on your own that you needed to leave. It feels less arbitrary this way.

  • xionis

    personally in terms of story and character development p3 is better than p4 (don’t have ps4 for p5 T.T hope someday they gonna release it in pc or at least in vita), p4’s story is typical shounen style where friendship is power.

    but in terms of game mechanic p4 is better than p3 (perfection to some flaws in p3’s game mechanic) and you have more activities in your free times

    game mechanic that i miss in p3 is tired condition, this game mechanic force you to make a good time management between social links, grinding and party members tired condition also makes you can’t finish sub-area of the dungeon in one go. sp management is easier once you get invigorate skill/accessories.
    for me P3 still better than P4, hope P5 will have a better story than P4

    • sir forde

      p4’s story is almost a copy of jojo diamond is unbreakable hence why it has an out of place happier tone despite being a murder mystery, it even copies some of the scenes like the persons dead body being found on a telephone poll at the start. this only gets more clear when the games after 4 often have the cast doing direct poses from jojo like how they show up in the p3 story of Q.

      persona 5 isn’t coming to the vita because the engine atlus created just for p5 was made directly to work with ps4 and 3, vita would require a massive downgrade and cut corners even if they could get the engine to properly work with a less powerful system than it was coded to run for

  • JoeSislack

    ” If trying new mechanics is P3’s biggest flaw, then I consider that a flaw worth forgiving.”

    After playing 4 and 5 I think I’m agreeing with this more. While definitely more tuned and with more quality of life enhancements, the later Persona games have become too safe in their monotony. They aren’t willing to trying something new anymore, for the fear of possible turning off their new cash cow of a fanbase. So it feels like it has become a bit stale.

  • sir forde

    At this point the whole “mitsuru only spams marin karin” thing has become a meme that people exaggerate how much she actually does it in battle. I have played p3fes plenty of times since it first came out on ps3 as a psn classic and as long as you 1) scan the enemies . 2) set their commands as the fight requires and 3) pay attention, you will never have this problem. The only time I ever saw her cast marin karin is when I would set her to using status spells on purpose and no other time.

    just really tired of people making it into a bigger deal than it was